Director of Museum of Romani Culture addresses Czech Senate on International Holocaust Remembrance Day: We must safeguard our own humanity
Jana Horváthová, Director of the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, gave a speech at the Czech Senate on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day last week. At the beginning of the speech she mentioned the experience of her own family and her childhood confrontation with the necessity of coping with the painful tragedy of Auschwitz.
The main message of her appearance in the Senate was a reflection on humanity, on what it means to be an ally, and on the importance of caution when we are offered "direct paths" and seemingly simple solutions. News server Romea.cz is publishing the speech in full translation here.
Speech by Jana Horváthová in the Czech Senate, 28 January 2020
Today it is exactly 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. In my family, from the earliest age, I was confronted with the adults' memories of wartime, because it was in Auschwitz that many of my forebears from the Holomek family - Romani people who had long been settled in Moravia - found their death.
Until I was a certain age, those talks about the horrible fate of my family members went over my head, they were beyond my full perception, because a child's mind cannot believe all that human beings are capable of. All the historians' accounts of the mass murder of innocent adults and their children seemed to me to be far-fetched, to put it plainly.
A child discovers how the world works gradually, how things are between people, who "I" am, who human beings are and how the human beings gradually diverged from other fauna in ancient times. Although humans separated themselves from the animal kingdom, they could never break free from their biological constraints - on the contrary, limitations remain within human beings that forever bind them to their origins.
We should know those limits very well, and we should count on them. Education and high culture, or refined culture - which is to say, humanitas, in Latin - will never protect us from our own limitations.
If the stars are favorable, then it is possible to gain a clear view of our horizons and thus the necessary oversight of our own egos in order to be able to perceive whether our own feeling of well-being is not happening at the cost of somebody else's well-being. A high cultural standard, as we know from the past, is not self-redeeming, it is not a guarantee of good in the world - other values are also needed that don't even have to be related to the level of culture or education.
Those values are those of humanity, plain and simple. That concept, too, comes from the Latin humanitas.
The humanities are higher education and culture, and human beings themselves are humanity. How close those words are to each other, coming from the same basis - but the experience of the Holocaust has painfully proven to us how the meanings of these words, which derive from each other, can in fact become far removed from human reality.
Here I would like to quote a piece from the Book of Apocrypha by the classic Czech author Karel Čapek, his brilliant apocrypha, in my opinion, called "Pilate's Creed". In it, Pontius Pilate speaks with Joseph of Arimathea, who has somewhat more limited horizons, of nothing less than the question: What is truth?
I quote Pilate: “It would be crazy to believe that the truth just exists in order that one might never recognize it. One recognizes it, yes; but who? Is it me, or you, or maybe any of us? I believe everybody has a share in it, both the one who says yes to it and the one who says no. If those two joined together and understood each other, that would create the whole truth. Of course, it is impossible to bring yes and no together, but people can always connect; there is more truth in people than in words. I have more appreciation for people than for their truths.”
A little further on, Joseph of Arimathea objects, saying: "There is just one truth for all."
Pilate asks: "Which one is that?"
"The one I believe in."
"So, you see," Pilate says slowly. "After all, that's just your truth. You're all like little children who believe that the whole world ends with the horizon they see and beyond that, nothing else exists. [...] When you ascend a very high mountain, though, you can see that everything blends together and somehow levels out. From a certain height, even truths coincide. Of course, one cannot and does not live on a high mountain; it is enough for one to see one's house or field up close, both of them full of truths and things; that is one's proper place, where one belongs. Over time, though, one can look up at the mountains, or to the heavens, and say that it is from up there that one's truths and one's things derive - that takes nothing away from them, rather, it merges them with something far more free, something that is no longer merely one's own."
Back to the basic, simple value of humanity. We are led to this value from childhood, perhaps by those fairy tales that contain the wisdom of our ancestors.
This past Christmas, after many years, I re-watched a fairy tale from the golden treasury of Czech cinematography, "Prince Bayaya" by the director Antonín Kachlík, from 1971. In that film, Bayaya's wise adviser and friend, a faithful horse, reminds the Prince, as he pursues his happiness on his way to fight evil, of the important truth that genuine happiness cannot be based on the misfortune of others.
That wisdom, which we have imbibed since childhood and teach to our own children, is not always so easy to fulfill in reality. Even in conditions of peace and tranquility, everyday life confronts us with small challenges, but they are challenges nonetheless.
We all know those fractions of a second when we decide whether or not to stand up for somebody weaker than us, or for someone who is being wrongfully harmed, when to do so involves a cost to ourselves. Those are moments when we consider whether to say out loud what it is that we are seeing, even if our intervention will have negative consequences for us.
In an effort to achieve our own personal happiness, or to avoid problems, we often unconsciously seek protection from stronger individuals, or from groups whose greatness or size could help us create the coveted illusion that the group espouses the truth. It can be tempting to rest in such a haven, one that gives us strength without requiring much effort.
However, as Bayaya's horse says, "The straight road leads to hell!" It's an old truth, but it's one worth remembering.
Now I would like to quote Hannah Arendt, as translated by Alena Bláhová - the text is a selection of Arendt's answers to Günter Gause's questions in the "Zur Person" program of October 1964 on Germany's ZDF television: "I have never loved a nation or a collective in my life, neither the German nor the French nor the American, nor the working class, nor any of all the other similar things that exist. Besides my friends, I don't actually love anybody else. Above all, I would be suspicious of that kind of love for the Jewish people - precisely because I am a Jewish woman. Belonging to a certain group is a given, it's natural. You belong to that group forever, from birth. However, to belong to a group in the sense of its organized character is something completely different. That organized nature always means you are looking away from the rest of the world. So: those who organize themselves are held together by what are commonly called 'interests'. A direct, personal relationship, in which one can speak of love, exists in true love, of course, but also in friendship. There one is addressed directly, independently of other interests. In that way, differently-organized people can still become friends as individuals. However, if we confuse these things, if we bring that kind of 'love' to the negotiating table, I consider it to be something quite disastrous. I try to see politics through eyes that are not obscured by politics."
A bit later on she says: "Humanity is never attained in solitude, and it is not attained by presenting one's work to the public. Just those who have the courage to disclose both their lives and their persons will attain it. We start something, we weave our threads into a network of relationships. We never know what will arise as a consequence. We all have to rely on the sentence: 'Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' This applies to any conduct. Simply put, it's just because one does not know what the ultimate impact of one's deeds will be. That's the risk. I would say this risk can only be taken in conjunction with faith in other people, that is, with a hard-to-understand but fundamental trust in the humanity of all people. We cannot do otherwise."
That's Hannah Arendt. I would add that no matter whether we are doing well in any community or group of people, or whether we find some benefit in participating in that group, we must be vigilant as to whether we are protecting our own humanity, which ceases to exist when we deprive others of room for theirs.
It depends on whether we want to be humane, and I believe that most people are born into this world with positive ideals, but that conflicts of interest soon arise for us, namely, the interests of individuals endowed with egos, and those conflicts make it so easy for us to part ways with our ideals and to be misled. We human beings apparently never have enough caution available when we need it, whether for these matters, or others similar to them.
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