I wrote this essay for a Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) ceremony organized by the Jewish Federation of Arkansas. For the past three years, a grant from Hendrix College has allowed me to train a small cohort of students as future Holocaust educators. As part of the commemorative programs, this year’s students and I read personal reflections about what we’ve learned studying and teaching the Holocaust.
Gerda Weissmann was 18 years old in 1942. That was the year when, having already suffered the German occupation of her hometown in southern Poland, she was deported to Bolkenhain, a subcamp in the Gross-Rosen concentration camp system. Bolkenhain was the site of a weaving mill; in a perverse way, Weissmann was lucky to end up there, as it was considered one of the best labour camps for women. Which didn’t mean it was easy or pleasant. Weissmann and her fellow internees were expected to run four looms at a time—”experts who had spent their lives weaving never handled more than three,” she later wrote, not without pride—and the work was grueling: the women were on their feet for hours, deafened by the noise of the machines, suffering from eye-strain that must have been exacerbated by the threat that any mistake would be punished as an act of sabotage.
Still, as Weissmann recounts in her memoir, All But My Life (1957, revised 1995) she came to enjoy the work: “the intricate process of weaving gave me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.” These were emotions she would need to hold close when, in August 1943, she was sent to another camp, the notorious Märzdorf. After she rejected a supervisor’s demand for sex, her life became a living hell. He ensured she was put on so-called flax detail, a chain of women who unloaded enormous bundles of flax from freight trains for hours at a time until their bodies were bloody from the prickly fibers.
Weissmann considered killing herself, so profound was her misery, but before she could put her head on the rails she was transferred to yet another camp where she made silk parachutes that would be used by the soldiers fighting to destroy her, her family, and her people. That was merely a brief stop, though, on the way to her penultimate destination, yet another textile mill repurposed as a camp. In the recent past, Grünberg had been a model factory, designed for the well-being of its workers. But in its terrible new incarnation, that care had become a mocking façade: “The camp was modern, well scrubbed, clean, and filled with suffering.” Most of the suffering took place in the Spinnerei, the spinning hall, where a giant machine shredded finished material into a kind of mash that was then spun into yarn. Some of the material had been donated by German civilians; but other material had been ripped from the backs of those who arrived at Auschwitz. The spinning room was a terrible place. The women who worked there were soon as destroyed as the old clothes they repurposed. Weissmann describes them as:
Living skeletons with yellowish-gray skin drawn tight over prominent cheekbones; there were gaping holes in their mouths where teeth had either been knocked out or rotted out. These girls ran to and from huge spinning machines, repairing broken threads with nimble fingers. Their tired eyes and sallow jaws seemed to belie the swiftly running feet and dexterous fingers.
This mixture of life and death horrified Weissmann—not least because it prefigured her own fate. Before long she too was a living skeleton, though not nearly to the extent she would become when, after nine months in the Spinnerei, in the freezing cold of late January 1945, she and 4,000 other prisoners were forced by the SS away from the advancing Red Army and deeper into Germany. (You can read more about the infamous Death March to Volary here.) For more than a hundred days she and the rapidly dwindling prisoners (many froze, starved, were shot by callous, anxious guards, or succumbed to illness) marched over 300 miles, eventually ending up in a town in Czechoslovakia where they were liberated by American troops on May 5, 1945. At the time, Weissmann weighed 68 pounds. Only 120 women survived the march.
Gerda Weissmann was just one of the millions of victims of Nazi persecution. We know some of their stories. We know little, almost nothing about many others’. Most Holocaust stories did not end as Weissmann’s did. Most ended in the mass graves of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia; the steadily accumulating piles of corpses in the ghettos of Eastern Europe; or the gas chambers of the extermination camps. For the past 15 years I have made it my self-appointed task to read as many of these stories as I can, and to learn as much as I can about the conditions of the lives and deaths of those whose stories must go untold. I am often asked how I can spend so much time reading, thinking, and teaching about the Holocaust. Isn’t it depressing? How can you take it? Doesn’t it make you despair for humanity?
I understand these questions. In fact, a few times a year, without fail, I feel the same way. A great weariness comes over me, repugnance, sometimes even disgust. I’ll sink into depression, overwhelmed by the enormity of the event. I’ll say to myself: no more histories or novels or memoirs, not even ones as engaging and moving as Weissmann’s.
Over the years, I’ve noticed a pattern to my depression. I’ll feel it mildly in January and strongly in June. It took me a long time to realize what should have been obvious—those are the times after and between academic semesters. That, in turn, helped me realize that I seldom feel despair about the Holocaust when I’m teaching it. On the contrary, teaching the Holocaust energizes me. It’s even, and I know it is weird to say this, affirming. How can I say that? Because in doing that work I am not so different from Gerda Weissmann—my satisfaction and accomplishment comes from an analogous work of weaving, unweaving, and weaving again: placing one story next to another, juxtaposing, comparing, adding, measuring, bringing this fact together with that, paying out these threads to my students, who are themselves individual strands whose various abilities and experiences I braid into the accomplishment that is a successful class.
The work Gerda Weissmnan was forced to do was always dangerous, always backbreaking, destructive of her body and her spirit, but occasionally, and certainly contrary to the intentions of the perpetrators, satisfying. Remember what she said: “the intricate process of weaving gave me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.” That work also offers a metaphor for how we might think and teach about the Holocaust. Think about what Weissmnan did. She bound. She tied. She created. She spun yarn. She wove fabric. She brought different strands together to create something new. I’m not suggesting she should have been grateful for the work; I’m not transforming her slavery into something good. I’m suggesting that even in oppression there will be resistance, however slight or ultimately futile. And that making something new from diverse strands offers a model for such resistance, a model that we in our different time and place might emulate. “The intricate process of weaving gave me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.” What was true for her might be true for us.
Literary people like myself love to talk about weaving. From Homer onward, with the story of Penelope’s secret resistance to her importunate suitors, weaving has offered a powerful metaphor for creation and destruction. Literature is itself woven; in fact, the words “text” and “textile” have the same root. They both refer to tissues and webs, to the activity of tying strands together in order to make something greater than the sum of the parts. You make an essay like you make a carpet. You write a memoir like you shuttle a loom. You study the past like you stitch and unstitch and re-stitch a garment. And when you are a maker, even one persecuted by a terrible master, some Pharaoh, some Nazi, you have just the tiniest bit of control over your situation.
In the Classical tradition of Greece and Rome, in fact, the person who weaves—I should note that it is almost always a woman who weaves: I don’t have time to talk about it here but the study of the Holocaust has for decades been imbalanced when it comes to gender: that’s a story for another day—the woman who weaves is the greatest maker of all, has the greatest control of all. A similar idea struck the writer W. G. Sebald, who, at the end of his remarkable book The Emigrants (1992) recalls his time in Manchester, the city he moved to in the mid 1960s in an attempt to escape the stifling amnesia of postwar Germany, where he grew up, having been born in a village in the Alps in 1944, and which he couldn’t wait to leave. Manchester, of course, was for a long time one of the greatest manufacturing centers in the world. Mostly it manufactured fabric made from cotton and flax, which was mostly brought across the Atlantic as a result of the slave labour and indentured servitude of African Americans.
There were other manufacturing centers across Europe, of course. One was the Polish city of Lodz, which the Germans renamed Litzmannstadt when they occupied it in 1939, but which in earlier decades had been known affectionately as the Polish Manchester. That infrastructure was the reason that the Lodz ghetto—one of the most crowded places in human history, where 165,00 Jews and Roma lived in 1 1/2 square miles, a dense landscape of suffering, illness, despair, and death—became home to dozens of workshops, in which Jews made among other things uniforms for the German army.
The Lodz ghetto was a terrible, terrible place, but you wouldn’t know it from the most famous pictures of it that have come down to us. These were taken by a man named Walter Genewein, a Nazi accountant, sent to Lodz as financial manager of the German ghetto administration, and a passionate amateur photographer, perhaps as much as, across Europe, in an utterly different situation, a man named Otto Frank had been. Genewein’s ghetto photographs are tinted pale blue or green, which gives them an otherworldly air, as does the absence of crowds. His photos are staged, not state-sanctioned propaganda exactly but saturated in the Nazi worldview nonetheless. In the last lines of his book, Sebald describes a single photo taken by Genewein, one of many the accountant took of the metalwork shops, basket-weaving ateliers, and nail factories that constituted the futile hope of the Jews of Lodz that their essential labour would protect them from death. The photo Sebald fixates on is of a textile workshop. Three women, probably about 20 years old, the same age as Gerda Weissmann, sit behind a loom. Here’s how Sebald describes them, in a beautiful translation by the poet Michael Hulse:
The light falls on them from the window in the background, so I cannot make out their eyes clearly, but I sense that all three of them are looking across at me, since I am standing on the very spot where Genewein the accountant stood with his camera. The young woman in the middle is blonde and has the air of a bride about her. The weaver to her left has inclined her head a little to one side, whilst the woman on the right is looking at me with so steady and relentless a gaze that I cannot meet it for long. I wonder what the three women’s names were – Roza, Luisa and Lea, or Nona, Decuma and Morta, the daughters of the night, with spindle, scissors, and thread.
Nona, Decuma, and Morta: in Latin, the Parcae, in Greek, the Moiri, in English, the Fates, who spun the thread of life, measured its length, and cut it, thereby determining the length, time, and mode of a person’s death. Women who meted out life and death. Weavers, writers, creators. Like Gerda Weissmann, the unnamed women in the photo are victims of particular circumstances, and emblems of suffering more generally. But like Weissmann they take on at least some of the power of the Fates. They are helpless, determined, accomplished. Unknown yet not forgotten. In weaving their stories together with those of others—just as in pacing my classroom like Weissmann among her looms—just as in sending the students you heard from tonight out into the world as weavers themselves—I hope in some small way to do their example justice.