Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, died on Sunday morning in London at the age of 110. Born into a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, she survived two years in Terezin/Theresienstadt, the infamous concentration camp were so many tens of thousand people died.
As a trained pianist, Herz-Sommer became a member of the concentration camp orchestra, performing more than a 100 concerts during her time in the camp. A documentary of her extraordinary life, “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” (dir. Malcolm Clarke) has just been nominated for an Oscar. When I clicked on the video link to the documentary trailer embedded in Herz-Sommer’s obituary in The Guardian online, I was shocked to be confronted with an advert inviting me to ‘Play Hunger Monkey Mayhem’. While advertising and related finance clearly rule the media today, it is sickening to come across such a brash display of unthinking commercialism in the account of Herz-Sommer’s deeply traumatic yet always forward looking life.
I did not linger to find out what ‘Hunger Monkey Mayhem’ entails, but clearly this game is part of a twenty-first century commercial imagination that has no sense of, or need for, individual histories.
Yet Alice Herz-Sommer’s life story is one of many that have indelibly shaped the present. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the graphic account of the Holocaust survival of his father, Vladek, has shown that history is mediated by memory and feelings in ways that complicate our understanding of the affective legacies of the past. Vladek too survived Terezin/Theresienstadt, but his story differs considerably from that of Alice Herz-Sommer – not least because in Vladek’s account, the orchestra that helped sustain Alice does not exist.
In MetaMaus, the account of the making of Maus, Spiegelman records what happened when he asked his father about the camp’s orchestra: Vladek insisted that he ‘remember[s] only marching, not any orchestras’. As a result, notes Spiegelman, while he knew from his own research that the orchestra had existed, ‘I have the orchestra being blotted out [in Maus] by the people marching because that’s all [Vladek] remembers’.
Spiegelman’s ‘blotting out’ is not a denial or negation of the past but a conscious rendering of individual experience and its memory. The comics format allows him to document this process, making sure that Vladek’s narrative is told alongside – and as part of – other historical accounts of Terezin/Theresienstadt. In my own project, I am similarly trying to get a sense of a larger historical moment by focusing on the experiences and ideas of Magnus Hirschfeld and considering what they can tell us about the beginnings of a collective queer identity and politics in the early twentieth-century.
This research is as much about evaluating sources than it is about discovering new archives. For how a story is told is crucial for understanding what is said and why. The inclusion of ‘Hunger Monkey Mayhem’ in Alice Herz-Sommer’s extraordinary life story serves no useful narrative function. It is a crass reminder of the precariousness of individual lives in the grand narratives of high capitalism where human value is a monetary unit.