Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 29, 2013

The Empty Briefcase

Daffodils, magnolias, and cherry trees were blooming in Amherst as I walked to the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies. I put those yellow and pink blossoms at the beginning of my sentence, and I’ll add that a kind person had set out a plate of brownies, so you’ll know that hearing my student defend her thesis on the Holocaust in Literature for Children and Young Adults was a happy occasion, despite subject matter it hurts to think about. Tylar Suckau answered questions about work by Elie Wiesel, Jane Yolen, Art Speigelman, and others who wrote directly or indirectly about the death camps, and the various powers of fiction and nonfiction, and the ways lines blur between them.

As we settled in a room, I asked Professor James Young about a briefcase that was propped beside books in a glass case. He told me that the Institute had been given some papers from the Nuremberg trials, and the worn leather briefcase had belonged to a lawyer. Among the contents was a letter that began with the admission of responsibility for the deaths of about 1400 people, and ended with a plea that he was basically a good man, who was kind to animals.

Would I have noticed the briefcase if it were not behind glass, or even if it had been labeled? The display case gave it importance, while a little sign might have suggested the end of a conversation rather than starting one. An object in a case suggests that someone saw something worth saving. People change their minds about what matters most and what can or should be forgotten, but I’m glad that when historians sort, they preserve some ordinary old things that may provoke curiosity, perhaps especially when seen out of their usual context. I’m not planning to write about the Holocaust, but if I were to research the names of people and places, or theories on genocide, when feeling overwhelmed I might remind myself to return to that old briefcase, which made my heart thump. I’m sorry I didn’t take a picture, but here is the building that houses it.


Both a writer’s engagement and a reader’s belief often begin with artifacts. Tylar mentioned how crucial it seemed that Art Spiegelman included photographs of his parents within the drawings of his graphic novel,  MAUS: A SURVIVOR’S TALE, as a record of a moment when fact merges with fiction, and personal into more generalized history. What she calls paratexts and I more often call the afterword or the stuff at the back of the book, are also fairly ubiquitous, often as a way to suggest the context or point readers to the vastness beyond this story. Sometimes an author’s method is described. At the end of NUMBER THE STARS, Lois Lowry shares her factual inspiration, including a friend upon which she based the main character, how she walked the cobblestone streets in Copenhagen where her characters walked, considered a photograph of a face so young it broke her heart, and used a hand-hemmed linen handkerchief, taken straight from history, as a major plot point.

In a discussion of how the Holocaust may best be presented to children, naturally we considered the ways authors balance a terrible reality and hope, how lines were kept or crossed between truth and evasion, depictions of evil and sentimentality. Just as many caregivers today put on emphasis on rescuers and others who do good even during times of horror, most of the earliest introductions to the subject feature people who saved lives. I NEVER SAW ANOTHER BUTTERFLY introduces young readers to concentration camps by showcasing the poetry and paintings of children, few of whom survived imprisonment at Terezin. These were less often pictures of barbed wire and more often of dandelions painted on scraps of informational paper. James Young pointed out that thinking about better days was sustaining, with Primo Levi reciting Dante from memory, and singing, and talk and thoughts of past warmth and beauty. When we confront pictures of the death camps, it’s important to remember that we don’t see everything.

There’s often some part of us that doesn’t want to see the worst, or which we let ourselves glimpse only from the edges. I was horrified to read the letter that had been in the briefcase, written by the man who was good to animals — not that he shouldn’t be, but I was stunned that he thought it right to include that in his admission of killing innocents. I can’t understand, but that small window of his letter gives me some insight into a time and place that is in many ways incomprehensible. I’m glad that historians do so much more than tally losses, but continually uncover and rescue, sometimes one briefcase at a time.

We congratulated Tylar on her thorough study and her graduation, then passed through the kitchen on the way out. A string from an overhead light brushed my head. The linoleum and speckled Formica evoked the 1950s, closer to the time of what’s studied here, back when classes on the Holocaust didn’t exist, and this building was used for something else. Which would be another story.



  1. If you get a change, Jeannine, pick up T4 by Anne Clare LeZotte, which is a lovely, spare, verse novel about the killing of the disabled at the hands of the Nazis. It was marvelous, and gut-wrenching, but also part of the Holocaust.

    • Kelly, thank you for the recommendation! I will look it up.

  2. You always have an eye for the telling detail, Jeannine, and this is a chilling one. I’m glad there are people writing, talking, and teaching about the Holocaust, and uncovering those details — and students thinking hard about the ways we do this.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Amy, in what seems like an incredibly busy month. Finishing one book while sending another into the world is not for the faint hearted. Congratulations!

  3. Hitler painted flowers.

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