The Presence of Absence & the Absence of Presence: War & The Holocaust

by K Shabi PUBLISHED 30 May 2014

I recently watched the World War II Holocaust documentary Engineering Evil and was struck by a very touching personal account included at the end by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Michael Berenbaum that I would like to discuss here. The postmodern deconstructionist philosophy of Jacques Derrida might seem a tad esoteric to some, but this scholarly interpretation connects the seemingly impenetrable Derridian concept of "trace" and the "presence of absence" to the Holocaust and world war in general, adding new meaning to the phrase "the absence of presence."

The Presence of Absence & the Absence of Presence: War & The Holocaust

The Holocaust, the War and Jacques Derrida's Presence of Absence

"Let me talk deeply, personally, with where I first came face to face with the presence of absence. My father died in 1990. [...] The first Friday night, we sat down to dinner... My father's chair was empty. We literally couldn't eat until my mother said, "You sit in your father's chair." Because my father's absence loomed larger than anybody present.

You come to Sobibor and it's empty. You can barely imagine or fathom what is there. But that absence shows a presence. The ghosts are there, the images are there, the souls are there, the evil is there, and the magnitude of what happened is there, even if it's unseen.

If you look today at the sites of destruction, there is a paradox. It is the presence of absence and the absence of presence. You see something, and what you see is also what's not there. And if you don't see something, then that looms present for you in an extraordinary way." Michael Berenbaum

The Pianist, the War and the Meaning of the Absence of Presence

Michael Berenbaum's interpretation of "the presence of absence" adds another layer of meaning to the final scene of Roman Polanski's World War II German Holocaust film The Pianist (2002). In the movie's closing sequence, shortly after the end of the war Szpilman accompanies his friend to the site of a POW camp he passed through just a few weeks earlier. Even though only a short period of time has passed, no trace of the POW camp remains, with only a natural and nondescript green field of grass remaining. In disbelief Szpilman's friend murmurs, "It was here, I'm certain of it," but any evidence to support his claim has disappeared, mysteriously or not.

"It was here, I'm certain of it."

PJ Harvey "On Battleship Hill" Lyrics Meaning; War Casualties & the Trace of Thyme

PJ Harvey also seems to touch on Derrida's theory of the absence of presence in the Let England Shake track "On Battleship Hill", covering another European site of destruction left behind after a World War. Visiting the now deserted battlefield, the thyme in PJ Harvey's song echoes Berenbaum's sentiment that if you sense something, you also sense "what's not there." Though a natural fragrant herb, traditionally thyme has been used to cover up and clear out the smell of death and decay. As travel writer Ross Davies found, during World War I thyme was even thrown in the trenches of Gallipoli, what Davies calls a "wild and lonely place" to visit even today. In PJ Harvey's "On Battleship Hill" song lyrics, the herb's fragrant presence masks and distracts from the true essence of the scene, a No Man's Land of many casualties and deaths.

"On Battleship Hill's caved in trenches, a hateful feeling still lingers. Even now, 80 years later... Cruel nature. Cruel, cruel nature.

The land returns to how it's always been. Thyme carried on the wind."

Absence of Presence Meaning

Sites of destruction are haunting specifically because as humans we feel as though there should be some eternal sign or even just a trace left behind to mark the scene with the wartime atrocities that at one time occurred there. Instead, it seems as though sites of destruction quickly revert back to an unheimlich wild state of nature, therein perhaps revealing their true identities more so than disguising themselves.

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