Auschwitz, Poland — The philosopher Theodor Adorno famously said, “After Auschwitz, there can be no poetry.” While visiting the site of the notorious death camp last week, I could see the truth of Adorno’s words. There is no beauty in the barracks, the barbed wire and the crematoria. I saw no poetry in the mounds of hair and glasses and shoes on display.
But I did reach one other conclusion on my visit: “After Auschwitz, there must be journalism.” After all, the greatest stain on the practice of journalism in the 20th century was its failure to adequately tell the story of the Nazi crimes against the Jews. The mere telling of that story might have stopped — or at least slowed — the Nazi murder machine.
I was in Eastern Europe leading a group of journalism students on an exploration of the press during the Shoah. The goal of the program was to apply the ethical lessons of that time to contemporary situations, be they genocide, totalitarian regimes or corruption.
The program, administered by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, is called Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics, known in short as FASPE. Journalists, of course, were not the only professionals who failed. There are also FASPE programs for law and medical students and for seminarians of all faiths.
Only three of the 12 students in the journalism program were Jewish. Among the others were two students from India and two from Africa, all of whom had covered strife between ethnic and religious groups. One of the Africans was from Rwanda, which experienced a genocide of its own in the 1990s, when warring tribes killed 800,000 people.
The Rwanda government, military and the press incited and supported the murders, but the killings were often carried out in a random fashion by marauding mobs wielding machetes. What struck my Rwandan student, Eugene Kwibuka, while at Auschwitz, was the systematic apparatus of death that the Nazis established: the roundups, the deportations, the selections, the gassing, the burning and the harvesting of usable items, like gold teeth and hair.
He noted that victims were treated not like human beings, but like a “product.” “They were washed, killed and destroyed without a trace,” Kwibuka said. “A brutal process.”
Before coming to Auschwitz, our group visited Berlin where among the stops was the House of the Wannsee Conference, where, on Jan. 20, 1942, 15 top Nazis met to finalize plans for the murder of all of Europe’s 11 million Jews. Wannsee House is now an education and documentation center, and we met with one of its splendid educators, Wolf Kaiser.
Kaiser told us that when Hitler came to power in 1933, one of his most strategic appointments was of Joseph Goebbels as minister for propaganda. Goebbels snuffed out any independent press that existed and put what remained in the service of the regime. In 1932, there were 4,700 newspapers in Germany; by 1944, as the regime was collapsing, fewer than 1,000 existed. None of them were telling the truth, either about the Jews or about the Nazi defeats on the military fields.
The failures of the American press to tell the story of the Shoah have been richly documented by two scholars: Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University and Laurel Leff of Northeastern University. The one exception to the failure of the American press was the work of the Jewish press, which told the story of the Holocaust even though no one in power seemed to listen. Evidence of this is abundantly clear with the recent opening of the archives of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which are available online at www.archive.jta.org.
Inevitably the discussion among my journalism students turned to the use of social media today, such as Facebook and Twitter, and how repressive regimes in Egypt and Tunisia were brought to their knees by what amounted to “citizen journalists” and their smartphones. The flip side of these social media tools, my students were quick to point out, are that they have the potential to distract us from what is important by burying us in gossip. We don’t always focus on genocides taking place in Africa or Asia today because we are too busy updating our Facebook pages.
David Goldman, a lawyer who is a friend but not a relative of mine, is the founder and driving force behind FASPE. He does not necessarily expect to stop despots or totalitarian regimes through the program, but he does hope to instill in participants an ethical sense that will shape their professional careers. “If we see terrible wrongs, it is our job as professionals to do something about that,” he said.
FASPE will be again be taking students from medical, law, theology and journalism schools next summer. To get more information go to www.mjhnyc.org/faspe. To see the work of the journalism students, go to ww.faspe.info/journalism2011.
Ari L. Goldman is a professor at the Columbia University Graudate School of Journalism. His Mixed Media column runs regularly.
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