Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

To Conjure Up the Dead

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

To Conjure Up the Dead

Article excerpt

This way for the gas

"Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to imagine prisoners lined up on these streets for morning and evening roll calls," says our guide (blond, asymmetrical haircut, excellent English). I wonder if he's a student or if this is it for him, death camps all day. "Sometimes it took hours, even in coldest weather, and Polish winters can be quite cold, ladies and gentlemen. But SS officers had to get their ledgers right." I look over at my companion, but he is solemn and unavailable (headset over ears)."And now, ladies and gentlemen, follow me inside block 15 where we will see a complete map of camps and ghettos." My head pulsates with a dull but persistent pain, and his words merge with my internal pleas-if only this headache would go away, ladies and gentlemen. Then what? Would I be able to enjoy the experience?

"Ladies and gentlemen with video cameras, you are not allowed to film human hair and teeth." What about the cloth made from human hair? What about the artificial limbs and crutches? The enamel pots and pans? "You are allowed to take pictures of the shoes and the suitcases. Notice they give owners' names and places of origin. This one says Waisenkind; that's German for orphan." I take out my phone and snap a photo of a red shoe among a sea of dark, faded leather. It's a shiny sandal with a low heel-a party shoe. It reminds me of something I heard when I was little, that red shoes only belong on children and prostitutes. I didn't own red shoes for a long time, but the previous summer my companion gifted me a pair of cranberry sandals when he saw them catch my eye in a shop. Would I want someone to see my sandals like this? I delete the photo."Ladies and gentlemen, these are the cans of Zyklon В. They are empty now, of course." Safe behind glass.

We pause in front of the Death Wall, also known as the Black Wall. Its charcoal stands out against the red brick behind it, a wall connecting two prison blocks. One wall to protect another wall, from bullet holes and bloodstains. "This is where planned executions took place." And the unplanned? Today, there are flowers and little rocks tucked into the cracks between the stones. Unlike the Zyklon cans, this is a replica. "The original was destroyed," says our guide. While he speaks, I take off my headset and roll my neck to relieve tension. I don't want to attend to my body, but my headaches have bad timing and no sense of place. The pulsing continues as we approach the chamber (grass knolls, small grated windows, red-brick chimney).

This way for the gas, ladies and gentlemen.

Memory impaired

Before Birkenau, we break and I wait for the bathrooms, instinctively taking out my phone. But there are no missed calls from home and no new photos to scroll through. I can't escape the line, so I flip the zloty needed for payment between my fingers.

It's been suggested that taking a picture of an object hinders one's memory of it. We become less present, less observant of what's around us. We recall less. Linda Henkel calls this the "photo-taking-impairment effect." Can the process happen in reverse? I spent years thinking about the Holocaust. I carry with me images from countless photos, films, memoirs, novels, historical accounts. I know the historiographical debates and the representation debates and the memory debates. I taught a course called "Memory Spaces." I screened Night and Fog for my students. In two other courses we read Maus I and II. When standing by the "Arbeit macht frei" gate, I remember Spiegelman's drawing, the panel that dominates one of the last few pages of the first book, announcing his parents' arrival in the place they already associated with gas, ovens, death. They came by train, we came by tour buses.

When you study the history, read the poems, look at images of monuments and counter-monuments, you always feel that a piece is missing, that your knowledge is incomplete without contact with the artifact. …

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