“A stench beyond experience”


27 January is the day for everyone to remember the millions of people killed in the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. The Holocaust Memorial Day 2020 marks 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. On this day I take the liberty to share a few lines I recently discovered in a book by Marcus Smith.

Marcus Smith was the sole medical officer attached to a small team that was sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Smith arrived the day after the camp was liberated by allied troops on 29 April 1945. Approximately 10,000 of the 30,000 prisoners were sick at the time of liberation. After the war Smith worked as a radiologist in private practice in Santa Fe, New Mexico, between 1948 and 1976 . Moreover, he served on the editorial board of several medical journals. At this time Marcus Smith also unearthed his notes and the daily letters he wrote to his wife. He used them as source materials for a book on Dachau: “The Harrowing of Hell”.

From the perspective of a young physician, Smith describes his experiences, shedding light on the immense tasks his team completed, against great odds, to combat epidemic diseases and starvation and repatriate the former prisoners. His eyewitness account abounds with multisensory references. Thus, he recalls his arrival at the concentration camp and notes the inadequacy of language :

“An incredible sight, a stench that is beyond experience. Horror-stricken, outraged, we react with disbelief. “Oh God!” says Rosenbloom. Ferris is silent, and so is Howcroft, his vocabulary inadequate to describe this circle of evil. I hear Hollis, our carcounting driver, say that even primitive, savage people give a decent burial to their own dead and the dead of their enemies. I shut my eyes. This cannot be the twentieth century, I think. I try to remember the redeeming attributes of man. None comes to mind. “Lieutenant,” says Private Eastman, our young driver who has never voiced his feelings before. “Maybe we should occupy this country for fifty years.”

On numerous occasions Smith mentions the pervasive stench of death, feces, excrement, vomit and decomposition: “The air reeks with the death smell”. One can certainly argue that the olfactory experience upon the liberation is rather negligible compared to the terror, torture and systematic murdering in the numerous concentration and extermination camps – once again smell is a “little thing”. This is certainly true. Yet, the olfactory experience has been an important factor for commemorating the Holocaust. Accordingly, Marcus Smith also recalls a minor and rather casual dialogue he had with a colleague when writing the book:

When I showed the manuscript to another doctor, one of my colleagues, he commented that I wrote about the experience clinically, as though I were observing a patient. Yes, I said, that is the way it was: I could not have kept going without trying to be impersonal, even detached. But your remoteness was only skin deep, he continued; you were shattered by the visible evidence of genocide; your mind was unable to function, and you banished the experience from consciousness. Perhaps you wrote the book to rid yourself of the stench in your subconscious. Now it is out of your system. I denied it at the time, but perhaps he was right.

And a short narrative Smith covers in the appendix of the book provides points at the link between smell and memory:

After the war, Harry Pires, the Red Cross representative, spent a year in Paris as director of supplies. Here he was “able to eradicate the smells and emotions experienced in Dachau.” He now lives in North Hollywood, California. In 1966, Paul D. Adams retired from the United States Army with the rank of general after thirty-eight years of distinguished service as a commissioned officer. He lives in Tampa, Florida. In 1958 he wrote to Harry Pires about his return to Dachau: “The smell of death and human filth is still there and I suppose it always will be.”

A search on Google further reveals how important the sense of smell has actually been for commemorating the Holocaust. Literary works, diaries and many other artifacts reflecting on the Holocaust experience are full of olfactory references. Yet, Smith recalls his olfactory experience as a “stench beyond experience”. This wording reminds me of an early exhibition of olfactory art: “If there ever was” curated by Robert Blackson at the School of Arts, Design, Media & Culture of the University of Sunderland in 2008. The exhibition  brought distant, elusive, and sometimes impossible olfactory experiences to life – among them “Hiroshima” by Christophe Laudamiel. Yet, there was no olfactory interpretation of the Holocaust in this exhibition. This absence in an exhibition of “impossible smells” as the subtitle of catalogue calls it might be telling. It might actually highlight the challenge of our remembrance culture. How can there possibly be an olfactory representation for a “stench beyond experience”?

For readers who are not that familiar with Dachau and the systematic genocide committed by Germans and their collaborators: Dachau is a small town next to Munich in Germany. Dachau served as a prototype and model for the other German concentration camps that followed. Yet, historically, the concentration camp  in Dachau was not an extermination camp (as Auschwitz). This is a difference one should bear in mind when considering the number of 32,000 documented deaths at the camp in Dachau.

The featured image of this post is an aerial photograph of the extermination complex at Auschwitz was taken in April 1944 by a Mosquito plane from 60 Photo Recon Squadron of the South African Air Force.

Smith, M. J. (1972). Dachau: The harrowing of hell. State University of New York Press, p. 80, p. xiv, p.278f.

Image source: www.nizkor.org Description: An aerial reconnaissance photograph of the Auschwitz concentration camp showing the Auschwitz I camp. Mission: 60 PR 288 60 SQ Scale: 1/15,569 Focal Length: 20″ Altitude: 26,000′ Credit: National Archives, College Park, MD, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives. Taken April 4, 1944, Auschwitz, Poland