This past June 20, a young woman — a girl, in fact, freshly minted as a high school graduate — from Alabama was on a trip to Europe. On what seems to have been the last day of her trip, she visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious death camp (death by gas for those who didn’t make the screening, death by work for those who did). And she took a “selfie,” which she posted to her Twitter account.
The picture shows her smiling, with an ear bud in her right ear.
For whatever reason (she apparently isn’t the only person to have taken a picture of herself at that place), her picture went viral. And the political correctness police dropped on her like the hand of doom itself. She got thousands upon thousands of negative re-tweets, some including threats.
The Washington Post has an article on the whole fiasco, here. While the WaPo’s author excepts to the torrent of hate-mail washing over this teenager’s head, she still can’t let slip a chance to burnish her own PC street cred: “That doesn’t make it ‘okay,’ to borrow an un-nuanced, Web-ready phrase. In truth, it’s hard to think of anything less sensitive, less appropriate or less self-aware than a ‘selfie in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp’ — smiley — as if the suffering of millions of people was somehow subsumed by Breanna’s own personal narrative. She was there, sure, but so were tens of thousands of others, and her willful minimization of that fact is, frankly, pretty gross.”
“Less sensitive.” “Less appropriate.” “Smiley.” “Subsumed by Breanna’s own personal narrative.” “Pretty gross.”
OK. Let’s unpack exactly what happened, one element at a time, and examine which, if any, are insensitive, inappropriate, or imply that the horror of what happened there is somehow “subsumed in” her “own personal narrative.” First, the elements: Someone from eastern Alabama (kudos, I suppose, to our drenched-in-morality authoress for passing up the chance to take a swipe at Alabama as such; that must really have taken some effort) travels a good chunk of the way around the globe, to a place where 25 years ago it would have been nearly impossible for her to go. I know people who travelled in Iron Curtain Poland, and getting there — unless you were part of a tour group — was made extremely difficult. And she (i) takes a picture (ii) of herself (iii) wearing the clothes she was wearing that day, and (iv) smiling, which she then (v) posts on her Twitter feed so that her friends can see that she did something she’d undertaken to do for her dead father’s memory.
What, precisely, is objectionable about taking a picture with one’s own hands at Auschwitz? Our propriety-sodden authoress might poke her damned head outside the Beltway and figure out that there are still a huge number of people in the world who, even if they aren’t actual Holocaust deniers, still just can’t get their minds around the notion that it actually happened. In specific, identifiable places, to named people, and at the hands of identifiable people. Slaughtering 6 million humans in the course of six or so years (the real large-scale killings didn’t start until the war, in 1939, even though the Nazis had been in power since 1933), just because, is not an easy concept to internalize, especially not in a country in which those sorts of things are not part of our own native history. Europeans have been slaughtering Jews on an organized basis since the 1300s; ordinary people there can understand that it actually did happen because it was the endstation of a long and disgusting trip. The potential of photoshopping notwithstanding, nothing quite says, “No shit; this was real,” like a photograph taken at the place where something happened, and one taken by the person who’s showing it to you. I would submit that it’s especially important for everyone who visits a place like Auschwitz to take as many pictures as possible, and to show them around to everyone who’ll sit still long enough.
And is it inappropriate for a picture of oneself to be taken at Auschwitz? “I was there. I saw this. This was — is — real. I’m not making this up.” I’m among the least photogenic people I know, so I generally avoid having my picture taken, anywhere, out of consideration for my fellow humans if no other reason. But a picture of oneself is a reminder, of the person one was, that day, of the thoughts in one’s mind at that time. We don’t keep diaries any more. We’re insufficiently literate, for one thing, and for another we just have too much Stuff coming at us. Life these days is like drinking from a fire hose. So we take pictures, and we rely on these visual records to prompt the flow of memory. One day this girl will be 60, barring accident, illness, or injury. She may never have a chance to go back to Auschwitz. By then it may be a broad-brush outline memory for her. Until she sees a picture of herself, 18 years old, with all her mistakes still ahead of her, eager to take on the world on her terms, its own, or anyone else’s. And then she’ll see a picture of herself, taken one year to the day after her father’s death (I want to ask Capt. Superiority at the WaPo if her own father is dead; is he, you dim bulb?). And she’ll remember the sound of the wind blowing between the cell blocks, the crunch of her step on the gravel. She’ll maybe remember how the place smells now — trees, grass, flowers outside, and that peculiar old-building scent inside, and how she tried to imagine all those scents overborne by the stench of death and burning human bodies. The rooms full of luggage, shoes, hair, and so forth will come back to her, and she’ll recall what she was thinking that day. Was she grieving for her father? Was she thinking about the agony in all those children at the train platform, as they were separated from their own fathers for the last time? Did she imagine that grief, that fear, multiplied 6 million times over? No, if it would not be inappropriate to write a diary entry about one’s visit to Auschwitz, then it is not improper for a picture to be taken of oneself on that same visit.
Was it inappropriate that she took the picture herself? Bullshit. Except in the most unusual situations, the specific identity of a picture-taker is irrelevant. Does it matter that Ansel Adams was the specific human being whose finger snapped the shutter on his photographs? No. Notice that this point is entirely distinct from the ambiguities of perspective, immersion, and distance which are implied in all significant photography. But “the observer” is a conceptualized figure. Whether the observer is male or female, old or young, a paragon of virtue or Joe Stalin himself just doesn’t matter. We contemplate the suggestions and the messages of the picture completely independently of such inquiries. So no, it cannot honestly be said to matter that she was the one who took her own picture.
Perhaps, on the other hand, there is in fact a significance to her having taken the picture. It’s unlikely that this girl travelled all the way to Auschwitz on her own. I’m just going to guess that she was with a bunch of other people, mostly of her own age. Maybe she knew them before the trip, maybe not. But look at the picture; there’s no one in the background. We can’t see what’s in her own field of view (that’s one of those teasing ambiguities about photography; all we see is the camera’s perspective (there are, by the way, some incredibly challenging jigsaw puzzles where you’re given a picture and you have to put the puzzle together, not of that picture, but of what someone in that picture would be seeing, looking out)), but for all we can tell, she’s alone. On the anniversary of her father’s death. Gee, who could have seen that coming? Maybe she slipped off, by herself, to take that picture to send back for the people who knew not only her, but her father as well. This moment was her private moment of memory for the dead, a way station on her path of grieving (Did you call your father today, you puffed-up Correctness Tsarina? I bet you Breanna wishes she could.). Remind me again what about Auschwitz makes it morally objectionable as a place for private grief? For a sense of loss in contemplating those taken from this life too early? Again, we cannot stand in the shoes of those victims as they were hustled out of the train cars, stumbling over those who’d died on the trip. We cannot know what was in their hearts as they were ripped from each other’s arms. The most we can do is cast about for such pale simulacra as we can of that pain, that fear (You reckon a 17-year-old is afraid as she watches her father die, you mouth-breathing, booger-eating, drunk-on-your-own-sensitivity imbecile?), that grief, and think: I know what my own feels like; how much more terrible must theirs have been? But that would have required someone who can’t do better for a job than working for the WaPo to think herself into someone else’s shoes. Someone from Alabama (eeeewwwww!!!). How much easier is it to punch the PC card at the door, sally up to the bar, and order up a tall, cool drink of I’m Better Than You.
With an ear-bud in her ear. Notice it’s a single ear bud. I realize that the Empress of All Seemliness may not be hep to the most recent technology, but entertainment ear buds come in pairs. You know, stereo? Been around a while, that audio technique. But Breanna’s got a single ear bud in her ear. Now, I further realize that our WaPo authoress probably doesn’t get outside the Beltway much if she can help it, and if she does, it’s to some self-absorbed place like New York, but I’ll just go ahead and give you a clue, you moron: Auschwitz is in Poland. They don’t speak English in Poland. If you don’t have the money to pop for a tour guide, what you do is you rent a little machine with an English-speaking voice that walks you through the place, and tells you what you’re looking at, and why it’s significant. You know, so you can understand it. Sort of like might seem a good idea to a girl from Alabama who’d actually studied on the Holocaust to the extent of seeking out a real honest-Injun survivor to interview. But why the ear-bud? Well, again, our WaPo-staffer might not understand this, but there are a lot of different places in this world, and in most of those places they speak, you know, different languages. So that if you had a little sound-stick (like I rented at the Dresden Festung in 2011 — although I rented mine in German), with the sound coming out of a speaker, (a) the visitor has only one hand free, and (b) you have an absolute Babel of tour-guide voices. In a place like Auschwitz, where silence would be the ticket, one would think.
So I’d be extraordinarily surprised if that ear-bud is not connected at its other end to a small electronic tour guide. If I’m wrong (I could be) I’ll buy our WaPo authoress a beer. My choice.
Breanna’s smiling. I don’t know how many different ways she might smile in ordinary life, but this appears to be a posed smile, such as you’d expect to find in any posed photograph. At the risk of returning again to a theme, and on the assumption that our WaPo drone hasn’t yet had a plexiotomy (that’s a Marine Corps term, honey; look it up and go get you one, because you obviously are desperately in need of it) and so can’t see around her with any clarity, Breanna’s from Alabama. I guarantee you that she was brought up that young ladies do not scowl at cameras. She was taught by her mother, and her grandmother, and her aunts, and her older sisters (if she has them), and the ladies at her church, and her schoolteachers, that young ladies when addressed in public or when appearing in photographs present themselves in a cheerful mien. Now, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is not Breanna’s I’m-in-a-photograph-now-everyone-look-pretty smile. Maybe this is her I’m-smiling-for-daddy-’cause-I-told-him-I-was-going-to-come-here-and-now-I-have smile. Maybe this is her I’m-smiling-so-I-don’t-cry-about-my-daddy-he’s-been-gone-a-year-and-God-I-miss-him-and-here-I-am-surrounded-by-all-this-apparatus-of-death-and-why-do-people-do-each-other-this-way-and-why-can’t-I-have-my-daddy-back-I-miss-him-so-much-and-I’m-only-18-and-there’s-so-much-I-never-got-to-say-to-him smile. Maybe she took this picture, which she obviously took to send back to her friends and family thousands of miles away, to say, “I love you all and thank you for letting me go on this trip.” Someone explain to me why any or all of those reasons for smiling into a camera, at Birkenau or anywhere else, are objectionable.
And so Breanna posted her photograph on her Twitter feed. She might have sent it via text, but then we have no idea of the number of people she needed to send it to, and texting requires using the telephone, and not the data service (when travelling abroad, that can make a huge difference in what you’re charged). E-mail? She might not have an e-mail with sufficient buffer size to send the photograph. Maybe she had people whose e-mail addresses she didn’t keep in her phone, and who needed to get it. Maybe a teacher, or her preacher. “Just follow me on Twitter while I’m on my trip; that way you can see my pictures right away.” Gosh what an awful thing to do. I’m just going to pose a couple of questions to the Goddess of Grief (she’s obviously not very inquisitive but I’m going to ask her to fake it for a moment): How many high school girls of your acquaintance set out to go to a place like Auschwitz? How many even want to think that a place like Auschwitz exists, or what happened there? How many go so far as to hunt up and interview (not just shake hands with, so you can say you did it, but actually sit down and talk) a Holocaust survivor? So what’s the likelihood that this particular high school girl, who did all of that, and a full year before she graduated (remember she was studying on the Holocaust with her father before he died, and he’s been dead a year now), entered upon this particular part of her trip in a spirit of frivolity or pornographic interest in massive death? Huh? Riddle me that, Batdoofus.
So, now having explained things to the WaPo at much greater length and in much greater depth than they’re used around there, let’s examine precisely what reason there is to think that this girl from Alabama’s taking a picture of herself at Auschwitz and sending it back to people she cares about and who care about her was some attempt to “subsume” the horrors of the Holocaust in “her own personal narrative.” <sound of crickets>
In a place in which so many families were destroyed — families which had somehow, miraculously, hung together through years of persecution, hunger, beatings, expropriations, fear, suspicion (remember that Auschwitz as specifically a death camp didn’t really get cranking until the last months of the war; by the time Auschwitz-Birkenau opened three-quarters of all Jews who would be slaughtered had already died, mostly in the Operation Reinhard facilities like Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Majdanek, which fewer than 100 are known to have survived, in comparison to the 100,000 Auschwitz survivors) — is it really inappropriate for someone to think of her own family? Especially when that family is now missing so important a member (Call your father, you snot-faced troll of a reporter, and rejoice that you can.)?
You see, places like Birkenau, Babi Yar, the Katyn Forest, the Lubyanka, Sukhanovka, and other places where humans have ripped off the mask over the centuries are of more than historical interest only to the extent that they awaken within us moving forces to take with us into the world. The dead are gone and we cannot recall them. It would be idle to speak of somehow “redeeming” their deaths; you can’t do that. Dying packed in a swarming, screaming, defecating, sweating, choking mass of people in a gas chamber cannot be redeemed. The most we can do is salvage something of humanity from the wreckage of what happened there. What is there of humanity to be salvaged from the contemplation of such places? Well, we can be reminded of our common humanity and the bonds that tie us each to all others. We can look at those railroad tracks, that ominous iron gate, the crematoria, the death chambers themselves, and we can understand that real people — people alarmingly just like us — did this, and they did this to people who were — are — our brothers and sisters. And we can appreciate, perhaps, our living brothers and sister all the more. And we can have awakened our awareness of the forces of evil, hatred, callousness, and detachment that lurk in every last damned one of us — that means you too, scrivener — and we can promise the dead of Auschwitz that we shall learn from them, and we shall act on our lessons. Where do those lessons first express themselves? In the closest circle of our acquaintance: our friends, families, and the people in our communities. For an 18-year-old that’s still going to be a pretty small circle (among other details not paid attention to in this article is what it means to be 18 years old).
We preserve places like Auschwitz-Birkenau precisely so that as many people as possible can come there and learn those lessons, that they may then go forth into the world, carrying those lessons with them. The answer to a place like Birkenau is love. If it is anything else then we have missed the mark; we are merely rubber-neckers to others’ suffering. If the horrors of Auschwitz prompt an expression of love, you’re just going to have to do a much better job of explaining to me why that is cause to shoot out my lips and shake my head, saying, “This girl stepped over the line,” than ol’ Ms. Pickle-Nipple from the WaPo has done. I’m hanged if I can see how that’s “pretty gross.”
Go spit on your hands, lady, and get a goddam grip on reality.