How do you prepare yourself for war?, a friend asked me. It was spring and we were in Dakar, walking up the Atlantic coast; below, the outgoing tide French-kissed basalt rocks into a blues vastness. I was about to journey inland, to Mali, to visit loved ones who faced ethnic cleansing in a war zone. I had been documenting mass violence for more than twenty years but I did not feel prepared: I felt a kind of anticipatory grief, a combination of encroaching lung ache and unnamable bewilderment.
In Mali, I heard the despair of my friends, I sat in the dreary camps for the displaced that now choke the capital, Bamako, and I found myself bereft of words. Speechlessness in the face of ignominy is neither new or rare. In 1940, a year after the NKVD arrested Marina Tsvetaeva’s husband and daughter—he would be shot, she would spend sixteen years in the Gulag, but Tsvetaeva would live to know neither of this because she would hang herself a year later, two months after the Nazi Germany invades the Soviet Union—halfway between these dreadful absentings, the poet wrote: “My difficulty…is in the impossibility of my goal, for example, to use words to express a moan: nnh, nnh, nnh.”
The Chilean poet Carlos Soto-Román, whose work challenges the way words make mass violence palatable, writes: “The language of poetry is silence;” Anne Carson points out that the onomatopoeia mute refers “to a certain fundamental opacity of human being, which likes to show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding.” But it was the post-Holocaust European writers who contended with the inadequacy of language as a generation: Paul Celan broke the German language to unbesmirch it for poetry; Elie Wiesel broke away from the German language to write in French and English; Theodor Adorno issued his famous blanket condemnation of poetry after Auschwitz. Austrian-born Jean Améry, who forsook his birth name, Hanns Chaim Mayer, and who for years refused to have his work published in Germany or Austria, wrote: “The word always dies where the claim of some reality is total.”
This is why, last October, after returning from West Africa, I traveled to Auschwitz-Birkenau: to track down aphasia, and maybe, if such a thing were possible ex post facto, after a lifetime of trying to find footing in the world’s iniquity and grief and beauty, to prepare myself for war—or if not prepare, then to better understand how to contend with the world’s wretchedness. It was my first time.
Delayed flights, slow buses, a taxi cab that loses its way, and it is nine o’clock at night by the time I arrive in the town of Oświęcim. From my airbnb, a sterile single-room flat listed as “Private Apartment 200 m to Auschwitz Birkenau,” I take an anguished evening walk.
The humous plunge of northern European fall. Sparse amber globes of streetlamps carve gilded grottos of yellow leaves. There are no pedestrians and almost no cars: the provinces turn in early. The nag in my lungs has returned, but the pharmacies are already closed. On a chain link fence behind a kościół that will wake me up each morning of my stay at six o’clock with exigent bells, a sign with an arrow that points to a single word, in Polish and in English: “Museum.” The deepest dark beyond.It was the post-Holocaust European writers who contended with the inadequacy of language as a generation.
The following day, the fog does not lift until past noon. Fog: as if all of us, the living and the murdered, need to be held so softly, nature attending a gentle guide through the unbearable. The crematorium, the reconstruction of the execution wall, the barbed wire—some of it original, some installed recently, a macabre simulacrum: all is subdued. No sharp edges anywhere. Fog contours everything, creates a blurry frame of reference of its own. Out of the fog emerge the brick barracks, the rusted skull and crossbones signs, the watch towers; that iron gate.
There is a display, in Block 5 of Auschwitz, of shoes. Heaps of them: children’s shoes, sandals, wingtips, winter boots, mary janes, a lady’s single red espadrille. The museum guide calls the exhibit Deportees’ Shoes. I read that there are 110,000 shoes in the exhibit. I think of the many people who have counted these shoes: first the prisoners already interned when the shoes were confiscated from the new arrivals, deportees made to work in the camp until they could work no more, whose own shoes had been tallied by some previous prisoners; then the Red Army soldiers, who had fought and killed and mourned their dead for months and possibly years before arriving in Auschwitz where they were made to inventory the shoes; then the conservators in the museum’s employ.
Standing inside the Waterloo Panorama a century and a half after the battle, W.G. Sebald tries to comprehend mass violence: “We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was,” he recalls in Rings of Saturn. The shoe display at Auschwitz is a kind of panorama: it both centers wickedness and reduces it to its attributes, renders it the way one boils down a poison; everything here stands for something else. Our ability to substitute one thing for another—what neuroscientists call cognitive capacity for symbolic representation—is the evolutionary development that gave us language, gave us poetry: in a way, it made us human. And look at us, a race of poets. The camp has become the symbol of the Holocaust, which has become the symbol of fascism; the gate—not even the entire gate but its header, itself the symbol of the gate—has become the symbol of the gas chambers, which have become the symbol of evil. We have reduced monumental cruelty to its essence—to its mythic meaning, in the words of the philosopher Gillian Rose, who in 1990 advised the Polish Commission for the Future of Auschwitz. After all, I, too, have come to Auschwitz because it is a symbol, because before the woundlike refugee camps in Bamako, before caravans slogging toward the militarized borders of the Global North and boats that capsize to feed the carnivorous pathless sea, before the shelled cities of the Caucasus and the torched villages of the Sahel and other-speaking children in American cages—before all the gaping modern horror—the silence, the opaque foggy muteness, had already set in: here.
At the panorama of shoes in Block 5 I try to force my mind to see everything at once, to take it all in. But my mind rebels, it scatters, it wanders off and then it is gone and the ghosts that have been stored in my eyes for years rise out of the Polish fog in disregard of space and time, in flashback hopscotch spasms:
The mountain of shoes in a bombed-out school in Beslan; they have been sitting in the open only a year, but already they look the same as the shoes in Block 5, flat and halfway rotten; they are all children’s shoes, they belong, belonged, to some of the eleven hundred students who were held hostage in the school gym rigged with homemade bombs. It was early September of 2004, hot; the hostage takers, who demanded that marauding Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya, allowed the children to remove their shoes. They also allowed the boys to take off their uniform blazers, blue and woolen, the same cut and fabric as the uniform blazers my classmates wore when I was a Soviet schoolgirl; the girls had to keep their dresses on, for modesty. After three days, Russian special forces fired a tank gun at the gym; the blast and the explosions it triggered killed or wounded most of the children and almost all of their captors. The gym mostly collapsed. But the foyer remained, and for at least a year the shoes and the blazers remained in the foyer, in two separate piles side by side, I remember each being as tall as my chest.The shoe display at Auschwitz is a kind of panorama: it both centers wickedness and reduces it to its attributes, renders it the way one boils down a poison; everything here stands for something else.
They were not arranged for viewing: they were left behind. Maybe the children’s mothers were too busy tucking in flowers on the tombstones to claim them. Maybe they were too devastated to claim them, as the parents of the four boys from Forty Meters Street, my neighbors for a year in Mazar-e-Sharif, were too devastated to claim the mismatched sandals of their children. That was in 2011; the boys had been playing in the ditch and saw the sheening curve of a shell—it could have been an aerial bomb left over from the Soviet occupation, or a projectile from the internecine wars that followed, or an antitank mine the Taliban had buried when the Americans invaded, or an unexploded American bomb, impossible to know now; ordnance old and new kills or injures more than 110 Afghans each month—the boys saw the shell and they probed it.
The shock wave shattered windows five houses down the street. My hosts and I heard the blast from our house, ten blocks away. By the time we arrived to pay our respects, the men of Forty Meters Street had taken the boys’ remains to their parents’ homes and had begun to clean. They scraped the children’s blood off the dirt road with shovels, but blades fell off old handles with a clink, as though iron, too, failed in the face of such heartache. They scoured the children’s blood off their clothes under the corner water pump. And then a man picked up five singed flip-flops and dropped them into a ditch. Five. I remember the odd number.
Then: a pair of flipflops in other hands, a woman’s. She holds them out to me, one on each palm: they are that small. They belonged to her young son, she says, her boy, her little boy, who picked up a yellow cluster bomb an American warplane had dropped in their backyard, in the Afghan village called Mengchukur, in 2001. The cluster bomb had been the brightest thing in the village.
Then: another woman holding one shoe, an adult leather sandal. The desert outside Babylon sags similar to the way the desecrated earth of Birkenau sags with the ashes of the dead, but no valance of fog presses discolored grass over the mass graves. On the contrary, it is blindingly sunny, the earth is arid—arid, from Latin arēre, to be dry, like ashes, from proto-Germanic askon; both come from the proto-Indo-European as: to burn—and scorching May wind blows against our bare ankles tufts of hair, the hair of the people in the earth. (In Auschwitz, the hair of the dead is on display in Block 4. Visitors are not allowed to photograph the hair.) Not far from here the God of Genesis jumbled men’s tongues and made us strangers to one another and scattered us all over creation.
Now, in spring of 2003, a single backhoe is excavating the remains of the hundreds of people Saddam Hussein’s secret police had murdered in this field after the previous war, and sometimes where the digging bucket jabs at the earth it scoops several skeletons at once, and sometimes just pieces of a skeleton, and sometimes skeletons break. Or maybe they are already broken, from before. Spectral people walk among the remains, looking for relatives. Unthinking, I pry out of the soil what looks like a pottery shard, and turn it over. An occipital bone. Immediately a man appears and swiftly and silently scoops it into his hand, and walks away. In the distance, an old woman bends down, picks up a flat rotten leather sandal with both hands, brings it so close to her face I think she is about to kiss it, then places it, carefully, back down on the ground. It is somebody else’s dead son’s sandal, not hers.
I stumble out of Block 5. Fog. There are trees, I cannot tell what they are, maybe poplars. Jackdaws fall from upturned branches into the mist, spread their wings, take flight. I see their wings, I see other visitors in groups and solo, and I see shoes, I keep seeing shoes, one memory of cruelty pulls out another, ad infinitum, like silk kerchiefs tied corner to corner in a crazed magician’s hat, until the all the foggy hollows around me are filled with all the shoes of all the dead.The shock wave shattered windows five houses down the street. My hosts and I heard the blast from our house, ten blocks away.
The title character of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello proposes that broadcast violence is obscene “because such things ought not to take place, and then obscene again because having taken place they ought not to be brought into the light but covered up and hidden for ever in the bowels of the earth, like what goes on in the slaughterhouses of the world, if one wishes to save one’s sanity.” Years ago, when I first read this passage, I interpreted it as a prohibition against documenting violence. Now I see that it is the last clause—if one wishes to save one’s sanity—that is the key to deciphering the quote: Why must we save our sanity, who said we ought to stay sane, how is it even decent to remain sane in this world we are so recklessly and callously deranging?
It is a kind of madness to always hear the keening of the dead, this hurt canticle. It is a madness not to hear.
What can I say? I am crushed to be in Auschwitz-Birkenau. I cry; other visitors cry. By the remains of a gas chamber at the western edge of Birkenau two pilgrims sink to the ground, one over another, like two blades of grass suddenly scythed. The birches—Birken—for which the camp was named drip gold leaves. Jackdaws fall from the branches into the fog, spread their wings, take flight. My lungs ache to moaning.
Modern psychology considers a connection between respiratory disturbance and trauma; traditional Chinese medicine suggests that lungs hold grief. My lungs are scarred: something irrevocable that was diagnosed after I wrote, for a newspaper, about the three-day siege of a Moscow theater in 2002, which ended when Russian commandos gassed to death more than a hundred audience members and all forty hostage-takers. It was at the end of October, exactly seventeen years before the week I came to Oświęcim. The etiology of my illness, pulmonary sarcoidosis, is unknown; the American Lung Association says it affects mostly women of African and Scandinavian descent.
To describe to me my scars a pulmonologist said to picture the stretchmarks on a deflated balloon. To maintain the lungs’ elasticity I run every morning and, generally, I feel no discomfort, but when I grieve my lungs begin to hurt. At its worst, my lung ache feels like something catches against the ribs, tissue hooked and pulled like when you hit the funny bone, or the way fabric catches on a helix of concertina wire. It is irreversible. It returns more often these days. It can be sharp and very strong at times, but over the years I have grown to see it more as an inconvenience, superficial compared to the ways of the world. Sometimes I only know that I am sad when I notice that ache inside my ribs, just below the shoulder blades.
When I was very little my mother owned a pair of stiletto sandals. For years they were her only pair of fancy shoes. They had tiny flowershaped perforations in the toecaps and thin leather ankle straps with miniscule shiny buckles. They were eggshell blue. Mama saved them for special occasions: to a wedding, to a symphony. There existed, to me, no more elegant thing in the world. (Is it okay to think of this in Auschwitz?)Why must we save our sanity, who said we ought to stay sane, how is it even decent to remain sane in this world we are so recklessly and callously deranging?
At first, when I would step into them my feet fit almost entirely inside the paleblue toe. But my feet grew and when my heel reached midway up the arch Mama said I would break the outsole and forbade me from putting them on. After that, just to touch something so feminine, so graceful, I would kneel in the anteroom of our Leningrad apartment on an old pile carpet, and slide my hands down the beige insoles smoothed by my mother’s fanciest journeys. The way the worn leather cooled the heels of my hands; the slightest indentations scalloped out by Mama’s toes and metatarsophalangeal joints under my fingertips.
I imagine slipping my hand into the red leather espadrille.
A month before Auschwitz I come to Cologne, to speak at a conference. From my hotel on Ringstraße, I walk the four miles from my hotel to Müngersdorf, a neighborhood west of the city center. Between 1941 and 1943, the German government operated a concentration camp in Müngersdorf, inside the former barracks called Fort V, where it processed approximately 8,000 of Cologne’s Jews—those who had not evacuated in time—for deportation, by train, to extermination camps in Eastern Europe: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. Fort V was a convenient distance to a railroad depot.
By the time Cologne was mostly done destroying her Jewry, in 1943, the Royal Air Force was mostly done destroying Cologne, and had killed 20,000 of her people. The stated purpose of the air raids was to demolish the “morale of the enemy civilian population.” In the largest bombing sortie of the Second World War, on one May night in 1942, a coordinated attack by one thousand and forty-six British bombers—one warplane for every six hundred residents—dropped on Cologne fifteen hundred metric tons of incendiary bombs, a bomb every second for an hour and a half, flattening most of the city center and leaving 45,000 people without homes.
Of Müngersdorf depot the 1880 Cook’s Tourist’s Handbook for Holland, Belgium, and the Rhine says: “On reaching Müngersdorf station, a fine panorama of Cologne, with its spires and towers, is obtained.” The depot is no more, and where the barracks once stood there is now a sequence of parks and sports facilities. Fort V was leveled in 1962. Cologne city government inaugurated in its place a rock with a memorial plate in 1981. A broad tarmacked path for cyclists and joggers and parents with strollers cuts through the former concentration camp and past the rock, past the elevated outlines of a fort on the west side and beyond them, a stable, a soccer field, and a playground. Nettles grow around the rock. I kneel in the nettles, I place a rock on the rock. Behind me, someone is kicking a soccer ball: the same hollow p’gung… p’gung…p’gung that I have heard in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in the North Caucasus, in Somalia, in Mali, in Palestine. Soccer is the world’s most popular agon, a way of life for billions of people, like armed conflict.
The new Cologne has retained her medieval radial street layout but most of the houses that flank her roads are modern, built after the war. This lends the city an eerie feel of an impostor, her architecture a masquerading Hellequin’s Horde that will vanish once the spell has lifted. Her sidewalks are cobbled with what they call here Stolpersteine, stumbling stones: brass plaques just under four inches square, each engraved with the name and circumstances of a Jew banished by the Nazis. Stolpersteine exist in many cities in Europe; they are the largest decentralized memorial in the world. One plaque here. Two there. Four there. The origin of the name, and of the concept, comes from an antisemitic German execration one—presumably, a Gentile—would utter when they stumbled out of the blue: Hier könnte ein Jude begraben zein. A Jew could be buried here.
The Stolpersteine in Cologne are set in front of the houses where the victims had last lived freely. On each of the plaques I see, after the name of the person in whose memory it was installed comes the word deportiert: deported. What is a deportation? An expulsion from a country, says Merriam-Webster, of “an alien whose presence is unlawful or prejudicial,” from Latin deportare: to carry away. For instance: we are taught to think of the Holocaust as an indiscriminate murder of a people, but it began always with banishment, with an eviction, after the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 stripped German Jews of their citizenship and made them de jure alien and unlawful. Nothing new to deportation as penance: before God dispersed the men of Babel to thwart their ambition he saw as prejudicial to His power, humans committed their first transgression and ate of the Tree of Knowledge; God deported them.We are taught to think of the Holocaust as an indiscriminate murder of a people, but it began always with banishment, with an eviction, after the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 stripped German Jews of their citizenship and made them de jure alien and unlawful.
I imagine little plaques at the campgrounds to which my friends in Mali are no longer free to return. The way pine needles and leaves of would eddy around a brass mosaic marking the former homes of the tens of thousands of people from at least sixty American nations whom the US government marched from their ancestral lands between 1830 and 1892; the way each metal tessera would wink when the wind bends the treecrowns. A little shiny plate for each of the people deported from the United States; if this country were to mark the deportations it executed just in the first two decades of the 21st century, it would need approximately six million markers—the same number as the Jews killed in the Shoah.
No paving stones commemorate the German civilians killed or displaced in the Allied bombings.
I walk back to the hotel on an ancient military road the Romans built to connect their Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, or simply Colonia, to the Atlantic coast, to facilitate war of invasion and subjugation and displacement in the first century. In Cologne the road is now called Aachener Straße. It is a broad street, a trolley runs in the middle of it. I cross Hiroshima-Nagasaki Park, a memorial-cum-biergarten, where barnacle geese glide upon a black pond. In front of a restaurant, underfoot of some metal tables arranged for outdoor seating, a cluster of fourteen Stolpersteine plaques: fourteen people, an entire family wiped out.
Remember the boy Kai in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen? It was one of my earliest fairytales. He was struck in his eye by a shard of the goblin’s evil mirror that made him see only the world’s ugliness. Imagine a shard that reveals instead all the lives we have laid waste to and continue to destroy, all the loss we pave over. Picture them, those Jews of Cologne, as holograms rising from the shiny brass plaques. Picture the unmemorialized thousands of non-Jews murdered in the bombings, the hundreds of Communists—German, French, Polish, Russian—hanged or shot in the courtyard of Cologne’s Gestapo building, just around the corner from the squat second-century Roman Tower; the Germanic people the Romans killed. Now you are in a spectral city, a city of ghosts.
Now pan out.
The shore in Dakar where I walk with my friend, too, is a stratigraphy of carrying away, of immemorial ebbing. Formed in the Mesozoic rifting of the Pangea, it was, for centuries, a point of forced departure for millions of people who were forced into bondage beyond the horizon, and now, for the thousands who leave in pursuit of dignity and safety, both kinds of voyager often to perish in the crossing of all that infinite blue. Today, one in seven people on the planet is displaced; of the billion migrants, one quarter have crossed political borders—if we were to be corralled into one country, its frontiers would comprise the fifth most populous nation in the world—including sixty-eight million people who were forcibly displaced “due to persecution, conflict, generalized violence, human rights violations, or other reasons,” and more than 6,000 lost their lives or went missing during migration in 2017, “at a minimum,” according to the International Organization for Migration. To unwelcome the survivors, the world builds fences, tears apart families, locks up children in concentration camps, deports them, kills them, looks on. The cages, the sundering of families, the participation or apathy of those powerful to change things—those made the transatlantic slave trade possible, too. Impossible to unsee this shore’s many-layered severance.
This also could have been a source of the ache in my lungs. And that I would soon have to farewell my friend. Sometimes we only recognize the symptom, not the cause.
In lieu of a guidebook I carry with me to Oświęcim George Didi-Huberman’s book-length meditation on Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bark. In it, he calls Birkenau the “capital of the evil that man can do to man.” A capital suggests a specialness, a separateness: and I, too, want such a place to be separate from the rest, I want it to exist ahistorically and indeed unthinkably, a symbol and not a real place of real murder; I want it outside of the daily, I want it to be surrounded by a moat and an impenetrable ring of solemn forests that set the tone, set the death camps apart. But all that separates the death camp from the rest of the town of Oświęcim is a chain link fence. On the civilian side of the northeast corner of the fence is the kościół with the belfry, and on the other side of the kościół is my rental condo.Imagine a shard that reveals instead all the lives we have laid waste to and continue to destroy, all the loss we pave over.
The town of Oświęcim is home to 39,000 people. Auschwitz I and Auzchwitz II Birkenau pincer it at opposite ends, and when, the day after I arrive, I walk the two miles between the two camps, the last two miles ever for so many people, the town is so immediately, unsettlingly familiar. The way women wear high heels and fan their long bleached hair over their long warm coats and walk arm linked in arm. The way teenage boys share a beer on a park bench, their asses defiantly on the top plank of the back rest, their feet on the seat. The Slavic cadence of language. The Soviet architecture. The post-Soviet infrastructure. The green grocers who sell pickled gherkin, the playgrounds where afterschool children squeak on merry-go-rounds and swings; the small plastic flasks of cheap late-night vodka at corner shops that only sell booze, cigarettes, and flavored potato chips; the impatient salesclerks.
My God, I think, I know this place. I walk between the two death camps on sidewalks paved and curbed exactly like the Soviet sidewalks of my childhood. At night I lie in bed—how can one lie in bed?—200 meters from that gate and there is a bowl of mints on the table, they are called Bim-Bom—tick-tock, in Polish—and somewhere, maybe in another apartment with other people in other beds, I actually can hear a very loud clock, it is all part of the normal, it is normal, it is yet another example of human relationships; we do this. We do this. We do this to one another.
Gillian Rose says that by implying the audience alongside the victim, the narrative of the Holocaust carries with it a dangerous kind of exculpation, protects the viewer from “the recognition of our ineluctable grounding in the norms of the emotional and political culture represented”, and “leave[s] us emotionally and politically intact.” (Rose calls visitors to Auschwitz voyeurs.) This depends, I think, on one’s ability to live with shame—shame for our inadequacy, complacency. That I commiserate with the victims means I am good and moral; my pilgrimage becomes a kind of absolution, the way, say, condemning slavery or the Indian Removal Act or concentration camps for migrants may feel like a kind of absolution. It is much more discomforting—it is a source, indeed, of shame—to see the Holocaust as a product of a culture whose ethical concerns and values and ideals form the Western culture today, concerns and values and ideals not so far removed from those of the Romans who murdered and colonized Germanic tribes in the first-century Rhineland.
If, as Imre Kertész suggests, all anti-Semitism after Auschwitz “longs for” Auschwitz, then all mass violence after the Holocaust longs for the Holocaust. Sometimes the aspiration is obvious, such as when Patrick Crusius drives across Texas explicitly to massacre “Mexicans;” most times it is insidious, such as the torture and experimentation on humans—usually nonwhite, poor, and powerless—the US government continued to perform after Auschwitz-Birkenau ceased to operate: Guatemala syphilis experiments, which began in August 1946, only months after the Nazis stopped experimenting on Jews at Auschwitz (the Nuremberg Trials were still underway); San Antonio Contraceptive study, 1969; Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, 1932-1972; US Army human radiation experiments, 1942-1974; the Holmesburg prison experiments, 1951-1974; the Edgewood Arsenal human experiments, 1948-1975… And in the twenty-first century: Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo, and an estimated fifty other secret detention centers in nearly thirty countries, including one in Szymany, Poland, less than ninety miles north of Treblinka, the second-largest Nazi extermination camp after Auschwitz-Birkenau. The pandemic, environmental racism; the centuries-old selective warfare against American citizens. The caged children.
And this is only the United States, and only a fraction. Pan out, again. Why is the capital of evil not in the many places where we do evil upon one another at this very moment, after we already know we know no limits? Now that we have murdered 1.3 million people in a birch grove in Poland, each instance of mass violence, each deportation, kernels a holocaust.
What is the vocabulary for shame?
We like numbers; we like to compare things. (On a scale of one to ten, how much does it hurt?, doctors ask about my lungs.) We wish to quantify ignominy, appraise evil’s dimensions. But really each instance of wickedness is beyond compare in its destructive magnitude: every one is the most terrible. To put it differently: perhaps it is necessary to notprepare oneself for war, the way it is necessary to not prepare for beauty, or love, or violence, so they may yet discompose us. Perhaps we must strip bare the heart, un-ready it.Why is the capital of evil not in the many places where we do evil upon one another at this very moment, after we already know we know no limits?
How to hold on, what to hold on to. The fog is gone and the sun sets over Auschwitz-Birkenau and the light is beautiful—because even here one must allow for beauty, the way one must always allow for grace—and two teenage girls prance onto the dormant railroad tracks, passing back and forth a single longstemmed red rose. Taking a flower to a grave is a ritual, as is visiting a grave, or a museum. Ritual does not alleviate the sorrow but, like language, attempts to make sense of it, extends our grief outside our selves.
The girls reach for ritual. For the next quarter of an hour, as the sun strokes amber and gold and purple the sky above the gas chambers, they take turns photographing the rose, and each other with the rose. They sit and stand and recline, with and against the changing light, and they take selfies with their shiny long hair down on the train tracks that were used to deliver a million shorn people to their deaths. It takes me a quarter of an hour to simmer down my rage and to remember: they are Generation Selfie, this is what they know, what is familiar to them, what comforts them in a place that is not meant to comfort.
In German, Erinnerung means both memory and memento: their digital keepsake will possibly help the girls, somehow, remember something. Keeping a memento is a simplification of remembering but not its substitute, but it seems we have not learned to do one without the other, or at least I have not, for here I am, too, a voyeur, watching the girls take souvenir selfies in Birkenau as the sun turns from purple to golden to tangerine to deep red, until they finally go away and leave the rose on the tracks, and now the girls and their rose are my memento, too, because they are in my notes, in this essay, this essay a kind of a selfie (“I have made / an elegy for myself it / is true,” writes Geoffrey Hill), and maybe this is all we can do in our deficiency before all the suffering, in our unquenchable, unspeakable shame: to find something to steady ourselves against, to take home, the way Didi-Huberman took from the birches of Birkenau three strips of bark for which he named his book, the way the girls take photographs with the rose on the railroad tracks, the way I take notes to hide among the words my mute inefficacy.