Holocaust Testimonies II(b): Memory And The Eternity Trap

As memory plunges into the past to rescue the details of the Holocaust experience, it discovers that cessation play a more prominent role than continuity. – Lawrence Langer, Holocaust Testimonies:The Ruins Of Memory, p.75

The realization that horror never leaves but is ever-present leaves one in anguish over any possibilities.

The realization that horror never leaves but is ever-present leaves one in anguish over any possibilities.

Venturing in to Lawrence Langer’s guidebook for understanding the verbal testimonies of Holocaust survivors, it becomes apparent very quickly that we are entering . . . not a place or time at all. Oh, we who were neither there nor alive can look back and say things like, “The Third Reich began its imprisonment programn with Dachau in the spring of 1933”; we can pinpoint when the death camps, as opposed to the consentrationslager began churning out their product. It was in 1942, not long after a Conference in Wansee among those higher-ups in the Nazi regime responsible for what was ignominiously called “der Judenfrage“. That, however, does nothing more than locate along some arbitrary scale when particular events took place. We as observers can use this particular way of “understanding” to shield us from the multiple horrors these naked facts hide from us.

I originally began reading Langer as a way to remind myself that I was, indeed , familiar with real evil. Human evil at its most depraved. Spiritual evil at its most murderous. I am now not so sure that doing so for my selfish purposes honors the lives of those for whom this was more than just a lived experience but an always-present reality from which there was no escape. At the same time, both Langer’s reflections and the testimonies themselves lead the reader willing to expose himself or herself to the threats they pose to conclusions that are as frightening as they are inescapable.

The major theme of Langer’s book, subtitled as it is “The Ruins Of Memory”, is how the Holocaust exists in the memories of those who came out the other side of this event. The chapter titles of his book – “Deep Memory”, “Anguished Memory”, “Humiliated Memory” and so on – point to part of his project: in order to understand the oral testimonies of Holocaust survivors (as opposed to written accounts , which follow different rules) we have to recognize how memory operates in the lives of those for whom the Holocaust is a lived experience.

Again and again, Langer leads the reader to the conclusion that something more than “memory” – he follows one survivor, Charlotte Delbo, and her distinction between “common memory” and “deep memory” – is involved. Reading the transcriptions of the testimonies, the reader can only conclude that the events they relate do not exist in time at all; indeed, Langer is at pains to highlight the temporal disruption the Holocaust creates from the personal to the historical level. Precisely because of this disruption, we are doing more than reading the stated recollections of those who once were in Treblinka, Auscwitz-Birkenau, and Bergen-Belsen; they are there, have been there, and will be there. Time ceases to have any meaning; as such there is never an escape from the torments of the camps. The life, skin, sense of smell, sense of self is, in each moment, both traveling through time yet never free from the sights and smells and sounds and (lack of) feelings the camps induce. When we read these recollections, we are pulled through the veil time uses to keep us safe and are there with them. As Langer himself writes on page 69: “For the witnesses, the Holocaust is at once a lived event and a “died” event: the paradox of how one survives a died event is one of the most urgent (if unobtrusive) topics of [witness] testimonies . . .”

German theologian Paul Tillich preached a sermon entitled “The Eternal Now”, in which he described the reality of eternity less as endless time and more that all moments are alive in each moment, the whole exists not as a succession of events but as a whole without the need for perception and interpretation through our time- and space-bound categories. What could be more clear, reading these testimonies, than that they present this, tout court? Rather than a comforting notion, which is how Tillich – who escaped Nazi Germany in 1933, the Gestapo close on his heels – wished to use it, the dawning fear scraping the back of our minds is there is a diabolical mirror image to the comfort of eternal bliss. Consider the following transcription of the testimony of Chaim S., on page 62-63:

No, no, no. I try in my best words to bring the picture of out it. But you see, when I . . . I see the picture in front one me; you have to imagine something. The one that listens has to imagine something. So it has a different picture for me than for the one that imagines it. At least I think so, because sometimes I hear telling back a story that doesn’t sound at all the same what I was telling., you see: it doesn’t sound the same. It was horrified and horrible, and when you live once with this tension and horrification – if that is the right word – then you live differently. Your thoughts don’t go too far. In normal life, you think about tomorrow and after tomorrow and about a year, and next year a vacation then, and things like that. Here you think on the moment what it is. What happen now, on the moment. Now is it horrible. You don’t think “later.”

How else is it possible to understand the testimony of Edith P., from pages 54 and 55?

One morning, I think it was morning or early afternoon, we arrived. The train stopped for an hour; why we don’t know. And a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you stand up?” There was just a little window, with bars. And I said, “I can’t. I don’t have enough energy to climb up.” And she said, “I’m going to sit down and you’re going to stand on my shoulders.” And I did; and I looked out. And . . I . . . saw . . . Paradise! The sun was bright and vivid. There was cleanliness all over. It was a station somewhere in Germany. There were three or four people there. One woman had a child, nicely dressed up; the child was crying. People were people, not animals. And I thought: “Paradise must look like this!” I forgot already how normal people look like, how they act, how they speak, how they dress. I saw the sun in Auschwitz, I saw the sun come up, because we had to get up at four in the morning. But it was never beautiful to me. I never saw it shine. It was just the beginning of a horrible day. And in the evening, the end – of what? But here there was life, and I had such yearning, I still feel it in my bones. I had such yearning, to live, to run, to just run away and never come back – to run to the end where there is no way back. And I told the girls, I said, “Girls, you have no idea how beautiful the sun is, and I saw a baby crying and a woman was kissing that baby – is there such a thing as love?”

In the Gospel of St. Luke, we read the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In this story, Jesus tells of two men, the beggar Lazarus who sat at the gates of the rich man’s house, who died and was comforted in the bosom of Abraham. The Rich Man soon died as well, only he was consigned to a place of torment. He could see Lazarus embraced by Abraham and asked for consolation. He didn’t receive any. The above is a horrid, wicked reversal of that story: Edith P. is consigned to a place of torment from which there is no escape, while the comfortable Germans go about their lives, including loving their children, having the privilege of seeing the sun actually shine, oblivious to the hellish existence that is mere feet from them. I can imagine few tortures more awful than this particular moment when Edith P. caught a glimpse of life outside the camp, had a momentary yearning that is always with her, then wondered aloud if love really existed .

The Nazis created an infernal eternity with their industry of death. Those who entered the camps understood they were the raw material to be forged in to the final product: millions upon millions of corpses. That some few somehow avoided that fate creates a dual reality for them. They are always there, never to escape the death that awaits them on the other side of this grim assembly line. That they have escaped never relieves them of this knowledge. They cannot escape because these places and times are no-place and no-time. We who hear and read the testimonies of survivors are not so much invited to join them as we are pulled against our will to stand with them, feel the cold and constant hunger, the stink of shit and death that can never be washed from our skin, the absence of any emotion save the most base need to survive, a need that is never satisfied, even decades after they have been “liberated” and live on, having jobs and families and lives. That is the deepest horror and the deepest truth of hell: that those trapped within its gates are there, have always been there, and always will be there.