EARLIER TODAY, news of the “Never Again! A Tribute to the Holocaust” collector’s fountain pen arrived to my email inbox. Here’s a description from a retailer’s website:
The pen depicts barbed-wire enclosures with groups of people inside and out – liberating soldiers and freed prisoners – as an American flag waves overhead. Two dates are depicted: 1933, the year considered to be the beginning of the Holocaust, and 1945, the year of liberation from the camps. On the clip, in Hebrew, are the words “Never Again”. The Never Again: Liberation to Freedom pen is a limited edition of 100 pieces total, including seventy fountain pens and thirty rollerballs.
“Twenty years in the making,” this fountain pen can be yours for a mere $1,395 US.
This reminded me of something I saw four years ago – the Montblanc Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 3,000 and 241 fountain pens, one of which (the 3000) is pictured below. The former at that time retailed for $3,000 and the latter $25,000 US.
The Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition, according to Montblanc’s website, pays tribute to Gandhi’s life and achievements. “The top of the cap and the cone are inspired by the spindle which Gandhi used to spin cotton” and “the colour white is a reference to truth and peace.” Only three thousand were made, this number being “symbolic for the masses of people who followed him during his fight for independence.” The Limited Edition 241 for its part is “a homage to the 241 miles travelled by Gandhi on the Salt March from Ahmedabad to the coast.” Each Limited Edition 241 comes with an eight-metre golden thread that can be wound around the pen, representing the spindle and cotton Gandhi used to weave cloth.
As you can see, careful thought was put into this pen. It’s crammed with allusion and symbolism, which only adds in my view to the weirdness of the effort. Montblanc’s use of Ghandi’s name and life resulted in a lawsuit, but in the end Montblanc apologized for causing offence and offered to donate a portion of each sale, ranging from $200 to $1,000, to charity. This met with the approval of Tushar Gandhi, a great-grandson, whose charitable foundation is a beneficiary. I’ve no idea how many of these pens have sold, nor how many dollars have gone to charity and for what purposes. Good though these questions are, I have others of my own.
For example: could there really be 241 people in the world who are deeply inspired by the example of Gandhi, and who think it fitting and tasteful to show their respect by spending $25,000 on a pen? Exactly how many people are keen to tote a mini-Holocaust in their pocket, for the signing of business contracts and the writing of grocery lists? I’ve heard of Holocaust memorials, but tributes? I infer that the tribute has to do with the liberation, and not the Shoah, but this isn’t made clear. In any case, as many as 70 of our fellow human beings can now choose to remember a genocide with a fourteen-hundred-dollar pen.
The notion that someone would either want or need to memorialize the Holocaust with a mass-produced commercial object (if 100 copies can be called that) is hard for me to absorb. Putting aside the debates over the price and tastefulness of something like this, I wonder if even the depiction itself is of much more than scant use. The life of the camps was doubtless terrible beyond description, as well as of depiction, and also included composition, for example of music and art. I’ve sometimes marvelled over the writers, artists, musicians and composers who managed to keep their craft alive under the most hostile of conditions. So let’s talk a moment about writing and the Holocaust.
While music of an anti-Jewish, pro-Nazi character was ever-present in the camps, and its composition was demanded of prisoners, inmates such as Aleksander Kulisiewicz and Ilse Weber secretly composed and performed “Konzentrationslager (or KZ) Lieder” – songs of the concentration camp – at great personal risk. Pencils and paper were difficult but not impossible to acquire, and with these not only music, but stories and poems and drawings were composed. In this connection, Theresienstadt is the most well-known camp. Artists were encourged to practice their craft at Theresienstadt, as part of a Nazi propaganda effort to dupe international inspectors. Everything at Theresienstadt was designed to deceive, and while tens of thousands of prisoners died, others survived or at least lived long enough to produce an artistic legacy.
What I am suggesting is that the Holocaust has already been richly memorialized with writing instruments, and that one’s attentions are better directed to the labours of these efforts. At relatively small cost, one can seek out the journals of Victor Klemperer and the songs of Viktor Ullmann, the latter of whom once said of his artist co-prisoners that “our endeavor with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live.”
Now that, in my view, is a tribute.