Holocaust Testimonies I: Walk With Me In Hell

How credible can a reawakened memory be that tries to revive events so many decades after they occurred? I think the terminology itself is at fault here. There is no need to revive what has never died. Moreover, though slumbering memories may crave reawakening, nothing is clearer in these narratives than that Holocaust memory is an insomniac faculty, whose mental eyes have never slept. –Lawrence Langer, “Preface”, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins Of Memory, p.xiv.

In Dante, the gates of Hell read, "Abandon Hope All Who Enter". In our world, they said, "Work Shall Set You Free"

In Dante, the gates of Hell read, “Abandon Hope All Who Enter“. In our world, they said, “Work Shall Set You Free”

Just as I was ready to follow Dante and Virgil as they traveled the circles down to the pit where Lucifer devoured Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, it occurred to me that there were other, less literary and poetic guides.

Yesterday, I mentioned to someone that I had spent time as an undergraduate studying Nazism and the Nazi regime. It took an immense emotional toll on me at the time. It is one thing to understand an event like the Holocaust occurred; to encounter it as I did, with a naivete and ignorance I only wish I could have back, left me psychically and emotionally shaken. To say this, yet to say at the same time that I had no intimate acquaintance with real evil, spiritual or human, was to place in brackets my years of reading and studying the Holocaust. Trying to understand something as horrible as the attempted extermination of European Jewish life is something no single human being, however noble and loving the intent, can ever do. Doing justice to the victims is an impossible task; human beings shall spend centuries trying to comprehend the event, trying to reclaim the lives lost, and never do so with any satisfaction.

The last century was one of mass death. We try not to think of the 20th century that way. Particularly we Americans would much rather speak of the triumph of freedom over tyranny; of the victory of the human spirit in the face of massive, demonic power whose sole aim is to erase once and for all any trace of its existence. The problem with these narratives of victory is they do not do justice to the millions of dead who litter the earth. From the first concentration camps in South Africa, set up by the British during the Boer War; the trenches that erased color, life, meaning, and humanity from Europe; the unending fires of the death camps of Poland; Stalin’s Madhouse embodied in the Gulags; the still seeping wounds of Pol Pot’s experiment in forced agrarianism; and, ending the century as we began, with war in southern Europe, mass death, and concentration camps; through all these and more it became clear that those in power no longer need honor the humanity of those over whom they ruled. As Stalin said to Roosevelt during one Conference in World War II, one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

It is to the German’s attempt to eradicate not just the Jewish people, but Judaism itself from European memory that we turn again and again. Here, the uniqueness of historical events is embodied even as we acknowledge it was not the sole genocide of those decades of horror. There has been, over the past couple decades, debate over the exact quality of uniqueness the slaughter of European Jews embodies. I want to leave that to one side for now. I do hope there are growing bodies of literature on the blood-soaked 20th century, from the Armenian Turks through the Roma to the ethnic Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and Muslims in the Balkans. I, for one, return to the Final Solution because it is the on with which I am most familiar.

It is also the one I have avoided for over 20 years.

Along with my undergraduate studies, while in Seminary, I read After Auschwitz, a collections of essays on Jewish religious thought and life in the wake of Holocaust, written by Rabbi Richard Rubenstein. Here again, I encountered the fullness of the events of those terrible years as a Jewish-American reflected on the possible religious implications of the dark reality of mass death. That was followed by Rubenstein and Christian theologian John Roth’s co-authored Approaches To Auschwitz. I have a small library of books on the Holocaust, from a historical narrative of the whole event, through bits and pieces of its, finally to historical books that include information on the event as part of their overall recollection. I have not, however, spent any significant time reading about the events of the Holocaust because I remember all too well that doing so for too long spawned something terrible inside me, more than fear and disgust; perhaps terror and sadness. Venturing in this land overflowing with the stink of the dead is never to be undertaken lightly. If only to do justice to the nameless, faceless dead who seem to be its only legacy, care should be taken.

All the same, if I really was honest about wanting to plumb the depths of evil, human and spiritual, returning to this particular piece of land is unavoidable. To that end, I picked up a small volume, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory, by Lawrence Langer, at the time of its writing Alumnae Endowed Professor of English at Simmons College. I bought it toward the end of my time in Washington, and it has traveled with us, unread, over 22 years. Last night, in the midst of family celebrations for my daughter’s high school graduation, I became convinced that I had to open this book, to sit with Langer and read and hear the stories that need to be told; to suspend all our usual rhetoric of morality and offer the people who recall their stories the opportunity to enter a place and time that is outside our usual understanding of the temporal flow of existence, yet very much a part of the living past, a malignancy that we have yet to rid ourselves from.

Virgil and Dante, their 14th century sly political and religious satire on Italy in the midst of a time of war and confusion, did not offer anything familiar. Langer, on the other hand, offers if not familiarity at the very least a vocabulary with which I am familiar: a vocabulary that demands consideration on its own status as something sui generis. We who are asked to be witnesses to the stories and lives before us have to remember we are in the midst of horrors that, despite our attempts at sanitation and even comprehension, remain outside any frame of reference with which any are familiar. Even the participants find it difficult to give voice to their experiences precisely because these are not the experiences of living human beings. They are rather the testimonies of those rendered dead and gone, consigned to the pit, they somehow managed to escape. Or did they? The most horrible thought is that Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, and the other factories that turned out corpses at an astonishing rate, are still there, the stink and ash, the cold and mud, the absence of humanity all perfectly preserved and the testimonies we are reading and hearing are an illusion created by the Devil to trick both the survivors and we who wish to bear witness. The pervasive contemporaneity of these events in the telling by those who survived gives readers and hearers pause that, in fact, all of history since 1942 has been a lie and that we and they are all there, and all the time since an illusion created to torture survivors even more.

So, I shudder and step forward, hearing the words to the song over and over in my head:

Pray for solace,
Pray for resolve,
Pray for a savior,
Pray for deliverance, some kind of purpose.
A glimpse of a light in this void of existence.

Now witness the end of an age.
Hope dies in hands of believers.
Who seek the truth in the liar’s eye.

Take hold of my hand,
For you are no longer alone.
Walk with me in hell.