The question is supposed to be: what do I want to write about? But that’s too easy. I knew the answer as soon as I heard the assignment. I am Jewish. I have brown hair and brown eyes. I am not the Nazi ideal, and if I had lived during that time I am very well aware of what my fate would’ve been. These are all things that weigh on me, that come up in small little ways from day to day in my life: when someone makes a Jewish joke, when a Volkswagen rumbles down the street beside me… when I introduce myself to some who is from Germany. There is and always will be that voice in my head that thinks, “Did your ancestors slaughter mine?” “Did a car like that transport a general to a concentration camp where he ordered the death of one of my distant relatives?” And so my subject is broad and easy: I want to examine the lives of people in concentration camps, on my own terms, in my own words. I’ve taken classes on the Holocaust before, learned about the mentality of Nazi Germany, the atrocities in the camps. I can recite the series of laws that made it possible for the Nazis to round up and slaughter the Jews. But I have never had the chance to delve inside that connection between this past event and myself in order to understand why I feel so linked to the deaths of millions of strangers before me. I am not religious, I have never undergone any traumatic event, and my grandparents and great grandparents escaped from Europe before the killing could begin; and yet the Holocaust has marked my thoughts and opinions, my very self.
Taking all of this into account, the real question becomes apparent: Why do I want to write about this? Are my reasons justified, worthy of the event that my writing (if I am successful) will portray with such unblinking honesty? My explorations into these places, these people’s lives, will not be for any benefit other than my own. The Holocaust is over; its survivors are dying and leaving behind children who lead successful, if affected lives. Its perpetrators have mended their ways and sworn it will never happen again, and anti-Semitism has almost disappeared, at least in America. There are hundreds of detailed accounts of what happened in the camps, entire museums dedicated to the subject alone. So I will not be shedding light on some hidden hardship; I will be trampling around in an area that has already been well explored by many before me, people with much more expertise in the subject and skill at dissecting information for facts. My only claim to this idea is that I am Jewish; that I can’t wrap my head around the idea that millions of people were put to death for believing in something different, and so need to find a way to come to terms with it. Is this enough? Is this enough of a reason for me to go back and awaken the suffering of those who rest in the mass graves of Europe?
Another question is of my clear-sightedness. Typing “concentration camp” into Google images yields hundreds of pictures of human beings lying white and surely cold, their bones making tents of their sunken skins. Will I be able to defeat the lure of the atrocious when trying to accurately depict the lives of camp residents? Will I be able to portray them as individuals, not defined by their involvement in the Holocaust? This is my goal, and the only way to find out if I can do it is by trying. I will have to capture that delicate balance of horror and humanity that made up life in the camps. I will need to incorporate the pasts of my subjects, their previous hopes and dreams, the small details of their lives that make them who they are. And I will have to break the bounds of grammar in order to do this: It may prove a task too trying to capture the mash of impressions and experiences that comes from life in the camps within the bounds of grammar.