Places and titles

Where I write has taken on new meaning now as I realize there has been no real pattern, perhaps indicative of the way I’ve lived my life, a bit rootless but wanting roots. I’ve written some really awful words in some really amazing places, and some really beautiful words in some really questionable places. I’ve been comfortable, cramped, serene, and sweaty. I’ve written on hands, napkins, conference programs, notepads, Moleskins, typewriters, phones, and laptops. I’ve had my favorite pens explode on me, computers crash on me, had everything stolen except for my notebooks, lost brilliance I will never remember, and retained trash I wish I had lost. I’ve written poems, songs, stories, articles, reviews, and diary entries. My words have gotten me to over 25 countries and back home again, wherever home may be that month. I’ve ignored good company because “I just have to get this down, one sec.” I’ve sat alone on benches, walls, grassy knolls, boats, planes, trains, and automobiles, in restaurants, cafes, churches, cemeteries, concentration camps, museums, parks, and stations. I’ve sat at desks – antique, from IKEA – in hostels and hotels, libraries, universities, and homes. I’ve created some pieces I’ll always cherish and mostly those I’ll soon forget, pieces others will never see meant only for me or those I’ll share with a few or the world, if they’d have me.

I think about these things now, writing from my parents’ back porch with the best pup at my feet. I recline in comfort while my life is poised for change once more. I think about these things because the new material I’m trying to write talks about “place” in Holocaust literature. The working title is “Trains, the journey trope, and cultural tourism: Representations of spatial suffering in Holocaust literature and memorialization.”

One of the texts I am using is Primo Levi’s most well-known work. Levi titled this spectacular piece of non-fiction in Italian, Se quest é un uomo, which translates into English as “If this is a man.” This title asks hard questions of the reader even before entering the narrative. It asks readers to think about the people who the Nazis considered sub-human and introduces Levi’s ethical examination of humanity’s retention in Auschwitz. The story then opens with Levi’s poem, Shema, invoking these questions and the image of the prisoners and the place. American publishers printed Levi’s work under the less challenging title, Survival in Auschwitz, for reasons that will not be assessed here. Some questions remain with the English title, but less harshly so, about how one could survive in such a place; this title blunts the hard questions about the people themselves, about whether or not this prisoner is still a man or the Untermensch the Nazis claimed. Rather, the English translation’s title places the emphasis on the iconic concentration camp, a name sure to grab readers. Levi has written of the site, “Auschwitz: a name without significance for us at that time, but it at least implied some place on this earth.” For Levi, as for his contemporary readers and visitors (more on its reconstruction and preservation later), Auschwitz functions as a concrete symbol of the Holocaust. In this way, the English title emphasizes the changed perception of Auschwitz from the name of a destination, which ended the terrible journey into the unknown for those who would be imprisoned there, to an iconic symbol of the Holocaust for non-experiencers, all while underscoring the importance of place.

There is a lot in there, a sort of rambling mishmash of partially-formed ideas, forcing linguistic and spatial understandings onto a publisher’s choice and moving briefly over the crucial significance of “Auschwitz” as a word, as a symbol. But I have faith that these wandering words will be shaped into an article worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed journal–after in-depth research and more rounds of editing than I can count.

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