An Apposite Quotation
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Categories: Ancient, Modern

An Apposite Quotation

In the before times, before the plague, I was looking up an article in an edited collection and I was transfixed by a section in the preface. Someone has reminded me that 27 January is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, so this week, I will give you that section.

Martin Ostwald was born in Dortmund, Germany, in 1922. … From an early age, encouraged no doubt by similar interests of his father, a classically educated lawyer, Martin took to classics, and especially to Greek literature. … The night of November 10, 1938- Kristalnacht- changed everything. Martin, together with his father and younger brother Ernst, was arrested and sent to a concentration camp, putting an end to his schooling in Germany.

Biographers too easily fall victim of the conceit of the telling anecdote that sums up or explains a person’s character or motivation, as if something so complex and multifarious could be so easily contained in a single brief story. Yet one episode in particular seems to us so important that it would be a kind of distortion not to relate it. When Martin saw his father for the last time- it was in the camp- Max Ostwald’s final words to his sons were these:

ἔσσεται ἦμαρ ὅτ’ ἄν ποτ’ ὀλώλῃ Ἴλιος ἱρὴ
καὶ Πρίαμος καὶ λαὸς ἐϋμμελίω Πριάμοιο.

(Iliad 6.448-449)

The impression that his father’s words must have made on the young man in that time and in that place lies beyond our power to comment upon adequately.

Ralph M. Rosen and Joseph Farrell eds., Nomodeiktes: Greek Studies in Honor of Martin Ostwald (1993), preface

I also lack that power, but I can explain that couplet: “The day will come when sacred Troy must die, and Priam and all the people of Priam” (Iliad iv.164, 165) You can find a life of Martin Ostwald in the Database of Classical Scholars and learn about Max’ fate in the Bundesarchiv Memorial Book.

The astonishing thing is that Max Ostwald was wrong. Every one of the populations which the Nazis tried to eliminate- people with disabilities, Jews, Roma, and Slavs- is still here while their Reich has been tossed into the trash-heap of history. The Canadian government’s slower projects of genocide against indigenous people also failed (the lawyers who defined genocide were wise, so they were very clear that there are ways of trying to destroy a national, ethnic, or religious group other than murdering them). And at a time when things are dark, and when few of us can talk to anyone we care about but don’t live with, that is worth remembering.

(scheduled 27 January 2022)

1 thought on “An Apposite Quotation

  1. Jaojao says:

    Thank you, this is very important to discuss

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