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Shells of Survivors, or The Empty Bookcase
If nothing else, I remember very clearly the first time I saw the books. They seemed to be the first things in the whole Holocaust Memorial that made my eyebrows shoot straight up in high arches, they made me stand up fully – made me stop leaning against the wall and half listening to our guide – and stare.
I tried not to lose sight of the beautiful wall of books, leather bound in rich reds, blues and greens and ornately decorated with gold, as we were led around the corner and behind a partition. Even as our docent talked about the grim story posted brazenly on the wall in front of me, I found myself peeking around the corner, soothing my eyes and mind with the holy vision of a beautiful bookshelf, dark black wood shelves that went all the way to the high ceiling. Curiously, only two shelves out of over a hundred were actually filled, but the shelves that housed the books were still so grand that the small number did not diminish the factor of awe.
When at last our group was led to the shelf, I let out a sigh of relief, able to examine the books at last, letting my glance slide softly along the rows. The sight of books on a bookshelf is like no other, your eyes roving quietly along the spines, up and down, in and out, in the same soothing and repetitive motion of the ocean waves crashing along the beach.
I moved closer and took a deep and searching breath, my nose looking into the air for the musty scent of old books.
I stopped in confusion. There was no smell.
I sniffed the air a couple of times more, hesitantly, eliciting a few sideways glances from my classmates. Standing nearer to the bookshelf, I drew out a long breath again, my nose now furious at not being able to find the familiar aroma. I turned to the books and started to look at them more closely, but the docent had moved to the opposite wall to speak, and I was reminded by a chaperone not to turn my back to him. Inwardly broiling at being taken away from my paradox, but outwardly complacent, I turned around and focused my eyes on the speaker, while my nose still looked behind me.
One piece of the puzzle fell into its place as he spoke. The small number of books on the shelves, compared to the enormity of the shelves themselves, was supposed to represent the amount of Jewish knowledge lost in the Holocaust. So, before the Holocaust, hypothetically, the bookshelf had been full… for a moment I imagined what a magnificent display that would have been.
But then the docent turned and started to walk away, leading the class with him. I turned quickly to the bookshelf again, and started to examine it, now wanting more than ever to solve my mystery before we went on. I looked at the titles of the books, the fronts of the shelves, the back of the tops of the shelves (were there air control vents back there?) but found nothing out of the ordinary until I actually peered behind one of the books itself. Shock and disappointment flooded me from tip to tip. It was all a facade! Every single one of the books was a fake, just a painted spine showing in front of emptiness.
The same disapproving chaperone ushered me on, and I was left to go through five quick stages of discovered fallacy – astonishment, grief, anger, resentment, and finally bewilderment – as we walked on. My mind was processing furiously, searching for connections that my stomach uneasily felt were there.
As the guard talked about the colors of Nazi uniforms and we listened (some of us with more enthusiasm than others) I could feel my mind still calculating. Finally, it landed on something somewhat abstract that satisfied me for the moment, something I couldn’t really put words until we met Mr. Lowenburg over an hour later.
When I got home that night I mentally thought out my theory. It seemed to make sense, and while I didn’t know if the people who had built the Memorial bookshelf had found this connection, it seemed a perfect fit to me, and I didn’t quite care what they had thought. I knew. I got it. It put me in a strange mood, to have figured out something that had been bothering me and have the answer be profoundly sad.
Let me extrapolate.
I have always loved the idea that each person has their own book. A life book, so to speak. That somewhere there is a library of all these life books. I must admit, I think I took this fantasy from an incredibly thought provoking Pratchett novel.*
But if each one of the books on the Memorial bookshelf is meant to represent a person, a survivor, what does it mean if that person is hollow? What does it mean if that book has an outer semblance of existing, but on further examination that thin carapace is all they have?
In both the Memorial books and the surviving humans, it means the same thing. It means that the fundamental part of them is gone. And, in taking into account that books are knowledge, it means that the fundamental knowledge is gone. Gone into the fuel for the Holocaust.
But what is the fundamental knowledge?
The first answer that made its way into my head is love. But love is not a knowledge, it is an innate capacity we all have within us. And Mr. Lowenburg, the survivor who talked to our class, has not lost love. You can see it in his eyes when he proudly shows us pictures of his children, his grandchildren, his wife.
But I hold firm to the belief that love is the essential part of all of us. So I let my mind wander silently at will until it came upon the answer. I was looking for a knowledge. And knowledge of love. And because we are all connected, a knowledge of how love relates to the world.
If someone had lost a knowledge of how love relates to the world, what would they believe?
That hate is stronger than love.
And at a time like the Holocaust, I can see exactly where this type of thinking would come from. And it is a lot of what Mr. Lowenburg talked about. He was passionate about the horror of hate; partly because he had known such a strong hatred, not just against him or his family but against his entire culture. If you or I had known a hate like that it would definitely change our world view as it might have done his.
The Jewish people during the time of the Holocaust had the incredible misfortune to be put in such an immensely terrible situation in which hate, to many of them, must have seemed stronger than love.
And so the empty bookshelf aligns itself into a perfect metaphor of the long and terrible piece of history that was known as the Holocaust.