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Freed but not free

Auschwitz survivor Miroslaw Celka walks out the gate on Holocaust Memorial Day 2015

They could never have been prepared for what they were about to see. Yes, they had gotten used to death and dying. Yes, they had seen too many innocent people being hanged. Too many burned bodies. But no, nothing could have prepared them for this. “It was unbelievable”, Anatoly Shapiro said. Shapiro was a Soviet officer of the 60th Army. It was unbelievable and unbearable. It was Auschwitz. It was Auschwitz on a cold winter day in January 1945. It was Auschwitz being liberated. By Shapiro and his soldiers.

70 years later people joined, in Europe and elsewhere, to commemorate this event. International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a day to remember the past, but it is also a day to reflect upon the present and the future. For remembering the past isonly meaningful if we are willing to learn from it. Learn about what truly matters in life: like freedom, peace, respect and human dignity. Why are these things so important? How can they be safeguarded? And of course: what do they actually mean? What does it mean to be free? To be liberated? “We were freed but never free,” one of the survivors of Auschwitz said. It is a paradoxical claim that captures the feelings of many other survivors as well. For sometimes the truth can only be understood and expressed as a paradox.

For ages philosophers have been puzzled by the question about what freedom actually means. Freedom is a central topic in the thought of all great philosophers. But if you read their works, freedom always seems to denote quite something else and specific. The Stoics, Aquinas, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Mill, Marx… They all defined freedom in their very own ways. But even if freedom means quite something different and specific in the writings of the great philosophers, two kinds of concepts of freedom can be distinguished. Two ways of defining freedom. According to some philosophers, freedom is non-interference. Freedom is the absence of external constraints and impediments. You are free to do something if nobody forbids or forces you to do it.  Other philosophers however don’t think non-interference suffices to be free. The fact that nobody forces or forbids you to do something, doesn’t mean you are actually free to do it. Freedom is always more than the mere absence of external constraints. It is also the capability to act.

Is an illiterate person free to read when nobody forbids him to do so? There are no laws that forbid him to enter a bookshop, buy a book, go to the library. But is he really free to read a book? Is a person in a wheelchair free to enter a building that only has a steep staircase to access it? Even if nobody forbids him to enter the building, is such a person free to enter it? It sounds rather grim to speak of freedom in such a way. Capabilities are crucial for the full experience of freedom. An illiterate person will only be free to read when he acquires the ability to read, if he knows the alphabet, if he can read the words written down and knows their meaning. This is more than non-interference and just as important to be free to read. A person in a wheelchair will only be free to enter a building if facilities are provided to make that possible.

Freedom is having the capabilities to be in charge of your own life and to be able to act upon your own reasonable decisions and wishes. That capacity requires more than non-interference. According to Martha Nussbaum, the leading lady of American liberal thought, ten crucial capabilities are needed for people to be free. Capabilities of a practical, intellectual, social kind, and also emotional capabilities. Physical and mental (or psychological) integrity and well-being for example.

Many of the people liberated from Auschwitz were freed but not free. An end came to the most brutal kind of interference by others. But they were still prisoners in another sense. Prisoners of a past so horrible that it wouldn’t let them go. Prisoners of their own memories and thoughts, fears and nightmares. They had had to endure such terrible things that their physical and mental integrity was harmed for their entire lives. “I look like a normal person. I act like a normal person”, Benjamin Orenstein, one of the survivors, said on his return to Auschwitz after 70 years had gone by. “I seem normal but I am not. Because there is something broken inside of us.” Broken inside and thus never completely normal and never truly free. Seventy years of freedom without being free.

It is a painful truth that tells us a great deal about the complexity of freedom. A truth we must never forget. For if we are really committed to the establishment and expansion of freedom wherever possible, we will have to understand that there is more to freedom than non-interference.

Alicja Gescinska is a Belgian-Polish philosopher.
She lives in the United States where she teaches at Amherst College.
Photo Credit: Nele Watty

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