Efrat Hakimi: Hole, 2017, paper collage, 12.5 x 9 inches

Essay

Notes from the Underground

November 26, 2018Menachem Kaiser

This piece appears in a special section on Holocaust memory in our Fall 2018 issue. Subscribe to receive a copy of this issue in your mailbox.

I SPENT A FEW years working on a book about the Vilna ghetto and whenever I was in town, usually in the summer months, I’d give tours to friends or paying strangers. I’d lead groups of between two and twenty around the former sites of culture, governance, atrocity, resistance, etcetera, though really what I was doing was trying to make the invisible visible: though the ghetto maps onto a central neighborhood in the biggest city in Lithuania, it has been, predictably, infuriatingly, effaced. An uninformed pedestrian would have no idea she was walking streets that once imprisoned 20,000 Jews; aside from a couple of easily missed plaques schtupped onto walls where the ghetto entrances had been, there’s nary a hint. No memorials, no art, nothing in the way of let’s call it tangible memory. So a subplot of the tour was the reflexive acknowledgement that the tour was actually an inverted tour: Look how little there is to see!

The last stop on the tour exemplified this void. The Zydu Kulturos Ir Informacijos Centras, or the Jewish Culture and Information Center, was a one-story stucco building with mahogany trim and red roof shingles that sat on prime ghetto real estate. Despite the title, I didn’t have a clue what purpose the JCIC served. It was almost never open but when it was, here’s what you would find inside: a single employee behind a counter stocked with irrelevant brochures and two wall displays of Jewish kitsch imported from Israel—Hasidic figurines, dreidels, watercolors of the Western Wall—under a sign that said “Shofar Gallery.”

Anyway, this story starts when one day a Lithuanian journalist friend asked me what I thought about the recent discovery of a melina—a term of uncertain origin used to denote a designated hiding place used by Jews in the ghetto—in the basement of the JCIC.

That’s not true, I said. There are no extant melinas. These were hidden rooms in crowded buildings that have had a lot of residents, a lot of renovations, a lot of construction. So no, they did not just happen to find a melina in the basement of, of all places, the JCIC.

I don’t know, she said. I saw it in the news.

Promptly I went to investigate. I was right, of course—a melina had not been discovered in the basement of the JCIC. This would have been the unlikeliest version of an impossible event. But it turned out that the journalist was only partially wrong: there was a melina in the basement of the JCIC, because the JCIC had built one.

It seemed the JCIC had taken the project very seriously: they didn’t build a display of what a secret hiding place was like, they built an actual secret hiding place. There were no signs, no directions, no clues. Inside, an unmarked door opens to a dark, dingy staircase, the sort of staircase you instinctively know you’re not meant to go down; it leads to a dark, cool room with stone walls. On the far wall you can, if you look closely, see the faint outline of a door. A secret door. The secret door opens into the melina.

The melina is small but not that small, perhaps 12 feet by 12 feet. In one corner there’s a straw mattress; in the opposite corner is a smaller straw mattress. Child-sized. Hanging on the wall is a wool overcoat with a yellow star sewn onto the chest. Scattered about—on wooden sidetables, on ledges jutting out from the walls—are old prayerbooks, scraps of old prayerbooks, half-used candles. There are a lot of wartime hiding-place accessories, like beat-up valises, a tin stove, a crushed hat. There’s a shaft out of which faint sunlight seeps, but—poke your head underneath, you’ll see—it’s just a recessed light bulb. The walls are made of stone, the floor is concrete. It’s dirty, uncleaned-cellar dirty.

All of which is to say: what you’re picturing in your head is exactly right. It looks exactly how you, having seen however many WWII/Holocaust movies, would picture a wartime hiding place for Jews. It fits the image so well, in fact, that it’s impossible not to think of it as cliché. That there’s utterly no surprise, nothing unexpected, is the clearest mark of its bogus-ness.

That said, I wasn’t particularly bothered by the melina. Yes, it was inane and vapid, but so what? It was little more than an odd decision made by an irrelevant institution, propelled, as far as I could tell, by a sort of bureaucratic unthinking: why not build it? Probably the JCIC administrators thought this was an interesting and meaningful way to commemorate Jewish suffering. They had a building, they had a basement, they had the funds; let’s build a melina! Fine; I wasn’t about to picket. On the contrary: it became the highlight of my ghetto tours. I framed it as a lurid demonstration of wayward ideas of representation and memorialization. What could you do but embrace the preposterousness? "They built a brand new hiding place for Jews," was a line I’d use all the time. "All they need now is a Jew to hide in it!"

Then one day, as I led a group up from the JCIC basement, I, without quite meaning to, unthinkingly, impulsively, enveloped in the weird performy haze I often experienced as a guide, asked the employee if I could spend a night in the melina. I asked in the same cheeky/sincere way we used to ask the substitute teacher for extra recess. I said I wanted to write a story, for a to-be-determined American magazine. (True enough.) She thought this was a strange request, though not nearly as strange as she should have. My request was duly forwarded to Algimaintis, Algis for short, the director of the JCIC, who, after very little back and forth, said yes. I assumed Algis would have some concerns. He had none. The whole thing snowballed quickly. We booked a date. July 31, 7pm to 7am.

I ARRIVED at the JCIC at about six. I brought a couple of bottles of water. No computer, no phone.

Algis was already there, and with him was a woman named Ruta, a feature writer for Lietuvos Rytas, the most popular newspaper in the country. “Ruta,” Algis said, “wants to interview you. She wants to write a story for the Sunday magazine, about the American writer sleeping in the melina.”

Algis, like most middle-aged Lithuanian men I’ve met, was large and quiet. He had a square face and a hard, round belly. He wore surprisingly fancy dress shirts and spoke in a low and modulated tone. His opinions and thoughts were not easily guessed at. Still, it was apparent that he was very excited about all of this out-of-nowhere press attention. My story in an American magazine. Ruta’s story in Lietuvos Rytas.

I learned later that the JCIC had emailed a press release to, essentially, the entire country. Here are the relevant portions, translated:

On the night of July 31-August 1 American journalist M. Kaiser will stay inside the Jewish Culture and Information Center Melina (ghetto shelter from the Nazis).

Goal: to try to at least partly feel the emotions of the Vilnius Jews persecuted by the Nazis and their henchmen, and then describe those experiences.

Jewish Culture and Information Centre is the only place in Lithuania equipped with a unique exhibition of the Jewish ghetto “Melina” [ ... ] It is entirely possible that the JCIC basement was actually equipped with a melina. Consequently, M. Kaiser will try to feel the hard way what it means to live in almost impossible conditions.

This was exceptionally humiliating: being publicly depicted as a journalist trying “to feel the emotions of the Vilnius Jews persecuted by the Nazis,” which is, of course, a singularly delusional, egocentric, and offensive “goal.” But as mad and embarrassed as I was, I couldn’t really blame Algis. He was of the belief, I knew, that my feelings and opinions with respect to the melina were the same as his and the JCIC’s: that the melina was something significant and profound. He thought that the story I’d write would be a certain kind of story: a soft, earnest story; a story about the ghetto and its horrors; about hidden Jews; and so on. So of course they went ahead and wrote a press release pulsing with the assumptions I’d done nothing to dissuade them of.

There was no way I was going to allow Ruta to interview me, but in order to make it easier for everyone I lied and said I’d meet her back there tomorrow at noon, after I’d had a chance to go back to my hotel, clean up, rest a little. Ruta liked this idea: “You’ll be fresh after the experience,” she said. She wished me luck, said she hoped I saw ghosts.

Before my night began, Algis took me down to show me what’s what, where’s where. It felt not unlike how a host might show his guest the room he’ll be staying in. I took the opportunity to ask Algis how they furnished the melina—where did they get all this stuff? Algis answered that every single item, down to the straw mattresses, had been donated by a film prop company. “But,” he hastened to add, “the film prop company had originally gotten it from locals.” So it’s possible, Algis said, that these items were in fact used in an actual melina. Algis pointed to a doll lying on top of the smaller mattress. “This doll is from the ghetto,” he said. I asked him how he could know such a thing for certain. “The company told me,” he said. “They said that the woman who gave it to them said it was from the ghetto.”

I expressed an appropriate amount of amazement, and then asked if I could use the candles. “Sure,” Algis said, “Don’t worry about burning them down. I can get new ones. Wax stains are good.”

Then Algis pointed to a door, opposite the building’s entrance, and said that he’d be spending the night in the building. “If you need anything,” he said, “just bang on the door. The main door”—the only exit—“will be locked.” Then Algis went into his office, and I went downstairs.

I SAT on the small, wooden chair and wondered, really for the first time, what I would actually do all night. Up until this moment the whole thing had been hazy, abstract—a crass cross between a joke, performance art, and a premise for an essay. But now I was facing a long, cold, boring, lonely night in a cellar.

I’d never before been inside the melina for more than half a minute. Now I had twelve empty hours. Like a nosy guest, I examined the room, inspected the handiwork. The furniture: oven (with charcoal in the drawer), chairs, stove, mattresses. Accoutrements: kerosene lantern, beat-up metal cutlery and plates, hardened potato peels, black fedora, wool overcoat with comically large yellow star stitched onto left breast.

The level of detail was impressive, I’ll admit. Right down to the singed pages of the siddur and the twine wrapped around the handle of the valise. I wasn’t using the light bulb; I was using the candles. The flames coughed from the caked-in dirt. The candles exemplified the startling amount of forethought that went into this place: those candles came in here pre-dirtied. Is this an achievement? I think it is, but a narrow one. A forgery can be virtuosic, but the melina isn’t a forgery—there’s no original being forged. That all this stuff was donated by a film prop company made a lot of sense: there was a verisimilitude, but the reality it aspired to was more Hollywood than historical.

And there was the doll, which Algis identified as having been in the ghetto. While I had no reason to believe that was true—I should rely on Algis who’s relying on the prop company who’s relying on a local woman who’s relying on . . . ?—the doll did feel different from everything else in there. First of all, it was actually old, not only made to look old. More than that, it felt both well-made and made of cheap materials; it felt authentic, even if such a feeling is meaningless in and of itself.

But all of this energy, all this forethought, it doesn’t achieve anything, it doesn’t bring the cellar any closer to being a melina. It’s just costume. A melina isn’t a space, or at least isn’t exhaustively defined as a space; it’s an experience. This is something the melina—which is to say, the “melina,” the cellar room I had volunteered to spend the night in—actually illustrates very well, albeit inversely: A hiding place isn’t a melina unless you’re hiding from, well, Nazis. Even if the melina were more tastefully done, even if it were more “authentic,” even if it were an actual, historical melina, the experience would still be obscured. The line between trauma and commemoration is asymptotic. Trauma is elusive—you cannot touch trauma, you can only touch what trauma has touched. Commemoration demands that we give form—whether a site (memorial), an object (artifact), occasion (holiday), or action (pilgrimage)—to what is formless (starvation, fear, death, etc.). Commemoration, even at its most poignant, can be concerned only with the rind of the experience, never with its essence.

And if the melina is meant as a kind of diorama, a historical reconstruction, then it’s hard to approach it as anything but a mildly interesting and perhaps very offensive failure. Because is there anything about it that is instructive or illustrative? Any historical insights on offer are misdirected and meager: you’ll learn only that sometimes Jews had to hide in the ghetto, without learning a single thing about the cause, experience, and implications of that hiding.

OK, but what about commemorative value?The fact that it is where it is—smack in the middle of the ghetto—does that matter? Maybe it’s like a memorial? Maybe its subtext (intentional or otherwise) is something like, "In this (general) space were once melinas"? Maybe. I think there’s an argument to be made. But that entails a whole new set of criteria: we don’t assess and experience memorials the same way we do artifacts. The experience of a memorial is an evaluative one: does it move me? Does it capture what it sets out to capture? How does it interact with the space? With the memory-slash-event? Framed like this, the melina is hardly anything at all. A melina was—however makeshift, however precarious—a haven: its function stood in opposition to that of the ghetto. In other words, the Vilna ghetto was a space/event in which Jews were compelled to hide for their lives, and I’m not sure building a brand new hiding place is a meaningful way to commemorate that.

FOR A FEW HOURS I sat at the desk and wrote notes in the dim candlelight. I ran out of things to write about pretty quickly. I paced the room. I sat on the ledges, the chairs, the beds. I re-examined all the stuff on the desk. I tried to figure out what year a German newspaper clipping was from. I questioned many of my life decisions. I wondered how, when I’d write this essay, I’d make these hours more exciting/profound. There were a lot of noises seeping in from the street. Dogs’ barks, people’s shouts, the clack of high-heels on the cobblestones. The noise was much more disconcerting than I would have thought. For reasons I still can’t totally articulate, I kept the secret door open.

And—it was physically uncomfortable. I know, the point of the endeavor was to be uncomfortable; but it was really uncomfortable. The floor was rough concrete. The chairs were low and hard and had straight, stiff backs. The mattresses were straw-filled canvas.

The candles provided barely enough light to read what I was writing in my notebook: 22:03, feel conflicted about staying in the melina. Across the hall was a sort of makeshift conference room. It was carpeted in there, and infinitely less dank. Fluorescent lights. I could go there, lie down. Who would know? I could go to the conference room and never admit it. I could say I only thought about going. I wrote some more in my notebook. I ate two wedges of Gouda cheese and drank quite a bit of vodka.

Admission: earlier, when I mentioned I brought a couple of bottles of water, the implication—what I’d purposely implied—was that this was all I brought. This was a lie. I also brought a bottle of vodka, a bread roll, a bag of peanuts, a banana, and two books, all of which was packed inside a red backpack, which in the dusty grey melina stood out so much that I eventually put it out in the hallway. To be doubly honest, I should tell you that I was not planning on telling you what I’d brought with me. This was supposed to be a funny, flippant narrative—I slept in a fake melina, exclamation mark, exclamation mark. But at some point in the middle of the night I began to feel acutely ashamed of this stunt. It was a heavy, palpable feeling of shame, that clenching-unclenching fist in your stomach. Down there in the melina I may have literally hung my head.

Whence the shame? It’s layered. First there was the chutzpah, the effrontery, however ironic and clever I thought I was being. I’ve done my best in this essay, and also in my head, to dance around the maybe-offensiveness of sleeping inside a (however misguided) Holocaust memorial, to qualify and justify and keep you on my side. After all is said and done, maybe sleeping in the melina was provocative but not over the line or maybe it was one or the other or maybe it was neither—honestly at this point I no longer know how to parse the questions—but still, the proper, productive response to the JCIC’s bumbling memorial effort was not to indulge it; the tone of this project was, from the outset, grossly sarcastic. And that sense of shame landed, maybe only could land, when I had no one to perform for, when I was alone, like this, spending a meaningless night in a meaningless cellar in a meaningful location. Sitting in the melina, bored, writing increasingly nonsensical and meta notes in my notebook, trying to think up ways to be clever and smart about the experience: Why? To what end? I wasn’t even planning on being honest with you. For great swaths of this essay I was going to lie and misrepresent. So, really, why be there at all?

Beneath the shame of impudence and failure was fear. That I was in over my head. That I was leveraging what should not be leveraged. This stunt with the melina; writing about the Vilna ghetto; writing about the Holocaust in general. I fear I’ve lost or never had that anchoring sense of humanity; that my flippancy is nothing but a desperate means to hang a curtain of comfort and familiarity on the subject; that the comfort and familiarity is illusory, delusory, delusional.

Consider the fact that I have not yet mentioned, this far into an essay that is certainly not not about the Holocaust, that two of my grandparents were survivors. My first couple drafts omitted it entirely; the editor, who knows me and my feints well (and whose own grandparents are survivors), would have none of it; I resisted; the editor would have none of it. This omission/resistance is either (as she believes) an indication of a pronounced lack of reflection on my part, a failure to properly grapple with my legacy; or (as I believe) is largely defensible, as this essay was or was supposed to be about a fake melina in the Vilna ghetto. But either way, you can see how stubbornly I cling to the impersonal.

I knew the dates, the statistics, the numbers. I was familiar with the ghetto’s government, schools, hospitals. I could cite by heart the plays the ghetto theater had put on. I had at hand so many heartbreaking stories of death and loss and sacrifice, so many uplifting stories of courage and resistance, so many funny and shocking stories. But the more I knew, the less I felt. Tragedy had so long ago become “tragedy,” material to compile, parse, organize, write about, offer insight into. Or maybe it was always like that? Maybe I was always more comfortable with questions of aesthetics than of humanity?

At around 2:30 in the morning I decided I would tell Ruta that I encountered a ghost. The ghost will wake me up as I am drowsing off at the desk. My head will be down, resting in the crook of my arm. The ghost will say, Wake up. I will jerk my head up, startled, and say, Who’s there? The ghost will say, It is I, Yosl. Of the Vilna ghetto. I’ll say, Yosl? Yosl? Menachem, the ghost will say, why do you disturb my resting space? I don’t understand, I’ll say. How can this be your resting space? This isn’t even a real melina! Yosl will say, I am a ghost. I haunt whatever is available. I will say, But they only built this place a few years ago! Yosl will ask, Is it all a joke to you? Is all of this, are all of us, just texts and spaces for you to invade and comment on? Do we not mean anything?

BY THEN I WAS quite drunk; I’d been sipping vodka for hours. I was making crumbs, and I couldn’t decide if I should feel bad about the mess. Also, I had to pee, but I was reluctant to go upstairs where the bathroom was, embarrassed that Algis might hear me. I took down the wool coat from its peg—the one with the enormous yellow star on its chest—and used it as a makeshift sleeping bag. I fell asleep on top of the overcoat on top of the straw-filled canvas mattress. It was uncomfortable, but not historically so.

I woke up with searing pain in my shoulders. It was just after 5:30. I left the melina and sat in the well-lit carpeted room across the hall, and read. At 06:37, I started to clean up my stuff. I put the suitcase back in its place at the foot of the bed. I hung the overcoat up. All the stuff I’d removed from the desk I put back. I gathered the empty water bottles and the empty vodka bottle, put it in my knapsack. I extinguished the candles. As a sort of valedictory gesture, I sat silently in the dark for a few minutes.

At 07:12, I went upstairs and sat in the lobby, waited for Algis to wake up. The lobby was a mess; they were doing minor renovations. Algis mentioned the night before that they were building a café that will serve what Algis referred to as “Jewish food.” “Like what?” I’d asked. “Hammantashen. Falafel. You know. Real authentic Jewish food.” I waited an hour. Then I knocked on the door Algis had told me to knock on, but he didn’t answer. I banged on the door, hard.

WHEN I HAD MET Ruta the evening before, there was a photographer with her. I wasn’t planning on telling you about him, either. Justin the photographer was all business. He didn’t give a shit about any of it. He didn’t care about the melina, he didn’t care why I was there, he didn’t care who’s exploiting whom. He was there only to take a bunch of photographs and be on his way. I managed to postpone the interview with Ruta but couldn’t come up with an excuse to get out of a photoshoot with Justin. I was ushered downstairs and into the melina. Justin sat me on a stool, lit some of the candles, and had me pose in profile. I was intensely ashamed of these pictures even before Justin had taken any. These photographs exist somewhere, if only on Justin’s memory card. After a few shots he looked up from his camera and said, “You look incredibly sad.” I didn’t know what he meant, if he wanted to encourage my pose, or if he was just making conversation.

Menachem Kaiser's memoir Kajzer is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.