Interpreting the Horrific

By Marisol Asselta Castro


The Book of Names, Auschwitz-Birkenau

Four weeks ago Interpret Europe started off their excellent conference on sensitive interpretation with a 12-hour trip to a place in southern Poland called Auschwitz. I don’t have to write much more than that to communicate that this was not a light-hearted, forgettable, or easily defined experience. Interpreters tend to have extremely well developed imaginations, and just the word “Auschwitz” is enough to evoke images and feelings difficult to handle even thousands of miles away from the site itself. This is going to be something I’ll be processing for the rest of my life, but there is one aspect of the visit that wants to be discussed now, whether or not I’m ready for it.

It was stated multiple times, by interpreters both guiding our group and attending as visitors, that it is impossible to interpret a place like Auschwitz; it’s too big, too horrific, too much. All you can do is present what happened and let people interpret it all for themselves. Not everyone agreed completely, but it wasn’t a belief that was overtly challenged. “Of course you can’t sit down and hold a workshop discussion after a visit there.”

Why not?

Actually walking through the concentration camp, this massive machine that efficiently, systematically, and profitably annihilated over 1.5 million people, was numbing in its own horror. It was, in fact, too big, too much. Almost immediately my brain rebelled, refusing to absorb what was all around me, failing to perform whatever calculations it needed to turn the onslaught of information and locational presence into something emotionally accessible. It was numbing, so I numbed out. I dutifully took in the information, aware on some level that this was going to cause permanent impact in ways I probably wouldn’t be able to foresee. Through some communication, or perhaps misunderstanding, our interpreter was lead to believe that we wanted a great deal more detailed information than what he normally presented. Almost every moment was filled with more data, more references: “Here we are about to enter the gas chambers, here are the standing cells, here is the pond where the ashes of the victims were dumped, here are the drawings of the children detained, here is the book of names, here is the linen made from their hair, here is the place where the medical experiments were performed, here here here, it was all here, where you’re walking in a tour group with your headphones and water bottles, where the sun shines in a blue sky and green grass grows around the crematoriums. Here we are.”

I think interpretation very often can get confused with telling people what they’re supposed to be feeling or learning. This isn’t surprising considering how often it involves influencing how people feel or what they know. That argument – whether interpretation is a form of manipulation or propaganda – isn’t something I’m going to get into right now, but to say that Auschwitz is beyond interpretation seems to follow that belief: that to interpret is to attempt to assert control and impose a definitive meaning over someone else’s experience. For me, interpretation at its best is a set of skills and tools used to help people find their own meaning and relevance to a site, a moment in time, a cultural or scientific concept, etc. When it was missing, we sought it almost desperately. There was one moment, hours into our tour, that we watched a short video of a survivor describe her experiences in the camp. After the minute was up, our guide attempted to get us to continue on to the next room. Nobody moved. Another story came on. In the middle of this machine, we had these stories to hold on to, this face, these people to help us see how to find the humanity here.

We as a group started talking to each other. “How are you doing?” “As a German, this is hard, this is very hard to see. This was our grandparents, our country”. “I didn’t realize that most of the Jews sent here were actually from my country”. “In Israel, we send all of our students to one of the camps with a survivor to tell them about what happened, what it means”. “So many other Americans don’t realize that we had Japanese internment camps holding US citizens as prisoners at the same time. It’s not nearly like this, but we were also stripping citizens of their rights.” “I don’t know how to feel…I’m just numb. What’s wrong with me?” Our mixed group had interpreters from many of the countries involved in World War II, and the open, respectful discussions that slowly came out gave us a safe place to talk about how we all factored into this, but many of us still came away feeling like we didn’t quite get out of that numb state. Sometimes we blamed the guide, saying he spoke too much, filled too many moments with information when we just needed time to absorb what was around us. I don’t. When asked what sort of support structure existed for the interpreters at Auschwitz, the response was short: “There is none.” Further pressed, he acknowledged that the interpreters try to look out for each other, or take care of themselves, but that there was fear in incorporating any more help in case it crippled their own ways of coping and left them with nothing to hold on to. There were moments it seemed where the very details we were given were infused with anger, the subtext being, “Listen to this, care about this, please let this fact get through to you, or this one, any of them, tell me that you are getting this.”

If we can’t interpret Auschwitz, how can we interpret slavery, ethnic cleansing, genocide, modern day issues of abuse, torture and imprisonment? If interpretation can create the space where people can find relevance between the worst acts of humanity and the people who either fought them to the end or survived to bear witness, then interpretation has a role beyond presenting the facts and stepping away from the hard questions and the despair that can follow. I absolutely agree that it takes a unique and demanding style of interpretation to help create relevance without directing it into the interpreter’s own concepts of a correct end point, but I also have a great deal of faith in our capacity to get there. It may take some showing of what that path looks like to ourselves, as difficult as that may be. I’m going to include a link here of a truly powerful moment in interpretation, written for the NAI blog site by John C. Luzader, and kindly shared with me by Ray Novotny. It’s a short, beautiful piece, but if you don’t read it all, read this part,

“Slowly the guide bent down and scooped up a handful of nondescript soil.

“ Do you know what this is?” he inquired. No one spoke.

“It is Utopia. It is the bone remains of over 180,000 people.” There was a distinct intake of breath from the tour group.

Slowly he let the handful of material sift through his hand and fall to the ground.  “It is the bone remains of thousands of people and as I watch it fall I can not tell you if it is the bones of a German, a Austrian, a Pole, a Hungarian, a Romani, a Protestant, a Catholic, an agnostic, or a Jew. I can not tell you if it is a male, female, old man, mother, or a young child. I can not tell you if it is a political  prisoner, or an undesirable, or just someone who was caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are all as one, blended together as one people, one entity, one soul. It is Utopia. As a boy when I was between the ages of fifteen and sixteen it was my job to grind up the bone remains from the crematorium and bring them here.” At this point he raised his sleeve and displayed the tattooed number on his arm.

“Here is where I realized that God existed because he made us all one people. It is my favorite spot in the camps. It is Utopia.”

It’s a strange thing. I spent hours and days thinking about this trip, talking about it, looking at the photos, trying to figure out how to get into the blocked off part of me that held this experience. It’s never going to come clear in one solid piece, and it shouldn’t. But that simple moment of second-hand interpretation gave me a perspective, an instance of clarity, that shifted everything inside just enough for me to find a way in and share this with you. That’s something worth believing in.Version 2

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