The Silence of Smell
Yesterday I began to probe the question about an appropriate or the appropriate way to deal with the loss of a loved one or with a mourner who suffered such a loss. In particular, I was concerned with silence as a response, a focus stimulated by my Torah study group that zeroed in on Aaron’s silence in the face of God’s murder of his two eldest sons for their error in using incense and lighting the fire in the holy of holies. Though the link to this passage was provided by Yom HaShoah, the Day of Holocaust Remembrance that begins this evening, almost everyone in that study session focused on the issue of individual responses to death rather than to a historic and unprecedented community loss.
Perhaps that is because the answer is simple in the latter case. A common trope in Holocaust literature is the inability of language or any individual emotional response to deal with the enormity and incomparibility of the disaster. In the face of the Holocaust, silence may possibly be the only appropriate response. This is true to Jewish religious tradition. In Lamentations 2:13, in the face of the destruction of the Temple, the Israelite asks, “what can I liken you, oh fair Jerusalem? What can I match with you to console you, oh fair maiden of Zion?” When disaster is overwhelming, when there is no pain like it, no response, not even silence, seems appropriate.
However, in reality, silence may not simply be inadequate. It may be wrong. It may be an inappropriate response. To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 27th of January, Donald Trump issued a statement that did not mention the Jewish people. Admittedly, this is not exactly comparable, for it is the response of a sympathizer rather than the mourner. Further, it was not as if the White House remained silent. It issued a response that simply omitted any mention of Jews. It then doubled down on its error by attempting to explain in terms of an effort at inclusiveness for there were many other victims of the Nazi murder machine than Jews – Roma, homosexuals, liberals, trade union leaders, the victims of the Nazi euthanasia program of the disabled. The collective furor from the Jewish community, however, was understandable.
But they might have been thankful for small favours. Trump did not engage in an even more inappropriate response by shifting the focus to America’s sacrifices in the conquest of Nazi Germany. If silence becomes an excuse for ignoring the specificity of suffering, recollecting one’s countries positive efforts is surely an inappropriate response.
Contrary to my belief that Donald Trump never seems to learn from his daily errors, this time the White House responded very differently to Yom HaShoah. Trump sent out a video tape in which he said the following:
“On Yom HaShoah we look back at the darkest chapter of human history. We mourn, we remember, we pray, and we pledge: Never again. I say it, never again. The mind cannot fathom the pain, the horror and the loss. Six million Jews, two-thirds of the Jews in Europe, murdered by the Nazi genocide. They were murdered by an evil that words cannot describe and that the human heart cannot bear. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, we tell the stories of the fathers, mothers and children, whose lives were extinguished and whose love was torn from this earth. We also tell the stories of courage in the face of death, humanity in the face of barbarity, and the unbreakable spirit of the Jewish people.”
While the sentiments expressed were now appropriate, Trump still erred, this time by commission rather than omission, by going on to repeat another myth, one most frequently perpetrated by Jews themselves. The birth of Israel was a response to the Holocaust and testimony to Jewish perseverance. The latter may be true, but Israel would have come into existence without the Holocaust. There is no evidence that the passage of the UN motion on partition took place because of worldwide guilt over the Holocaust. Silence in the face of the Holocaust was the usual response at the time and is now generally perceived as “inappropriate.”
Further, an outpouring of grief is the usual response of young people when they come face to face with the Holocaust. In response to yesterday’s blog, a reader described a documentary I have never seen about Israeli youth visiting the crematoria and internment camps in Poland. Each young person is given the name of a specific victim and asked to research their lives, their history. The effort is painful. The youth do the work and cry and wail. They are not silent.
What a contrast with the depiction of visitors by Alex Cocotas in his article in Tablet entitled, “BLOW UP THE MEMORIAL TO THE MURDERED JEWS OF EUROPE.” The memorial is located in Berlin’s central government district near the Brandenburg Gate. If a visitor is not cavorting among the 2,711 stelae, he or she is bewildered and struck silent, not by the enormity of the deed, but by the disorientation of the maze that results. Quiet contemplation, as he has observed, is rare. Play and selfie photos are the norm. As he writes, “It is, for them, an Event, spreading from Instagram to Instagram, an item on the itinerary, somewhere between currywurst and the East Side Gallery, tethered to intention by a geotag.”
I have had only one very direct experience in encountering the mass deaths of victims of a genocide. In my study with Astri Suhrke of the role of bystanders in the genocide of 800,000 to one million Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, we visited the disinterred bodies of a mass grave that held over 16,000 victims. The skeletons of children, of women with rods thrust up their vaginas, of body after body laid out on the school benches in each of the classrooms at the technical school where they were killed, was overwhelming. We were all struck dumb, but not exactly silent. We had to talk because our visit had a functional component – confirming the accuracy of the figures of the total number of victims. We counted and compared counts.
The bodies had been disinterred only weeks before. The mass grave had been so packed, that there was very little decomposition of the flesh. It hung on the skeletons like the rags left of their clothes. If the picture never leaves me of that scene, the most powerful experience was the horrific smell. I need only mention the incident and the smell comes back as if I was still there. The immediacy of the confrontation with mass death comes primarily from my nostrils, not my voice. My mind goes into overdrive, racing from one portrait to another, one reflection to another.
Nothing is as evocative as the sense of smell, more so even than any picture. Auditory and visual records, words formed to convey experiences – none of these seems to compete with smell. Therefore, I entitled this blog the Silence of Smell. I could have called it the Smell of Suffering but that would have ignored my major theme – the appropriateness or inappropriateness to giving voice to the suffering of others and one’s own suffering at the memory. At that time, giving voice was not the issue. Olfactory nausea and unfathomable emotional disturbance was the order of the day and was the source of the most recurring and disturbing memories.
We know our sense of smell is located in the centre of the brain. So perhaps smell, rather than debates over giving voice to the enormity of the crime, may be a more appropriate way of memorializing mass murder and death. After all, smell is central to many happy memories as well. That is how I best remember my children when they were infants. I can still smell the sweet scent of their poop and fragrance of the powder applied to prevent any rash from forming.
There may be another reason for stressing the silence of smell as a route to memorializing. Scent is associated with nostrils. And nostrils are associated with being nosy, with sticking your nose into affairs ostensibly not of your making or your concern. When it comes to genocide, the dictum of minding your own business, of remaining silent, is inappropriate. And the issue is not simply that you could have been the victim, that we ought to engage in humanitarian intervention because of our shared humanity. An abstract common identification as humans has not proven to be very effective in motivating risk and involvement.
In any case, the identification is a false one. I live a life of privilege in a land that not only guarantees freedom, but delivers on the promise, in a land that not only ensures my well-being, but goes a long way to delivering on that promise as well. But not all the way. Not for everyone. And if the promise proved false for me, it is possible that I might focus my attention exclusively on my and my family’s deprivation rather than the general deprivation of others.
But perhaps that is not the purpose of silence, not the purpose of the silence of smell or the smell of suffering. The issue is really not my identification with the victim. The issue is not whether, but for the grace of God, that could have been me. As I counted bodies disinterred from that mass grave dug three weeks before Juvénal Habyarimana was killed and three weeks before the Rwanda genocide began, the issue was not my identification with those killed, but with those who perpetrated the crime. But most of all with those who abetted the crime by their silence, by their indifference.
The victims of the Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide and the Armenian genocide and all the other enormous crimes against particular peoples, were victims because they were not responsible for taking their fate into their own hands. The genocide was perpetrated because that responsibility was removed from their hands. If we identify with that victimhood, we identify with our incapacity in some circumstances to take action when we need to be reminded that we are in a position of responsibility to intervene.
Further, it is almost impossible for us who live in privileged circumstances and enjoy the responsibility of guiding the course of our own lives to identify with victims who were denied that privilege. And if we had been so denied, at the time our response might just as likely have been the responsibility to protect ourselves, not other victims of the crime of cancelling that responsibility. Identification with victimhood has a tendency to inculcate either self-pity or passivity and not our sense of responsibility. The task of memorializing and of mourning is to remember, not that we or those who died were ineffectual and passive victims of the laws of nature or the realism of international political affairs, but that they lived lives of wonder and discovery and to discover how and why we betrayed them. For ordinary people allow the perpetuation of such atrocities by the few.
I was and remain a citizen of one such country that failed in its responsibility – not the main one, for General Roméo Dallaire somewhat redeemed a streak of Canadian honour. Canada did not live up to the responsibility to protect. The issue was not identification with the victim or identification with victimhood, but identification with perpetrators. In that, there can be and should not be any silence as the silence of smell always reminds me. The smell of mass death is universal. But memory must bring to life those who lived and became victims, individuals who had parents and children or were children themselves. Yom HaShoah for me is both the silent smell of mass murder and the need to talk about the personal lives of those who lived and died.
With the help of Alex Zisman