The lives of objects
The Holocaust has never lacked for evocative, inanimate emblems: the heaps of shoes at concentration camps; wheelbarrows gleaming with inmates’ wedding rings; mounds of eyeglasses, suitcases, silverware. Piles of human bones. “Once at Auschwitz, I saw a cheese grater,” says art historian and literary theorist Bożena Shallcross, an associate professor of Slavic languages & literatures. “I thought, my God. Who was so deluded? If anyone ate cheese at Auschwitz, it was the SS guards.”
In droves, these artifacts inhabit museums and archives around the globe. They contribute to Holocaust history, illuminating its grim statistics: 6.5 million Jews exterminated, 2 million people dead at Auschwitz, 3.3 million killed in Nazi gas chambers. Yet Shallcross finds this inventory, however tragic or terrifying or revealing, to be peculiarly one-dimensional. “Those piles of objects don’t speak of the lives of their owners,” she says. “They speak of their death. Shoes, eyeglasses, bones: these speak of death.”
To evoke the lives of those who endured the Holocaust, Shallcross, a native Pole, turns to the poetry and short stories she began reading at age 13. “We unfortunately read Holocaust literature much too early,” she says. “It comes as a first shock.” After studying literature and art history at Krakow’s Jageillonian University, in 1983 she earned a PhD in Polish literature from the Polish Academy of Sciences and Letters. She taught there and at Indiana University before making her way to Chicago in 2001. Now Shallcross is finishing a book about the ontology of Holocaust objects, titled The Holocaust Object: Proximity and Vestiges. The project grew, she says, from the recognition that “a gap, a fissure, an unexplored space” persisted in Holocaust discussions. “Because it is first and foremost a human tragedy, we have been preoccupied with the fate of victims,” she says, “and with the convoluted relationship between victims and perpetrators.” Scholars have been gathering historical data and oral histories, amassing statistics, filing away knowledge. “So objects got overshadowed.”
For Poland’s Holocaust writers, though, many of whom did not survive the war, physical objects took on profound significance. “Very often poems do not talk about human fates, but only about objects,” she says. “They enumerate them, they list them, they show them, they describe them from a personalized perspective.” Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz opens his poem “Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto” amid furious destruction: during the 1943 uprising the ghetto is in flames. History books describe people leaping from windows, resistance fighters hunkered underground with grenades and Molotov cocktails, victims buried beneath smoking debris or drowning in sewers flooded by German soldiers. But Mi?osz relays the havoc through shattered objects. “It has begun,” he writes, “the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel, silver, foam / Of gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls, crystals.” And later: “Now there is only the earth, sandy, trodden down, / With one leafless tree.” In “Non omnis moriar,” meanwhile, poet Zuzanna Ginczanka envisions the looting that might follow her death, reserving the most vivid, specific descriptions for inanimate possessions—finely woven linens, goblets, candlesticks, and tapestries stripped from their cupboards; gold and precious stones snatched from hiding places inside sofas, mattresses, pillows. “So let your hands rummage through Jewish things,” writes Ginczanka, a Jew who lived in Krakow under a false name until she was arrested and shot in 1944.
In Holocaust literature, objects serve as “carriers of a very brutal realism,” Shallcross says. “They speak of their owners’ disrupted lives.” A shoe plucked from the pile at Auschwitz is “discolored, an object falling into anonymity,” but a shoe described in a short story or poem never loses its individuality. “Objects stand for people,” Shallcross says, and people cling to objects as they cling to their lives. In the short story “Man with a Parcel,” Auschwitz survivor Tadeusz Borowski depicts a condemned prisoner preparing to be gassed; the man packs his belongings neatly into a box and brings it with him. “He knows he will go to the end of the gas chamber naked,” Shallcross says, “and that his parcel will be taken from him.” Still he won’t let go. “He’s developing a very strong connection with the objects in the parcel, which no longer function as tools.” What’s important is their “proximity to the material world, to life,” she says. “We think of objects as dead matter in a sense, aware that there is a split between our consciousness and them.” Yet Holocaust literature offers a different account. “It testifies to an intensified, albeit brief, unity between objects and threatened people,” especially during their dispossession.
The Holocaust “obliterated the ontological difference” between objects and human bodies, Shallcross says, and in literature the violation of an object often mimics the violation of the body. Nazi treasure hunters not only ripped apart floorboards and furniture, but also searched bodily orifices for the jewels that prisoners took to the camps. “And then,” she says, “there is what I call the transformational pattern for representing objects in Holocaust literature.” Following a utilitarian doctrine, Nazis sometimes “recycled” the corpses of concentration-camp victims. Gold teeth, for example, were melted into gold bullion. Warsaw writer Zofia Na?kowska begins her 1947 short-story collection, Medallions, with “Professor Spanner,” an account of the Nazi doctor who rendered soap from human fat. “The body is a mere husk in which riches are hidden, but it is also commodity,” Shallcross says. Spanner never perfected the recipe; his soap always carried an odd scent. Na?kowska, who served on Poland’s postwar committee investigating Nazi crimes, considered the smell a “trace of permanence on the symbolic level,” Shallcross says. “Spanner’s project failed to erase all human traits.”
Beyond their words, the works of Holocaust writers are valuable simply as artifacts. Composed, she says, on scraps of newspaper and toilet paper, bottle labels, prison walls—“any surface you can think of”—and passed from hand to hand or squirreled away in cellars and secret drawers, Holocaust texts “insist” on their own material existence. “A sheet of paper is extremely important in a time of total annihilation.” Unlike prisoners in Siberian labor camps, who preserved their literature by memorizing it, Holocaust victims could not trust human memory. Too many people were dying too quickly. “Amidst this destruction of life,” she says, “they were trying to write on something that would last longer than their lives.”
Often unfinished or fragmented, Holocaust writings were also itinerant. “A Holocaust text is like a message in a bottle thrown into the sea,” Shallcross says. “It is subjected to the chance movement between historical events and its fragile material survival.” After the war, a man clearing his shed outside Warsaw began chopping up an old table and discovered a drawer under his axe, filled with poetry by Wladyslaw Szlengel, who had died in the Warsaw ghetto uprising. More texts perished than endured—Na?kowska, for instance, burned her manuscripts as Gestapo officers began searching her building floor by floor—but even 62 years after WW II, some works are still being found. Only a few years ago, Shallcross says, a Mi?osz poem resurfaced in Poland, and historians are still looking for Bruno Schulz’s only novel, The Messiah. “The Holocaust can be read as a narrative that juxtaposes permanence and fluidity,” she says. “Like some of their authors, these texts are survivors.”