Holocaust Memorial Day
The Power of Words
I would first like to thank you for the great honour which I feel in standing here tonight addressing you on Holocaust Memorial Day. The publicity for this event first called me a specialist, and then a scholar in Catholic/Jewish relations. I am neither, but I have just spent three years examining the Catholic Church’s documents from the past fifty years which speak of Judaism. So, I suppose I am, if not a specialist or a scholar, then at least a ‘something’.
I speak of honour. And with the theme of ‘the Power of Words’ I use the term wisely. I feel honour tonight, honour which comes for myself, that I have the privilege to stand and speak to you, as well as honour in the occasion. As a Priest, week by week, indeed day by day, I stand in a pulpit and preach, but only occasionally do I write down what I want to say. This is usually because the subject I am going to talk about is tricky, or too liable to be misinterpreted, or too important, for me to make mistakes. There is always someone who will hear my slip of the tongue and say “but Father didn’t you just say…”. I need to know that what I am saying is going to be interpreted correctly, and that I can stand by it. Perhaps I should do that every time I open my mouth. But you will notice that tonight I have notes, and I want to tell you that this is not my normal way of addressing people. But, if you like, it is a sign of honour. I do not want to be misinterpreted, I do not want to make mistakes. The words are important. Not because you might think me a fool (I really don’t mind about that – just say it behind my back and not to my face), but because the subject, the holocaust, and the occasion, this day, is too filled with unspoken meaning that just any old words will do.
The very title of this day shows us the power of words – ‘Holocaust’ Memorial Day.
It is a ‘day’, and that is fine, we set aside one day each year to commemorate and remember the horrors of the last century. And in that sense, it is a ‘memorial’ – a memory, a reminder of something which deserves not to fall out of human remembrance. And indeed, the object of this day, this memorial, is the ‘holocaust’. But we are thinking about the power of words, and the very title of this day begins to show us the power that a word can have. It is this word, the word ‘holocaust’. In everyday usage people really only think of one thing. Although it may refer to the destruction brought about by some natural disaster, its primary meaning, its primary image is the German/Nazi death camps. The ‘holocaust’ is the attempted destruction of an entire people because of their race/religion. The ‘holocaust’ is the combination of the ideology which dehumanised a people, and then the manner by which it sought to eradicate them. It reminds us of the motivation, the means and the object. Although other groups were caught up in the horror, and we remember them also today, the object of this destruction, of this holocaust was the Jews. There were others, of course, who had already been dehumanised (such as the physical or mentally defective), there were those without state or blood (such as the Romany or traveller), those who were politically subversive ( either in religion or ideology), there were the morally defective – all of these were rounded up and dealt with in the holocaust, and indeed at various times this was attempted independent of the death camps, but the ‘holocaust’ as a word, even though it may have included these groups, is filtered by and takes it primary meaning from the experience of the Jews. The attempted destruction of the Jews. The annihilation of the Jews.
And this is the power of words, even in the title of this day. For ‘holocaust’ is not a new term coined for those horrors. Even if for the majority of our contemporary world, it has only one meaning – this is not the case. For a holocaust, is a sacrifice offered to God, burnt up totally before Him, a pleasing odour to Him. A sacrifice offered and received. If our modern term holocaust points to the death camps, for us of faith, in the Torah or the Old Testament, a holocaust has a first meaning: a grounding, a foundation, which layers the later use of the term. For us, this is no ‘holocaust’ in the religious sense, this is no pleasing offering to God. This is ‘Shoah’, this is destruction, annihilation. This Hebrew term, ‘Shoah’, is more descriptive, more fitting as a reference for this day. And for the Jewish, and I would say, for the Christian community, this is the word which should be used. But the power of the word cannot easily be changed. The world knows the Holocaust. And I do not think the world has the religious sensibility at present to understand the discomfort the word may bring. Although we may not like it, we are perhaps tied to the term, for its greater power, in reminding the world, is perhaps more important in the everyday, than is its inexact nature with inappropriate levels of meaning.
But words are not the only way in which we communicate, nor are they the only ways in which the past is brought before our eyes. It is said that a picture paints a thousand words, and so it may be that images rather than words would be best to help us to remember. And indeed, who could not be but moved by images that we have seen. If you are tidying out a drawer or an old box, and come across a picture album, then it captivates and encompasses the mind and heart. If we were there, then we are transported back to the moment when the picture was taken. And if it shows a loved one who you have not seen for a while, or who is no longer with us, then our heart is swept up in a tide of emotion. But images do not even have to be personal for them to tug at our heart strings. Anyone who watches television adverts knows this to be the case – “just ten pounds will provide clean water, will allow this child to learn, will stop the torture of this animal.” The power of those adverts is the shock of the image. And iconic images of our age, which conform to reality, are seared onto our collective memory. We know the same pictures: the little girl running for the horrors of atomic war, emaciated bodies marked for death, but stubbornly clinging to life being liberated from the camps. But these pictures evoke a response in us which is different from words. Words can also move us, and can engage with our emotions, but the picture does it in a more immediate way. We respond to the image before us, as if it were real. We are transported to the moment when it was taken, or we place ourselves at the viewpoint of the one taking the picture. We are there, we see, we hear, we feel. But here, in its strength is also its weakness, because we cannot live that moment over and over again with the same intensity, with the same feeling. The emotions have that power over us because they take us by surprise. They appeal to our senses first: to our empathy, to our compassion, and only secondarily to our mind, to our reason. It is true that we cannot un-see what we have seen, and those images are there, potentially, for all time, but the horror of the first emotional response is by definition limited. We can deal with the emotions, we can put them to one side. We can change and modify them, because they do not hold the same power over us when we see them again. They do not reside in our intellect. Words, on the other hand, are things which abide, words are the things which change hearts, words can move the will in a way which is different from an image or a picture, because words can appeal to our mind, to our higher being. Words explain. They can give context and background. They can give access to the mind of another, to the world view of another. Words can form our own opinions in our minds, and then can express those opinions to others. They can flatter and lie, of course, but they can also convict others of the truth. Words can persuade and correspond to the reality of the world.
Words can give testimony.
As the last survivors of the death camps come to the end of their lives, they testimony, their witness is being preserved in a most wonderful way. It combines the word and the image. But this is not a picture or a photograph, a flat two dimensional image, with text attached. No, it is something which keeps alive the source of those words, those words which are so powerful. The image and the message are kept together in true integrity. These words are not just preserved in books, or writing, or even in spoken recording, for now, through the wonderful technology of our age, they are preserved in the witness of the very people themselves. These are the recordings of thousands of answers to questions and statements, explanations and descriptions – thousands upon thousands of words – but spoken by those who were there. The result is a hologram, a virtual recording of a survivor of the holocaust, as it were living before you for all time, speaking the words of testimony, as if they were responding to questions which the person in front of them poses. In a hundred years, a boy or girl will be able to ask, “What did you miss most, in those camps?”, “Were you allowed to bring anything with you?”, “What did you eat or drink?”, “Did any members of your family survive?” and they will receive the answer from a human being, virtual, yes, but there. This extraordinary development keeps the power of words in their true context, in the power of lives, in the power of testimony, of witness. If words can give access to the lives of those who experienced the sufferings and horrors which we need to remember, then how much more powerful, how much more human, how much more (if I may dare say it) how much more divine, is this development. The words, the testimonies are not theoretical, they are not conjectures in a history book, they are not manipulated records or events from one point of view or another – fake news is not new – they are real because, the person says, ‘I was there, this happened to me’. The truth of words in the lives of people is the most powerful thing on earth, and if part of this day is to shape the future as well as remember the past, then testimony, witness is the most powerful weapon we have. It happened to you, and I see you, I hear you, I am in your presence and you speak to me, to my mind as well as my heart.
Words have the power not only to depict or represent, but also to persuade and explain. In this they are more powerful than images. As human beings we are created to do more than simply react to stimuli around us – to see an image and emotionally react to it. With out mind, with our intelligence we must seek the truth of a situation, delve into it, and make decisions, make judgements. In this way we will inform our will, that part of us which is most like God, that ability to make decisions, to weight up good and evil. In this a memorial, a remembrance is essential, for if we do not have this then we do not have the data with which to come to a decision. We need information to process, and then we need the ability to process that information. As we grow older, and none of us are getting younger, what seems normal for us, because it resides in our experience, and what does not need to be said, for we can take it for granted, is different for a younger generation. A few years ago, I was teaching mathematics in a school in France, and was talking about exchange rates between currencies. I waxed lyrically about the old ten Franc note. The boys were polite, but my words could never have the same meaning for them. None of them were born when France had its own currency. What I, as a member of my generation, could take for granted in my everyday conversation, was not accessible to the youngsters. How can I make an appeal, one way or another, about the beauty of a ten Franc note, the smell, the texture, the excitement that it symbolised not just another currency but being abroad, on holiday, in another country – to a generation for which it is not a reality.
Some of these things are important and some are not, but they need to be explained so that they can be understood. And in the realm of the horrors of war, or torture and mutilation, then words need to convey not just historical facts, but motivations, reasons, and descriptions, so that the mind and the will can judge and resolve to turn from such actions. We must learn that there are consequences to words, or thought patterns, or assumptions, or actions. To realise that one thing leads to another is an important stage in our development. And although it is not necessarily inevitable, to realise that words, attitudes, and actions can make consequences more likely to happen rather than less is a lesson for all people at all times.
In our present day, we must not think that we have sorted out the past. The Jewish community, through the continued work of the Ant-Defamation League, continues to be vigilant, and rightly so. Words continue to be wielded for ill, as well as good. Although motivations may be good, language may be slippery. Let me give you an example from the Catholic Church. In his statement “We remember the Shaoh” of 1998, St John Paul II attempted to make a distinction in Catholic history between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. The latter he deplored, but the first he tried to explain in the context of Christianity. I do not want to go into this document now. All I want to say, is that while the distinction makes sense within the context of Catholic theology, to the man on the Clapham omnibus, it is a little more stretched. What does it mean, and what is the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism? Let me say first of all that the Pope’s motives were blameless, but I want to point out two other things. First there is a problem for those who simply do not understand the distinction being made, and second there are those who understand it perfectly well, and yet interpret it in a manner which is contrary to its meaning. The words are spoken, some do not understand them, and some misinterpret them.
We have become much more sensitive to the language that we used to be. We know that it influences not only us who use it, but also those around us. If you think for a moment of the kind of ‘banter’ of informal talk that was acceptable fifty years ago, it is very different from what we would think of as normal today. Just watch one of the re-runs of a television program to see who much things have changed. And if it changes us, then it will most definitely change the younger generation, especially those still in formation in our schools. The names that we call people, both within our own communities and without, are simply different. Perhaps we can say that ‘we didn’t mean any harm, any offence’, but that only concerns me, what did I mean, how did it affect me. The power of words to communicate means that there is also someone else, the one to whom the word was directed, and also the way in which is affected those around us. The demonising of a person, or a community is the first stage in dehumanising them. They are no longer seen as an individual but rather as a member of a collective, a collective who can then be branded in the same manner The dehumanising of a group of people, reducing them from their individuality to being a member of a group, and then that group being condemned and vilified. Why should this group have the same rights and privileges as you or me, when they are so different, so guilty, so culpable.
And so, although we have tried, successfully in many cases, to clean up the language used our society, precisely because of the power of words, we have to be honest and say that it will be a never ending battle, because if there is a power to words, then they will always be used in the power struggle, the battle between one group and another. We may say that the horrors which lead up to the Shoah could not happen again, but any society which says that ‘such a thing could no longer happen here’ is playing a dangerous game, a game of complacency.
I just mentioned St John Paul’s distinction between anti-Judaism and anti-semitism, and I would finally like to challenge one other such distinction which is now often made, which I fear can fall into a similar trap – namely one which may be morally neutral on the outside, but which can be misunderstood or wilfully misunderstood, and I hope that it will both challenge us, and also show us the continuing power of words.
The distinction this time, is not between anti-semitism and anti-Judaism, but anti-semitism and anti-Israel. In our political rhetoric we make a fine distinction between the national state of Israel, a political body, and the Jews and Judaism as a cultural/ethnic/religious group. We can criticism the political decisions and actions of any country, and indeed we should do so, but I would say that we would do well to look deeply at what the language that we are using is actually saying, and what audience is picking it up and internalising it. Too often the language, subtle though it is, is based around Palestine good/Israel bad – based in political reflection and political decisions, but presented in a broad brush stoke. To the subconscious, the unthinking base layer of our minds which connects words with groups or things in the world or ideal, Israel means ‘the Jews’. And so, putting aside the truth of a political situation or otherwise, what is presented is Palestinian good/Jew bad. I would also say that I think Christian language, action and rhetoric plays into this. It ignores, of course, the reality of lumping a state with a religious people, and it gives Palestinians (a term itself which is loaded with meaning and submeaning), an identity which may or may not correspond to that group itself. For the Christians, it means, oppressed Christians, for the Arab, appressed Islam. But the dichotomy which it sets up, one group against the other, is not, and cannot be morally neutral in the light of the Shoah. The power of words demands that this situation is different, and should be dealt with differently.
This is not a political statement that I am making, and it is defending neither the actions of the Israelis nor the Palestinians, I am simply saying that the words that we use find their meaning in the context not only of the present, but also in history. The clever distinction which we use uses words and is framed in words which have a historical meaning which transcends them. Insamuch as such words influence and shape generations to come, then we must be more circumspect and sensitive in the discourse that we use.
It may be that we must use different language, more subtle language around those involved in the Shoah, in the Holocaust, but that it a task which I think we must perform. Words demand it, not of themselves, but by their power to give meaning to and persuade individuals.
As I come to the end of this address, I would again like to thank you for the honour which I feel here tonight, and want to point out that although you may have judged me according to my dress, my face, my appearance, the only important thing that I have done this evening is to speak to you. I have given you words from my mind, my will and my heart, to convey something to you. The power and force of my argument, or otherwise, is based on those words.
We must, we can, never forget the power of words to change the world, for good, or ill.