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Seventy years later

06 February 2015


TOUCHED by Auschwitz (BBC2, Tuesday of last week), marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp, was one of several documentaries broadcast last week on the theme of the Holocaust. This one told the story of six surviving inmates, and explored how their lives have unfolded over seven decades.

What built up was the obvious but easily overlooked insight that, despite the uniquely horrific experience that they shared in their childhood and youth, they are all distinct individuals, with different stories to tell: they cannot be lumped together in a single entity.

One triumph of the film was to forbid us to label the victims as an inseparable group. There may be a profound truth here: the action of evil, of totalitarian hatred, is to destroy human separateness, to treat all Jews, all Gypsies, all "degenerates" as indistinguishable from each other.

Religious faith is by no means a constant factor in the resilience of those depicted: a couple are deeply committed to their beliefs - one in particular, who still works as a psychiatrist counselling other survivors, is convinced that even the hell of Nazi extermination must be part of God's deep plan, which we will, at some time in the future, understand.

Others had every atom of religion destroyed by what they experienced - but there are other kinds of faith. Perhaps the most moving of the testimonies was Max's: he encountered one act of kindness from a German guard, and has built his life around the centrality of kindness to others. Thaddeus had one moment of insight: you must do good to others, and has lived by that ever since. These principles may seem trite, but, when forged in this furnace of evil, they take on a new significance. Hermann, a Gypsy, survived after the war only because of the hospitality of a French family.

One constant theme was the next generation; how much should the survivors recount their stories to their children? Should Auschwitz be allowed to define your life, and theirs?

The overall conclusion, again, obvious and too easily overlooked, is that it depends. The survivors had experienced different horrors, and they are different people. They will react differently. These individual stories helped us to reflect on how we might react and deal with the experience of evil.

A different anniversary - 150 years since the publication of Alice in Wonderland - produced The Secret Life of Lewis Carroll (BBC2, Saturday). Trying to put to one side my natural distaste for anything that besmirches the memory of a brother Anglican clergyman, I nevertheless concluded that this was essentially unsatisfactory.

Although constantly protesting that she was seeking a balanced picture, Martha Kearney again and again returned to the theme of the Revd Charles Lutwidge Dodgson's relationship with young girls. Is speculation about repressed paedophilia really the most important thing that can be said? Is it all that our prurient age is interested in?

The experts who protested that such readings wholly misunderstood 19th-century culture, and the actual evidence, were swamped by those who found sex at every turn.

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