I was asked to write 200 words about Auschwitz for some sort of commemoration marking 75 years after liberation. I wrote what is below—actually 267 words.
Survivor testimony presents its great challenges, but it is a subjectivity so intensely collective that it makes for a new kind of objectivity. One survivor’s testimony I intensely admire includes the urgent observation that Auschwitz cannot be described—which is to say, of course, that an organizational machinery mass producing human death cannot be adequately put into words we will recognize from among existing human vocabularies. When we mark an occasion pertaining to Auschwitz we should do so by reminding ourselves, first and foremost, of that inadequacy. It is the humility from which we might begin. The survivor whom I admire, by the way, to be a little more specific, said this (close paraphrase): There are not words that have been invented to say what Auschwitz was. And then a bit later in the same testimony: At Auschwitz you got up and looked at the sky and the sun was not the sun. Our sun, our common human view looking up, a thing humans share, the least invented thing in the world we can imagine, is an apprehended invention like everything else. The survivor was not invoking myth, nor metaphor, nor even affective hyperbole—nor engaging in a likening of any kind. She meant what she said. If we wish to pay respects to what Auschwitz was, we must learn this new literality, unlearn metaphor and myth and join that new objectivity. Most of all, too, we must believe the words of the witness telling us of the words that cannot be summoned. Thus we are summoned.