As some of you may know, I dabbled in WWII scholarship during college.
It never got too serious - just a Bachelor’s degree and then some recreational usage to win arguments on the internet.
My primary focus was the Holocaust - specifically concentration camps and specifically Auschwitz - and, as a result, I’ve conducted interviews with, read the testimonies of, and heard speeches from literally hundreds of Holocaust survivors.
There’s one that I remember with undue clarity - a man liberated from Auschwitz who appeared in one of my classes alongside his wife, another Auschwitz[-Birkenau] survivor.
His wife never spoke. He told both their stories. He described the camps in simple, fluent English.
(Something that’s strange - or, perhaps, perfectly logical - about Holocaust survivors is that they inevitably marry other survivors. Even when returning to their first spouses after liberation, they ultimately - once widowed or divorced - find another survivor with whom to live out the rest of their life. It’s a statistic that makes a darkly perfect kind of sense and has always led me to believe the term “survivor” is somehow wrong.)
This man I remember so well said, over the course of the interview, a pair of sentences that had two notable effects.
The first was that I achieved, in that moment, what academics refer to as “Holocaust Exhaustion” - when you reach the critical tipping point compressing months of empathetic expenditure and information saturation into a single resounding mental declaration of, “There’s no point to this! - the Holocaust was just one more carousel of horrors engineered by tiny-minded men with less-tiny means.”
The second effect was that I loathed him.
What he said was, “My wife was the only good woman there. The other women would do things with the guards for food or for easy work, but my wife had never done that.”
I was looking at his wife as he spoke. Her eyes were focused on the table in front of her. Fixedly. Silently.
She looked intelligent and alert and strong. The sort of woman who had put a veil over her vitality to tolerate the demands of the world and the era and her family.
She looked like she had a secret. She looked like she had to.
I just…snapped. I scratched out the notes I had taken with blue pen and scrawled an appropriately disapproving Fuck this dude! into the margins.
Something basic about my allegiance to the nobility of history, of struggle, of archetypal good and evil was destroyed by this sad, old man. By his wielding enough power over a seethingly vital woman to make her silent. By his declaration that her value was linked, obviously and exclusively, to her sexual purity during a period of impossible survival odds.
He made me hate men and the things women are expected to tell them.
This man and this thought stayed with me. It became one of those core experiences - like the first time you outwit your parents or catch a lover in a lie. An event so seemingly banal that you can’t adequately articulate why it changed you.
I was disgusted by this man in the interview - by this doctored photograph of his life - by this unspoken expectation of absolute virtue and this absolute existence of unspoken truths.
But, as I’ve aged…I kind of get it. Not wholly, but in part.
People are fragile. More fragile, really, than we concede. They sustain injuries and limp on, which gives the rather convincing appearance of recovery.
Additionally, people lie. They do this very rarely out of malice and mostly to themselves.
Finally, it’s increasingly apparent that people use stories to understand truths. Our brains crave narrative, because it’s the info-engine that makes the most sense (SCIENCE).
Historical fiction and biopics will always occupy a special place in our hearts and on our Oscars because they allow us to understand - in a way that the naked telegraphing of events cannot - what happened. We need the characters and the plot lines and the familiar scope of action to file significant information.
That’s why expertise is built upon 10,000 hours of aptitude accrual - you’re learning the narrative conventions of a new type of storytelling.
So what does all that mean and why does it make my whole Holocaust digression relevant?
It means that sometimes we create a story about ourselves - one that we want to be true - and that it sometimes becomes who we are. And sometimes, becoming that person in the story - which we do because so many lies are aspirational - is done for someone else.
Lying is a tiny act that we perform every day. When you make a promise, you’re declaring that you, now, are the person who will fulfill a need or request that you, now, have not. Same goes for when you commit to a deadline or RSVP to a Facebook invite.
Lying allows us to alter the past and the future - to make our back-stories more consistent or to show narrative progression for continuing readers.
It’s a cornerstone of relationships, not because lies and omissions are necessary for happy coexistence, but because in each new relationship you must create a new edition of your autobiography for a new generation of readers.
I see it - the space between truths - in the halted stories of old friends and of new lovers. The remembered spark of…something…activates their mouths and they say, “There was this one night in New York…” and they trail off.
I see it in my almost-spoken thoughts, “The man who taught me how to solve a Rubik’s Cube also…”
I see the unmistakable etching of an editorial hand - the loud omission or the silent lie - in almost every conversation and it used to bother me. It used to make me vibrate with frustration. It used to seem like an act of terrible betrayal.
It just seems banal, like the event that catalyzed my Holocaust Exhaustion. Like all human acts. Like all things grand and small.
The domestic lies that clutter our lives are unremarkable when closely examined. We share certain stories with some people and not with others. We carefully select moments of confrontation out of personal comfort or out of politeness. We are very average creatures with very few extreme motives.
So, I forgive those moments. I respect the right to omission. I see the value in editing, whether for yourself or for another.
An interesting thing about history is that, if you study it long enough, you discover the cracks and fissures in all stories. You see the unmistakable curvature of chaos in familiar narratives. You become intimate with the ongoing, ancestral struggle to make sense out of events.
You begin to think the world needs an editor.