‘Our Spirits Die When They Die’

Reflections on our ecological holocaust

Nina Pick bears witness to a world on fire, from the Holocaust of wartime Europe to the current conflagrations in Australia.
Nina Pick, a dual citizen of the US and Australia, is a writer, teacher, and oral historian who lives in New York. The author of two chapbooks, her writing has appeared nationally and internationally in numerous journals and anthologies, including various issues of Dark Mountain. Much of her work explores grief, intergenerational trauma and ecological collapse.
I’m going to talk about Australia, but first I’m going to talk about Czechoslovakia in order to talk about Australia, in order to say what Australia means to me and my family, to describe the home it is in my heart and the ways it is sacred to me and my ancestors. 

My grandparents were Czechoslovakian Jews. In 1942 my grandfather and his wife, along with the majority of Czechoslovakia’s Jewish population, were rounded up and imprisoned in concentration camps. They were eventually sent to Auschwitz, where most prisoners were killed in the gas chambers or died of starvation or typhus. Somehow, miraculously, my grandfather was among the few members of his family and community to survive; his wife died of fever in 1944. Soon after the war ended, he met my grandmother, who had also survived Auschwitz, and they married.

In the years following the war, Czechoslovakia under communism was in terrible condition and life was very difficult for the surviving Jews. My grandparents, along with their two young children – my father and my uncle  – made the decision to leave Europe, and they took a ship to Melbourne, Australia. There they were warmly welcomed. In his memoir my grandfather wrote about how the neighbours came by with blankets, with tea and cakes, and how much this kindness meant to him after experiencing years of racism and hatred. Though my family, as new immigrants, must have encountered some degree of antisemitism, they, along with other immigrants and refugees, were generally incorporated into and well supported by Australian society. My grandfather found work in a factory, drove a taxi, and eventually owned a small tailoring business. My father and his brothers all received an excellent, and free, education, graduating with advanced degrees in physics, engineering and medicine. Australia was safe, abundant, democratic and warm. The vast land and huge open sky and ocean offered their bright light, helping ease my grandparents’ trauma. 

On the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, there is now a holocaust of a different kind, a result of climate crisis, which like the Shoah is created by the closed-heartedness and ignorance of human beings. The word holocaust means ‘something completely consumed by fire’.1 Some of the primary victims of this holocaust are the Australian land and its plant and animal inhabitants. As of today, an estimated one billion or more animals have been killed in fires blazing across the drought-ridden country. One third of New South Wales’s koalas have died. Those who survived now struggle to breathe through smoke-damaged lungs, to walk on burnt hands and feet. More than eleven million hectares of land have been decimated as eucalyptus trees go up in ash. The fires are still burning. And the fire season is not yet over. 

I worry my grandparents may be witnessing this tragedy from the realm beyond, watching the decimation of the land that was their refuge. (How we all always feared, even believed, it would happen again!) In this way they have lost their homeland twice: once, in the past, to the Holocaust, and once, in the future, to climate change. This past–future spectre of loss is the very real present we are now living in. 

  They have lost their homeland twice: once, in the past, to the Holocaust, and once, in the future, to climate change.

For Australia’s First Nations people, this is yet another of a long stream of losses they’ve experienced as a result of colonialism, in which they were marginalised or forced to assimilate, their land, children, and human rights taken from them. Now the land that is home to them and their ancestors is suffering as a result of the ignorance of the white, patriarchal culture – with its economics, ‘land management’ policies and government that denies climate crisis in order to keep rationalising coal-mining profits over the well-being of the Earth. Australia’s indigenous communities hold ancestral knowledge of how to tend to the land, and their practice of cultural burning can help mitigate the effects of fires. However, as aboriginal knowledge has long been suppressed by the Australian government, losses that could have been prevented have only multiplied. As Warren Foster, a Yuin Djiringanj man from Wallaga Lake, stated, ‘We need our country to be healthy so we can be healthy. We need the animals. If that is all lost, our spirits die when they die. This might be a wake-up call for them now to listen to us Indigenous people on how we do our cultural burning. It’s time to ask us how to look after the country.’2

Another definition of holocaust is ‘a sacrificial offering that is consumed entirely by flames’.3 Heartbreakingly, Australia – this peaceful, luminous and uniquely biodiverse ecological community – is being sacrificed at the altar of global capitalism, creating a conflagration which may, or may not, serve to awaken us to the consequences of climate change, and to indigenous voices that teach how to better tend to the Earth. Australia is a glaring example, and yet merely one instance, of a place where the effects of colonisation, racism, patriarchy, anthropocentrism and capitalism have combined to create a firestorm of destruction.

We may soon see this kind of coast-to-coast devastation here in the United States as well, and indeed are seeing it already as manifested in the shape of the Trump administration, which rages across the country incinerating everything in its path, from our ecology to our healthcare to our civil rights, bringing us to the brink of war and threatening our very democracy. The myths we thought would save us – checks and balances, science and reason, goddess Techne herself – are dry and withered on the vine. We are all breathing the smoke of Australia, we see it billowing on the horizon. Our descendants will try to escape, but, unlike our ancestors, may have nowhere to go. 

 

1 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition, 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. https://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=holocaust

2 https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jan/15/grave-fears-held-for-hundreds-of-important-nsw-south-coast-indigenous-sites

3  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition, 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. https://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=holocaust

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 15 (PDF)

The Spring 2019 issue is a collection of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that responds to the ‘age of fire’.

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