Late last month, the New-York Historical Society opened a unique exhibition dedicated to the September 11 attacks, called “Elegy in the Dust.” The installation’s focal point is the Chelsea Jeans Memorial, a downtown retail store turned shrine filled with the ash-covered apparel that was on sale that tragic day.
When I heard about “Elegy in the Dust,” I couldn’t help but think about the memorial collections of hair, shoes, eyeglasses and suitcases that are displayed on the grounds of Auschwitz. Piled in mounds and layered with the dust of more than six decades, these artifacts of the Holocaust’s victims are themselves decaying, inevitable reminders of the ephemeral nature of things — and of memory, too.
The conservators of the displays at Auschwitz have been grappling for many years now with the complex questions of what to preserve and how. Unlike the toxic dangers of the September 11 dust, these intensely personal remains have human fragility as their signature composition, and are thus subject to a similar mortality.
What to do with the two tons of hair, shorn from the heads of the murdered? So fragile it cannot be moved, the hair has deteriorated to the point where its color has faded to wiry gray and white. Some argue that it should be buried, out of respect for the dead — and because it’s not clear what else can be done.
As recently as 2005, graduates of a specialized “Landmarks Renovator” program in Poland have been working to vacuum, wash and oil several thousand pairs of children’s shoes. But how long can leather be asked to endure?
The ongoing and elaborate discussions about the memorial at Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan further echo the debates that persist regarding the concentration camps as museum sites. Concerns about the degree of intervention in the name of honoring history sound hauntingly familiar.
Tony Frantz, former chief conservator of objects at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, has expressed concern about the very concept of preventing what might be called the natural and elemental process of disappearing. “Part of [Auschwitz’s] emotional impact has to do with it being experienced as an architectural ruin,” he has said. “It’s not an art museum. It’s a cemetery.”
So far, at the most notorious of all concentration camps the compromise has been made between “not altering the site” and “not allowing further decay.” This line, however, is not always easy to decipher.
What we may be longing for is some reassuring promise of memory’s capacity to outlive not only the trauma and the victims, but also our own terror. And yet, the very efforts to document tragedy, in the form of installations like “Elegy in the Dust,” seem doomed to serve as a memento mori.
The dead are dust themselves. The world around us remains deadly in every moment. Ironically, though this toxic exhibition from September 11 has to be protected from our potentially damaging interference, it must also be tightly sealed off to protect viewers from its carcinogenic residue.
Can we find hope in the evidence of what survives? Can bearing witness by way of a carefully curated shrine give us a sacred place to locate our grief?
Pilgrimages to Auschwitz bring hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to stand before mute testimonials, collections of what the dead left behind. With no graves to visit, and dozens of memorials throughout Europe, something still feels inadequate about our efforts to find a personal shape for such collective and monumental mourning.
Even after more than 60 years, a sense of meaning in the shadow of the Holocaust remains elusive. Silence and stillness may be our only true means for honoring the dead. As too many examples remind us, we are capable even of destroying the aftermath of destruction. And we are still as fragile and temporary as ever.
Elizabeth Rosner is author of “Blue Nude” (Ballantine) and “The Speed of Light” (Ballantine, 2001).