Walk on By

Hold out your pain. Make someone see it, notice it, touch it. If this happens, then maybe it will be absorbed. Or at least some of it will. Marianne S. knew that was not true. Yet she did not have the heart to tell her fellow Shoah survivors that getting their photographs taken for “posterity,” to be displayed to the passersby outside the park would come to nothing. Except more sadness and disappointment at the level of human apathy toward the suffering of others. Luckily for Marianne S., she had become disappointment-proof. Starting in the summer of 1942, during that Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. 

She was not one of those who liked to say that she could remember it “as though it were yesterday.” In truth, she worked very hard to forget. She didn’t want to recall the details that sometimes still randomly flooded her mind. The expression on her little brother’s face as he was snatched without a second thought by the French police from the arms of their mother. Marianne S. was old enough to be walking on her own, but that didn’t mean that having her hand plucked from out of her father’s as he was rounded up for the Vel’ d’Hiv (or Vélodrome d’Hiver, if one wants to be formal) wasn’t perhaps as bad as her brother being yanked from Mother’s arms. But that wasn’t the point. It wasn’t a tragedy contest. Which is how the gentiles seemed to want to approach it whenever they felt arbitrarily obliged to appropriate the Holocaust for themselves. Or rather, one of their “memorials.”

As was the case for this particular exhibit. Called “Children of Shoah: We’ll Never Forget.” Naturally, Marianne S. was well-aware that most already had. La Shoah was not something that anyone wanted to seek out in their day-to-day consciousness. Even if living in countries like France or Germany meant having constant reminders all around you about it. But the plaques and the statues were just something you got used to after enough time. If anything, these reminders served as something like vaccinations against “feeling anything.” In contrast, they made the monumental weight of what had happened seem “quotidian,” blendable with the rest of the scenery. That was what this exhibit ultimately was as well. Just another “vignette” set against the twee landscape of a city that had once capitulated fully to the “Final Solution” (the subtitle to that being “…to the Jewish Question”). 

Marianne S. had only been persuaded to be part of this “art project” because her brother had been insistent upon it. He mentioned that his therapist was also quite keen on the idea, as the two of them had never really been that involved in the survivor community. Specifically as children of survivors. And since their parents had died of natural causes by the early 2000s, this seemed a fitting and welcome tribute to them after so many years had passed. The criteria for being photographed made it “looser” than usual for “non-true” survivors to participate in that the photographer suggested the parameters extend to “any Jewish person who suffered as a result of the Holocaust.” Therefore, it didn’t necessarily mean that one actually had to be locked up in a camp. Marianne S. was just a hidden child of a deportee. Not a deportee. And, in her guilt-ridden mind, it meant that she shouldn’t be held up as some great beacon of “survivorhood.” It was her parents who endured the trauma, the hardship—the unimaginable suffering. Of a variety that Marianne could never try to fathom. Sure, she had known the agony of being ripped from her parents, but, to her, that was not on the level of the physical and psychological torment they endured. 

Her brother kept insisting to the contrary. But Marianne S. was not convinced. She got a sick and portentous feeling whenever she thought about her giant portrait sitting up there, mounted against the gate for all to see. She had the sense that, because the exhibit came across as so vague from afar—a smattering of old white people staring back at everyone—it ran the risk of being made fun of in some way. And then, resultantly, only causing people to feel all the worse as they approached the sign with the explanation and realized they had been poking fun at the Holocaust. Which, to be honest, many people had no problem doing, so maybe Marianne S. shouldn’t worry so much about the “retroactive guilt” of others as she had plenty of her own to deal with. 

Eventually, about a few days from when the spectacle was to be unveiled, Marianne S. finally stopped bothering to fret over it. It was out of her control now. Yet she wished that she had kept her guard up as the weeks passed and the display appeared to go off without a hitch. Maybe no one understood it right away, but they also weren’t openly mocking it either. Which was always Marianne S.’ biggest fear somehow. One that came to fruition the day she went to check on the portraits of herself and her brother on a whim and found that, beneath the name she had given them—Marianne S.—someone had written in blood-red permanent marker, “More Old White People Watching Our Every Move.” Marianne S. knew then that this had all been a terrible mistake. No one was “affected” by her pain, by the pain of those like her. Apparently, enough time had passed for her “varietal”—unmatched as it was—to be worthy of comparison to others’ pain. 

To them, a more undercutting Holocaust was going on every day for certain races. One needn’t name which races, suffice it to say they were “non-white.” But even blanc Jews were considered that to some more extreme racists. At the same time, that Marianne S. had been called just another old white person—code for: “oppressor”—meant that she was not “ethnic enough” to be deemed part of a persecuted race. The races who are, at present, summarily made invisible by a government that, like Hitler with the Jews, wants them to disappear, wants them eradicated. Just as Marianne S. wanted her portrait to be. It was a futile attempt anyway, making them understand. Making anyone understand, least of all with nothing more than an earnest expression. They were incapable. And even if they miraculously could comprehend, their reaction to this “unique” (to use the distancing and euphemistic language that gentiles so love) form of suffering would never be equitable to the trauma. 


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