Henry Greenspan

The Holocaust’s empty rooms

For me, Yom Hashoah will always be about a loss and a grief that last far longer than memorial candles
(DALL-E-2 generated)
(DALL-E-2 generated)

I have been in the hospital over the past three weeks. Two major surgeries needing lots of time to recover.

I had been close to death before because of a blood infection (sepsis) a few years earlier. But I had never experienced what I did this week. Looking at the ceiling from my hospital bed, I closed my eyes and saw an entirely different ceiling. Instead of white tiles, there was a textured brown surface—the kind of ceiling that would have been popular in the 1930s and ‘40s. When I opened my eyes, I was back in the hospital room. Nothing had changed.

At first, I was surprised. Where had this other, older ceiling come from? It did not resemble anything I personally remembered. When I closed my eyes again, I saw an office from the same era—dark, wooden furniture, wooden paneling, a large wooden chair and desk where business would have been done. It was a beautiful room, elegant, polished, everything in place. When I opened my eyes, I was immediately back in my hospital bed, looking up.

This continued. Closing my eyes, I saw carpeting that looked mid-century. Opening them, I saw the floor of my hospital room. I could travel back and forth at will. I saw ornate lamps and other furnishings. Dark foyers. Fixtures for guests to hang their coats. I knew where I actually was and why. Even while I could close my eyes and visit the rooms.

And then I realized the most important thing. All the rooms I was seeing had no one inside. There were never any people. They were gone. Disappeared. Absent.

Having taught and written about the Holocaust for 50 years, I now realized where I was, or where I was “visiting.” Empty European rooms where people used to be. I cried.

I cried, I think, because being close to my own death provoked this gallery. A gallery of “missing persons,” a title from a play of mine, and therefore not visible to me, even in imagination. Not really visible, notwithstanding all the films and photos I had seen of pre-war Jewish life. Still, the empty rooms made them more immediate and irreparably gone, at least emotionally, than anything that suggested presence.

It has become fashionable in the world of popular Holocaust memory, perhaps especially in the US, to move away from loss and, if genuinely felt, the grief it can inspire. A number of Holocaust “centers” have removed the word “memorial” from their title, so they are simply the “Holocaust Center” of, if there is a big donor to recognize, “The Big Donor Holocaust Center.” Occasions of remembrance may touch on loss, usually quite lightly, and then turn to invocations of resilience, hope, resistance, the “next generations.”

In Judaism, it is right that grief does not go on forever. Ideally, we find ways to return to life and nurture life. But such ways do not preclude remembering what and whom we can never really remember, and—at the least—to grieve our inability to grieve.

For me, it will always be true that Yom Hashoah is about a loss and a grief that last far longer than memorial candles. Along with imagining a future, I believe we should visit empty rooms and take the time to dwell in them, as they once did.

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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