A despairing writer seeks solace in concentration-camp tourism
Six years ago, Jerry Stahl had this idea.
His third marriage was in shambles. A novelist, memoirist and screenwriter–he published the harrowing heroin tale Permanent Midnight in 1995–his career had stalled. The projects he’d undertaken for TV, film and print had pretty much failed. Depression had long been a frequent passenger in his psyche. Suicide was a possible option. He peered into the abyss, or more precisely, looked down from the Colorado Street Bridge connecting Pasadena and East Hollywood. He saw nets that were strung out to catch the falling bodies of people who did just that. So, that was out.
The lightbulb of an idea was this: Take a three-week bus tour of what he calls “Naziland,” three concentration camps and related museums in Eastern Europe. Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau, here I come!
Why not, Stahl, reasons, go somewhere where complete and utter despair and depression is wholly appropriate? What happened there during WWII, dwarfed the miseries of his own life. Surely, the enormity of all that would put things in perspective. He’d trod the ground where the bones of the dead were buried and ashes had drifted. He’d take it all in, reflect, and get a book out of it to boot.
“Via my tour group, I hoped I could once more find relief in a situation where feeling miserable was appropriate,” he writes in Nein, Nein, Nein!: One Man’s Tale of Depression, Psychic Torment and a Bus Tour of the Holocaust. “I could explore the land of genocide, visit sites of unspeakable suffering where bone-deep despair and depression–perhaps mankind’s darkest pre-existing condition–was what you were supposed to experience.
“The whole plan sounds demented, now that I hear myself confess it.”
Another factor: Donald Trump was ascendent and more than a few people were equating Trump’s strategy, tactics and autocratic bellicosity with Hitler’s. Stahl certainly felt that way, which might give the book added cultural currency.
Say this: The result of the trip wasn’t quite what he expected. For one thing, it took six years for the story to come to print– there was the case of lost notes and other personal issues that kicked in. But the trip itself was a crazy quilt of emotions, the horror of what had happened obviously–and the curious ways they were presenting in a tour setting–captured with dark humor and keen insight. If you’re not new to Stahl, you do expect this. Stahl has typically found the funny in the most hellish of situations, whether it’s his own or ones he’s making up.
The main theme that emerges in Nein! Nein! Nein! concerns Stahl’s own personal demons as they collide with the ghostly demons of the Holocaust. The idea of being on a tour with mostly midwestern tourists – he likened it to a 4-H Club trip initially – comprised of people of varying political and social persuasions was, well, odd. There would be a forced, though not entirely unwelcome, camaraderie. Which is to say, a collision course with humanity. The tourists munch on pizza, slurp sodas, buy tchotchkes in gift shops, snap selfies, crack lame jokes and behave, well, they behave the way people behave. While Stahl pokes some fun at them, he’s careful to note he doesn’t feel at all superior. He’s part of this, too.
“I’ve become the weird guy who doesn’t talk much on the bus,” Stahl writes. “I try to front that I’m gripped by the torment, soul-savaged by the in-your-faceness of strolling down the landscape where Hitler ripped the world apart, like a child tearing the head off a doll. Which is partly genuine, partly–mostly, your author’s grim, sociopathic tendency to shut down like an unplugged Roomba when planted in the Axis of Planned Activity.”
As to the camps, taking in the whole of the experience–seeing the “showers,” the ovens, the Arbeit Macht Frei sign overhanging Auschwitz’s gate–that hit him hard and at times. tore him apart. Stahl notes the contrast in presentation. Though the high-tech, immersive exhibition at Dachau is more informative and far-reaching, it may have a less powerful effect than the more unvarnished silent horror of Auschwitz.
While Stahl was writing a travelogue of sorts, he’s not a fan of linearity and is enamored of (sometimes) purposeful digressions. Some of these are whimsical, but pointed, like the possible antisemitism lurking behind the little salt-shaker-sized “Lucky Jews” statuettes sold at a Warsaw gift shop, a rabbi clutching a coin that you place at the door so money won’t leave the house.
The shop owner says tells Stahl: “They’re cute, ja? They are zydki. Lucky Jews. Put them by the door so money won’t go out of the house … in Poland we have a saying: ‘A Jew in the hallway–a coin in the pocket.’”
Writes Stahl: “I take six. Because–why not?” He riffs on the obvious racial stereotype, but says compared to the Julius Streicher cartoons “these rabbi dolls feel almost benign. All Talmudic beard and soulful eyes. But maybe benign is more insidious.”
Stahl’s friend Eric Bogosian blurbed the book and the author thus: “An acid wit as deadly serious as it is hilarious, insane and weirdly life-affirming … Stahl is fearless, gripping and most unsparing about his own damned soul.”
Stahl goes into some of the backstory, which is to say, historical and grisly digressions. There are the expected, still shocking, gruesome details about the ingenious forms of torture and Dr. Josef Mengele’s “medical experiments.” There are stomach-churning notations about Ilse Koch, “The Bitch of Buchenwald” and the wife of the Kommondant Karl Otto-Koch. She used of her victims tattooed skin and body parts for “crafting.”
On the schadenfreude side of the ledger, I have to admit finding pleasure in a rather satisfying account of how the Nazis convicted at Nuremberg were hanged. (Not quickly and probably not quickly on purpose, courtesy of hangman John C. Woods.)
One thing I found particularly charming–if that’s the word, and it’s probably not–is Stahl stopping his narrative at one point to recommend what he thinks best book on all this, a collection of short stories called This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Polish poet and journalist Tadeusz Borowski, who survived Auschwitz and wrote five first-person stories about it. Not just recommend, actually. Stahl says to put down his book and go find Borowski’s in the library or wherever and read that. And Stahl adds this note: Borowski killed himself by sucking in gas from a stove–in 1951.
Stahl attempts to step back from the statistics and the stock images of the Holocaust to cast an eye on the lives of these victims, what they may have been like before Hitler happened. He considers how shockingly terrifying it must have been to have their ordinary lives stripped away, the Jews realizing “the futility of all those wasted hours thinking about sex and money, did their hair look right, success and failure and all the things that drain the life out of life–when life is so fucking vulnerable and fragile and easy to pluck away?”
And, then, at one point late in the trek, Stahl admits he’s getting “burned out on the concentration camps” and immediately hates on himself for thinking so. He, and we, are on that kind of see-saw.
Robert Downey, Jr. has optioned Nein! Nein! Nein!