A Witness of Absence

My grad-student brother recently went to a conference on Jewish American and Holocaust literature. One of the major discussions among practitioners and critics in the form is about how to be a witness to the holocaust, how to stand as a witness of one of the most horrendous atrocities of history, how to speak of the murder of more than six million men, women, children.

The strongest witness, all agree, is the witness who is no longer here. Who witnesses exactly by not being here.

Berlin, it is said, is a city of memorials. There are many, but the most haunting for me is a witness of absence. It stands in the Bebelplatz, across from Humboldt University, on the spot where, in 1933, the Nazis encouraged students to burn more than 20,ooo books.

And so now there is, under the earth, this empty room, lined with empty bookshelves: A reminder of what was, and now is gone.

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