Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Weather at Auschwitz


When my friend first moved here (to the North East) from the Bay Area (of California), he was wearing his warmest winter coat by mid-October. It was in the lower 30s (F) outside - just about freezing. We northerners were reveling in autumn, not yet acknowledging winter. Our coats and long underwear were still in storage. We wore warm, rugged vests over hoodies with thumb holes. He wore a big puffy ski jacket, with an insulated hood, and gloves. "If you're wearing that now," we said, "what will you do when it gets really cold?"

"It gets colder than this?" he said, and we laughed. He said, "Well, at a certain point, isn't cold just cold? I mean, it's already below freezing. What difference can another ten or fifteen degrees make?"

That winter I had three cavities in my front teeth, and no dental insurance. I knew with especially clarity that cold is not just cold. At 20 degrees above zero, puddles freeze and it snows. You shiver. Your nose runs, and your toes turn red. You play in the snow. At 20 degrees below zero, your breath freezes. Snow flakes are so small and hard that they can cut your face. Your eyes tear, and your skin cracks. Breathing makes your jaw ache, even if you don't have cavities. Even smokers don't go outside without mittens. There's cold, and then, there's cold.

And then there's hot. Years ago I traveled with my (then) partner to be with his dying father in Dallas. It was August. Before we left my partner warned me, "You're gonna hate it. It's gonna be really hot there." I shrugged, unwilling to seem less than perfectly supportive by admitting that the trip might be hard for me. Later I asked a friend, who also used to live in Dallas, "At a certain point, isn't hot just hot? I mean, once it's a hundred degrees out, how much worse can 110 be?" She rolled her eyes. "Oh no, trust me. It's hot."

And I learned about hot. When it's a hundred degrees, it's, you know, hot. At 100 degrees, you see heat ripples on the highway. Your shirts get sweaty in the armpits and around the collar. You don't want to wear layers, even if you're trans, but you do anyway because it's Dallas, and it's less dangerous to look like a boy than like a babydyke. When you go outdoors to have a smoke, you stick to the shade. When it's 110, or 120, you see heat ripples on each other. You shirts get sweaty everywhere. You still don't want to wear layers, and you still do, because it's still Dallas, and your binder gives you heat blisters that bleed and scab to your undershirt. When you go outside to smoke, the shit you inhale is not noticably warmer than the air, but it is noticeably drier. There's hot, and then, ...

I bring all this up because of a letter I got yesterday from a friend who's studying abroad in Europe. Her Spring break took her to Poland, and a tour of several concentration camps with their associated memorial exhibits. She wrote this post describing, among other things, that Auschwitz did not make her cry. This worries her.

There's hot, and then, there's hot, but there's only so much the body can do to cool itself. At a certain point, hotter is still hotter, but there's just nothing more the body can do to cope with the heat. At 110 degrees, your body is pulling out all the stops. At 120, it can't respond proportionately.

There's tragedy, and then, there's tragedy. When a friend or relative dies, you feel sad, and you feel guilty, and you feel overwhelmed. Maybe you feel as if the world might end. Maybe you cry. When two people die, I guess it's twice as tragic, but do you really feel twice as sad, guilty, overwhelmed? Do you cry twice as long? What about ten people? What about a million? What about a third of the world Jewish population, and more than half of the European Jewish population, in a period of a handful of years? Can you cry six million times as long? Twelve million?

There is no possibilty of proportionate emotional response to a tragedy on the scale of the Nazi Holocaust. We were born, this friend and I, some 35-40 years after the end of the war, and our generation is still grieving. I suspect we will grieve for a while yet.

My friend quotes the philosopher Adorno, who said "There is no poetry after Auschwitz."

I made a paragraph break because I think that needs a minute to sink in. I first read it last week, and I am still swimming in its implications.

Take another minute if you need to.

I'm going to go out on a very long, slender limb here. I want to say that there is another side to Adorno's coin, which is, after Auschwitz, there is only poetry.

Our bodies are not physically capable of expressing the degree of mourning that the Holocaust requires. We can't cry enough. We can't rage enough. And not only can't we express it - we can't even feel it. If we were to feel the extremity of emotion that we think we should feel about Auschwitz, we would literally die of sadness. Some people do.

And so, what is there but poetry? When hard facts don't do justice to the enormity of a tragedy, maybe metaphors come close. This seems especially appropriate for us as young Jews, now two or more generations removed from the Holocaust. We weren't even there, so it's no use to say what happened - that's not exactly the point, or it's not the only point, for us. So why not turn to poetry, or to any art of creative expression, where the point doesn't have to be the point anyway?

These thoughts are rough and unfinished, but I will trust my forgiving readers and post it anyway. FYI, this is only part of my reponse to my friend's original post. More of it can be found in my comments there.

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