The Quotidian Details of Horror


NEW YORK—The greatest lesson of the FASPE program started with a shiny metal cooking pot, just under four quarts. It was well cared for and polished with thin edges. Other than the fact that it was on display in a museum, there was nothing remarkable about it.

The view from the front of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Photo by Karen Petree

The view from the front of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Photo by Karen Petree

On our first day of the FASPE program, journalism and law fellows met at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. After a long morning of introducing ourselves and talking about the logistics of the trip to Germany and Poland, we were free to go on a self-guided tour of the museum. Its permanent collection is arranged on three floors, corresponding to Jewish life before, during and after the Holocaust. The empty cooking pot is an example of the many everyday artifacts on display on the first floor.

On the second floor exhibit, Holocaust survivor Rudolf Vrba recounted in a videotaped interview what he saw at the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau:

“Over to the left I saw hundreds of baby carriages…[and] pots and pans from a thousand kitchens in a dozen countries,” Vrba said. “Pathetic remnants of a million meals, anonymous now, for their owners would never eat again.”

A human life has a beginning and an end. These terminal points of birth and death are what we mark, often overlooking the life that fills the space between. The Holocaust killed around two-thirds of European Jews. That’s equal to six million Jews. How does one even picture that? A number so big it absorbs the individual stories and blurs six million faces. A lot of museums are full of Holocaust archaeology: stacks of shoes; piles of ragged clothing and yellow stars; tangles of shorn hair. But these are the artifacts of the ending.

Much of what journalists report on centers on these things that we can count. We tell stories as they happen, and for that, we like numbers, facts and statistics. They’re concrete, dependable and harder to argue. They also offer emotional distance.

But numbers cannot tell the whole story. After something so unfathomable, our natural impulse is to focus on the end – on the details of how it happened and explanations for why it happened. But objects like that pot predate atrocity and may tell a more powerful narrative than the numbers do. The empty pot and other pieces behind the glass museum cases on the first floor represent the nuances of cultures almost completely eradicated. There aren’t many of those pots left.

After the museum tour, Thorin Tritter, managing director of the FASPE program, presented a lecture to give us the historical context to understand many of the events we’ll be talking about over the next twelve days.

Then we gathered in the museum theater to watch “Conspiracy,” a fictional reenactment that was made for HBO of the Wannsee Conference where the Final Solution was laid out in 1942. Against a peaceful, snowy setting, Nazi officials planned the annihilation of European Jewry.

Tomorrow, we will visit the house of the Wannsee Conference.

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