Memory is a serious question – Auschwitz still speaks (?)


Livia Corbelli

Livia Corbelli


“In Auschwitz there was snow”[1] as the famous song of Guccini says, but I arrived to Auschwitz in a sunny day, while birds were regardless singing, or maybe unaware.
I saw flowers blooming on the trees and green grass around the numbered blocks.

As I walked in, diffused lightning scarcely let the sight to focus on the cynic “arbeit macht frei” sign.
How could that place be really a death place?
However signals were visible and the barbed wire was there, as to mark the border from the life’s unrolling and the sloth of death. It was the anxious track of under-existence.

I saw what was left, the concrete signal of an unutterable truth.

Mountains of objects were piled: none would have used them, even a spoon to taste the salt in a soup. In Auschwitz soup meant dirty water and sawdust. Other hands were serving it, not the familiar ones. Mountains of bags were collected, well labelled to distinguish from the others, to ensure people to recognize them at the destination. No bag would have been given back, not any pack. Each bag’s content, hardly chosen to respect the strict limits, would have immediately lost its value. Mountains of shoes too were heaped-up – small, medium or big, for man or women, in all possible colours: none of those would have been worn, none would have satisfied the pleasant paradox of being broken after a long use or being abandoned when too uncomfortable.
I discovered that unutterable can be revealed, barely, using the proper form. Not soft version, not light ones: history here is bitter hemlock; in Auschwitz facts must be told. Sorrow and pain can be touched upon, never completely expressed, but they ooze out from each single brick and it is sufficient the slightest empathy, enough to be human, to feel the stomach tighten in the grip of that barbed wire which “the sight exclude”[2], all of this missing the Leopardi’s poetry.

No infinite branches out from Auschwitz. The existent is only an atrocious immanence, a mosaic of plagues, as suffocating jails, hunger, mice, gas, experiments, execution’s walls provided with hooks. Death was not enough: the end must become a desire, even a plea.


Suddenly the sun loses any attraction. It becomes oppressive, ruthless, sadistic. I feel the lacerations, the humiliation that furrows the faces hung on the wall. 7 tones of women hair heaviness, I feel it as climbing my body, reaching me with no escape. My hair fell down, I lose my vanity, my confidence, my identity, my essence: in a while I am all the women, yet refraining from crying, because fortunately the visit lead to another room.

Memorial – Auschwitz-Birkenau, Simoncini e Cascella, 1965-1967.

Wandering in that space, so rationally planned and used, conscious about the importance of that place, a new sense of guilt raised up on me: I feel responsible for not being there, for not have prevented anything, even if I had ever been there. I feel guilty to be today alive and free. It is a sensation passing over each possible space-time limit, each generation. I feel guilty. Meantime I acknowledge “the facility” with which such a feeling emerges after long time, when the examined situation seems belonging to the past. More difficult is to come to terms with the present history, which is happening under our noses.

Although in a different way, upcoming History propose again the same schemes of the past – economic crisis, social and moral fractures, autarkical trends, minorities ghettoization, lack of (inter)national unity, populist communicative appeal (Filippo tell us more here) which inspires the crowd, veiled dictatorships becoming more solid and stable – despite all we seem not to have learnt any lesson.
Wayfarers in a sea of fog[3], we are not walking to reach the top, we look for certainties clinging to the first shadow we distinguish in a fog of smoke, without the real consciousness of its nature.
Referring to the 27th January to remember, laying aside memory of the past should not be an act of kindness for dead people, not even merely pedantry, but a critic conscience through which recognize, for example, that “Charon the devil, with the eyes of glede”[4] has returned using the boat to lead again the souls, that hell has earthly nature, and at this rate, we, who are living safe in our lukewarm houses, could no more enjoy our children benevolent eyes.


We cannot be unprepared, aware about the fact that historical dynamics can recur, never in the same way, and we have to answer to the upcoming questions.

In a period in which the sense of precariousness, the anger and the fear rule everything, doubts and reflections seem to be optional, the appearance and the immediate profit own the real power. Many challenges have to be faced in different subjects. It is worthy to question about how many boundaries is desirable and necessary to draw. Actually is it?
Getting closer, which Europe are we referring to?
Meanwhile, happy birthday.

Livia Corbelli


[1] “La canzone del bambino nel vento” (Auschwitz) – F.Guccini

[2] “L’infinito” – Giacomo Leopardi

[3] Caspar David Friedrich

[4] “Commedia” -Dante Alighieri (Inferno, canto III, vv.109)

“Se Questo è un Uomo” – Primo Levi


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