In there early seventies there was a remarkable series on PBS called the Ascent of Man. Basically, it was a series of thirteen televised essays that covered subjects as diverse as human evolution, architecture and genetics. It was the brainchild of mathematician/biologist Jacob Bronowski. I loved it then, I love it now but one sequence stuck with me for years. It was a short sequence set in the remains of the death camp at Auschwitz. I added the captions to the screen grabs.
I discovered this week that I can capture shots from my DVD’s with the player on my laptop. These are shots from that sequence in one chapter of the Ascent of Man. This is the text of the voiceover for the shots from the camp.
“There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the mean. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.
Archive pictures from the camp.
'It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.
Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, ad is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken’.
…….I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. ………..We have to touch people.”
This is the shot that stuck with me for so long. I can't even imagine what it would be like to stand in that place where so many of your family died and were discarded like so much garbage.
Bronowski was talking about one of the horrors of recent history. But the words could describe any of the recent horrors from the front pages and the headlines. To hear so many people speak or write so callously about discarding or attacking or killing or even putting people in camps is horrifying to me.