There's a George Carlin routine -- you know the one -- in which he talks about "stuff."
"A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff."
Funny as that bit is, and true as it may be, there's another side to the stuff we all have. For most of us, what surrounds us -- the things we choose to buy and bring home, whether from Bed, Bath and Beyond, Neiman Marcus or the Flea Market -- represent our daily lives. The wooden spoons, the fluffy towels, the universal remote control, the broom and dustpan -- these familiar things are part of what makes up our little corner of the world where we feel safe. We don't pay much attention to these utilitarian objects most of the time -- until they break and need replacing, or we can't find them (especially the remote).
It's because of this that I was deeply saddened by an article in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times on November 17, 2013 by Sarah Gehnsburger entitled "The Banality of Robbing the Jews."
For the most part I avoid reading or watching anything about the Holocaust. Call me a coward, but stories of the suffering of the Jewish people -- including my ancestors -- in Europe during World War II leave me so anxious and upset that I made the decision years ago to not amplify the information I already have in my head with more photos and recollections. I have never seen Schindler's List, nor have I visited a Holocaust museum. I don't need to hear or see another thing to comprehend any more intensely how horrifying the Holocaust was.
And yet, I couldn't help but read this article, perhaps because it spoke to my deep attachment to the concept of home. We have all thought of what it must have been like for the Jews who were taken from their homes and sent to concentration camps. But this article brought to mind those homes and what was left behind -- the bits and pieces, large and small, that made up the lives of Jewish families. The image of warehouses filled with pianos, pots and pans, sofas, rugs, teaspoons... it left me so upset. Each of those objects, touched and tended to on a daily basis by a Jewish (most likely) woman, proud of her home, caring for her family -- it overwhelmed me to consider the thousands upon thousands of homes dismantled.
This is what happened to some of those people and some of those objects:
From 1943 to 1944, nearly 800 Jewish men and women worked -- ate, slept, lived -- among these objects. Some saw their own possessions or those of family members pass before their eyes, and at that moment understood that they, too, had been slated for internment or deportation.
I live in a home filled with objects old and new. Just last year, when my grandmother passed away, I was fortunate to be given many beautiful things of hers, things that bring me such joy and comfort when I pass by them each day on my way in and out of rooms. Even the things that are chipped or a little battered by time are beautiful to me, because they take me back to her home and the pure sense of belonging and security I always felt when I was with her and my grandfather. Also in my home are things from my childhood, things from my mother's kitchen, objects she collected over the years -- not especially valuable except as a part of my history.
When my family moved across the country in 1976, there was a box that was filled with talismans of the life I was leaving behind -- photo albums, letters, a bag full of notes passed in the hallways during junior high school. After the (two) moving trucks had been emptied, the box was nowhere to be found. I was 14, and this was a tragedy for me -- I sobbed so hard that I broke my braces. After searching and searching the house, my mother finally found the box, mis-marked, and I fell upon those things with such relief and joy.
This is what the Nazis did to the personal effects of the homes they plundered:
The contents of each apartment were divided into two groups. Damaged objects or personal ones, like papers or family photos, were burned almost daily in a bonfire at the Quai de la Gare. The other items were sorted and classified by category, rather than source. A saucepan taken from one family would be added to a stack of other saucepans rather than kept in the original set. Stripped of their provenance, items lost their identity. Belongings became goods.
I think of all of those papers, photos, letters, mementos -- the things that document a life, that remind us of where we've been -- all of those things destroyed, burned, tossed away with as little thought as was given to the people to whom these things meant so much. I think of those homes, systematically dismantled and warehoused, much like the Jews who were interned in the camps. I am ashamed by my lack of interest in expanding my knowledge of what happened during those years, but I am hugely grateful that there are people who make it their life's work to continue to remember and remind us.
It may just be "stuff," but it's the stuff of our lives.
Previously published on Empty House Full Mind