Henry Greenspan

On Tisha B’av: The Limits of Mourning

Judaism exquisitely attends to the needs and necessities of grief.  From the first moments after a death, we embrace the bereaved with nurture, presence, and respect for the time that genuine grieving takes.  In general, we avoid platitudes and the wistful compensations of a “better place.”  We remain in the present.

Our practices have served us well.  But there are inevitable limits.  In times of mass death, normal mourning practices are impossible.   A current play of mine features Rubinstein, “the mad jester of the Warsaw ghetto”—an actual and beloved ghetto figure.  In the play, Rubinstein struggles against the pure “wasting” of victims. One of his best-known antics was, literally, leaping into funeral carts and talking with the corpses on the way to mass graves.  He insists that the dead are still members of the community, but he knows that his efforts are ultimately futile.  This from my script:

“For those dying in the ghetto—and we all are dying in the ghetto–there are no funerals, no orations, no receptions, no expressions of sympathy.   We are too numb. Too terrified.  There are too many.  The dead litter the street until they’re swept away.  They become nothing.”

Every Holocaust survivor with whom I’ve spoken over fifty years of teaching and writing about their experiences spoke about all they could not feel in the midst of the destruction. While physically everywhere, the dead were emotionally nowhere.   Leon told me, “When you are in it, sorrow and grief are a luxury which you cannot generate.”  Likewise, those who did not survive.  In August 1941, Emanuel Ringelblum, historian of the Warsaw ghetto, noted in his personal journal: “There is a marked, remarkable indifference to death, which no longer impresses.  One walks past corpses with indifference.”

In the midst of the terror, grief as we expect it was necessarily suppressed.  A large part of what we now celebrate as psychological “resilience” among Holocaust victims was precisely the capacity to suppress emotional response.  Again Leon, describing being marched into the Radom ghetto to “clean up” corpses scattered on the street, including members of his own family.

“You’re supposed to react. You’re supposed to run up! And race! Yell! Scream! Utter! Emote! Show anything about it. Anything, whether it is–,Entering the ghetto in a dead silence. Those columns marching in.  This is probably what makes it so unbelievable. A landscape of death where, in effect, nobody beholds it.”

With the exception of a few—I think Rachel Auerbach’s essay/poem “Yizkor” written on the “Aryan side” of Warsaw in November 1943—visceral expression of grief, feeling or showing “anything about it,” was rarely possible during the destruction.  Certainly not if one were to have any chance of surviving.

What about after?  In the first wave of Holocaust remembrance, especially in the late 1940s, memorial played a central role.  Accounts collected by the historical commissions in the DP camps and elsewhere, yizkor books of lost communities, and communal gatherings of survivors all remembered the dead.  Years later, many survivors I know experienced Holocaust museums as cemeteries that did not exist, although often with a sense of make-believe. Thus Agi Rubin, remembering the brutally cold, windy, and rain-soaked day on which the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in April, 1993.

“For years I saw my mother floating in the air, in the smoke, in the wind, and I couldn’t reach her.  I couldn’t bring her down…We want to feel that our dead are somewhere, and what happened to them is somewhere, and not simply erased…We want to believe that the museum is a place to remember, even a grave, a cemetery.  But I must tell you that this is improvisation, and we know it.  We want to believe it, even as we are reminded that it is cold and it is raining and the wind still blows.”

Whatever museums and memorials provide, grief is particular.  We mourn specific people whom we knew and whom we remember.  We can aspire to “mourn a world” or “a people,” but I do not think we can actually do so.  For that reason, I believe that our memorials and monuments, however grand, mark a vacuum.  Perhaps we can grieve our inability to grieve, and remember our inevitable forgetting.

About the Author
Henry (Hank) Greenspan is a psychologist and playwright at the University of Michigan who has been interviewing, teaching, and writing about the Holocaust and its survivors since the 1970s.
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