Saturday, November 19, 2011

Genocide Smells A Little Too Familiar

I've been in Washington D.C. for a few days, but if I don't get today out on a piece of paper, I'm going to erupt into flames... burned from the inside out by a day so intense it threatens me even after it's over. I've always felt compelled to visit the holocaust memorial museum, but was also afraid to witness what I knew would be a really hard sight to behold.

I know we've talked about my relationship with my sense of smell. If we haven't, I have a super-sniffer. I smell things with my entire being, and that sometimes is a wonderful thing, sometimes, it's dismal and oppressive. There are a few smells at the holocaust museum that I need to tell you about, because they angled themselves between my soul and my spine all afternoon, working bony fingers inbetween what's comfortable and what is real.

The first smell I noticed happened on the initial floor of the museum, the top floor. There is a three-story tower of photos that encompasses the life's work of a photographer in Poland, who spent 60 years photographing the residents of this small Jewish community. The photos are incredibly warm and striking, he had a keen eye for beauty and captured subjects in an almost supernatural way. This collection from their shtetl represents human extinction, on a scale I can't even comprehend... I posted a sad diatribe on facebook once about the loss of the african white rhino, but how can I possibly make sense of an entire community of humans that no longer exist, except in this 200 square foot column of space - on display for public strangers. Extinction!! This tower of photos smells like metallic photo chemicals and time, distinctly sterile and industrial, the opposite of my grandmother's photo drawer, which contained familiar faces and a comforting dusty air.

The next surprise in the museum was in the railcar they have suspended above some tracks in the second section. The museum's hallway snakes through this railcar after a display of the concentration camp barracks, and I was suddenly faced with the kind of fear the displaced must have felt. The car is a small wooden structure, with no windows and no lights, an empty dark hole on wheels that carried frightened animals to their last stop. The smell is the hardest of the day to describe... simultaneously expected and unexpected. I knew it would smell like death, but thought it would be more of a 'rotting flesh' death smell than the 'lost hope' death smell that actually exists here. It's a suffocating mix of musty wood and despair, combined with the choking feeling that only confined darkness can pull over you. I forced myself out of this blind with a start, because if I stood there and breathed that place in any longer, one of the poor souls who rode that train would certainly occupy my spirit while it was consumed in darkness.

After some sobering images of life in a death camp, we came across a room full of confiscated shoes. Until this point, most of the museum had been photos and reproductions of actual holocaust artifacts, but when we turned a corner, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by the cast-off footwear of the innocent dead. The scale of the event was large enough that the size of the exhibit didn't shock me, it was the smell as I entered the room that consumed me. Shoes smell the same, regardless of race, money or circumstances. Feet just generally smell bad, especially if they're shoved in leather shoes for too long. It's obvious to me that these humans were the same as me, they had similar struggles with themselves and others, and their feet struck the ground in awkward bipedal locomotion. How could the Nazis regard these people as inferior when the fuhrer's boots smelled the same? Feet always smell like a slow death, damp leather, gravity and time. 65 years later, I may never again smell dirty old shoes without thinking about this room full of dead people's shoes. I don't know how many pairs are in there, but I can tell you from personal experience that it takes a whole lot more of something to fill a volume like a room than you think... once I filled my mom's tiny office to about 4 feet high with balloons and it took me an entire weekend of blowing them up. The number of shoes it must have taken to fill the first 3 feet of this gigantic room is staggeringly large. I had to get going when suddenly I imagined the same number of faces watching me behold the last things to touch their feet.

After a posthumous effort by the museum to end the collection on a hopeful thought, we were expelled into the Hall of Rememberance, a comforting, however vacuous, vestibule at the end. The room felt warm and cozy, as hundreds of votive candles flickered around the perimeter. One large flame burns in the center. This light is accompanied by a particular smell, but what flooded my lungs was a palpable feeling of love. It was as if the combination of the many flames, ambient light, and cool marble, combined with the solemn reverance felt by the museumgoers paying respect was more prominent than oxygen and I was left breathless and spinning in this room. It wasn't until I exhaled after each breath that I smelled spent natural gas and the sulphur of matches. You never consider what started a fire when you come across its ashes, just the smell of consequences. Today I didn't inhale the spark that began a fire and burned up 6 million people, I was smelling the countless millions who they have reached toward from the grave, pleading for us to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Fortunately the sunset is as intense as the emotions of this place. This lasted about 45 minutes last night as we walked the monuments. Magic.

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