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from the April 2016 issue

From “What are the Blind Men Dreaming?”

The following is an excerpt from Jaffe's multi-generic book due out later this year from Deep Vellum publishing. Jaffe's book is composed of the individual voices of three generations of women: mother, in the diary she wrote after liberation from Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen; daughter, considering the power of memory and survival; and granddaughter, reflecting on what it means to be the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. In this excerpt, we open with a brief excerpt from Lili Stern's diary—translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac—followed by a reflection penned by her daugher Noemi Jaffe, translated from the Portuguese by Julia Sanches.


2 August 1944

Almost a month has passed since I started in the kitchen. I am already used to the work and we have as much to eat as we need. But that's not enough for us. We have so many friends, relatives who are starving. The four of us can't watch this, Hajnal is in the storeroom with the margarine and sugar. She brings them out to us and we pass them on. It was very dangerous to organize stealing [because] when the German notices someone, woe to her. Yet we did it anyway. Since our friends weren't in our camp, I had to pass it over across the electric wire. This was very dangerous and I was the only one who dared. First it was the German, so he didn't notice because he shoots immediately. Second, it was that my hand mustn't brush the wire because that, too, means death. But it didn't hurt me, I wasn't scared of death because I'd taken in everything with a cool head. Every day it went like that. Till I got in trouble.

Day before yesterday, Hajnal brought out margarine again, about a gram. Alis hid it right away among the cabbages, meaning to take it out in the evening before we went home. However one girl among us asked Alis to give her a little margarine because she had nothing, and she wasn't feeling well so she couldn't chew the dry bread. I heard that and afterward they sent me to the end of the camp so I wasn't in the kitchen (they told me what happened next). Alis [was] like all of us. If we had something we couldn't say we wouldn't provide it. Alis told the girl, “Keep watch so no one sees me while I take it out.” While Alis was taking out the margarine, the German woman came and saw Alis. “What are you doing here?” She, frightened, says: “I am taking out a little margarine.” “And where are you from?” “We are four sisters and we haven't been feeling well so we pooled our portions together.” “You dare to say this to me?!” Then she slapped Alis—“Show me your sisters.” I wasn't there so instead of me our friend spoke up. “So here you are. You'll kneel here in front of the kitchen until roll call—in an hour; if you don't admit by then which one of you stole the margarine I will throw all four of you into the crematorium.” Alis didn't say it was Hajnal, and the others also didn't say, they kept silent. As for me, while they were kneeling, I am on my way back. In the morning they told what happened. I didn't even think what I was doing but ran straight to tell the German woman it was my fault (even though I didn't know what this was about). When the other girls saw what I was up to, they grabbed me, they didn't want to let me go because they knew this was death. I was stronger than they were, the time for roll call was near and I had to hurry. Why should four of them be killed when the Germans would be satisfied with one, and I was not afraid of death. I went in. I knocked on the door. Inside the German woman was with a German man. “Why did you come? What do you want?” I didn't know what to answer for a moment, I cried, and through my sobs I said, “Let my cousins go, they're not guilty, I stole the margarine.” At that she jumped up, came over, and slapped me. “So you admit this just like that? Where did you take it from? Do you realize what you'll get now?” “Sorry, I know, I saw it on the table and I took it, I never will again.” “No, I will show you what you'll get, you'll never see the sun again, mark my words!” I tried to plead for mercy but she wouldn't relent. At that point the German asks me: “How old are you?” (Of course I said a year less.) “Sixteen.” “Sixteen? And you still don't know this must not be taken?” (He looks over at the German woman and whispers to her in a low voice) “Don't be so strict—you can see she's still young.” At this the German woman fumed: “What? You're defending her? I'm off to the camp officer and he'll give her her due.” She left. Meanwhile, he took me out, over to a pile of stones where he ordered me to kneel and hold over my head this huge stone I couldn't even lift. I picked up the stone but had to put it back down, I couldn't hoist it up. The German watched me struggle and said: “Be careful, if you aren't strong, the German woman will come and you know what to expect then!” With huge effort I lifted the stone up to my head but I couldn't hold it, the stone dropped onto my head. Then I thought I'd faint, but I was strong. I was in terrible pain, the whole camp was standing at roll call, my cousins too, and my tears were dropping like rain from my eyes, not out of remorse for taking it upon myself but from the pain. I knelt that way for two hours when the German came and someone [said]: “Get up, off to the kitchen with you, keep working!!” I put the stone down and wanted to stand. The sharp rock on which I'd been kneeling had made my knee hurt so badly that I fell. I heard the voice of the German again, I wanted to stand but didn't know how. I sat and after ten minutes hobbled into the kitchen, where I fainted. My sisters cried, gave me cold compresses, they comforted me until I began to feel better.

Yesterday, further: No longer did we dare even think of stealing something but those who hadn't yet gotten into trouble were not afraid. They stole meat. The German woman noticed and since again she didn't know who'd done the stealing, she announced the whole kitchen would have to perform a “sport” gymnastics drill. All forty-five of us stood outside. First, run three times across the yard holding a stone over your head, afterward hop across like a frog, and, finally, crawl three times around the yard on your knees. Since the German woman was alone, that made it easier because while she was looking forward, we behind her only pretended to run, and vice versa. So it was going fine until she spotted me. When she did see me it was terrible. “Aha, so that's you, is it? Yesterday you stole margarine and today, the meat,” and she began beating me. She broke three canes over me: one on my head, the second on my back, the third over my chest. But that was not enough, she kept following me and didn't look at the others, they walked around, she didn't care about them any more. The five of us, because we were together, got it bad. One of us had her leg amputated, a second was operated on, a third as well, and I had a gash all the way to the bone which I did what I could to treat on my own.


One of my cousins stole margarine from the kitchen, and the guards suspected her of doing it. I’d gone to visit a friend in another barrack. When I came back, my cousins asked me to turn myself in and to tell the guards that I was the thief. I had nothing to lose so I went over and told them it was me. The guard said he’d kill me, but I said I was very sorry and so he decided that he would only punish me. I spent a whole day on my knees, on the gravel, holding an enormous stone over my head.

It’s impossible to dramatize the stone, to turn it into a metaphor. Yet, even so, this event, this fact, is what is most present in her own memory and in her daughters’ memories, as if the stone synthesized her and the war—even though it also doesn’t. There is no way to synthesize war. Nothing can symbolize war or suffering, even if the object-stone, the object-punishment, and the object-butter could all somehow be turned into symbols. No one outside this history has the right to turn it into a story. But then, how does something become a story? How do we tell facts? And, how can we listen to this fact?

In 2009, in Auschwitz, this stone could have been in any and every corner of the camp, and the place where she held the stone could have been any place. And, yet, this place and this stone would never be there because what happened, even if it once happened in a specific place, was no longer there. If fate is what will fatally come to pass, the past is what has fatally passed, which is why it can be forgotten by those who lived it. The duty to remember rests with those who haven’t; and yet, there is no hope of them being able to do so, because it—the thing that must be remembered—is gone. To try, again, to see the place where it all happened and, once there, to also clearly see the stone that was held, or the place where she held it, is so poetic an endeavor it borders on ridiculous.

It’s difficult to understand why people feel the need to visit Auschwitz, a visit which shouldn’t be emotional, but rather documentary and informative—though this seems impossible. Seeing, being there, picturing the place where she held that stone—it chills the soul forever. She never wants to go back. She doesn’t want to watch films about the war, read books about the war, or even listen to people talking about it. And this is all justified, and yet, somehow, when you look at her, the stone is still there. To know that she held a stone over her head for a whole day, injuring her knee forever, because her cousin—not her—had stolen some butter, can’t help but provoke a permanent gravitational pull, or downward tug, in the memories of those who listen to this story and in the memories of her daughters, like an anchor that is slowly and constantly sinking—a little more every day, a little more with every dream.

And, yet, the stone should not be overestimated, made into an icon, or used as a further motive for one to feel shocked, or to suffer, if she will not do so herself. What right do other people have to suffer more than she does? To “oversuffer,” “altersuffer,” to suffer over the dehumanization she did not actually feel because the war was, for her, a matter of fact where, for others, it is so much more than that. This can, at times, leave the impression that compassion, or the idea that a person can fully feel the pain of another, is a sham, because there is no way to suffer in the place of another, no way to truly empathize. The compassionate understand pain, but pain cannot be understood; those who suffer understand nothing.

So, what is the moral of the stone? What sense is there in knowing this harrowing story? Maybe the sense is in knowing that there is no sense to it, and that nothing can be learned from it. She cannot, cannot, cannot be turned into a heroine because of how horrifically she suffered, no matter how tempting it may be. In the camp, suffering was commonplace and her punishment was moderate, bearable. And yet, it’s so difficult to look at her at length and to not picture her holding that stone. And if she’s gone and forgotten everything, how does this everything now determine who she is? Or was it the stone, among many other things, that determined her decision (or her non-decision—it’s impossible to determine) to forget? She has forgotten and no longer thinks about it, but if someone asks her, or if she does decide to talk, what she talks about is the stone.

And why did the guard give her a lesser punishment and not send her instead to the gas chamber? Why did she decide to pay for an act she did not commit? Why did her cousins ask her to? Perhaps she felt indebted to them because they had helped her get work in the kitchen, which had saved her life. In a previous roll call, her three cousins had been chosen to work in the kitchen, but she hadn’t. The following day, her cousins had insisted she line up again for the roll call and, this time, she had been chosen. The commandant had noticed there was an extra prisoner in line, and so she pulled someone else out—someone who may have died because of what she did. Maybe she felt indebted to her cousins and also to the other woman who died in her place.

The stone-as-fact is larger than the stone-as-history, than the stone-as-symbol. But those who have not experienced the stone itself, and who are sons and daughters of the fact, can only think of it as an indirect occurrence that carries symbolic force.

shulamite stone, margareta stone, square stone, rectangular stone, cement stone, sand stone, pointy stone, smooth stone, heavy stone, dense stone, large stone, practical stone, brittle stone, gray stone, opaque stone, real stone, unreal stone, painful stone, still stone, movable stone, difficult stone, impassable stone, hard stone, hardy stone, lost stone, equal stone, common stone, unique stone, idiotic stone, innocent stone, sticky stone, distant stone, actual stone, crusty stone, loose stone, any stone, mineral stone, ornamental stone, stony stone, polished stone, touchstone, philosopher’s stone, fundamental stone, chipped stone, sleek stone, a stone in your shoe, precious stone, semi-precious stone, rolling stone, kidney stone, keystone, crumbling stone, sharpening stone, dry stone, pre-stone, post-stone, to throw the first stone, to squeeze blood from a stone, to be hard as stone, to never have seen the stone, to picture the stone, to be in her place, holding the stone

Being the child of a survivor means feeling the temptation, in some distant and inhospitable part of your memory, to have been in the survivor’s place. To not have let her live through all that she lived through, to travel to the past and stop him, to kill the guard who ordered her punishment. To pierce through time and through the camp’s regulations, and save her. A mother who has suffered is a failure of history, a twisted reversal, which leaves her children with a minute guilt, an absence, and a dream or a nightmare that they carry with them throughout the day and which both impedes and stimulates life. The desire to save one’s mother is also a desire to eradicate her suffering from all our memories so that she herself can be freed of it, so that she can live without the stone.


Tragedy-as-stone. Drama-as-stone.


Founded by Xeno of Citium, Stoicism affirms that the universe is material and exists under the command of a divine logos, a concept borrowed from Heraclitus. The soul identifies with this divine principle, as part of a whole to which it belongs. This logos (or universal reason) ordains everything: everything arises from it and in accordance with it; and it is thanks to it that the world is a kosmos (which in Greek means “harmony”).

Stoicism posits life in accordance with a rational law of nature, and counsels indifference (apathea) toward everything that is external to one’s being. The wise man obeys this natural law by recognizing that he is no more than a player in the grand order and purpose of the universe, and that he must stay serene through the tragic as well as the good. 

The entire universe is material. To carry a stone above one’s head in a concentration camp in 1944 is to be part of the body of the universe. It is to be the hand, finger, liver, and spleen of the universe. It is to be the star, the tree trunk, the stone itself, to meld with the corporeality of the stone. It is to become part of another planet, where others also carry stones, or where bacteria wander wildly through a swamp, or perhaps where there is nothing at all, and to carry a stone is to carry nothing.

The universe is material and exists under the command of a divine logos, a concept borrowed from Heraclitus. According to Heraclitus, logos is the underlying reason, the cosmic order that governs everything that takes place in the material universe. It is, in other words, an idea similar to that of God, a God who commands and sets down rules and who, behind all these rules and regulations, is also incomprehensibly good. This hand, this spleen of the universe, which carries the stone, this star from another galaxy, is also part of a cosmic order and is governed by an order—order, ordinance organization, rules, bureaucracy, convention, system, doctrine, ideology, legislation, classification, hierarchy, structure, schematization, plan, process, method, procedure, sequence—which would like, in some secret unknowable way, for that stone, in that instant and in that place, to be carried by that person—in this case, Mother. Zeno of Citium—and before him, Heraclitus—created a system of the notion that, behind that stone she carried, there was a logos—which later become word, reason—which wanted, determined, and knew that she would carry that stone. The act of submitting to carrying the stone is to be part of the cosmic order, to carry out the harmonious will of the governing reason. To refuse to carry it would be to disobey this will, superior to that of the individual Nazi official, who is a mere instrument of the cosmic will. And what if a person were to disobey? What if one would rather die than carry the stone? Wouldn’t this also be part of the universal logos’s will?

The soul identifies with this divine principle, as of a whole to which it belongs. This logos (or universal reason) ordains everything: everything arises from it and in accordance with it; and it is thanks to it that the world is a kosmos (which in Greek means “harmony”).

What is a person’s soul at the exact moment she carries a stone above her head? Being part of the body, the soul carries the stone with the body. Actually, it is the soul, not the body, that carries it, because in this instant soul and body are one and the same. If the soul cannot bear what the body must do, they separate, becoming two, breaking the universe’s cosmic unity; the finger separates from the hand; the soul, separate and disobedient, displeases the universal logos and, because of this rupture, minimal as it may be, there is an earthquake, a storm, a sudden change in season. It is hotter in winter and colder in summer.

The logos (or universal reason) ordains everything: everything arises from it and in accordance with it; it is thanks to the logos that the world is a kosmos. The logos ordains: it organizes: it commands: to organize is to command: it is to set the napkins and the plates, with the cutlery on the correct side, the main dish and the salad—everything set just right for the guests—the person who organizes the table commands the table—a universal principle of harmony—and sits at the head of the table: the organizer is the commander: to order: to command: to demand obedience: what is the intimate distinction between the cosmic order—spring, summer, fall, winter, day, night, flowers, leaves, fruit, birth, life, and death—and an officer’s order: do it now!? Schnell!? Is logos an officer who stands at the bottom or top of the universe giving orders? Pick up the stone! Carry it! Live! Die!

Everything arises from it and in accordance with it. From it: the universal source of everything. In accordance with it: in its image and likeness. Everyone carries the image and likeness of the universal logos. What does it look like? It must be Protean, in the form of all that acts and exists. It is the image and likeness of everything that, arising from it, takes place. What is the difference between image and likeness? Some exegetes must have spent decades discussing, challenging, and analyzing it. The image of the logos. Image is an indirect thing. And what takes place is simply a likeness of the image. First World, Third World, barely sentient world, and so far from the intelligible world, where the logos surely does not carry stones, being as it is part of the whole. The person who carries a stone here, in the sentient world, in the world of images and likenesses, is no more than a poor imitation of the pure logos, which does not carry stones.

Stoicism posits life in accordance with a rational law of nature and counsels indifference (apathea) toward everything that is external to one’s being.

Carrying a stone is external to oneself. One stone, picked out of hundreds of thousands of stones all piled in a corner of the camp. To grab the stone, and take the stone to a specific point, where the ground is covered in gravel, and hold it there throughout the whole day. The stone is not a sentient being and can therefore be simply apathetic, and indifferent toward the rest of the world. Stoicism posits living in accordance with the rational law of nature. Again, in accordance with. It is what it is, if it is so. Whatever happens, happens. Fate is what happens. The past is what has passed. In accepting the tragic, therefore, there is no submission, but simply a kind of foreknowledge or even a retrospective knowledge. A prophecy of the real. What is happening is what is happening. There is no quitters’ apathy, only the wisdom of the connoisseur. A kind of superiority. The tragic accepts, because it could have been no different. If it had been, the cosmic unity would have been broken.

The wise man obeys the natural law by recognizing that he is no more than a player in the grand order and purpose of the universe, and that he must stay serene through the tragic as well as the good.   

Order and purpose of the universe. Besides order, the universal logos also has a purpose, and it is not man’s responsibility to know or to question it. Everything has happened on purpose and with a purpose. Children will often say, when they have been found out, that they did not do it on purpose, that it was by accident. In the universe, though, nothing is excused. Carelessness, clumsiness, forgetfulness, accidents: What purpose do these serve? The universe has a finality; and the person who carries the stone can see herself as a player in the grand order and purpose of the universe. Why did she carry the stone? We don’t know, nor will we ever know. But, according to Stoicism, there must have been a purpose.

The wise man must remain serene in the face of the tragic and the good. Serenity: silence. Serene: cloudless. The wise man must remain silent and cloudless, like a sky in which one can see no sign of rain. Neither the body nor the soul, which in the wise man are one and the same, may show signs of alteration in their serenity. Healthy mind in a healthy body. To carry the stone serenely, with a silent soul. Mom, what did you think of while you were carrying that stone? Nothing, love, nothing. I couldn’t think. I cried, but I couldn’t wipe away my tears.

© 2012 by Noemi Jaffe. Translation © 2016 by Julia Sanches (Portuguese) and Ellen Elias-Bursac (Serbian). By arrangement with Deep Vellum Publishing.

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