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Acceptable Evidence of Horror

One of the most significant moments in Dan Jacobson’s book Heshel’s Kingdom occurs during a visit to the Vilnius Jewish State Museum.  While touring the museum, Jacobson enters a room in which

…the photographs on the walls showed scenes of unspeakable horror.  It was impossible therefore not to become aware that the element of involuntary or unacknowledged voyeurism might be involved in looking at them.

Momentarily, Jacobson wonders how “dedicated anti-Semites and other psychopathic types might respond to the bestialities displayed in the museum.”  Then, even more horrified, he “suddenly realized that the worst of the photographs had been taken by the killers themselves…[or] their companions and accomplices.”  Jacobson’s mixed reaction to these photographs is striking within the context of the book because his visit to Lithuania has mostly resulted in a disappointing absence of evidence of his grandfather and the rich Jewish culture that once existed there.

Looking about me in Lithuania, searching for him in the midst of a devastating absence and emptiness, I was surprised to find myself grasping for the first time the full reality to itself of the obliterated community he had belonged to.  Seeing him in the context of his vanished people…

Coming upon these photographs of the ghettos and concentration camps in the museum, Jacobson is bit like a thirsty wanderer in the desert who finally stumbles on an oasis only to find that the well is poisoned.

Sadistic prurience was not a ‘temptation’ or a ‘danger’ for the photographers of the scenes on show here: it was precisely what had animated them.  For some of the killers the taking of snapshots had served as a deferred means of gloating over their victim’s torments; it kept in prospect a renewal of the fun later, when such trophies could be hauled out for inspection by the photographers and their friends.

But if that was the case, should their handiwork be put on display?  Should we give them the satisfaction of tormenting their victims anew – and for ever – each time a visitor came into this museum, or any other like it?

Jacobson does not explicitly answer this question (there are no photographs of any kind in Heshel’s Kindgom except on the just jacket). But while he is ponering such issues, a small group of tourists comes into the same room.  One elderly woman stares at a photograph of starving Jews and armed Nazis in a local ghetto and she begins to speak to Jacobson.

She spoke firmly, hoarsely, doggedly almost, but without any special emphasis: it was clear that she simply felt compelled, because I was there, because I was a stranger and we had met in this place, to tell me something… ‘I was here in the war.  I was in Kovno Ghetto.  Afterward they sent me to Auschwitz’.’

Jacobson watches as the woman proceeds to try to photograph the ghetto photograph with her camera.  Clearly, for at least one person who, significantly, experienced the Holocaust, the Nazi photographs served as some form of evidence.  Whether this made Jacobson is more comfortable with the exhibition of photographs he never says.

Toward the end of Heshel’s Kingdom, Jacobson comes across evidence of a totally different kind.  This is evidence left by Jewish prisoners being held in the infamous Fort IX in Kaunas, originally designed to protect the country from invaders, but used by the Nazis to terrorize and eliminate Lithuanian and European Jews.  It is with this event that Sebald ends his book Austerlitz.  In the bowels of the fort, where many thousands of Jews from all over Europe were held, tortured, and slaughtered, Jacobson comes across names and dates scratched into the walls between 1941 and 1944.  “Max Stern, Paris, 18.5.44”, one says.  Another reads “Nous sommes neuf cents Francais.”  We are nine hundred Frenchmen.  As evidence, these stark scratchings seem minor in comparison to the visible horror of the photographs Jacobson has seen, but he suggests that these simple attempts to be remembered, to be human, have a chilling veracity and authenticity far more powerful than documents made by the killers of these same people.

I feel sure that Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others would address this topic, but neither I nor my local bookstore happen to have a copy.  So I will leave that reading for another day.

Heshel’s Kingdom, to oversimplify, is a blend of memoir, history, and travel writing, centered on Jacobson’s desire to understand more about his maternal grandfather Heshel Melamed, a village rabbi in Lithuania who died right after the First World War.  This search ultimately leads Jacobson to Lithuania and an attempt to comprehend the fact that nearly every Jew in Lithuania was killed during World War II.  Heshel’s Kingdom plays an important role in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, which I wrote about recentlyLook here for information in English on the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum (as it is now called); the museum’s own website is in Lithuanian.

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