The winning genre for this week’s Wordy Wednesday is Memoir, so I hope you don’t mind that the piece I’ve chosen is more of a personal essay than anything else. My English class this semester is Holocaust-themed, and a little while back my professor had us write reaction essays about how the course was affecting us, and I think it’s an important topic to talk about–the Holocaust–so here we are.
Our life is fragile. Breathe on it, examine it, try to reach out and touch it, to hold it close, and it could collapse. It could strangle us all.
Walking out of that first film, on that first Monday, there was the most beautiful sunset stretching right over the undergraduate library and the trees and sidewalks, lighting up the whole world with oranges and pinks, like sherbet ice cream melting over everything. Students walked by in groups, speaking loudly, cheerfully, with hands stuffed in jeans pockets and the first breath of fall reddening their cheeks.
Ivy on the buildings. Squirrels tramping through the grass. Summer-green leaves rustling, the sound coming from every direction, everywhere, gaining momentum until it turned from a whisper to a scream.
It is fragile, this life.
As I walked, it slipped from my fingers, through the holes. Our reality flickered, and I stumbled against a sidewalk crack, and all of a sudden the world was a dark, dark place. For once it was easier to focus on the darkness of the night sky than the stars within it.
Our life is fake. It’s a mirage; a scrim on a stage, with actors before it who think they’re in reality, but it’s only just reality TV. Watch it from a distance, and it is solid and impenetrable. Look at it from up close, and it is no less of a perception than the passing of time.
How can we separate ourselves from that? How can we look at the Holocaust as a solid It, an Event, rather than an Ongoing Memory? Because it is a memory, which means that it happened. It’s not just something that random people write about in text books, but something that is ongoing and constant—but fading now. It touches us. It reaches out from the past, wisps of smoke carrying like the scent of coffee coming from Espresso Royale on my walk home; reaching out from the past—out, out, out—until it grabs hold of us here in the present.
I cannot lose it. I cannot forget it, cannot block it off into another part of my mind. It is a constant; a swirling and a spreading that grabs hold of me, tangles itself in my hair and my lungs. I breathe it in, but I can’t breathe it out. It chokes me. It squeezes in on my chest until I swear I’m having an asthma attack, but the inhaler won’t do anything. Because it’s not in the past, for me. It’s in the present—this is when I’m learning it. This is when I’m experiencing it, and when it’s happening to me, and when I’m finally coming to realize the full scope and horror of what happened, if it’s even possible to realize that of the Holocaust.
That first Monday, after that first film, I sat at my desk, and stared at the picture frames fighting for space on the shelves, with their posed, traditional shots of my friends and me, fake smiles plastered on our faces with eyes somehow disconnected from our mouths, and I wondered how you could describe something like the Holocaust, when every single word that once could have has been used, like how horrific and senseless and horrible and impossible have all been watered down to make room for lesser events. Like:
I got a C on my math test today. It was horrific.
What a senseless waste of ice cream.
The weather yesterday was horrible.
Can you believe how impossible the end of The Dark Knight Rises was?
And it all means nothing. There is no way to describe this feeling welling up inside me, boiling to the surface until I could just scream—scream at the top of my lungs for all the world to hear that This. Is. Wrong. This is wrong, our forgetting; our betrayal.
I lay in bed that night with the darkness all around me in a swirl of black and grey, and I tried to justify it to myself, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I did.
It’s been a long time. No, it really hasn’t. Not in the long run.
They’d want us to move on. How can you prove that? They died, so how can you prove that?
Everybody dies eventually. Yes. And I’ve been crying for a year now over my cat. Why aren’t people still crying over this? Over people? Over people just like you and me, just like all of us, with hopes and dreams and fears and nightmares and beliefs, all just snuffed out—snuffed out like a candle, with only the barest drippings of wax reaching down to us outside? If I can cry for a year because my cat died, shouldn’t we cry for hundreds of years for these poor, stolen people?
How could they go through that horror? How could they go through that horror, and die in those horrific, unforgivable ways, and then have us we just assume that they’d want us to forget them and leave them in the past, because it’s the easier answer for those of us in the present? Who cares if it’s easier for us, when it was so hard and horrible and impossible for them?
They didn’t have a choice, so why should we? Why should we have the option whether to be sad or happy or living and breathing or laughing or crying and lying in the darkness of our dorm rooms, studying the ceiling and the pictures on the walls and the sounds of laughter coming from the courtyard at 2:00 in the morning? Why?
I want to reach back into the past and pull them away to safety; to reach my hand into those camps, and cup my palms around them, and protect them from those sights and sounds and smells and feelings against their fragile, delicate, beautiful skin. The impact of a bullet to a head. Oxygen being squeezed painfully from lungs, with pins and needles spreading across their chests.
Numb. I feel so much, I am numb, and unable to feel anything anymore, and I am in overload. Overdrive. Somebody please pull me away to safety, to my warm little cocoon of Upper Middle Class College Freshman in the United States. How dare I complain about anything—about my Spanish homework, and my allergies taking up residence in my nose and throat, and my homesickness; the pang in my chest whenever I eat peanut butter and can’t sneak a spoonful to my dog? How can I complain?
These are such miniscule problems, not even just in the grand scheme of everything, but in the smaller scheme that is my life. These are nothing, and I am nothing, and all those people were everything, are everything, are taking over my brain and my heart and my being until I am all full up of this, of them, and there’s no room left for anything else.
Our life is fragile. I can’t get beyond that, can’t work myself back into this tapestry we’ve woven. I’m a thread come lose, and I can’t find my way home again.
And it’s not even just, Where do I fit? but, How do we exist? After everything, how do we move, move around, onward and continuously into this time and future that still contains them, that still contains all of us, but we only remember what’s absolutely pertinent to ourselves? How are we so selfish? How are we so horrible, to choose to forget them when it could have been the other way around—It could have been us who had died, and them choosing whether or not to remember.
Fake, and fragile, and I am stuck in it. Breathe on this city, on these people, on this world, and we will crumble. We will fall over, roll to show our bellies and give up the hard fight in favor of what is easy.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Not until it was daylight again, and it was safe again, and the sun was too bright to look at, let alone stare at like we do the sunsets. It was not sherbet, it was not melting—instead of bathing the world in light, it burned away the darkness, and that was just enough for me to move forward with myself. It was just enough to step away from the scrim and look at it from the audience again, instead of as an actor on the stage. But it’s always there in the back of my mind, now; the truth. It’s always there, nudging away everything else and planting itself firmly in my conscious.
They died, and I am alive. They died, and I know them only through a memory.
My dreams are lighter now than they used to be, trying to counteract the darkness. But it’s nothing but sunset, descending now into night. It’s nothing but that last moment before the light winks out and the darkness swirls, and maybe we stop being able to choose, for just a moment, to forget. Maybe it imposes itself upon us, and maybe we think for an instant of other human beings—one moment of purity in that half-second before our eyes readjust to the change in light. That moment when we are blind, and newborn, and fresh to the world.
Maybe we do think of them, for that half-second. All of us. Enough people all thinking, in unison, to fill the void, to remember each and every one of their lives lost, even if we don’t know their names and stories and lives. Maybe it’s just enough to account for the darkness. To see the stars.
Fragile. This life, and us: we are all fragile. And for some reason we think ignoring that fact makes us strong, when in truth it just means we’re easier to blow over with the wind.
I am one of them. They are just like me. And for some twisted reason I’m the one who’s alive right now rather than the babies and grandchildren they were supposed to have.
I am alive, and they are dead, and I cannot forget. I cannot forget. I cannot forget.