I’ve just finished marking some essays for a university history subject called “Genocide and Holocaust Studies”. Reading these essays – particularly this year, when I didn’t tutor the subject, but just got work doing the marking, so I have no idea who any of the students/writers are – is an amazing experience in reading the abstraction of genocide. Students say things like ‘the ways in which the Nazis stereotyped the Jews was disappointing’; or, ‘the Rwandan genocide was the fastest genocide in history.’
It reinforces for me that the university essay is no place for the representation of genocide. Actually, that’s overstating it, because some of the students write beautifully poignant and meaningful essays. But in general, and particularly when I’m sitting there trying to get through them in the time that is allotted, with music playing in the background to help me along, it feels somehow disrespectful.
In one of the last essays I read, the student said something like, ‘On 9 March 1941, 1000 Jews from Sosnowitz were transported to Auschwitz, and gassed on arrival.’ For that student, the name Sosnowitz is probably meaningless; transported just symbolises a really bad train trip; and gassing is incomprehensible. For me, Sosnowitz is the name of the town that my grandmother came from, and that ‘transport’ is the train that probably took some of my family to their death. Still for me, it’s an abstraction. But an overwhelming one.
I had to take a deep breath before I could continue reading.