Editor’s Note: I mentioned in my I Am The Brother of XX review writing a memoir piece about a visit to Auschwitz some years back; it was one of my rare forays into narrative prose, which have tended to be abortive because at that early date I unconsciously knew my writing to be a bit overwritten, and beholden to certain regrettable influences (here: Cormac McCarthy.) Nonetheless, I think it’s a useful thing to post for any one interested in “where I’m coming from” and what motivates me, and it’s all basically true, though I did massage some things at the time to make them seem retrospectively less insipid: for example, I seem to recall the IRL version of the epiphanic moment near the end of the piece also figured in Hitler, fascism, Ghandi, MLK, and my dad, but I deliberately excised the political aspect (because I never feel like any more than a derivative rambler-in-the-wind when it comes to political commentary) and instead focused the moment on the existential questions I had been struggling with for a time. The ending, needless to say, is cloying, myopic, and reductive, but I didn’t know how to express the truth and was constrained by a 10 page limit.
Walking Along Train Tracks
A Memoir by Abe Nemon
Walking along train tracks mid the agglutinated murk, I trace their greasy ties and slattern beams back to inscrutable origins as cloud-shadow gradations light down on the grass and my Tatti prays—silently—to himself at the horrible of horribles. The lime-wash lays siege to that knifewire redoubt, and still pinwheeling towards oblivion, watery memory muddles brown-gray my vision like too much whiskey. My brother walks ahead washed gray and formless under those black crosses coextending the infernal causeway like silhouette carcasses of antediluvians condemned.1
We entered this decrepit region like escapees from some extravagant and vulgar carnival, mocking relentlessly our little-Englished driver’s home over bottles of Coke and slices of Polish we pared off in that cramped unlit car as trucks blew past and the land desquamated before us like stale bread. Under surfeit luggage my brother and I sat abiding a certain crushed-mail sensibility, while riding shotgun, our rotund, bearded Tatti sucked straw-wise some juice of sanguine color and dubious origin.2 Pulling an all-nighter every night, we trekked from Kiev to the burial grounds of myriad sages and on to Uman, where we cast our sins astream amid a sea of black and white, stole out of stolen towels in mikvas, bathed in cold water crowned by thin gruel.3 Slipping checkpoints of badge-wearing highwaymen, we debouched unto some godforsaken Galitzian shanty village—our ancestral home, Tatti said—and, through our driver, conversed a host of head-wrapped babushkas and a wiry old farmer sponging off after a plow; none remembered our blood, an incriminating circumstance in Tatti’s eyes, and he cursed those peasants as we drove away. At 10 PM in Lvov, in the darkling streets lit by flickering neon, we made past handsome boys hocking the husks of cellphones, divey places with internet. At 3 AM: trapped in the car, trapped in a mile-long line as though fleeing some disaster. Borderguards blue-lighted passports wearing necrotic expressions. Blackness faded. Further on, the flat Euro-zone roads and orderly tree dibbles lent Poland a welcome mundanity. Dewshines overslept the shattered stelae while we haunted the cemetery of a war-surviving shul in Krakow, where our kind lay buried, before drifting inside, where gold-leafed walls gleamed like empyreal brass before the high, mantled aperture.4 I paged the prayer book mutely and stole ceilingward glances. High sun baked the car seats; the ride out was hot and sticky.
The engine sputtered after road signs were noted, car doors thrown. My unfurling legs felt like dry taffy, but we were there: Auschwitz-Birkenau, the perpetual shiva made flesh.5 Those fecund Yeshiva bochur voices were in my head declaiming, “Let us remember, once again, that the Nazis murdered a million Jews at Auschwitz”—each word profundified, all slow and loud—“and if you were alive back then, they would have done you too!”6 The t-shirted campers and shades- and shorts-clad tourists de-busing and applying sunscreen never conjured such odious characters in all their born existence. The gentiles mouthed throaty Greekisms on Sundays and knew bupkas about Rashi, and even supposing they cried themselves tearless by museum tour’s end, busloads more distraught than a hospital plague ward, groupwise they would leave little the wiser.7 The graveyard I thought far overrated as a generator of significant insight and feeling; once, by a holy man’s grave, I prayed him to save my soul, but with passing years through Yeshiva, the divorce, public school, and successive self-iterations my most insufferable qualities remained. Under that infamous Auschwitz entry I walked, the reveler of vain prospects.
The main camp of Aushwitz appeared benign enough, a boxy brick-and-mortar cluster resembling any number of characterless college campuses. The medical experimentation ward, execution wall, and the room-encompassing piles of tallesim, shoes, and gold fillings offered little education to me.8 Already the various cruelties of the Nazi project were well-known and exposure had numbed me. Neither scarred nor stimulated, I instead watched as our assorted gaggle moved from exhibit to exhibit and Tatti foregrounded himself into the not-unattractive tour guide’s presentation. Unfaltering, as though his beard and broad bearing gave him the right. The woman humored him in a professional manner but I sensed that inner demon ravenous. I whispered in my brother’s ear, consulted him on how best to manage the situation; he sighed. As we exited that macabre gallery the tour guide stopped us before a low-lying cinderblock building of no apparent significance. She explained this building to have been a gas chamber. That phrase quieted all assembled. I felt a weight descend behind my eyes, my neck prickle. The group entered in single-file; the interior was small and cold. Midway through, Tatti stopped. Leaned against the cinderblocks. He began to murmur some relevant passage, perhaps the Shema or a Psalm. My brother and I waited; the goyim stepped around us without comment.
Just outside, beside an unassuming block of concrete, the tour guide explained that here—upon this spot—innumerable prisoners of Auschwitz were executed. After Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviets, Rudolf Höss, the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz, was captured while living as a farmer under an assumed name. After being tried and convicted on war crimes charges, the concrete was poured and Höss hung on April 16, 1947. As the tour group advanced, Tatti lingered. He tilted back and hocked a wad—my eyes widened—and spat, right there, upon this concrete block, the death place of both Höss and his blameless victims. I couldn’t believe it. I flew into a rage, threw every expletive I could think of, attempting with words to balance out Tatti’s stunningly vulgar deed.
“Why did you do that?” He blinked at me as though nothing were more natural. “I hate you. You’re not my father.” He asked if I prefer to get left behind. “Go to hell.”
My brother told us both to please not make a scene. He seemed to hate nothing in this world more than somebody making a scene. “Would you both please calm down?”
I scowled all back to the car and in my seat as Tatti gave our driver directions to our next destination. I surveyed the denatured landscape through the window and consumed the car ride brooding on such matters as why why why did I get talked into this? and how did my life become such a drag? and of course why did you do that Tatti? When Tatti asked me to come to Ukraine, I was deeply skeptical he had changed much. Against my wariness he waged a persistent campaign of manipulation over the phone and when promoting the travel destination failed—Ukraine was an unappealing prospect even for me, an inexperienced traveler—Tatti resorted to emotional blackmail of the I’m-your-father, why-can’t you-come-and-see-me variety. My mother expressed valid concerns: leaving school for two weeks, my grades already abysmal, was unwise. “I don’t even like visiting him,” I told her. Yes, we agreed, tell him no. When I did, Tatti took personal affront. Tried to change my mind, twist my arm. He succeeded. I inhaled that thought.
The car groaned into a gravel lot. An intense quiet suffused the outlying camp of Auschwitz II. Within barbed wire fences loomed the lignified shanties where limpid bodies once retired after daylong laboring with grim purpose. Within these ramshackle assemblages remained the wood slats on which they slept, the squat holes for defecation: a pitiable existence. Astem this poisoned landscape, the disused railroad track—all rusted I-beams and calcified wood; the last stop of the hungry cattle-carred, with their dark eyesockets and malars jutting like wrapped plates—flexed past the parking lot through the rictus of a brick building of wide, vulturine span and absconded into the vast flatlands spreading southward in cereal strata and naked forests laid comblike unto the azure Carpathians thereon. Crickets chirped. The open air invited reverence; I felt weight returning to my body, the local spirits pressing into my thoughts with their pupils dilated and darting in all directions, their white hands interred in sallow shalloons. Grainy Area-51-style footage of walking skeletons, their bodies alien but their eyes still small, only now more focused, deprived of sentiment. Survivalist eyes.
My father snapped a photo of my brother as he sat between the tracks. My brother stood wearing a slightly embarrassed expression. Proceeding along the tracks I recalled an old photo, my father beardless but dark-eyed, his child face nicked and dour like an unfinished prop in the divine production. That face surprises me in ways I can’t reconcile. I wake up some mornings and see his prideful adult stare in the mirror and that gluttonous grin on my face. That hollow charisma to which I am alternately attracted and repulsed. Outside of his shadow, I affect his poses and insinuate myself into strangers’ conversations. My shoelaces and wristwatch and belt buckle brace my façade of civilization, but when people look me in the eyes I am ashamed at my own vanity and I look away. Yet thinking of that photo I realize that I know this boy. We are both searching for something, only we can never find it. We’re too normal to be strange and too strange to be normal: he, a walking temper that doesn’t drink, and me, a slacker who never did drugs. We drift unwhole, our very existence impious, mutual blights upon a shining city, hurled headstrong flailing from a funereal sky.9
All those people died, and yet we—of all people—were doomed to live.
The wind unsettles the grass, fumigates an alkaline flavor. The track ceases.
A concrete altar vaults skyward before the stand of trees. Tatti’s jaw opens. A few paces overtop the platform, we reach a rapid abruption. Below: an earthly contusion, broken bricks and concrete slabs, all that remains of that wretched place where they burned the bodies. Wrought wires wilt dismally in the cracks like dying tendrils, the bricks disintegrating like sunken villages drowned by Aetna’s ash.10 The ruins fold in upon themselves as though purgation itself were ruptured, right there, where rebel angels were slammed through the firmament after extravasating Evil unto innocent earth like giddy cherubs over a gothic pool. Not since Gehennom’s pyrolators to Kronos made offerings had fire so consumed.11 This I absorb with strange indifference, feeling fuzzy as the vomit-green moss. Tatti’s chest rises meanwhile and falls, hands at his sides, the actuality of the crematorium freezing him in that one unchanging position. Is his devastation genuine, I wonder, or does his piety merely offer gods what they like? For uncountable minutes he stands reposed. “Ta,” my brother says, “I’m going back to the car.” Tatti does not reply, always one to linger, to not move on until he has integrated what he deems the full significance of his study. I am disgusted, watching him fixate; the whole spectacle begs cosmic revulsion. The very ground aches to swallow us: we vain consecrators, we graveyard chattel. I walk away.
My mind abroach decants crude thoughts, the torrents rushing forth as from a ruptured dam to crash merciless wherever by vengeful gods so strewn. The ballast scrapes rude underfoot as I peter along, canting sideways all dogsick and faltering. The wan groves sparsely afforest the denuded plains before me, so cold here the unmolested wind does stab amid all the hissing. What insectile army produces that uniform drone? That howl from the great beyond; its volume immeasurable. Why fixate on it? Why not transcend the dolorous past and forget the faces disappeared—the abbreviated lives remembered? Why dig up their emaciated bodies? Why keep going back to those apartment stairs as boxes flowed into a rental truck bound for Michigan as though somehow, at that critical juncture, my life could have been different. No, I think to myself, let sink into some inaccessible pocket of memory that night he burst into the car and growled, “You’re an animal!” and asked, “When are you going to stop being such a bahema?” After all, am I a bahema? Do I devour thee, world? I feel devoured myself, as though failing a test composed of infinite questions. I feel stupid ruminating about my failures at this school and that one, living with strangers and hating them, hating myself for ever thinking I was special, for thinking I was owed anything while the real Abe lay feverbound in a hotel bed moaning, “She’s naggomin back! She’s naggomin back!” mewling pathetically as if to forestall that abandonment that long seemed inevitable, from the day I was left at a highway rest-stop to that time I bawled my eyes out on a Brooklyn sidewalk in the pouring rain.
I choked. My body shook. Unbearable weight fell on me and I fell into nothing.
And there I floated, in a vacuum—no anger or sadness, no expectation or regrets—naught but peaceable darkness. Somewhere far gone I still walked, my legs still moved, but I was imagining all that—the writer typing fake significances into the void, lines of frivolous dialogue for my shadow puppets to read and get all flustered about—except now I knew that wasn’t true, or probably not anyway. Truth: I grabbed at that corporeal ledge. Its rough lip cut down to my fingertips, yet my grip was true. I pushed upward drawing on heretofore unknown reserves of strength until heaving myself overtop that great edifice I lay spent upon an unnamable summit.
Breathing heavily I opened my eyes, slow and cautious, a disembodied soul arrived at an unnatural realm. The torpor was subsided, the grounds of Auschwitz flattened and shed of their milky shroud. The trees swayed silently. Serene redness escaped the clouds, canopying the Scythian wealds with a caloric glimmer so lustrous as to drench that thousand-year crust ringing the orbits of my eyes. Washed clean that singular moment of my vices and vanities, I witnessed the world with understanding and awe. Neither fate’s refuge nor fate itself entranced me now; false providence had seduced me since childhood, the fount of heaven replaced in adolescence by that of mind.12 The mind is its own place, wrote Milton, and I’d taken this nostrum to its logical conclusion: if the mind was a place, I could go there.13 Shuck off these mortal coils and live another life.14 I near reached the event horizon of self-possession, convinced my imaginative powers could will trouble away. Like many unhappy with themselves I imagined I was somebody else, but like my father before me I did not change.
The future slipped past. Apathy reigned. Was I powerless, or just blind?
How could I live? I did not know. A hellish heaven or heavenly hell would not suffice, for I sought truth within and beyond my own mind; the mind is its own place, but it occurred to me that the distance between dendrites is also a place. In a realm long slighted by imposters, witch-kings holding sway with card-tricks and tall tales, I saw painted across the gilded canopy that roofs this palace a ballroom of dancing galaxies and dual stars the sages never knew, the fusing atoms belighting each star, the restless turning and churning which breathes Autumn’s being. I knew then my exodus would require something novel, an acceptance of the alien and a rejection of the little green Man, a will to romance the unromantic; to taste in life’s saline acreage the cool sweetness of strawberries and honeysuckle stems; to soak in the rainy days and glory those ineluctable gases and nitrogen-fixing, life-sustaining fungi enfolded in grasshairs’ ends alongside the glassy teardrops on leaves; to witness in muted skies waxen colors bleeding into each other like a wine-stained map or forehead, creased with zephyrs, as wondrous and computroniate as the swirling cauldron of thought within some hopeful, hopeless—romantic—teenage mind.15 To ever after understand that the universe neither hates nor loves me but rather just does its thing, and to live happily, finding sustainable ways of doing mine.
But what was my thing, my quest, the navel of my world?16 I’d have to search for it.
I could start with the Holocaust, its ruin being a prompter of these thoughts. What did I owe to this tragedy and its victims? If the imperative of six million dead was to mouth toothless platitudes about never forgetting, then I had already failed. Why did the Holocaust happen? Could I form a coherent worldview diametrically opposed to this and like outcomes? What shape would it take? What principle or principles would it rest upon? I had only begun to ask these and other questions when I arrived at the car where my brother and our driver sat, waiting quietly. I slid backseat next to my brother as he softly hummed some niggun, staring into the ether, appearing like one of Joseph’s brethren, rough bearded with thick locks of brown hair.17 The driver sat yawning in the driver seat, reading a magazine, picking his red beard.
I saw Tatti far off approaching; he had returned to us from that pit of fire wearing glumness all over him. I reckoned myself unfair in judging him. Are his feelings shallow? He came by them, I decided, sincerely. Maybe he too walked the tracks, thinking strange thoughts, destination uncertain. It dawned upon me then that the universe is not only full of places but full of stories too, stories taking place in those places, meanings constructed by the living from dead atoms and energies, the earthly blessings nature bestows whether recognized or not. As the car door closes and our trip nears its end, I am in wonderment at how—even in this land stalked by death and famine, where shells lie inert in crusting pits and half-filled ravines, on worn mounds where barbarian gold cold rests among the earth and bones—even here, still the starlings call and mosquitos squeal and marmots race from burrow to burrow under the bristly tree-borne homes of perambulating bees and the crops still grow higher than the farmwire as my eyes feast upon the harvest of ages and follow the sun-bronzed tracks asunder.
1A mixed metaphor: black crosses . . . causeway refers to the Appian Way, the Roman road where military victors crucified scores of opponents. Antediluvians refers to the long-lived, giant people living prior to the Biblical flood, e.g., Methuselah.
2We call my father Tatti, from “Tatteh,” the Yiddish word for father.
3A mikva is a Jewish bathhouse, the centerpiece of which is a pool of water for ritual cleansing.
4Shul is the Yiddish word for synagogue. On the eastern wall of a typical shul, behind either a curtain or a set of doors, is the Aron Kodesh, or Holy Ark, where Torah scrolls are stored.
5A shiva is a Jewish mourning ritual.
6A Yeshiva is an orthodox Jewish religious school and bochurim are the young, unmarried men who attend them.
7Bupkas is a Yiddish slang word meaning “nothing at all.” Rashi, an 11th century Torah scholar, figures prominently in Yeshiva study. throaty Greek-isms Many proper nouns in English-language versions of the Bible derive from Greek translation and are not as aesthetically pleasing, to this author’s ears, as their Hebrew counterparts.
8Confiscated tallesim, prayer shawls, are among the items displayed at the Auschwitz museum.
9An allusion to Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost (Book I, line 44-45): “Him the Almighty Pow’r / Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky”
10Aetna is Mount Etna, an active volcano in Sicily with a storied history of calamitous eruptions.
11Gehennom, Biblical accounts tell, was a site of child sacrifice. Kronos, a Titan, ate children.
12The fount of heaven refers to the sacred fount tradition of the artist-hero as explicated by Maurice Beebe in “The Artist as Hero.”
13In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan declares, “The mind is its own place and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” (Book I, lines 254-255).
14From Hamlet’s soliloquy: “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.” (Act III, Scene I, lines 66-68)
15to taste in life’s saline acreage . . . strawberries refers to a rapturous passage on loss in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping (152). The narrator claims that even in the ruined fields of Carthage survivors could taste fruit through the power of memory. life-sustaining fungi: Certain root fungi chemically alter nitrogen so that our bodies can use it. Without this “fixing” process taking place underground, human beings could not survive on this planet. Computroniate is an adjectival variation on computronium, a substance described by MIT researchers Norman Margolus and Tomasso Taffoli as “programmable matter”; a science fictional flight of fancy.
16“The Navel of the World” is a chapter of Joseph Campbell’s A Hero With a Thousand Faces. The navel referred to is a place of central meaning or understanding in a given quest.
17A niggun is a generally wordless Klezmer spiritual.