The Swastika and the Snow
I walk to school most mornings. I enjoy this
pause at the beginning of my day in any season, but especially in winter.
One alabaster morning two winters ago, there were a few inches of powdery
white on the ground. I reached the last part of my walk, the lower sports
field behind the school, and saw it as a vast blank sheet of paper. I had
to draw on this paper. I walked into the middle of the field, and carved
squiggle designs with my feet. I finished my artwork and hiked, with a
smile, up the field to school.
At three o'clock I headed home. After crossing the gray and slushy parking lot behind the school, I confronted the path I know so well. I had not proceeded more than a few feet before I halted, almost involuntarily. The snow-covered field lay before me again, but this time marked with the etching of other people's boots. There, unmistakably branded in the whiteness, glared a Swastika. The winter bed that wore my whimsical loops and circles was now scarred with the emblem of the Third Reich. Enraged at this, I acted on my first impulse, erasing this symbol with my boots. I kicked at the powder, scattering it and and wiping it clean, reconsecrating the surface. I wanted to go home. I walked breathless and confused.
In his study of Nazi medical ideology, Robert Jay Lifton discusses a certain interview he conducted with a survivor of Auschwitz. The interviewee "looked about the comfortable room in his house with its beautiful view of Haifa, sighed deeply, and said 'this world is not this world." (Doctors 3) He was speaking of his struggle to believe the extermination of Jews actually happened, that something so cataclysmic could be wrought by the hands of humanity. It seems absurd for anyone who lives comfortably, that "a group of: people would round up all of the Jews in Europe and send them to a special place to kill them," as another Auschwitz survivor said. (4) This latter survivor spoke of an underlying danger in the world: the irrational violence and upheaval that can lurk behind appearances of rationality and serenity. Lifton explained that for many survivors, "after Auschwitz, the ordinary rhythms and appearances of life, however innocuous or pleasant, were far from the truth of human existence." (3)
In this world there are atrocities. Every day, millions of women suffer violence at the hands of their husbands. One could write forever of unspeakable hatred and oppression, and the ultimate potential atrocity of nuclear war. And even though, in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust we continue to utter "never again," there have been several cases of true genocide since the Second World War.
It is a challenge for each person to come to grips with masses of data regarding killing, suffering, and injustice. Institutions such as education seek to give people ways to deal with injustice and violence in a world where appearances deceive. But we know at once too much and too little. I stand naked and vulnerable, with no choice but to acknowledge evil, yet confused by the serenity of immediate surroundings as I write from the comfort of middle-class life of the United States.
School has taught me to analyze and to interpret, but occasionally I am so overwhelmed by an event so unspeakable that the machinery of my mind becomes clogged. Some ideas and disasters are so insane, so hateful and nihilistic that nothing I have been taught in school provides adequate tools to grapple with them. September Eleventh. A Swastika in the' snow. On such occasions, I am left with my own mind in the anarchy of the universe. School teaches us about concepts that can be understood, that can be summarized, presented and reproduced in a homework assignment; yet not all of the universe is so easily articulated. Though school is an excellent training ground of the mind, and though education is essential, neither can be substituted for experienced knowledge. School-based education is not enough; it is at best an inspiration for further learning and engagement.
In my twelve years of formal education I have never seriously studied the Holocaust, but I have learned about the nightmarish violence of the Holocaust through my own reading and inquiry. [t is a problem I struggle with in the visceral dimensions of life. I struggle with the sense of those missing branches of my family tree caused by the systematic extermination of the Jews.
The trauma of the Holocaust defies everyday comprehension. Genocide, as Lifton argues, is an apocalyptic mindset, a mentality that is nearly impossible to understand. "The problem that has no name" is indeed that. It can never be simply explained.
A line in Charlotte Delbo's poemn "Oh You Who Know" reads "Did you know that the stones of the road do not weep/that there is one word only for dread/one for anguish." (11) This poem gets at the core of how the Auschwitz experience can not be simply expressed in words. True knowledge and wisdom are gained through experience, through seeing the snow on the field, through hearing the sounds on the streets, through feeling all of this world each day. Wisdom is obtained by the messy, hands on, feet in, heart-pounding need to understand the horrible, as well as the beautiful. An event that overwhelms the mind and the ability to express our feelings verbally demands a response that is not limited to concepts. Every person must grapple fully with historical and societal trauma. Our remembrance of the Holocaust must be total, in order to confront the totality of the holocaust experience. Sometimes we need to encounter the Swastika in the snow, to weep over it, and to silently rub it out.
Delbo, Charlotte. Auschwitz and After.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
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