Traces By David Parker

We are lingering past the photos of Polish prisoners. We gaze too long, drinking in their features, until the next guide hurries us along. They are shorn and wear identical stripes, but the camera captures their individuality in every detail. The angle of their chin, the notch in their brow, the direction of their eyes—the whole of them passes in front of us and we do not want to move past them.

After these photo-portraits the traces become more meager and more terrible but I want to look at them even more. It is not a matter of “visualizing,” of “substitution,” (each pair of spectacles represents one human), because these objects co-existed with these people, they once framed faces that the SS camera failed to capture. And a pile of human hair, which horrified me when I last came here in 2006, is now received differently. I see the plaits and braids across an infinite spectrum of brown and try to imagine these strands of hair pressed upon so many individual faces from the heat. Not the heat of the train car or a treeless camp but the warmth of a field back home or the excitement of a summer night in the city center.

Then we have the drawings of the children, which should not exist, but still I try to look at the lines and squiggles and I see that they are not stick figures but in fact are portraits as well, of playmates and grownups that helped or harmed them in their brief lives in the camp.

Towards the end we have a book of names, with no hint of a face but still testifying not just to a presence but an identity as well. I leaf through reams of Fishers and Franks and wonder who was related and shared certain traits and mannerisms, and who just shared a name.

First I am disgusted but then I am relieved when the guide tells us to disregard the scratches on the gas chamber walls because they were left by tourists, not prisoners, because those traces could not tell me anything – nothing human can be recovered from them. I could not bear to look at them, I refuse.

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