I wear a bulbous gold ring on my left ring finger. I’m not married, and it doesn’t look like a wedding band. When people ask, I tell them “it’s a family thing” and try to change the subject.
Because the whole truth isn’t something I normally want to talk about.
You see, the ring bears my maternal grandfather’s initials. There’s a near-identical one with my grandmother’s initial, which I believe my sister has. They had the rings made, as a couple, with what little money they could scrounge up after surviving Auschwitz-Birkenau. I don’t like talking about the subject with strangers (the people most likely to ask me about the ring), but it’s fundamentally a hopeful token. The weight on my left ring finger, without which I feel brutally naked, reminds me that they managed to start new lives in a better world. That, despite the best efforts of one of the world’s most powerful states, they escaped the total annihilation my people were slated for.
That need for a certain kind of closure, an understanding that humanity survived the horror, perhaps helps explain the viral popularity of Elad Nehorai’s “20 Photos That Change The Holocaust Narrative.” The post on Nehorai’s site PopChassid, which has reached 22,000 Facebook likes as I’m writing, temporarily crashed the site. I myself saw it after several other Jewish facebook friends shared the post on their feeds. But now I can’t stop thinking about it.
That’s because the images Nehorai compiled breathe life into the cold message on my hand. They range from a massive Jewish-American rally for boycotting Nazi Germany in 1937 to a woman’s beautiful, gleaming, gaunt face when she learned she had been freed to the survivor and her grandmother you see above. They have such power because, as Nehorai suggests, they free us from the feeling of being “helpless” victims:
[These i]mages that show a more subtle, more true, story. A story that shows our inner power, our inner turmoil in dealing with a situation we cannot comprehend, our attempts to gain justice, and our final steps into moving above and beyond our past and into a new future.
We need to treat stories about oppression as histories of real people. A Holocaust history of deracinated, literally emptied-out Jews helplessly acquiescing to their slaughter is one that fails to take the shared humanity of Jews now and today seriously. That Jews in transit camps committed acts of rebellion as quiet as lighting a menorah, that survivors celebrated their liberation with raised champagne glasses and lit cigarettes helps us find ourselves in them. It presents us with what French philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Lévinas calls “the face of the other,” that thing which makes someone who seems so utterly of a different place and time someone that could be living today. The chilling implication being, of course, that real people today can and do suffer through the same kinds of pain.
Humanizing survivors has never been a problem for me; my grandfather’s constant presence as I grew up made it impossible not to see the ordinariness we shared. He taught me how to sing along (poorly) to the overloud Yiddish music that tore through the speakers in his oversized Lincoln Towncar, an object of pride that he took every opportunity to drive me and my (largely Catholic, somewhat confused) childhood friends around in.
Nehorai’s collection also reminded me of my grandfather in another way: its bold assertion that Jews fought back against the Nazis when they could. We all know the famous stories, like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but the more common resistance was far smaller in scope. By all rights, my grandfather should have died: the Nazis had gotten him out of Auschwitz and set him on the death march that claimed so many other Jewish lives near the end of the war. But he took advantage of a distraction and escaped, hiding in a dung-filled barn in a small Bavarian town until he was rescued.
We talk less about these stories than the enormity of the genocide itself, but they’re critical to understanding the reality of the experience of Holocaust survivors. These were people who fought what was, at the time, the world’s greatest war machine, and did so believing the only reward was survival in the most stark of terms. That spirit of resistance, that feeling that we were actors as well as acted upon, is why the picture that grabs my attention the most is the one set right here.
The idea of a survivor, after liberation, holding a Nazi soldier at gunpoint is the encapsulation of every “fuck you” to Hitler’s project delivered by Jewish acts of self and group preservation. We didn’t just survive; we turned the tables.
That spirit is dangerous, of course. Its most benign form is idle fantasizing, like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds or my boyhood superhero story that, before being imprisoned, my grandfather bravely fought the Nazis as part of the Polish Army. He was in the army, but he was a conscript, forced to fight anemically for a government that already detested him. Indeed, the Polish Army was initially set against both the Nazis and the Soviets. The Russians famously went on to liberate Auschwitz. Reality isn’t amenable to simplification, even a reality as morally simple as World War II. But the sense of empowerment from seeing a Nazi held at Jewish gunpoint is real — a feeling, I suspect, that members of other historically oppressed groups understand altogether well.
Each of Nehorai’s images similarly gets at a particular, but under-discussed truth of the Holocaust. There’s an almost palpable whiplash, from rebellion to desperation to a overwhelming sense of of the survivor’s basic human dignity. The breathtaking realness of the display is why it’s taken me all day to write this post, why I (and I don’t think this is just the fact that I was on a red eye last night) have spent half the day in tears. I couldn’t help but think of these photos as more than just images. I couldn’t help but think of my ring.