Books About The Holocaust Will Make You Watch Oprah

When I was in graduate school at Iowa State University, the first writing class I took was a writing/reading seminar taught by Debra Marquart called Writing of the Extremes. We started the semester with Terrence Des PresThe Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, in which he essentially profiled the characteristics (physical, emotional, psycho-spiritual, etc.) most likely to survive the Nazi death camps. Elie Wiesel called it "an important, tormented, tormenting book," and that's pretty much how I felt reading it: tormented. The nature of the research Des Pres did was so monumentally tormenting he eventually killed himself. Carolyn Forche dedicated her poem “Ourselves or Nothing,” to him, and these lines also speak to devastation of his work and this book.


the chill in your throat like a small

blue bone, those years of your work

on the Holocaust.

. . .

Go after that which is lost

and all the mass graves of the century’s dead

will open into your early waking hours.

We moved on to A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, by Susan Griffin and it was differently horrifying. She looked at the personal history of WWII and did things like delve into the youthful sexual and psychological shames of Heinrich Himmler to get at how he was the monster he was. I could barely read these books. I needed frequent breaks. I would read a section and become so psychically flipped my cellular fibers quivered, and I’d have to turn on whatever was on TV just to try and short out the obsessive patterns my brain was looping the burning of Dresden. I hoped for sit-coms (Rosanne, Home Improvement, yes!), but was often stuck with Oprah. I'd take it to slow down the vortex in my brain. (Oh, you want to know more about the vortex? We'll save that post for another month.)

Yet, the nature of both books was to bear witness to the wretched history. To look it dead-straight in the face and watch and know. So I did. In small bits and pieces, because it was too horrific to take it all at once. It filled my brain and my sense and all my waking time. I still own the Des Pres book, for this reason. Even though I will never read it again, I felt I needed to keep it and remind myself of those who survived and those who did not.

Even with the Griffin book, which I did not keep because I hated how awful the people were profiled within, there were some great lines, and good writing. Sometimes I just tried to get from one of these lines to another--skip from stone to stone and don't fall into the river. Here are a few.

  • What at one time one refuses to see never vanishes but returns, again and again, in many forms.
  • By denying the truth of an event, one gains the illusion of control.
  • History rarely moves in a single direction.
  • There are events in our lives that we cannot understand because we keep a part of what we know away from understanding.
  • We live our lives in a fabric of shared meaning.
The pedagogical goal of this seminar was that we would pair this reading (there were other works too, but I don’t remember them) with writing of our own. Sometimes the writing was in response to the course texts, some times it was a piece of creative writing we would workshop like a standard creative writing class. We just happened to have the context of the crazy-extreme lit class as the why we all knew each other and were bringing poems and stories to share.

This blog post began as a Halloween post in which I was going to show you how to make Barbie zombies—no fooling. I was going to connect it  (in a light-hearted way!) with scraps from the following twisted-still-unfinished poem I began as a result of how screwed-in-the-head I felt as a result of who-I-was + that-class. I was likely headed for an identity crisis anyway, but this class certainly left its aftertaste on the kind of crisis that occurred.

I remember that a relatively worldly feminist-studies lesbian turning to me after I read this poem to the workshop group with a look of such profound dismay. I was completely thrown. If someone like her, who openly defined herself as ‘different’ than mainstream Iowa, as part of the local counter-culture even, saw me and my poetry response to these books as off, what was wrong with me? What was in the poem that was so disturbing? I don't have an answer. She wasn't concerned about the lack of skill and mastery in the poem--we all read shitty first drafts. She was startled by something else.

I still don’t find these bits so odd; I’m in my brain all the time and it is a very apocalyptic place. I’ll spare you the whole poem; it’s not very good as poems go. I was also experimenting with sections and stanzas, so each had a different flair. But here are some of the Barbie-related bits, born out of my ‘extreme’ experience with these writers. We’ll save the zombie Barbies for tomorrow.

Counting sheep 
cannot reconcile
nuclear insomnia.
Barbie’s playhouse
a horror, waste dump. 
All boiled pigs,
eternity’s ugly hole
in the floor.
At the bell
elevator Barbie 
pleasant and on cue 
hums her awful lullaby:
nuclear pit
bottomless forever
your soul 
belongs to God
going on
and on

Efforts to die
at your own hand 
or the world’s,
most days it didn’t matter which.
Daddy’s voice would not drive
the winds away.
His “go to sleep” and 
heartless “all people must die.”
Die like Barbie's hair,
frying in a curling iron,
her smoke all taunting 
and telling you so.

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