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Towards A More Apt Gradient of Incomprehension

By Graham Clark

Ever hear that phase, “What you don’t know could fill a book?”

I started working on something on my way out of Europe. A plan that couldn’t fail, even when so many of my projects fizzle out before completion, because this would be essentially undoable in the first place. It is to be a compendium of incomprehensibility, an atlas of absence. An itemized encyclopedia of the spectrum of ways in which one can not get something and things can not be understood.

I began appreciating shades of difference in moments of incomprehension somewhere between Auschwitz I and Birkenau. Those are two different camps constructed by the Nazis, adjacent to each other in Oswiecim, Poland, about an hour outside of Krakow. One served primarily to contain prisoners for the purpose of slave labor, the latter was almost entirely designed for and devoted to mass slaughter. Perhaps you were aware of the difference already. I wasn’t, before embarking on this Fellowship to visit sites of the Holocaust in the flesh. I learned lots while traveling from New York to Berlin, to Krakow, to Oswiecim and back again. One thing I learned was the difference between Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Another difference is what’s left at each place. Auschwitz is an elaborate, busy museum. It teems with life and visitors, new developments in the science of historical preservation and advancements in the art of curated reflection. Most of the camp’s original structures have either been meticulously maintained or rebuilt.

It’s an incredible place managed by great people. I mean no slight to anyone involved with my experience when I say that the main thing visiting Auschwitz taught me is that I do not understand. I will try to explain that better shortly, just give me a second.

Birkenau, in contrast, is full of ruins. Where there have been efforts to build on the death camp’s grounds, the results have been intensely symbolic as representations of the site’s historic value. Lots of statues, plaques and engravings. Recent work has altered this to some degree, including the return of an entire building that had been shipped off to the Holocaust memorial in Washington D.C. But nevertheless, particularly the gas chambers themselves, are long, long gone.

Standing in front of one of these brick buildings that had been blasted to smithereens, my lack of understanding was acute. Yes, the ghost architecture before me made me feel different, face-to-face, than I would have if I’d only viewed it as a photo in a book. But there was no doubt in my mind—in fact, being there only made it more obvious—I would never actually understand.

Not because the buildings had been destroyed. Just because I will never understand.

Auschwitz is chock-a-bloc with buildings and artifacts, laid out to help me grasp the experience shared by so many people in the past. Only by going there did I learn I would never grasp what happened there, even when face-to-face with the tangible, material evidence of what I try to know.

How it happens. Who it happens to. What it means for someone I will never know to be dehumanized.

The not-understanding I felt at Auschwitz was different from the not-understanding I felt at Birkenau. Just as the not-understanding I feel when staring at the night sky differs from the touch of a lover. The not-understanding of failing family, or honoring the departed. What it is to hear that song again. When we’re on the right track, I just know it, I can feel it. When all is lost.

These are things I don’t understand. But I know they’re there. So I’m cataloguing.

I’d describe this better, but I’m at a loss for words.

That’ll have to be on the list too.

Thank you for being understanding.

“Tiger got to hunt,
bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep,
bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”
-Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

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