Friday, April 3, 2015

Artifact Spotlight: Stamps

Rubber stamps of the Jewish Religious Congregation in Oświęcim, 1946-1949.
Gift of Rachel Jakimowski, former President of Oświęim Society in Israel. 
The Communist regime in Poland intended to control all religious organizations; it renamed Jewish communities “Jewish Religious Assemblies” and later “Jewish Religious Congregations.” These original stamps date back to the Communist era, reading: Jewish Religious Congregation of Oświęcim. It was, and is, required for various organizations such as religious institutions and businesses to use these stamps in official letters, correspondence, and internal use. In the immediate post-war years, the Jewish Religious Congregation of Oświęcim was led by Chaim Wolnerman. Services were held in the only surviving house of prayer, the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, which is now part of the Auschwitz Jewish Center.

Volunteer Profile: Gesine Reichel, 2014-2015

Hometown: Brandenburg, Germany

What attracted you to the AJC? 
I am especially interested in history and politics and I like to teach people, so the AJC is the perfect place for me. Guiding tours and workshops, I teach people about the Jewish history of Oświęcim. By doing this, I can transmit the message of tolerance. This gives me the opportunity to learn so much about history, Judaism, education, and Poland while I improve my language skills in English, Polish, and French. And of course I enjoy the good atmosphere and coffee in Café Bergson! 

What are you enjoying most about your volunteer experience? 
Everything! It is pretty difficult to answer this question because I am so in love with this place, but I think most important is the contact with so many interesting, different people and what we share with each other. Not only can I teach new things, most of the time I learn from these people. It is such a great opportunity and I get so much back from the experience. I remember one situation when a group of Jews from America visited; I gave them a short introduction of the Jewish history of the town. They were really happy and grateful for my voluntary service, and they invited me to their prayer in the synagogue. It was a great honor for me to hear them singing and watch their emotional response to this place – this was one of the most touching moments – I cannot even describe what I felt.

How has volunteering here affected you?
It opens new horizons and perspectives for me. It has changed my personality and I learn so much about myself. I still have half a year as a volunteer, so I cannot summarize the entire experience yet. 

What is one thing you’d like others to know about the AJC or think people don’t know? 
The most important point for me is the other view about “Auschwitz.” Yes: Auschwitz is also a town, a city with a big rich Jewish past! Now for me this reality is normal, but before coming here even I did not know about this Jewish history – and that is actually the same situation of most of our visitors. I also like to tell the personal stories, which visitors remember the best: for example, how Marta Świderska, a Christian, saved the picture of herself with her best friend Olga Pressler, who was Jewish. These stories draw a picture in people’s heads so that they understand the Jewish history of the town better. These stories are touching so that people understand how important it is to prevent a second Holocaust.

Alumni Profile: Andrea Howard, 2014 ASAP Alum

What inspired you to apply to the American Services Academies Program? 
During the summer of 2013, I visited the children’s memorial at Yad Vashem during a Birthright trip to Israel. Standing among the stars in the memorial, I had my first memorable experience with the magnitude of the Holocaust’s devastation. However, I felt that until I traveled to Poland, I would not be able to fully comprehend the reality of the camps, gas chambers, and mobile extermination sites, despite the plethora of history books and pictures available. Furthermore, I find Holocaust studies particularly pertinent to military members, especially given the Holocaust’s relative modernity and high military involvement. While the public may utter the words “Never Again,” the responsibility for upholding this promise ultimately falls to people in uniform with the power to back it.

How did the ASAP impact you after you completed the program? 
The ASAP made me much more attuned to and intolerant towards discrimination. As a Jewish American and an Arabic speaker, I find myself increasingly defensive of Muslims in our country and around the world, who unfairly and incessantly face accusatory rhetoric. As a military member, I have taken the pledge to advocate for and educate others about equal rights for same-sex couples. Because the ASAP revealed the diversity of the victims attacked during the Holocaust, I began to see dissimilarities between people as insignificant; everyone should have the right to live freely. I noticed that each case of genocide since the Holocaust escalated from an aversion to diversity. Since ASAP, I have included my firsthand stories while coordinating the Naval Academy’s freshmen training at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And I have utilized the experience as a framework for reflection during military training, especially as a plebe summer detailer the month after ASAP concluded.

You were recently awarded the highly competitive Marshall Scholarship. Congratulations! Please tell us a bit about the scholarship and what you’ll do with it?
The Marshall Scholarship is a two-year scholarship that aims to provide future leaders of America the opportunity to study in the UK, to help scholars gain an understanding and appreciation of contemporary Britain, and to motivate scholars to act as ambassadors throughout their lives thus strengthening British-American understanding. Approximately 40 Marshall Scholars are selected each year. I intend to pursue a Master’s in Science & Security from King’s College London during my first year, with a focus on nonproliferation studies and their relevance to the Navy submarine community. My second year is yet to be determined.

What are your future aspirations, and how will your international educational experience affect them? 
In May, I will receive my commission as an Ensign in the United States Navy. After graduate school, I will attend Navy Nuclear Power School in Charleston, South Carolina, and then I hope to serve aboard a Virginia class fast-attack submarine. I hope to become one of the first women to command a submarine. During my tours on shore, I want to apply my international educational experience by drafting U.S. policy on international nonproliferation and by serving as a military adviser to some of the top-echelons of U.S. executive decision-makers.

Andrea Howard, of Norcross, Georgia, will graduate from the United States Naval Academy in May 2015 and commission as one of the first one hundred women in the United States Navy’s submarine force. At the Naval Academy, Andrea is a double major in Political Science and Arabic. She serves as the Corps Commander of the 115-member Drum & Bugle Corps, sings alto in the Gospel Choir, and coordinates freshmen training at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Andrea spent a semester in Oman studying Arabic and Arabian Gulf food security strategies, completing independent research as the Naval Academy’s second Trident Scholar from the Humanities Division in the past decade.

The Tatar mosque in Navahrudak

Holly Robertson Huffnagle, 2012 AJC Fellow 

The Tatar mosque in Navahrudak (Polish: Nowogródek), present-day Belarus, was originally built in 1855. In 1993, the building was renovated and re-established as a mosque by imam Ali Szegidewicz. Photo by Holly R. Huffnagle. 

Before the Holocaust, Jews and Muslims lived in close proximity in the kresy (borderlands) of northeastern Poland. While an abundance of literature exists on Jewish-Christian relations in Poland, no scholarly comparison of the history of coexistence specifically between Jews and Muslims in this territory had been done. I chose to pursue this research, documenting (for the first time) the intimate living situation of these two Abrahamic faith minorities in interwar Poland. In a handful of small villages and even larger towns, they traded together on the market square, Muslims bought their meat from the local Jewish shochet (kosher slaughter), the Jews received fresh vegetables from their Muslim neighbors, and they even celebrated certain religious holidays together. These stories complicate previous arguments of self-imposed minority separateness, which argue that social interactions between Jews and non-Jews were uniformly minimal and superficial.

The ideas for this project initially occurred to me during the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program in 2012. Being a Fellow provided me not only with the necessary background knowledge of Jewish history in Poland, but also with Polish connections who helped facilitate my trip to Warsaw and Białystok to conduct archival research in the summer of 2013. I credit my experience as an AJC Fellow to the successful publication of this project into an article: Peaceful Coexistence?: Jewish and Muslim Neighbors on the Eve of the Holocaust, published by East European Jewish Affairs in January 2015.

Holly Robertson Huffnagle works as an analyst for the U.S. Department of State in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She is also a researcher for the Mandel Center of Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She received her Masters from Georgetown University in Global, International, and Comparative history focusing on 20th century Poland and Christian-Jewish-Muslim relations before, during, and after the Holocaust.

The Art at Auschwitz

Franziska A. Karpinski, 2014 AJC Fellow 

On the third day of in-depth study visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was not annihilation we learned about, but the opposite: courageous acts of resistance by prisoners of Auschwitz. The resistance we studied was not armed; it was not violent or public. Rather, but no less impressive and powerful, it was a silent resistance aimed at documenting the crimes committed and re-establishing the victims´ humanity and dignity. We visited the art gallery of the memorial, which exhibits works of art produced by inmates both during the operation of Auschwitz and after liberation.

Auschwitz-Birkenau represents the utter and complete destruction of human beings: more than 1.1 million men, women, and children from all over Europe were brutally murdered at Auschwitz. It is one of the most haunting symbols of the Holocaust and the deeply immoral ideology that created it. Today, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is one of the largest memorial sites in the world. The vastness of the geographical space on which Auschwitz-Birkenau was built is staggering: an entire space the size of a small city built solely for the purpose mass murder. The crimes perpetrated there were so horrendous, the sense of destruction and despair so all encompassing, it is hard to cope when walking through the site. It is easy to forget that prisoners resisted in various ways.

The artwork produced by inmates during the camp’s existence was produced illegally, which means that those who painted and drew did so with materials that they were not allowed to possess. Pencils, watercolor, ink and feather, coal and other drawing materials used were possessed illegally, under the threat of torture and death. Some were smuggled from SS work stations, where artists created commissioned work for the SS. Other prisoners used whatever materials they could get their hands on to produce their art: small paper scraps, baking paper, the backs of old letters. It is an impressive accomplishment to have created art in such perilous circumstances and amidst everyday destruction.

Art historian Anna Sieradzka, whom we were introduced to that day, led us into one of the blocks on the former campgrounds. We walked down a long corridor and finally entered a large, rectangular room with red floor tiles and whitewashed walls. The air was crisp and cold, a stark contrast to the intense July summer heat that was prevalent outside. As if the difference in temperature signaled the entry into another world, we stepped into room that featured countless art works - paintings, drawings and artifacts. It was a place of creation and construction, not destruction. There, she asked us to describe the paintings and artifacts we saw, attaching as many adjectives and associations to them as we could. We were the only people there, which enabled us to fully concentrate on the art displayed without interruption and many possibilities for deep contemplation, thought, and exchange amongst us.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a place where one would have expected the creation of anything, let alone art, to have happened. But it did. Artwork was made by the inmates – illegally and under constant threat of immediate death when discovered. And there they were: portraits of inmates, many of them produced by Franciszek Jaźwiecki, a Polish artist and political prisoner at Auschwitz. He made portraits of fellow prisoners, drawings – mostly pencil – on thin, now yellowed, paper. Every now and then, some blue, red, or yellow colors appear in the otherwise grey- and brown-colored drawings. The general lack of bright colors mirrors the desperate situation of the inmates portrayed, at least at first glance. Yet, these portraits do so much more: they are a manifestation of the restoration of dignity, of taking back the humanity that the Nazis cruelly robbed. They are also a means of working against forgetting, against becoming a nameless face among hundreds of thousands, marked with exhaustion and terror, with fear and despair, worn down by the horrendous conditions in Auschwitz, always threatened by death.

Upon arriving in Auschwitz, the deported were systematically deprived of their identity by having their hair shorn off, by being given the same worn-down striped uniforms and wooden shoes or no shoes at all, by having confiscated their personal belongings such as pictures of their loved ones, jewelry, clothes. In the camp, they were forced to do hard slave labor for the SS, they were starved, many times starved to death, defeated by disease, haunted by the horrors of the reality of Auschwitz. Instead of their names, they were assigned numbers, sewn onto their prisoner uniforms, and oftentimes, tattooed on their arms.

Indeed, one can see this process of dehumanization and degradation best exemplified in the official erkennungsdienstliche Photographien (German: fingerprinting and photographs) that the SS took of all new arrivals of prisoners. The photographs show the inmates in their uniforms, without hair, and their camp number in the picture frame; as such, these photographs present a symbol for the complete degradation the Nazis subjected their victims to. By being photographed by the SS, the prisoners were negated the status of a human being, of a feeling and thinking subject with agency, but were made objects at the whim of the Nazis. Last, the Nazis’ de-humanization campaign found its terrible and genocidal culmination in the systemized mass murder through gas and mass shootings. The dead were then further denied a proper burial without a name or a place to commemorate them, but where burnt and buried in anonymous mass graves.

The portraits made illegally by the Auschwitz inmates achieve the opposite of anonymity: They give back human dignity; they restore individual prisoner identity. On the portraits, the prisoner numbers are shown as well, but this time, enabling historians today to attach a name to the portraits. Anna Sieradzka told us that the desire amongst inmates to have an image of themselves was very strong, precisely because it was a means of re-gaining one’s identity. The portraits also document the forced transformation the victims at Auschwitz underwent. Their faces are strained and full of exhaustion and fear. Sieradzka told us that she finds the eyes in the portraits most remarkable – they fully mirror the despair and helplessness of the inmates. They also show a profound sadness and sorrow, which had the deepest impact on me, personally.

The portraits, as Sieradzka explained to us, served three purposes: One was to reinstate human dignity and identity among the prisoners. Second, many considered the acts of both drawing and being drawn as a means of mentally escaping the reality of Auschwitz. Finally, the portraits were made to document the Nazis’ crimes and to document those fallen victim to them. Sieradzka believes that Jaźwiecki made these portraits because he knew they would eventually become important historical documents. In the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, there are more than a hundred of Jaźwiecki’s portraits. During his internment in Auschwitz, Franciszek Jaźwiecki miraculously managed to hide his illegal work in his bed and clothes. He survived Auschwitz, but died soon after liberation, in 1946.

For me, one of the most memorable portraits was that of Mala Zimetbaum, a Polish Jewish woman, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 and died in 1944. Shortly before her death, she had attempted to escape from Auschwitz with her lover, Edward Galinski. They made it outside of the camp, but were ultimately found by a German patrol and brought back into the camp. Galinski was hanged, and Zimetbaum tried to kill herself, but accounts vary as to whether the SS ultimately killed her. Her portrait is stunning; it is one of the few that do not portray an inmate in prisoner’s uniform, but in formal clothes. She wears a blazer and a bright blue scarf around her neck. Her hair is not shorn off, but long and wavy, of a full brown color and done in a beautiful hair-do; it is the portrait of a beautiful woman. The expression on her face is one of strength, one of resourcefulness, maybe even the faint trace of a smile.

In addition to portraits, the gallery houses many paintings and drawings – often produced post-war – that depict camp conditions such as roll call, forced labor, and the camp orchestra, among other scenes. The pictures, made with different materials, by different painters, at different times, are illustrative of the horrors of Auschwitz: These forceful depictions of everyday life in the camp leave a deep impression on the observer. I remember that at about halfway through our workshop, the entire group went silent, scattered across the room, deeply affected by what was shown.

Another set of pictures includes works that prisoners were forced to make. It is little known that the SS commissioned imprisoned artists to create beautiful art, such as large oil paintings and drawings, mostly of landscapes, animals, and postcards with colorful flowers. The bright colors of these art works are in complete contrast to those made illegally. They cruelly contrast the reality of Auschwitz, where colors and an abundance of nature and life were purposefully eliminated.

The pictures before us on the wall were not only evidence of what happened in Auschwitz, they were a means of remembrance and commemoration of the subjects and artists. What is depicted through everyday life in Auschwitz is evidence of the crimes perpetrated. Who is depicted is a landmark against being forgotten. Together, they present an invaluable expression of the prisoners’ views and voices. The art made by prisoners in Auschwitz is a potent means of upholding human dignity. It is also a testimony to admirable courage and fighting spirit in the face of tragedy.

Franziska A. Karpinski is a PhD student in Modern History at Loughborough University, UK. The title of her thesis is “In Defense of Honor and Masculinity–In-Group Pressure, Violence, and Self-Destruction in the Third Reich´s Elite, 1933-1945.” She has a BA in American Studies and Modern European History from the Free University Berlin (2011), and a Master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from the University of Amsterdam (2012, cum laude). She has spoken at multiple conferences, attended seminars around the world, and co-authored an article titled “Sexual Violence in the Nazi Genocide: Gender, Law, and Ideology”.

A Turn to Narrative

Cheryl Chaffin, 2014 AJC Fellow

Italian chemist, writer, and camp survivor Primo Levi wrote in his “Self-Interview” in 1976, “I returned to Auschwitz in 1965...I didn’t feel anything much when I visited the central camp. The Polish government has transformed it into a kind of national monument.” What does it take to feel the past and to mourn at Auschwitz, I wonder as a visitor, a scholar, an Auschwitz Jewish Center fellow, and a human being horrified at the genocide that transpired here. What does it take to feel in this place and in response to this place and its history when Levi felt nothing upon his return to the camp twenty years after his imprisonment there? In asking this question, I have in a mind a turn to narrative, the definition of which I delineate here in a narrative of my visit to Auschwitz. My own entry into Auschwitz has been through narrative. The reason I had come to Auschwitz, even to Poland, was because of a passion for reading and teaching Levi’s two-part memoir, Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, of his ten months in the camp, in particular Buna-Monowitz, a labor sub-camp known also as Auschwitz III. His memories channeled into narrative motivated my desire to apply to the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program and to visit the sites about which he wrote, sites that had drastically influenced his life course, his thoughts, and his writing career. He had even admitted, bravely, I thought, that if he had not lived his Auschwitz experience, he probably would have never have written anything. So, it was Levi’s words and his need to write that emerged of his camp experience that I carried with me into Auschwitz, even as I visited a place that I understood has become a tourist site, a memorial drastically changed from the killing and labor camp it was from 1940-1945.

Given my own narrative pull to Poland, I want to explore here how a turn to narrative offers a way to navigate the camp space, both mental and physical. Over my three days at Auschwitz I experienced that the possibility that knowing, hearing, seeing, and imagining individual and community stories of those deported to the camp opens to the visitor space for grieving, feeling, and acknowledging the horror and loss implicit in a visit to these charnel grounds. Levi’s humanity as it emerged in his language and his writing over the years influenced me as a writer, thinker, and scholar to seek out other such narratives during my several day-visits to Auschwitz. In speaking of survival, Levi wrote that he felt his steadfast interest in the human spirit and his determination to “recognize in my companions and myself, men, not things.” So, too, narrative matters because it grounds the visitor in the experience of individual human beings whose memories as reflected in a written account, a sketch, or a photo—convey relationship with others, emotions of hope and fear, and the courage that documentation and reflection requires. Such narratives help visitors to connect to the tenacious continuity of human experience within the camp. Finally, the attuned visitor may discover several small stories, or the possibilities of such stories, in the documentation and artifacts (Levi called these artifacts “relics”) in the exhibits at Auschwitz.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is a state museum, funded predominantly by the Polish government. It was established in 1946 by former prisoners who wanted to create a memorial at the site. Gradually, the memorial developed into a museum. Under Communism the emphasis on memorialization was on those “martyred” in the Second World War, with less emphasis on the genocide of specifically Jewish prisoners. Since the early 1990s with Poland’s transition to democratic government, there has been exponential growth in the preservation of artifacts, including buildings, as well as in the scope of educational programs and global digital presence of the museum. At peak periods—from April to October—up to 15,000 people visit Auschwitz in a single day. Individuals must visit the camp in tours, between 10-3, with a specially trained guide so that they stay together, learn the history and see particular areas of the camp. Our guide was Paweł Sawicki, a journalist and writer with the Press Office for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum. Paweł noted that in visiting the camp “it is individuals who are a problem; people must take tours.” What this means is that individuals sometimes venture into areas not open to the public or under renovation. The emphasis on groups helps to deter individual exploration of Auschwitz. If individuals experience the camp only in groups, they have little space for their own experience of the place. This loss of individual experience constitutes the very reason that stories should constitute a core element shaping the contemporary visitor’s time there. However, due to sheer numbers of visitors, people must move quickly through exhibits housed in the former cellblocks of the Auschwitz I compound.

Keeping a steady pace through narrow hallways that open into crowded exhibit rooms, a summer crowd ahead and behind, the visitor may try to comprehend the enormity of atrocity and the total loss for individuals, particularly for Jewish people, as they arrived to the camp from transport trains. The effect of such absorption is stupefying. Cases of hair, shoes, glasses, prosthetics—extensions of one’s very self and one’s ability to function in the world—form decaying mountains of intimate things that never should have become relics of genocide.

Inherent to the museum’s visitation policy is the notion that how one conducts oneself is important to the maintenance of the place as memorial and one’s experience of it. This is a museum after all. Yet, some fellow visitors’ faces betray horror and disgust. A restless silence periodically befalls us. In the long narrow room with suitcases, hair, and children’s shoes there is a tangible atmosphere of disbelief—in confronting the space and its remains. Right here and now we visitors must confront the evidence that systematic cruelties happened and, how, if at all, we are to respond. Sighs puncture the space, small words between intimates, people who have known one another over time and who can, perhaps without misunderstanding, confess their horror to one another. The sighs seem to surge into one sustained out-breath of injury and mark a particular heaviness of repressed emotion in response to these artifacts.

In the exhibits of Auschwitz I there are placards, dates, numbers, statistics, reports of transports, and historical photos, particularly of a particular Hungarian transport in1944. But the visitor must glimpse these artifacts, rather than linger and invite a potentially emotional response to them. In this space, I sometimes stop to hear Paweł’s voice explain photos, documents, and artifacts. I search for relationships within photographs of transports. These isolated images move me. I gravitate toward particular moments, names, a face, toward evidence of life. A photo of a man, in prison clothes, seemingly well fed, and woman, newly arrived, talking, saying something urgently, some last words, some counsel for survival, an almost passionate moment on the train ramp. What could their relationship be? I may continue to read, imagine, and translate that photo for the remainder of my life.

A boy holding a woman’s hand—his mother?—surrounded by children and women hurrying along, apprehension, exhausted. Those photos will catalyze poems. I will return to them in search of vaporous specificities of personal histories never available to me, never narrated and remembered to anyone, but somehow shared with all of us. Facing those photos from 1944, what stood out to me were instances, vitally important, between people on the ramps as they were driven from trains and corralled and ordered into lines that led towards the gas chambers. I knew that I would later attempt to express those subtle yet vital interactions between people: moments of shared humanity, of fear and love, of existing together in myriad ways, clinging to one another in the face of grave uncertainty, subsumed with hope and desperation and aching need.

“We must be disciplined now,” Paweł tells our group, “in order to get through this tour and see certain things.” We are slow, dragging, lingering over documents and relics. He may lose us in the hallways. We will not have time to finish the tour. Disciplined, orderly. Is this how we visitors are to behave here in Auschwitz? Yes, there are lines, streams of people channeling through halls and stairways. Yet, even as we hurry and attend to our guide, we see so little of the camp. Past the shooting wall, through Block 11, in a line past cells—one of starvation, another of standing, into which four men bent and crawled and stood for days. I rub the Buddha charm at my neck. “How do you do this?” I ask Paweł who is just in front of me. He grimaces. “Do you get used to it? It’s your job.” He hardens himself. “Yes,” he says, always focused on moving us through. We enter the innards of a gas chamber for a minute. We move through. Perhaps moving through is a glimpse, a memory with intention to return to full life, an entry into and surfacing from the historicized grounds of genocide and murder.

Paweł later shares that at Auschwitz “the tour suppresses a need for internal narrative and also prevents emergence of such a narrative.” The museum’s aim, he explains, is not to encourage an emotional experience of the place but to impart historical knowledge of the camps. I resist the idea that one can or should suppress an internal narrative, but upon further reflection imagine the problems germane to a museum space of sobbing and shaking, overtly horrified, grief-stricken, enraged, or overwhelmed people. The priority is to recognize the place and the things within it that point to an historical understanding over and above an all-consuming emotional response to its energies.

At home with books and solitude, a quiet afternoon, a garden at the window, I listen. I turn to songs and voices, writing towards poetry, pleas for forgiveness, for life, full of grief and understanding. In these crucial texts of Auschwitz I return to, to grapple with what Father Manfred Deselaers at the Center for Dialogue and Prayer called the lifelong wound of Auschwitz. In dialogue with the fellow, Fr. Dr. Deselaers said, “The task is to try to understand and to take this wound seriously. It touches us and we think it has to do with us, but what?” Such a lifetime inquiry brings one into an ethical engagement with the place of Auschwitz and the words that remain among humans because of that place. Auschwitz began with the killing of relationship, says the Father. My turn then to narrative, both in visiting the camp and once home, reflects a deep desire to mend relationships across time, place, and event. One such text that nourishes that longing is Charlotte Delbo’s Auschwitz and After, written twenty years after her repatriation to France. She describes this no-place where she has landed from her native France, transported into some dislocated deep winterscape, “We arrived on a morning in January 1943. The doors of the cattle cars were pushed open, revealing the edge of an icy plain. It was a place from before geography. Where were we? We were to find out—later, at least two months hence; we, that is those of us who were still alive two months later—that this place was called Auschwitz. We couldn’t have given it a name.”

Seventy years later, its name has burned in our consciousness. Of our contemporary relationship with the camp, Paweł says, “We have only the place and words,” neither of which Delbo and her compatriots had upon their arrival. It is words that persist and flourish against the violence and against the forgetting of history. The modest, even minimal, remains of buildings, monuments, exhibits, and words structure humanity’s current relationship with the camp. For example, just 3-5% of all original documents and records in the camp remain. Most were destroyed, some were confiscated by camp liberators, the Russians. The loss of objects through war makes potent the gradual shift to narrative as a means of processing and feeling one’s visit to the camp. Such a shift indicates that this memorial-museum space has begun to relinquish a focus on historical facts and a lingering political ideological narrative (of Communist Poland) that speaks of martyrdom over the uniqueness of individual lives for more personal, narrative-driven guidance through the camp. Such a turn manifests in an exhibit at Birkenau of 2,400 photos found in suitcases and discovered after camp liberation in 1945. It is reflected, too, when in Birkenau on the second day of the tour, Paweł reads to fellows from testimonies he has carefully chosen to allow a feeling for camp conditions and how those who lived and survived here experienced the place. At the edge of a stand of birches, near the crumbling bricks of former gas chamber five he reads to us from Henryk Mandelbaum recounting of his experience as a Sonderkommando. Mandelbaum describes the process of killing within the gas chambers, the extraction of hundreds of bodies and the subsequent cremation of bodies. We are in Birkenau, the death camp, built to house more prisoners and to accommodate a growing number of gas chambers to kill them. Ironically, the vastness of Birkenau (“birch” in German), the spaces between structures and the paths through woods and along marshy waterways, allows more time to think and feel. In the former barracks, many of these buildings currently undergoing restoration, Paweł reads a woman prisoner’s careful logging of the disease, filth, and dying that developed in the female camp quarters.

These readings are somewhat new for our guide. He holds in his hands white sheets of paper of laser jet words. He wants us to hear firsthand accounts of the places we stand. He wants us to hear firsthand accounts of the places we stand. Paweł wonders if narrative accounts of the camp help us to understand events from both historical and personal perspectives. Does it add to our sense of the place and what transpired here? He seems tentative, alert to our responses. As I leave the camp, I contemplate what a turn to narrative implies for historians, curators, educators, and press officers at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum—those who preserve, present, and offer the memorial-museum and its space to those of us who visit. This turn constitutes a sort of risk. First it signifies that they make narratives essential to the visitor’s tour of the camps, so that narratives hold the rich potential to figure prominently in one’s post-visit recollections of the camps since they constitute a vital element in feeling and knowing the camps as they once were, not simply as historical markers of criminality and genocide, but as terrible and unforgettable spaces wherein people lived, loved, struggled, and died. It is life that must be honored, not en masse but as a unique and idiosyncratic expression of each individual. It matters that the guide feels the same way. That he believes reading a narrative memory is a way of remembering and feeling. It makes the guide, perhaps, as emotionally vulnerable, as human, as are his visitors. His turn to story validates all our stories in this place. This is not just an office, an everyday routine for him; it is a place of words and through him we listen.

Narratives mean that visitors need time and space to listen, to hear, and to respond quietly, as an interior process, to the experiences of others. The importance of visiting the camp resides in feeling the texture of life from the perspective of another human who experienced the camp. The connection to narrative facilitates a particular, yet enlarged, perspective of the camp as once inhabited by individuals. Delbo wrote in her memoir, Auschwitz and After, “Listening to their stories, I took the measure of the incommunicable.” It is the incommunicable that one may hear in Auschwitz. That listening happens in a space that fosters the ability to attend and feel narratives, both documented and silent, of former prisoners. Levi confessed he could feel nothing there, but because he gave me his story I felt something large and moving there, something with which to grapple for my entire life. So it is that narratives affirm our humanness in the exact place that sought to annihilate that humanity.

Cheryl Chaffin teaches English composition, literature, and rhetoric at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, California. She is director of the college’s Writing Center. She has an MFA in Writing from Goddard College where she focused on feminist literature of exile and immigration. Cheryl has published poetry as well as personal and academic essays. She recently received her PhD in Humanities from Union Institute and University. Her dissertation project, “Speaking from Memory: Writing and Reading Women’s Political Memoirs,” concerns the role of memoir in directing public attention to injustice and towards activism for change. Specifically, she examines works written by women who have suffered severe limitations to freedom due to social, economic, political, and cultural situations. In 2014 she traveled to Poland as one of ten scholars with the Auschwitz Jewish Fellows Program. Her blog is Speaking from Memory.