Another Last Word

Learning to See


In 1990 I was a 26-year-old dilettante who thought I’d accumulated enough savings and contacts and clout working at a big time publisher in New York City to believe I could plunge blind-folded behind the newly fallen Iron Curtain and write my way across Europe on someone else’s dime.

Remember that blind-folded part.

I spent a long, cold and hungry winter inching my way back west from the Soviet Union while publishing nothing, sleeping in crowded train stations and lonely rooms barely heated with coal and eating mostly bread and Nutella, which I came to detest.

In late December I reached Vienna where I met a real journalist my age doing the same thing, but successfully. We spent a couple of weeks together kind of falling in love, which might have been really falling in love if only I had been as interested in her as I was in my fantasy career.

One snowy day we went on an excursion to the elaborate historical cemeteries somewhere east of the city. Centuries old and built in the Imperial style, they are monumental works of art. Structures tell you a great deal about the people who built them, and the people buried in their shadows.

I could hardly believe it when I saw my surname on one of the tombstones, an elaborate marble affair and, as it turned out, one of many with various spellings. Mine is an odd name but an old one, a mix of ancient verbs and adjectives that bears little resemblance to its origin in the Black Forest of modern southwest Germany, where the Romans called my ancestors “Spear Tribe,” supposedly.

So, big thrill for me.

We moved on to another part of the cemetery where every headstone had been defaced or destroyed. Some were new, some were 200 years old. Same treatment. I immediately thought — and said — something brilliant like, “Wow, this must have just happened, or they would’ve cleaned this up.” But it was obvious the vandalism had been going on for a long time, judging by the lichen and moss on some of the breaks.

My companion looked at me like I was a stranger.

“Don’t you see it?” she said.

We were in the Jewish quarter, and her surname was on some of those ruined tombstones.

My first reaction was to rationalize. It must be a question of funding, or labor, or the time of year, obviously. No one would tolerate this. Would they?

But the physical evidence in front of us suggested that no one cared. And I didn’t see it.

That girl and I are still friends, but it was a long, silent bus ride back to the city while I tried to absorb what I understood was going to be a new way of seeing.

I first learned about the Holocaust in my ninth grade social studies class, the peak of my lackluster academic career. It was taught by an art historian with an encyclopedic memory and a rabbi with a degree in psychology. I didn’t notice at the time, but the course was carefully designed to gently expose our unripened minds to the beauty and horror of history without terrifying us.

It may sound inconceivable now, but as 13-year-olds we read from “Mein Kampf” to dissect Hitler’s fever dreams. We read Richard Wright’s memoir, “Black Boy,” a book that was banned even then in the 1970s for “instigating hatred between the races,” a soaring testament to how racism re-writes the destiny of everyone it touches. We read from the Bible, where God walks through his garden in the cool of the evening, looking for Adam hiding in shame after he’s eaten from the tree of knowledge. We read “The Epic of Gilgamesh” and after a strict Christian upbringing, I marveled at meeting Utnapishtim, who survived a flood that destroyed the world by building an ark, in a story written in stone two thousand years before the birth of Christ.

I wasn’t a good student, but that class had its intended effect. I became curious about the world, and I wanted to see it. And about a decade later, I did.

A month after touring the cemetery, I headed east again to Poland. I went to Auschwitz, an enormous complex where 1,100,000 people are estimated to have died.

About 1 million of those were murdered and burned at Auschwitz II, a subcamp called Birkenau. I was there alone, incredibly, on a freezing day in the rain after walking for miles along the train tracks from town to the gate. There isn’t much left of the barracks; most were destroyed by the Nazis to hide the evidence of their crimes. But some remain, as do the foundations of the gas chambers and crematoria, and the ponds where they dumped the ashes of the dead.

I was a fit hiker at the time unencumbered by a backpack or companions, but it still took me 50 minutes at a brisk pace to walk from one corner of Birkenau to the other.

Remember that blind-folded part?

It’s one thing to read that Birkenau covered 9.48 square miles, but you don’t know what that means — what “enormous” means.

Until you feel it.

Until you watch someone discover her name and her people defiled.

Until you learn to see it.

Ted Olinger lives in Vaughn.