A recent article in the New York Times posed this question: should we ban the artist Gauguin, whose work is currently on display at the National Gallery in London, because he called his Tahitian subjects “savages”? And because, as Prince Andrew might have said, his relationships with Polynesian adolescent girls amounted to “conduct unbecoming”.
While we would be no less miserable for Prince Andrew’s exit from the world stage, we would be for no longer displaying Gauguin, one of the great artists who enrich our world. You have to separate the art and the artist. Would we stop reading Charles Dickens because he treated his wife abysmally? Should we write Winston Churchill out of history for his racism? He was a product of his time and class.
A week isn’t only a long time in politics, to paraphrase Harold Wilson, especially when it comes to the rapidly changing issues of self-identification, princes, politics, and the rewriting of history, colonial or otherwise. We are living in the age of reinvention.
To take one example of many: in 2015 the American author and academic Rachel Dolezal was outed by her parents for being a white woman who identified as an African-American. As a result, she lost her post teaching Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University and her jobs as president of the local chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and as chair of the Police Ombudsman Commission. More important, she lost her reputation. Fast forward four years, and now anyone can identify as anything.
We live in a time where we are reassessing everything, but this extends to the trend toward revisionism. I went to see a documentary at the Polish Hearth Club in London called The Auschwitz Report. Admittedly, not the catchiest of titles, but full of fascinating facts, based on reports from the Polish Underground and the Polish Government-In-Exile. I had no idea there were resistance cells in the camps or that a handful of people had escaped. Some letters got out, and the Polish resistance received crucial information.
The film-makers talked to Polish and Jewish survivors. One of the most harrowing accounts was how the prisoners had to lift the gassed corpses onto a trolley to move them to the crematoria. A Polish survivor explained that each inmate had a task. One man grabbed hold of the arms, another the legs and hoisted them up. After two weeks, he said, most went crazy. Unlike the brilliant 1985 French documentary Shoah by Claude Lanzmann, which included interviews with Poles who were indifferent or hostile to the Jewish victims of the Nazis, The Auschwitz Report shows the Poles in a very different light, not just as victims and resistance heroes.
Some of the questions from the audience were interesting, the usual mixed bag when you open up the floor. But one man asked, in Polish and English, about the actual guilt of the Poles. This set the cat among the pigeons. Nobody wanted to deal with the uncomfortable truth. In an era of rewriting history, this was not a fashionable or acceptable line of thought. Poles suffered too, but they were often anti-Semitic.
I remember my friend Sandy’s mother telling me about her incarceration in Auschwitz as a young girl. She had worked at the munitions factory on a large table with other women, none of whom were allowed to talk to each other. But the human spirit of resistance defied the Nazis. For her 20th birthday, the women presented her an origami heart made from fabric on which they embroidered a wish. She kept it with her on the death march, and it is the centre display at the Montreal Holocaust Museum. Her Polish neighbour gave her up.
Last year it became illegal in Poland to accuse the Polish nation of having taken part in the atrocities and the systematic mass murder of the Jews committed by the Germans during World War II. The Polish government has also criminalised the phrase “Polish death camp”.
Some 20 years ago, when the ‘starchitect’ Daniel Libeskind was building the Jewish Museum in Berlin — amid much controversy from some of his Jewish family — I asked him in an interview why he had, at that point, never returned to Poland. He had been born in Lodz. It knocked Libeskind off balance. He had never thought of it before, and it was a long moment before he replied. Unlike the Germans, he said, the Poles had not faced up to their past.
Is it OK to deny the past? I would say no. The past cannot be rewritten or reinvented because the truth is sacred, no matter how unpleasant. In the age of reinvention, the words of poet and philosopher George Santayana seem more important than ever: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”