Hel­l’s Traces

  • Review
By – March 22, 2017

How to make sense of a sense­less act — this has been one of the pri­ma­ry dri­ving forces in attempts to under­stand the Holo­caust. Vic­tor Ripp, the tal­ent­ed writer who takes up this ques­tion in Hell’s Traces, applies his inge­nu­ity and inves­tiga­tive skills to try­ing to uncov­er the rea­sons behind the mur­der of his three-year-old cousin, Alexan­dre, torn from his home in Paris in July 1942 and gassed at Auschwitz.

Ripp starts by putting the young boy into the con­text of his own fam­i­ly his­to­ry of loss, suf­fer­ing, and exile. On his father’s side, ten rel­a­tives per­ished, while on his mother’s side, all escaped the Nazis by flee­ing. Why were these two paths so diver­gent? How might the dif­fer­ences be reconciled?

To Ripp, the Holo­caust is not long-ago his­to­ry, but rather a series of events that were expe­ri­enced direct­ly. In order to bet­ter under­stand them, and to try to give order and sense to the chaos and trau­ma, he stud­ied and vis­it­ed Holo­caust memo­r­i­al sites through­out Europe. Although he made pil­grim­ages to six coun­tries and went to a total of 35 memo­ri­als — each one sin­gu­lar and mov­ing — he strug­gled to cre­ate a coher­ent pic­ture of what hap­pened in the Holo­caust, and why.

In order to gain as deep an under­stand­ing as pos­si­ble, Ripp lis­tened to the tes­ti­mo­ny of sur­vivors, and inter­viewed the artists and archi­tects who designed and built the memo­ri­als. He also spoke with schol­ars who wrote about and inter­pret­ed the events that the memo­ri­als commemorate.

But while memo­ri­als can hon­or the past, can they help us recov­er from it? Ripp grap­ples with this ques­tion. Hell’s Traces is orga­nized like a trav­el jour­nal that can guide read­ers on a jour­ney of their own. At every stop in every coun­try, Ripp brings in his­to­ry, geog­ra­phy, cul­ture, art and pol­i­tics — whether he is view­ing a muse­um exhib­it, a stat­ue, or a col­umn of stone with noth­ing more than the names of the dead engraved on its sides. We learn the how and why of every memo­r­i­al, and in so doing we gain insight into the Holo­caust itself and the peo­ple who care enough to make the mem­o­ries last.

Ripp is a retired pro­fes­sor of Russ­ian lit­er­a­ture, and his inter­na­tion­al view­point and flu­id writ­ing style infuse the pages with col­or. From Ger­many to New Jer­sey, he ties togeth­er the con­cep­tion, design, and build­ing of the memo­ri­als in a way that hon­ors lit­tle Alexan­dre, the young cousin who was exter­mi­nat­ed in Auschwitz, and at the same time helps us cheer for the fam­i­ly mem­bers who were able to escape the Nazi trap and flee to safe­ty and a new life in the new world.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

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