In the most recent issue of New York Magazine, there's an incredible article called "skin", written by Mark Jacobson. It's sub-titled, "A Holocaust detective story." This is almost a perfect piece of creative non-fiction. Jacobson tells of a friend named Skip who while sifting through a heap of junk in post-Katrina New Orleans, comes across a lamp shade. It was what appeared to be a "Beaux-Arts style parchment lampshade, most likely made in the middle-twentieth century."
Skip asks the man selling the lamp shade what it's made of.
"That's made from the skin of Jews."
And then he sells it to skip for $35.
Jacobson eventually receives the lampshade from Skip, because Jacobson is a journalist and Skip thinks he might be able to find out if the grotesque and outlandish story is true. And so Jacobson embarks on a kind of quest, investigating historical claims of Nazi lampshades made of human skin, seeking the advice of everyone from forensic scientists to spiritualists. And as his search and the article builds, there's a moment of tremendous honesty from the part of the narrator. When the lampshade is sent out to a lab for DNA identification, Jacobson confesses that more than simply wanting to know if the lampshade is made of human skin, he wants it to be. He acknowledges this is sick, but also a natural human desire, to possess the unthinkable.
Where the brilliance of the piece comes in is that by this point, as a reader, you want it to be "real" too. You've followed the detective story, you've seen the evidence mounting up, you've listened in horror, but also a morbid fascination to the stories about Ilse Koch, the infamous "Bitch of Buchenwald" and her alleged obsession with objects made of human skin. You want it to be real, because it's one hell of a story.
Jacobson receives a call from his friend at the lab. "It's human." And reading the article, those two words puncture something. All the air is let out. You're not excited anymore. You're not fascinated anymore. It's human. For most of this piece, the reader, like Jacobson, is so far removed from the Holocaust. We all know what it was. We've all cried at Schindler's List and read The Diary of Anne Frank. But still there are moments, like in this detective story, where the Holocaust is something that happened a long time ago in somewhere far, far away. There's an air of mystery about it, a distance that lets it become, if even for just a moment, a story, not history.
It's human. Those words took that all away. Jacobson doesn't find out if that lamp shade came from the Holocaust. As he puts it, it could just have easily been from "some poor, unfortunately hitchhiker in Mississippi." But regardless it's enough to send Jacobson to Germany, to Buchenwald, to the place where at least the "idea of the lamp shade" first came to light.
When I woke up today, on September 11th, I thought of this article. There was a piece I saw recently, in either the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal, with what was essentially a "human splatter map" of lower Manhattan. It showed where pieces of human remains had landed near the Towers that day. A human splatter map. They were human beings, the same way whoever that lamp shade was made of was a human being. They're not artifacts. They're not something to file away in a memorial or in a museum. They were people.
I worry about what will happen ten years from now or fifty, when Ground Zero has been rebuilt and there's only a memorial there to remind us of what happened one clear morning in September. I worry that the farther we get from that day, the more removed we'll be. It's easy for things that were gruesome and barbaric to soften with time. I've written about this before, but the only way I can think to combat this, is to every year on this day, take time to watch a documentary or read an article or look through pictures that the rest of the year I would avoid. The NY Times has these picture slide shows on their website. And as I click through the pictures I wait for the one I dread, yet also the one that tends to fade into the recesses of my memory more than the image of the plane flying into the tower or the towers crumbling. It's the image of a person, seemingly trapped in time, still, frozen, but in reality falling, falling from a burning tower to the ground below.
Out of all the images from that day, that's the one I tend to shelve away. Because every time I see it, whether it was a year or nine that has gone by, I feel a faint bit of surprise mixed in with the shock and horror. Maybe it's because something like that should never have been real. Humans shouldn't have to jump from a building, because it's the better alternative. And because it shouldn't have been real, maybe if enough time passes we'll let ourselves believe it wasn't.
That should never happen. That can't happen. Our children will look at 9/11 the same way we look at historical events we didn't live through, the death of Kennedy, even the Holocaust, with a dutiful sadness but at the same time detachment. Because it won't be theirs to remember. It is ours to remember. I was a teenager on 9/11. I realized recently this means that years from now, my generation will be the last to really remember what it was like on that day. That means a lot of things, but more than anything I believe it's a duty. Remembering is an obligation that is painful and hard, but it's the most important thing in the world. Without it, we're not human.
So today I choose to remember, not just in a vague, detached way but in a painful, difficult, horrible way. Because they were human beings on those planes and in the Towers and the Pentagon. They were human beings who should not have died like that.
In the "skin" article, the spiritualist tells Jacobson that the lampshade wants to stay with him. He says the lampshade never wants to leave him.
Jacobson protests. He can't keep it. After all why would he want to hold onto something so grim and terrible. The spiritualist relays this message and then relays one back.
"He says there is nothing he can do. He leaves his fate to you. But it is good."
"Good?" replies Jacobson meekly.
"It is good because he trusts you. You're the only one he has now."