Remembering without rhetoric, by Luigi Viola

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Luigi Viola, Yamim shel sheket (Days of silence), 2010, laserprint on steel d-bond, 120×90 cm


In his speech to the Italian Parliament on 27 January 2010, Wiesel stated in words that are still relevant today: "They asked me in an interview: when you go to heaven, what will be the words you will say to God? I will say one word: Why? We must ask this question not only to God the creator, but also to creatures: why did Hitler and his acolytes, born in the heart of Christianity, do what they did? Why did they want to destroy the last Jew on the planet at all costs? Today, gathered to remember that fact, that event which has no precedent in history, one might ask: but because memory? Why reopen old wounds? Why inflict such pain on young people? For the dead it is too late. What has been done cannot be undone, not even God can undo what has been done. So much fear, pain and torment cannot be forgotten. But can they really be remembered? How? How can we open our hearts and souls to remember and, again, know hope?”.

Today 27 January 2022, 77 years will have passed since the Soviet troops of the First Army of the Ukrainian Front, commanded by Marshal Koniev, opened the gates of Auschwitz, bringing to the attention of the whole world what many already knew, not only the indescribable vision of complete alienation of every form of humanity, even primordial, but unlike any other experience of the past, the existence of a scientific project and therefore supported by a ratio based on the search for technologically advanced extermination solutions (Painting) of an entire people, the Jewish one, whose fate, expressed in the concept of "final solution to the Jewish question", was associated, as a tragic framework, with that of hundreds of thousands of other human beings deemed unworthy of having received life as, according to the plans of Generalplan Ost, the populations of the occupied Eastern European regions, deemed "inferior", with the inclusion of Soviet prisoners of war, political opponents, especially communists, nations and ethnic groups such as Rom, Sinti (porajmos = 500,000 deaths), Jenisch (German-speaking white gypsies), religious groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses And Pentecostals, homosexuals, mentally ill and disabled people, all far from the ideal Aryan portrait.

This experience was so "enormous" that it forced us to take it into our consciousness as the founding element of a new historical periodization: before and after Auschwitz.

Luigi Viola, Grund-Grab of Rene O, 1996, mixed media on wood, iron 115×115 cm

We cannot here retrace the cultural debate from 1945 to today, marked by this radicality. It will be enough to remember the famous sentence of Theodor W. Adorno in 1966: “After Auschwitz, no poetry, no art form, no creative statement is any longer possible." even if Adorno himself will then assign to philosophy the task of investigating what cannot be talked about, while Paul Celan will attempt to vindicate (1958) the possibility of language - despite everything - to overcome silence, even if, a few years later away, in 1970 his hope will prove vain and he will die in the waters of the Seine.

His writing takes on the appearance of a pile of ruins and the impotence of the word will end in suicide. A remote suicide that marked both the experience of Primo Levi and Jean Améry, the Austrian writer. Jean Améry, pseudonym of Hans Chaim Mayer, born to a family of non-practicing Jewish origins, after the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany in 1938, emigrated to Belgium and joined the Resistance. Author of Intellectual in Auschwitz, a very lucid analysis of the defeat of the spirit in Auschwitz, he committed suicide in 1978, Primo Levi in 1987.

On the level of philosophical reflection we must at least remember the reflections of Hans Jonas, a student of Heidegger, as well as Hannah Arendt, whose extraordinary figure - I remember - was the subject of the beautiful 2012 film by Margarethe von Trotta, which deserves to be seen again.

“The concept of God after Auschwitz”, written by Jonas in 1987, addresses the problem of evil in the world that affects the innocent and of his relationship with divinity, calling into question the very concept of God which, after the experience of Auschwitz, can no longer be understood according to this that tradition has handed down to us. The cry of pain of the innocents of Auschwitz calls into question at the root the problem of evil in the world, understood as the suffering of the innocent and brings into being, starting from Job's question, the tragic dimension of a condition which, to put it in the words of Paul Ricoeur, expresses a suffering "in excess of the endurance capacity of mere mortals.". With the Shoah, evil reached a sort of unspeakable perfection, inevitably raising Elie Wiesel's question in "the night": Which God could have allowed what happened in Auschwitz?

Luigi Viola, Grund – Grab – Death practice, 1996, mixed media on canvas, 200×300 cm

So "Where was God?” is the question from which Jonas also starts his reflection.

God is silent when faced with the screams of the innocents of Auschwitz "... But God was silent..." If we want to continue talking about him, we must admit that he did not intervene to prevent Auschwitz "because he didn't want to, but because he wasn't in a position to do so.": by granting man freedom, God has in fact renounced his power, “in fact, the renunciation took place so that we could be". The problem of evil evoked by Job's question therefore finds a possible answer: "the fact that in him God himself suffers" and become with the world and with man, being totally involved in becoming.

Therefore it can be stated that in Auschwitz, in the word of man, God revealed himself, manifested an aspect of his essence that man had not yet grasped and to which philosophy is called to confer the status of universal truth: His radical impotence against evil, a bitter truth for humanity as a whole assigns responsibility to man and only man in every time and place.

Human immortality, Jonas states, consists in the unprecedented possibility that man has to influence the very destiny of God, that is, in his ability to act effectively on the global condition of the eternal Being permeated with fragility.

If after it Tzimtzum Transcendence becomes aware of itself with the appearance of man, from that moment, Jonas states, it follows his action "holding my breath, hoping and courting him, with joy and with sadness, with satisfaction and disillusionment" And taking refuge in silence, the place of God's shared pain.

Hannah Arendt introduces a great and provocative hypothesis into the reflection on the evil of which Auschwitz is the extreme epiphany, speaking of the banality of evil, where evil is simply the expression of "human normality".

“The banality of evil. Eichmann in Jerusalem” it is an uncomfortable book that asks questions that we would never have wanted to ask ourselves and that gives answers that do not have the reassuring certainty of Manichaean reasoning. A book which for this reason, when it appeared in 1963, provoked heated discussions and heavy criticism of the author.

Luigi Viola, Polish Archaeology, 2010, air-jet on glass, 132×141 cm

But this is not too surprising: Arendt was not a journalist, but a fine analyst, hers is not a chronicle of the facts, but a profound reflection that starts from the Eichmann trial to reach the conclusion of the absolute normality of the accused and precisely for this reason of the ruinous dehumanizing power of a discourse such as the totalitarian one, already dissected several times by herself, capable of reducing man to a mere mechanism.

The bureaucrat Eichmann shows no remorse and embodies, in the cold and meticulous interpretation of his role, an attachment devoid of any internal dialectic, solely devoted to the mystique of the function, of the mechanism with which his actions fully correspond to the directives issued by the regime, considered indisputable, to be implemented with the utmost zeal. It is here that depersonalization asserts itself, the void of feeling in which human intelligence itself becomes pure instrumentation aimed at the service of power, and opens the way to the abyss.

Arendt offers us a steep and rugged but decidedly fertile terrain for reflection to which we can still concretely refer today, almost 80 years after that catastrophe and 22 years after the institution of Remembrance Day in 2000.

In fact, we tend to exorcise evil in every way by attributing it to extra-human categories, or at least exceptional ones (the monster), ignoring that instead it is - this is Hannah Arendt's lesson - the norm of the human condition, an awareness that would help us much more to deal with it adequately.

The category of the monstrous, in fact, allows us to attribute the evil action to a few individuals outside the generality of society, freeing ourselves from any responsibility. Thus, for example, those responsible for the Shoah become "Germans", or even more in detail the “SS”, mystifying the fact that without the help of many ordinary men and women from every part of Europe, including Italy, who offered their work and willingly lent a hand, such a crime would never have been perpetrated.

Likewise, we must deny the commonplace, without foundation, according to which women have a nature that protects them from committing male atrocities, as the studies relating to the contribution of German women (wives, daughters, mothers) to Third Reich and the implementation of the Shoah.

Luigi Viola, Europe's garden, 2010, computerized air-jet on aluminium, 105×140 cm

Furthermore, there have been many cases in Italy of women who have had a similar role, as Roberta Cairoli documents in her 2013 book "Don the enemy's side. Auxiliaries, informers and spies in the Italian Social Republic (1943-1945)", even of Jewish women, who participated in the "hunt" with their own denunciations, such as Celeste Di Porto, the famous Star of Piazza Giudia.

And while in Germany the sense of guilt placed on Germans has been for decades a reason for elaboration, self-analysis and critical acquisition of new awareness for the renewed German society, where children have had to read their fathers with painful depth and separate from them, in Italy post-fascist or in ex-Vichy France, a process of removal has prevailed which has never allowed us to fully clarify, so much so that very few have paid for their responsibilities and only in the last few years has a courageous and praiseworthy historiography finally proposed to us to transfer the gaze so far focused on the world of the victims to that of the persecutors, of the policeman or carabiniere on duty, of the neighbor who is envious or eager to take possession of property that is not his, of the work colleague eager to get rid of a fearsome competitor, of the employee simply dutiful to their bureaucratic duties.

A cross-section of society, that of the unknown executioners rather than the well-known victims, which the successful essay by the Venetian historian Simon Levis Sullam also tells us about.

From this point of view it is certainly necessary to carry out a profound work of historical research and educational communication capable of giving greater awareness of the facts both to the new generations and to the older ones who have too often been exempted from dealing with the historical truth.

For this purpose, the institution of Remembrance Day has certainly been very useful so far, which has led to the introduction of laudable knowledge and study initiatives into school programs and to building greater social sensitivity on the subject.

Luigi Viola, The breath of the word, 2010, computerized air-jet on paper, 70×70 cm

However, more than twenty years later, the numerous shortcomings regarding the actual effectiveness of our efforts in making the memory of those terrible realities live on, especially in the last decade, have become absolutely evident, as on La Stampa of 26 January 2022 Elena Loewenthal, among the first to raise the issue, forcefully reiterates, underlining the incongruity and contradiction between the growing commitment of schools and institutions to raise awareness, spread and educate, among the flood of publications and initiatives on the topic of Shoah on the one hand and what we sadly have to note, namely the multiplication of episodes that testify to a growing and virulent anti-Semitism.

In recent years we have therefore questioned ourselves with the desire to understand how it is possible that anti-Semitic hatred and violence can advance despite every effort, giving rise to a debate that has led to very critical and still open reflections on the need to rethink more effectively first of all the ways that allow us to continue to address the question of remembering the Shoah, without falling into the empty exteriority of ceremonials, escaping the game of rhetoric, always lurking when commemorating, no less than the need for the so-called "visibility" which it is often the only reason that pushes politicians and administrators to participate in the front row of demonstrations.

A debate that involved leading historians and intellectuals such as Georges Bensoussan, head of the Mémorial de la Shoah in France, or in Italy intellectuals such as Anna Foa, David Meghnagi, Furio Colombo and the late Giorgio Israel z''l, Massimo Rosati z' 'l, to name a few, starting precisely from a criticism of what Remembrance Day had become, well represented in the provocative title of Elena Loewenthal's pamphlet "Against Remembrance Day" published in 2014.

What can be done to prevent Remembrance Day from becoming useless or even harmful? It should be underlined, first of all, that Remembrance Day is NOT a central date for the Jewish world. Jews already have their own anniversaries and the Shoah is remembered in all synagogues or community places in Israel and around the world on the specific anniversary of Yom HaShoah, while the six million victims are also remembered on the fasting day of the 10th of Tevet.

Luigi Viola, Sobibor terminal, 2010, digital print, 105×140 cm

Remembrance Day is instead a date for all peoples (at least those of the participating countries) to remember what was done against the Jewish people, so that this does not happen again and the memory is an opportunity to learn from it rather than pity it.

It is therefore a question, as Loewenthal says, of recognizing that the Shoah is "a chapter of history that belongs to Europe and Italy, the awareness that that history is part of the common past. Absurdly of the past of everyone except the Jews: as a project of annihilation aimed at making the entire continent Judenfree, the Shoah is precisely the denial of Jewish history. AND instead the affirmation of a history that Europe and Italy cannot and must not deny, but rather recognize as their own, however shameful and unbearable” (La Stampa, 26 January 2022).

Precisely on this point, real awareness is quite poor and, on the contrary, we tend to think that this day is a commemoration that concerns first and foremost the Jews personally. Their willingness to participate in the collective memory cannot however be confused and taken as a reason to feel like spectators, at most participants in an event that concerns us marginally, rather than protagonists, as it should be.

It follows, as David Grossman also argued in his speech receiving the honorary degree at the University of Florence in 2008, that the question of the six million Jews who died in Europe in an unprecedented massacre must pose specific questions such as: "Is there a debate today on the Shoah as an event with universal and not exclusively Jewish significance? Is this debate significant and authentic, or has it turned into a sort of formal obligation over the years? And do we, representatives of this generation, of all peoples and religions, understand the incisiveness and relevance of the questions that the Shoah presents to us and the relevance that they still have today, especially today?
These questions also concern our relationship with foreigners, the different, the weak of every nation on the globe; they concern the indifference that the world shows, from time to time, towards episodes of massacre in Rwanda, in Congo, in Kosovo, in Chechnya, in Darfur; (we can add today in Syria Kurdistan and Iraq), not to mention the
Armenian genocide of 1915, concern the wickedness and cruelty of the human race which in the period of the Shoah loomed as a concrete possibility of behavior.
How do they find expression in our lives and what influence do they have on the conformation and conduct of mankind? In other words: can the memory we keep of the Shoah really be a sort of moral warning sign? And are we capable of transforming his teachings into an integral part of our lives? (…)”.

Luigi Viola, Yamim shel sheket (Days of silence), 2010, laserprint on steel d-bond, 120×90 cm

The problem could not be stated better. Which, therefore, should now be clear, is not that of a Jewish memory, given that the Jews are still forced willy-nilly to deal with it (zachor), but is instead that of a universal memory. In fact, Grossman continued, “While other peoples can, with relative ease, avoid reflecting on the consequences of the Shoah - and therefore escape a profound debate that concerns them - we, in Israel, are condemned to debate them repeatedly, to sometimes fall into the trap of existential anguish that the Shoah has dug into us, to define the significant aspects of our life in the categorical, extreme terms that the Shoah has left imprinted in us. In a certain sense it can be said that the Jewish people, and in fact almost every Jew, is a homing pigeon of the Shoah, whether they like it or not.".

Despite the advance of a new awareness regarding the duty to rethink ways and subjects of remembrance, the possibility of a universal memory, which is precisely what we would like to activate on January 27th, however, risks remaining confined to the one-day-all-day initiative. year and to fade into a repetitive and meaningless ceremony, as it is almost natural for it to have happened after a certain number of years. “A tired ceremony” – wrote Elena Loewenthal in her controversial book Against Remembrance Day (2014) – “an empty container, a moment of false reflection that starts from wrong premises to arrive at a sterile ritual where the victims are exhibited with an intent that seems to be one of commiseration, of incongruous compensation". A rhetorical space, therefore, of museumification and embalming.

The stone in the pond thrown at that moment by Elena Loewenthal has not lost its effect and certainly hits the mark of conformism and stereotypes which are the first enemies of memory understood as an authentic ability to vitally experience history, introjecting its teaching, rather than transforming it – as Fiona Diwan noted – in an idolatrous sense, “in show of memory, in the veneration of an idol, the idol of memory, in the search for something always "new" to show to the public who flock to ever more numerous and redundant events. With the risk of generating a sense of emptiness, of too much, of meaninglessness, a cloying that every celebration brings with it".

According to Loewenthal, this day has become a great collective mistake, the mistake of those who want to try, one day a year, to soften the civil conscience and lighten the sense of guilt. Once again - as Grossman also maintains in other ways - the error lies in considering it as a tribute, a symbolic compensation to the Jews and not something that belongs to everyone.

The difficulties highlighted by this criticism are made greater by the progressive disappearance of the direct witnesses of the Shoah, whose physical presence until today remained a very important safeguard of memory, directly documentable through them outside of any abstraction. Of course, starting with Spielberg and Lanzman, cinema has done a powerful job of visual documentation, but in any case any film can never replace the testimony of people like Shlomo Venezia z''lo Nedo Fiano z''lo Liliana Segre, long life to her.

When Liliana introduces herself to students they can still see in her a speaking reality, not a 3D simulacrum, and this makes the difference. “When, after 45 years of silence about what I had experienced, I decided to speak, I had no idea how it would go: I had never spoken in public, never taught, and therefore I didn't know if my voice would come out, if I would excited. But then I realized that when I speak, my personal Shoah comes out by itself, because I simply tell what happened to me. And it's the fact that I say "I was there, and I was your age when this happened that strikes the thousands of kids I've been speaking to for 25 years now.". But one day soon we will no longer have this chance. “As in any discipline, teachers must study, inform themselves and document themselves – explains Liliana – also because, when the sea closes over the stories of us witnesses, they will only be able to transmit this History".

Luigi Viola, Yamim shel sheket (Days of silence), 2010, laserprint on steel d-bond, 120×90 cm

I do not think, therefore, that the solution is to be found in the choice of silence and oblivion, as Elena Loewenthal provocatively recommended, in an absolutely understandable way on the level of intellectual provocation, but not at all adoptable in the practice to which we are constantly invited in carrying out our duty to remember.

Following Liliana Segre's indications, we must ask ourselves how memory can maintain its function of living remembrance for future generations and its teaching without falling into the sterile rhetoric of fashion shows, in occasional speeches, in presenteeist narcissism, or how we can remember without losing the active and authentic meaning of this practice.

Ugo Volli does it well in his “Never again. Uses and abuses of Remembrance Day", just published in January 2022, from which we can glean some significant conclusions, summarized as follows by Fiona Diwan: “the importance of applying the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism to the day, considering the state of Israel as the defense against the repetition of the Shoah; the mistake of wanting to unify the memory of every form of persecution under the label of Remembrance Day, the need to consider terrorism and contemporary anti-Semitism among the themes to remember on the day".

the Shoah cannot be condemned without accepting the necessity and legitimacy of the State of Israel. That the Jews have been condemned for centuries by the hostility of political and religious powers to wander without a country, that this condition has been used against them to scorn their uprootedness and cosmopolitanism and that now instead, having regained a territory and a state, this renewed roots is condemned as violence and "theft" is intolerable: it is the simple continuation of the ideology and prejudice that led to the Holocaust", writes Volli.

Here, perhaps - just an example - it wouldn't be bad to replace rhetorical formulas and ceremonies, but also the simplified and standardized story, "school" of historical events, the subdued but sincere and truly new attempt to delve into truths never fully revealed, to give a twist to the clichés that survive in each of us, to understand first of all - especially on the part of those who, considering themselves highly democratic, mourn the dead Jews but much less loves living Jews - that today anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are truly there itself side of the coin.

Understanding this means changing critical perspective and ensuring that knowledge acts as an antidote for every present and future poison.


Cover image 
Luigi Viola, Perspective of Sobibor from below, 2011, laserprint on plexiglass, 60×120 cm


Louis Viola
Feltre 1949. Multimedia artist and teacher of painting in the Academies of Fine Arts of Brera, Milan and Venice. Classical studies and degree in Literature at the University of Padua.
Co-founder of various art magazines: Visual Arts Information and Qnst in Venice, Creative in Genoa, Visual arts in Rome. He is currently editorial director of finnegans. He was a pioneer of video art in Italy. He began in the early 1970s with visual writing, performance and video, used according to a personal lyrical and narrative interpretation. In the mid-1970s he turned his attention to painting, but photography was in any case a constant modus operandi. With a flexible approach to different media, he has directed his research on the themes of memory, travel and landscape as places of discovery of the sacred. Over the last twenty years he has placed the Jewish spiritual and cultural dimension at the poetic center of his work. His video works can be found in the Lux archives (London), Fondazione Cini, ex Galleria del Cavallino (Venice), MoMA (New York), Art Metropole (Toronto) and ASAC (Venice). He was invited to the Rome Quadrennial in 1975 and participated in the Venice Biennale in 1993 (Insulae & Insulae).
Exhibitions and projects 2020-2021Desert Minimal, The Joseph Weissmann, Machon Hamaym City Gallery, Givataym Tel Aviv, June 2020; The last ten, virtual exhibition, Unimedia Gallery, Genoa 2020; The work of art in the era of its technical reproducibility and in the time of Covid-19, Zero Gravity Villa Cernigliaro for Arts and Cultures, Biella, 2020; Artists messengers of peace, Dr. Fischer Art for Peace Foundation, Israel & UAE, 2020; Poem of the sea, Disinhabiting/dishabituating, Sciame Mobile Residence, 2021.

* The photo-portrait of Luigi Viola is by Raffaella Toffolo


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