Stories that Will Not Submit to Words

Dolmen in the Snow by Caspar David Friedrich

My grandmother fell into the group of survivors who refuse to speak about the holocaust. I had just a few facts rashly told over dinner to fill in her history. I knew that as a young girl she was removed from her apartment by the Gestapo and forced to wash a nearby statue with a toothbrush. I knew that she was carrying her first husband’s child when he was taken away and put on a train. I knew that her mother was sent to Auschwitz and murdered there. My grandmother escaped with her infant and managed to hide in France for the duration of the war.

She would not tell the stories, for this would be to lose herself in anguish so deep as to not return. As a very young boy I was determined to do the crying for her. I dreamt of the camps and in those dreams I was among the taken. I dreamt of stork-like birds who would fly down to the trains to pick us up with their broad beaks and drop us safely in a large open field.

When she was dying at the age of 91, I wanted to hear everything that wasn’t said when I was growing up, but she held onto her stories even in death, taking them with her.

And so at this time I went to Auschwitz myself, pulled there strongly by something. Along with this tremendous physical gravity was a naive narrative of a twenty-something, who would too quickly blurt out some bit about a lost family history. Narratives are weak, they don’t begin to touch at these physical yearnings. So we try to maintain them with loose words and explanations. We have to say something about what we’re doing. So I went to Auschwitz with a family story and a determination to see something, to resolve something for myself and my grandmother.

When a journey has some weight behind it, we show up with expectations of a grand experience. This again is the mind at work, wanting to mark some bit of time with significance, enough to say to yourself and others later: Yes, I have lived that. The real experience has other requirements, and operates much more slowly, without the aplomb of a Milvian vision.

But it was not without some perverse disappointment that I wandered through the administrative center of Auschwitz like an intentional tourist, lightly absorbing the installations from room to room. Auschwitz was well manicured and museum-like, so much so that I couldn’t fault Chinese tourists snapping pictures of their smiling families against barbed-wire backgrounds. I later read that Primo Levi had a similar experience upon seeing this version of Auschwitz, which in its curators’ quest for some kind of multicultural message, had stripped the barracks of their original intent. All the better, I resigned.

I finished my self guided walking tour and exited the camp, out through the gates whose slogan has touched the tongues of too many dilettantes and bedside historians. My feelings were muted when I sat to write something down that I knew would be as false and contrived as the experience, but I had to write something, I had come all this way.

Soon, the pages of my journal were becoming wet with an unexpected evening rain. People began to pack up and find their way to vans and buses of all sizes. I found a taxi and asked the driver if Birkenau would be closing soon. Birkenau was another nearby section of Auschwitz where most of the murders took place. By now the rain was heavy and I wasn’t dressed for it in sandals and shorts.

When I arrived there I saw a place that was much different than the one I had just left. Birkenau felt as if it had just been abandoned by the liberators. The buildings were falling into disrepair and there wasn’t an informational placard to be seen. Because of the rain and the darkening hour, the tourists had left and I found myself entirely alone in the massive death camp. I looked around for someone else, even an attendant, but there was no one. Maybe they were closed. I headed into the camp and almost immediately fell into a mindless state, with just my body carrying me through. When I walked into one of the barracks I recognized the same images that had appeared to me in dreams as a young boy. I became dizzy and felt on the brink of some kind of seizure, crying uncontrollably in the rain as the truth began to wash over me. The space around me was a merging of the past and present, through which I moved as myself in the present day, and as one of the prisoners. There was nothing new for the mind to process or comment on in this state of moving through, no concepts of good or evil, resistance or anger. Only immense suffering was left, in the wood, the grass and the rain, soaked through to the carbon of every thing around me. When I came to the site of the murders at the end of the tracks the last bit of my ego weakly tried to establish itself here. Maybe I took a photo of the message in bronze near where the ashes had been dumped or said something in my head. My feet did the work of getting me back through the mud to the train tracks that led to the opening of the camp and I wandered out onto the road.

Nothing we imagine about the events of the past approaches the truth of them. The truth is somewhere burned in the individual, who died there, or survived and chose to tell it or chose to bury it. Even in the telling there is a distance. We meet the telling with our own ideas and our strong emotions. The truth is somewhere in the stone that is left in broken heaps at the site of the gas chambers, or the trees beyond the stone that still find nourishment in alien soil. There are still witnesses there. Stories like these never fully to submit to words, they enter through absorption and remain there in the cells immutable. They refuse to be understood or reasoned with. My grandmother died having never told her story, but she did live.