An essay about the Holocaust
I call it the Holocaust Museum. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is its proper name, but I don’t know that yet. I only know that the word Holocaust converts my child’s mind to black-and-white. Grainy videos of nude and emaciated people with shaven heads and smoldering eyes, corpses- a dirty word for dead people- and the haunting piano and violin music of documentaries transport me to a place maybe grown-ups can insulate themselves from. But I can’t. I make eye contact with horror. Because I am a child.
I remember the railcar that delivered people to Nazi death. I remember the hush and the shade, the shadows in every haunted corner. Identities cling to places like this and permeate the inanimate fiber. In my memory the wood is red. Strangers shuffle around me; I am a stranger. I am eleven; I never wanted to be in this muted microcosm of death. April is outside, pink cherry blossoms and glittering sunlight on the river. And I can’t breathe in here. I don’t want to be haunted by all the horror in the world, but I can feel it seeping in. I remember the railcar. I remember stepping in; I don’t remember stepping out.
Undergirding zero is a universe of negative numbers; underlying silence is an abyss of negative voice, an infinite realm of resonant echo, the ghost of music. I am haunted by this inaudible presence as I walk along a low-arched passageway that suddenly opens up above my head into a brightly-lit well that is paved with pictures of people to whom I am a stranger. I sense it as I am dwarfed by red brick walls, menacing and European, as I ascend unkind steel-rimmed staircases and still as I try not to see ugly, educational images flickering on the exhibit’s TV screen.
Thousands of rotting leather shoes lose identity when heaped together. I can see right through names etched on glass. I don’t know if I remember the eternal flame from that day or from pictures. And I still have the tiny, tan ID booklet that the museum printed showing the picture of a girl named Celia Petranker, telling the spare details of her life, listing her birthdate and deathdate. She was seventeen when she was shot, older than I was then, younger than I am now.
Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said, “The enemy managed to push his crimes beyond language.” And so it seems language, like history, can only repeat its superlatives. Most horrific. Most inhuman. Most unthinkable. Tragedy. Atrocity. Extermination. So dark, so soon. Too little, too late.
How many lives were squandered? Eleven million? Twelve million? Scholars estimate; studies suggest. One person is an individual; a million are a pie chart after all. When the whole world goes up in smoke why quibble over double digits let alone one more date of birth?
And why not make this as easy for ourselves as we can? Envision the perpetrators as blistering demons and the victims as saints, as seraphs so we don’t have to evaluate their mutual humanity and our own. German butcher, Jewish mother, Gypsy toddler and I together in a boat called humanity. Superhuman, subhuman- when face to face how fast the ghost prefixes dissolve. How fast the easy answer disappears.
Nothing draws humanity into a situation like a lot of random facts, the everyday in juxtaposition with the grisly, the unthinkable locked in an embrace with a velveteen rabbit. In Poland there’s a little town; Oswiecim is its name, a calm, provincial town of cobblestone squares, streets lined with rustling trees and cream and robin’s egg blue buildings rooved in red tile. Forty-five thousand people live in this town known in Polish as Oswiecim; one and a half million died a few hundred yards away in the death camp called by the town’s German name, Auschwitz. Auschwitz is foursquare like a die cast onto the rippling patchwork of the Silesian countryside defying the natural contour of the living world. Modern visitors are given a guided tour of the camp; children under thirteen are not permitted. Some rules come half a century late. An estimated 1.5 million Jewish children lost their lives in the Holocaust. Had they lived the 71 years between the war’s end in 1945 and 2016 they would have collectively celebrated 106.5 million birthdays. Nazi Germany was born in 1933, died in 1945. It took just twelve years to ravage a continent, eradicate a vast swath of humanity, stigmatize a nation, and derail the 21st century.
I spent the rest of my childhood under the influence of the Shoah, the “Catastrophe”. It formed the core of what I believe about human nature, what I know about life, what I trust as friendship, what I recognize as valor. Every once in a while, I mentally enter the crucible of that era and ask myself who I really am. I step back into the railcar. I remember- I don’t remember the 11 million, 12 million. I can’t. I didn’t know them all. I know only a few, life stories I have read, faces I have picked out of featureless masses, eyes I have made contact with, a survivor I was privileged to meet who told me, “Never, ever give up.” I remember them and they haunt me. Auschwitz haunts me. Warsaw, Dachau and Baba Yar. Footsteps on broken glass. Earth swelling with the breath of people buried alive. God knows I don’t want to write that down. I was too young when I was told the story and I can’t… I can’t come to grips with it. I look a dead man in the face because I owe him that, but I can’t deal with the image of the ground breathing.
We say never again; we say never forget. Swastikas are taboo; we reverence the dead. But human nature hasn’t changed in seventy years and the world is full of little towns, provincial and calm, whose streets are lined with billowing trees.