Writing the Holocaust

Auschwitz had to have two chapters. I knew that, but not much more.

I was in the Catskills for two weeks, with my friend, Beth, whose place it was, and my daughter, Jessye. Beth had generously offered me the time in the country so I could write in peace. Jessye left the house every morning to volunteer at the family's nearby farm and spent her days fixing fences, baling hay, and checking the hooves of sheep for telltale signs of fungal disease. She was 17, a suburban New Yorker, and thrilled by the exertion of her manual labor.

I spent the days with my laptop, sometimes at the weathered table on the front porch, sometimes on the window seat in the living room overlooking the vast, lush lawn sloping down to the lake. I'd wake before the sun came up and then watch the mist slowly dissipate over the water as the day broke over the mountains; the hummingbirds would come, dive-bombing from the tall trees, beating their wings furiously against the improbable stillness of their bodies, posed precisely to suck sweet nectar from the feeders hanging from the eaves. I'd watch the birds, then look down at my computer screen, often blank, then out again at the lawn and the lake, a respite.

In the evening, Jessye would return from her work ruddy and glistening with sweat; Beth would come home from a hike or a bike ride, and we'd clean up and together concoct a dinner plucked from the vegetable garden and eat our meal on the porch as the stars emerged in an impossibly black sky.

It was a wonderful time -- my daughter, my dear friend, these gorgeous surroundings.

Except for that blank screen. Except for that task I had set myself for my time in the country: two chapters on Auschwitz.

I was writing the memoir of Millie Werber. I'd been interviewing her for over a year; I had several hundred pages of typed transcripts. I knew the events of her life in fairly fine detail. I knew how I wanted to structure the book, how I wanted to drive the reader through the terrors and tumults of her experience. I had already drafted several chapters.

But I was stuck on Auschwitz. I was scared of Auschwitz, scared of the prospect of writing about it. It was too big, too much of an enormity, too foreign to fathom. It seemed somehow ineffable. It would be a sacrilege almost, a desecration of some kind, even to try to constrain that enormity into prose. Auschwitz is the measure of everything else, but not of injustice, not of inhumanity -- these words felt too small, too limited in their scope. Auschwitz is the measure of something bigger, grander -- even Biblical: Auschwitz, the incarnation of evil.

How would I tackle that? Who was I to try? I sat on a pillowed bench in the Catskills. It was mid-July in the mountains: the trees were ridiculously green; the hummingbirds sipped sugar water. The prospect before me -- attempting Millie's experience at Auschwitz -- it seemed simply absurd.

But perhaps trying to envision Millie's experience so I could write it was no different from any foreigner's effort to imagine the Holocaust. Knowing this, and in good faith, we strategize: youth groups arrange summer trips to Eastern Europe to tour the sites of massacre; schoolchildren in the American South collect six million paperclips so they can visualize what the number 6,000,000 looks like; filmmakers feature stories of heroic individuals, or cruel ones, or impassioned or pathetic ones or those gifted or crazed -- but individuals, so we can understand them, so we can "relate" to them, because the massiveness of the reality is too much to absorb. Admirable efforts all. But impossible from the start. And not only because of the mystifying horror of the thing, but because of the insistent normality of our lives: teens come home from summer trips; schoolchildren put down their projects to run to recess in the yard; we get up from our movie theater seats and walk to our cars, wiping popcorn crumbs off our clothes.

And I, absurdly, in the Catskills, with my laptop: There is no viable meeting point between Auschwitz and me.

Writing this now, I want to say that something happened that got me over the hump; that I saw something from my perch overlooking the lake and the lawn -- a hummingbird striving to reach its food, a beaver in the early morning, relentlessly building its dam -- that somehow made me think that I could tackle the task before me. But it's not true. Auschwitz will forever declare the inability of outsiders to know its truth. I realized nothing. Except perhaps that my failure would be inevitable and that I had to go on nonetheless. I could not navigate so foreign a landscape; I would simply try, an effort at empathy across an unfathomable divide.

Eve Keller is the co-author of Two Rings: A Story of Love and War, a book detailing the experiences of Millie Werber in the Radom Ghetto and Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Read an excerpt from the book here.