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Uncomfortably Numb

What happens when you go to Auschwitz and feel… nothing?

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Shayna Markowitz has a problem. She’s on a high school Holocaust tour and Rabbi Amy is leading a talk session she calls “Where You’re At,” in which the kids can express their feelings about what they’ve been seeing and experiencing in a “supportive, non-judgmental space.” It’s the day before they visit Auschwitz. “What if we go, and I don’t feel emotional enough?” Shayna asks. “Like, what if it’s, like ‘Da-da-daa, Auschwitz, whatever’?”

The question, of course, does not get answered. Rabbi Amy and the rest of the group give Shayna the slip and opt instead to comfort Darcey Feingold, who is crying because she is already, sitting at the hotel the night before the visit, so overwhelmed.

Shayna is a character in Elisa Albert‘s debut story collection, How This Night is Different, a slender book populated by young American-Jewish women searching for meaning, connection, and solace in—or, more frequently, in spite of—their families and heritage. It’s an exceptional collection, but Shayna’s story, “The Living,” struck the deepest chord with me.

I remember feeling something similar to Shayna when my 9th grade class took a trip to Washington D.C. Shoe-horned in among stops at the Museum of Natural History, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Georgetown Mall, was a visit to the Holocaust Museum. I believe that item on the itinerary may have been the reason my parents sent me. The problem was that I had no interest.

We had a Holocaust Museum in South Florida and I’d already been to it. We were taught about the Holocaust in Hebrew school. We had Holocaust Awareness Month every year in my public school: our earnest teachers would screen Schindler’s List and assign us one of the many “Holocaust classics” (never discussed was the barbaric paradox inherent in such a term).

I had overdosed on it, become numb. The ubiquitous yellow star had all the meaning of a corporate logo. Standing in line outside the Museum in the freezing cold I knew I couldn’t go in and perform rote rituals of sadness and despair. If I had to hear that poem about never seeing another butterfly, I was going to lose it.

I opted, instead, to visit the U.S. mint. I went with one chaperone and three or four kids whose parents had requested that their children not visit the Holocaust Museum. “Ooh,” we said, admiring the stacks and stacks of bills.

Much is made of Hannah Arendt’s concept of the Banality of Evil—in which a normally unthinkable action, such as genocide, becomes normalized by the variety of mundane tasks required to sustain it. To my mind, the problem these days is something more akin to the Evil of Banality: what happens when an event singular and hallowed and terrible, like the Holocaust, becomes such a common reference point that its awful truth is diluted. The thundering call of “Never Forget” is reduced to a nagging mother: “Never forget… your sweater.” Never forget—your Holocaust. It’s yours, take it with you. Keep it in your backpack because you might need it later.

Of course Shayna Markowitz lacks the critical vocabulary to articulate most of what I’ve said (leave that to Amanda, the hyper-intellectual college student who narrates “We Have Trespassed”), but the ruthless honesty and insight of Albert’s prose forced me to think beyond the boxes in which her characters are often trapped. How This Night is Different is a daring book, and I can’t wait to read whatever comes next.

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Uncomfortably Numb

What happens when you go to Auschwitz and feel… nothing?

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