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The Everyday and the Extreme

Eric Beck Rubin


The question of how to represent historical trauma—particularly the trauma of the Holocaust—and the greater question of how best to preserve and transmit memory of the past, has elicited a range of contrasting, often moralistic, responses. There are realist approaches, which state the Holocaust is comprehensible and can therefore be analyzed rationally (the dominant scholarly methodology), and anti-realist approaches, which state the Holocaust is overwhelming and unknowable (typical of popular discourses). There are related claims that the Holocaust is unique and requires its own language in order to be portrayed, or that it is universal, part of a continuum that means it must be compared to other genocides. There is a contingent that argues for relaying only information that can be scientifically verified, and regards any authorial interjection, clarification or contextualization as mitigation. And against this position, there are those who suggest that many such facts are noted or recollected by witnesses, and are therefore subject to the minor uncertainties, mistakes and errors of even the most fastidious observers— our senses are fallible, they argue, and therefore so are our testimonies. Having recognized the errors of witnesses, this group then insists that nothing meaningfully separates the purportedly factual from the inevitably fictional, and that rather than resisting artifice, we must embrace it as part of the process of preserving the past. Indeed, the argument goes, works of fiction give us more than evidence of the event—they give us knowledge.1

Broadening the field of “acceptable” and effective representations of the Holocaust to include works of fiction does not, however, tell us much about the content of such fictions. Though we consider fiction a realm without governing rules, writers from the Hellenic period to the present (from Aristotle to John Gardner) have expounded on the correct way—and, to their minds, there is a correct way—to approach character, plot, tone and theme. At the same time, others argue we must create art that explicitly contravenes such conventions, which blends well with the abovementioned approach that regards the Holocaust as unique. This debate is further complicated by scholars like James Young who argue that the Holocaust was absorbed by witnesses in conventional terms2 —Young uses novels by witnesses to make the point that we are creatures of convention—but this position is opposed by those who argue that one of the defining traits of the trauma of the Holocaust was its unprecedented nature and outcome, which demand that we supersede convention in our attempts to represent it. This is one interpretation of the philosopher Theodor Adorno’s statement that art in the aftermath of Auschwitz is a form of cultural barbarism: we cannot blithely tell the same stories the same ways while thinking the same thoughts, because this will lead us to the same actions and the same results.3

A different form of consciousness, which is what Adorno advocated, is the subject of Lawrence Langer’s scholarship. Langer focuses on witness testimonies to the Holocaust, and he argues that the best form of representation views the Holocaust through what he terms “necrotic consciousness.”4 Langer defines this term using Primo Levi’s remark about his survival in the camps—“I had the sensation that I was living without being alive”—and Jorge Semprún’s observation that he had not escaped death, but that “it has passed through me.”5 Necrotic consciousness is also present in the work of Polish author Tadeusz Borowski, whose collection of stories about camp life, This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, includes a short piece called “The World of Stone.” In this story, the recently liberated Borowski (though he might take issue with the word “liberated”) describes passing through a lively city plaza:

In contrast to years gone by, when I observed the world with wide-open, astonished eyes, and walked along every street alert, like a young man in a parapet, I can now push through the liveliest crowd with total indifference… Through half-open eyes I see with satisfaction that once again a gust of the cosmic gale has blown the crowd into the air, all the way up to the treetops, sucked the human bodies into a huge whirlpool, twisted their lips open in terror, mingled the children’s rosy cheeks with the hairy chests of the men, entwined the clenched fists with strips of women’s dresses, thrown snow-white thighs on top, like foam, with hats and fragments of heads tangled in hair-like seaweed peeping from below.6

By referring obliquely to death, Borowski gives a full sense of what necrotic consciousness could be: the permeation of every thought and sensation with the death of the concentration camps. This is a picture of the “inverse baptism” described by Langer, in which the author (and in turn the reader) is “dipped into a pool of violent death to emerge not forever cleansed but forever soiled.” 7

Like Langer, scholar Michael Rothberg offers a nuanced theory of Holocaust representation. In Rothberg’s view, a trauma is marked by its combination of the everyday and the extreme: each is necessary to define the other. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the author Imre Kertész illustrated the force of this tandem when he described how, decades after the war, he came upon photographs that depicted the arrival at Auschwitz.8 He remarked that he always recalled the separation of men and women and the discovery of the gas chambers, but wasn’t prepared for what these images revealed: “lovely, smiling women and bright-eyed young men,” as Kertész describes them, who made conversation with the SS guards who, in turn, responded politely to their questions. While the camp was the site of the selection process overseen by Josef Mengele, it also included a soccer pitch. And though Kertész does not mention it, we know there were Shakespeare plays and cabaret, painting and sculpture classes, all next to torture chambers and swimming pools, with athletic competitions that began as sport and lasted until death.9

Rothberg’s argument is that the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extreme that is inherent to trauma must be reflected in the representation of trauma. The result is “a form of documentation beyond direct reference and coherent narrative,” as well as an illustration of an essence of the Nazi genocide10, which used plain language (“prison,” “showers,” “safekeeping,” “work”) to describe nearly incredible acts (concentration, gas chambers, confiscation, extermination).


This outline of Rothberg’s theory leads us to Henryk Ross, whose frail, makeshift contact print album forms the centrepiece of the Memory Unearthed exhibition. The album itself is a paper notebook—something a child might use in a classroom. Its pages have been stapled together at the spine, though some have fallen loose. A thin blue border has been drawn on the cover, seemingly as an afterthought, and is interrupted by an oval at the top and a rhombus at the bottom, both shaded in by pink marker. There is no formal title or name, nor is there any difference in quality between the cover page and those that follow. A few numbers and Hebrew letters have been scribbled on the cover’s bottom half, as if the album had been used in a pinch to write down a message.

Inside, the notebook’s pages are filled with four-by-six-centimetre prints, hand-clipped from a proof sheet. The small rectangles, which do not lie flat on the page and reflect the light in uneven fashion, are roughly arranged in rows: six prints per row, seven rows per page. Each rectangle has a white number scrawled above or next to the image, in the black frame, and although the numbers are generally consecutive, there are some exceptions.

To the person encountering Ross’s prints for the first time, they are confusing. Some capture activities—people fighting and playing; others show individuals in fearsome or proud poses, often in uniform. The long exposure times make people’s active limbs into ghostly trails. Certain symbols are recognizable (for example, a Red Cross emblem), while others are enigmatic: who exactly is “The Elder of the Jews of Litzmannstadt,” and where is the city by that name? There are several pictures of crowds gathered at tall chain-link fences—are these scenes of reunion or separation? Some of the photographs of the streets depict well-maintained storefronts, horse-drawn carriages and streetcar tracks, while others, a few rows down, show demolished buildings, piles of rubble and open pits. The Star of David appears in various forms: on clothing, on books covers, on the facades of buildings, on postage stamps. In a number of pictures, individuals wear trench coats and ties; in others, workers display the tools of their trades: scales, bakers’ hats, wooden paddles; in still others, photographs expose the underfed and destitute, clad in fabric that is ill-fitting and torn. Here and there, a corner or a half of a picture is discoloured, poorly exposed or blacked out by what looks like soot from a fire.

Ross’s album is a reflection of life and death in the Lodz Ghetto. This is perhaps inevitable, given his role in that life and death: he was one of two official photographers (with Mendel Grossman) employed by the ghetto government’s Statistics Department, and his job was to produce propaganda images of the ghetto, which included identity card photos. Armed with a camera, however, he also recorded the world of the ghetto as it existed for most of its prisoners: squalid, frightening and brutally violent. As such, his album embodies the traumatic juxtaposition between the familiar and the inconceivable. Today, when we picture the Holocaust, it is images of the extreme that fill our imaginations: tall piles of bodies, skin-and-bone musselmänner at barbed-wire fences, and numberless horrific scenes of violence and humiliation. Ross gives us these images as well as their obverse: scenes of family dinners, portraits of assiduous workers and looks of happiness and hope, which are just as much a part of the Nazi genocide. Each side of Ross puts the other into sharper relief, making the whole less comprehensible (and thereby less digestible, and more memorable). As Rothberg would put it, the juxtaposition also disrupts the coherence of the conventional narrative by showing us something more unsettling and complex. These images, unlike more readily understood events of the Holocaust—facts and scenes we already know or have already seen—ask us to start over.


One of the things that confronts us as we start over is a sense of the enormity of the Holocaust. The sociologist David Rousset described the camps, in which he was incarcerated, as “the concentrationary universe.” Ross’s images give the viewer the sense that the universe of genocide extended beyond the camps as we currently envision them; like our universe, it encompasses everything. Baking bread, counting receipts and transporting bodies—the minute and the enormous, the prosaic and the unthinkable—were everyday activities. The photographs also reinforce a revelation recently brought to light by researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: there were 42,500 concentration camps and ghettos across Europe, tens of thousands more than experts previously believed existed. In Berlin alone there were 3,000; in Hamburg, 1,300.12 The point is not to stagger with numbers; it is to show how these sites were imbricated in the routines of a city. On your way to work, at work, even at home—the Holocaust’s enormous armies of slave labourers and future victims were ubiquitous, which is to say, everyday. This is not part of the conventional story, but it’s part of the story Ross’s work tells us.

All the theories of representation described above have merits and shortcomings. Today, Rothberg’s prescription of traumatic realism, the combination of the everyday and the extreme, may seem most effective. With time, however, the extreme becomes normal and, soon after, unremarkable. This is one way in which history fades. If Memory Unearthed renews and increases interest in Ross’s album, it can change how we understand the Holocaust. The goal of trauma representation, however, is not to achieve understanding, but to disrupt it, and make us start over again.

1 James E. Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 37.

2 Imre Kertész’ novel Fatelessness, translated by Tim Wilkinson (New York: Random House, Inc., 2004) dramatizes this dilemma in an early scene, when the protagonist’s uncle explains that the deportation of Budapest’s Jews is part of a two-millennium continuum of Jewish suffering (39).

3 Adorno’s statement, in original form, is “nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch” (“Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft,” Prismen [Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag GmbH, 1955], 26). Adorno founds this notion in a line of thought, developed alongside the playwright Bertolt Brecht, that culture conceals human beings’ inherently negative, not to say evil, qualities (“Meditations on Metaphysics,” Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton from 1966 edition [New York: Continuum, 1994], 366). Auschwitz reveals the failure of culture, which is one reason why cultural production in its aftermath is illegitimate, or trash. In the same section of “Meditations on Metaphysics,” Adorno makes an exception to his earlier dictum; outside the question of legitimacy or good, he says, a victim of the Holocaust has an unalienable right to express him or herself, “as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream.” From this, Adorno concluded his earlier statement, prohibiting poetry in the wake of Auschwitz, may have been incorrect—although he goes on to make much wider and more stringent prohibitions in the service of his goal to arrange all thought so as to prevent another Holocaust (365). The abovementioned instances were not the last times Adorno directly examined the subject of representing Auschwitz and the Holocaust, which demonstrates his struggle to mount special and general ethical and moral frameworks around the study of this history.

4 Lawrence L. Langer, Using and Abusing the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 100.

5 Ibid., xii.

6 Tadeusz Borowski, This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, translated by Barbara Vedder and Michael Kandel from posthumous 1967 edition (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1992), 158.

7 Langer, Using and Abusing the Holocaust, 101.

8 These images can be seen in The Auschwitz Album (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Publications, 2003).

9 Eugen Kogon, Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2006), 129. David Rousset, L’Univers Concentrationnaire (Paris: Fayard, 1998), passim. Alec Wilkinson, “Picturing Auschwitz,” New Yorker,

10 Michael Rothberg, Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 100–101, 6.

11 David Rousset, L’Univers concentrationnaire (Paris: Editions du Pavois, 1946).

12 Eric Lichtblau, “The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking,” New York Times, March 1, 2013.