Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Mountains of Shoes: how to approach the unfathomable

My parents love to travel, and have been to Europe more than several times. When my mom heard that one of her high school friends had moved to Munich, Germany, where her husband had been transferred, it seemed like the perfect excuse to take my sisters and I on a tour of Europe, and visit Martha while we there. We stayed in Paris, Venice, Lucerne, and finally Munich.

I was about twelve at the time, and so had a general knowledge of Nazi Germany, and like Barry had read a few novels, like Number the Stars, that told the stories of survivors of the Holocaust. I always tried to appreciate the enormity and atrociousness of the concept of the Final Solution, but nothing could have prepared me for facing the Holocaust as a reality.
On our third day in Munich, my family and I visited Dachau. It was the first concentration camp built in Germany, and served as a model for camps that followed. As you stepped through the iron gates into the dusty, deserted camp, the emotion of the site was actually tangible. The blocked medical building, the rows of brown barracks, the towering bricked chimneys—it was all so very real. The officers’ quarters had been turned into a gallery of photos, mostly taken by the Americans and British soldiers when they liberated the camp. It was an attempt to document the atrocities of the death camps in order to display the faces of the murderers and victims to the world in a way that would be impossible to deny the reality of the events. I can clearly remember stepping into a large, empty beige-colored room. On the far wall, one large picture was displayed—it was a mountain of shoes, with a small caption underneath: When the prisoners, who were brought to the camp to be gassed immediately, exited the train, they were instructed to put their shoes in this pile. Shoes…representing hundreds of thousands of innocent souls extinguished. There were very few photos of the faces of the survivors; whether out of respect of these suffering victims, or that the images the cameramen witnessed were simply too graphic to record, I’m not sure. The barracks and crematorium were left as is, and open to the public.

Even now attempting to relate the experience to you, I feel as inadequate and mundane as Spiegelman, “no matter what I accomplish, it doesn’t seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz”(44). How can the horror and the helplessness of these people possibly communicated in a way that does justice to the vulgarity of the concept of exterminating millions of innocent people for what they believed in? Spiegelman’s choice to tackle the topic in comic-form seems to be genius. You cannot have comedy without tragedy, or tragedy without comedy—he relates the details so bluntly, but in the context of an animal world, it’s brilliant. His father’s account of his time in Auschwitz as a matter-of-fact, while he walks around the area near his condo in the Catskills. Spiegelman’s vulnerability when he relates his difficulty in approaching the subject, and sorting out his emotions (“should we feel guilty? Are my struggles unimportant?” etc…)

The social aspect of recognizing a face as a point of connection between two people is absolutely evident here. Vladek is simultaneously a miserly, anxious, sickly old man, as he is a brave, resourceful and honorable Holocaust survivor. Characterizing him as a mouse allows Spiegelman to communicate that on a different, less-familiar plain, and establish a connection with a story that touches on the impossible (a world of mice and cats) since the reality of the Holocaust often seems so unfathomable to the point of being impossible. Visiting the camp drove that point home for me. Seeing the buildings, the faces, the shoes…

No comments: