Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bea*lin II(v): Hair // Hair

I would not have come here to Krakow—which even after less than twenty-four hours, I am loving (St. Mary’s Basilica is especially breathtaking and worth the five zloty entry)—were it not for its 70km proximity to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Ever since I first learned about the goings-on of World War II in a history class (in fourth grade?), the Holocaust has fascinated me from afar. Perhaps it was the seemingly impossible (and certainly unfathomable) bounds of human cruelty that defied any limits moralists might have previously made. Perhaps it was not the numbers themselves (although they always astounded), but rather that they concentrated themselves so strongly within only a couple of populations—the Jews, the Gypsies, the queers—and I had already at a young age developed an incredibly aversion to the unjust (also in fourth grade?, I joined the Social Justice meeting group with my father at the church where I grew up out of half a dozen other options; the free and delicious Italian beef lunches formed an incentive, of course, but I nevertheless could ever abide injustice, even though I at that time thought I was a straight, white, middle-class cisboy who still had no real firsthand experience of the atrocity).

My brother and father—accountants now, both—recalculated our ethnic origins many times throughout my childhood. The most recently deduced division is how I now explain my genealogy: eighty percent German, twenty percent Irish; it used to be O’Sullivan and they used to pronounce the K in Knoff, but all my ancestors self-Americanized when they came. I have no idea who these people were, of course—upon my birth in 1992 I had three grandparents and zero great-grandparents (and now have none of either). My parents told me a few things about their grandparents, but I don’t even know what generation back was that which first sailed through Ellis Island.

Due to this ignorance, I did not until my arrival in Berlin really consider the distinct probability that some distant relative was surely somehow involved in the long-ago (and too recent) Holocaust, as either a victim or a perpetrator or an “innocent” bystander.

More than just in terms of blood, however, I began thinking about my queer ancestry from that era—after all, Magnus Hirschfield, the Jewish physician and sexologist who is described as the first advocate of trans rights and who, albeit an over-conflation of gender and sexuality studied the community in a supportive, helpful way (look at how far we have fallen) and in fact coined the term Transvestit that would later break itself into many smaller and more specific categories, was living and working in Berlin (not far from the Reichstag itself) when the Nazis burned down the library in his Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, and subsequently and problematically lumped all the gender-bending people who had been born as “men” into the homosexual category, stuck them with a pink triangle, and shipped them off to the camps, where even the other prisoners often discriminated (read: killed) them. Compiled with the unending examples of transphobic violence today in the media, I have internalized a hell of a lot of fear and expectation.

And so when I visited first the Holocaust memorials (the large and moving one dedicated to the Murdered Jews of Europe as well as the small afterthought for the homosexuals—which of course, is limited only to the homosexuals) and then the Jewish museum in Berlin, I wept and shook and unsuccessfully attempted to comprehend what transpired. I thought about the fact that I would have among them.

The sun came down from a nearly cloudless blue summer sky as we filed off the bus to enter Auschwitz I. It reflected brilliant off the bright green grass. One could clearly see in the leftover puddles of rainwater whatever stood above it: birch trees, cumulus beauties, the barbed wire fence. Even the rust-red brick of that camp buildings on either sides of the wide dirt-and-stone avenues seemed to say, “Welcome! Rest easy! Everything here is peaceful and good.”

Not fooled by the invitation, I instead fooled myself into spotting people that I knew: a girlfriend from school, that hot straight guy that would never go for me, my ex-boyfriend, my other ex-boyfriend. It was as if my brain knew what was coming and so wanted to find a body—anybody—that might provide some comfort in the following.

The gas chambers are bare now, or exploded; someone has stripped the false showerheads from the walls. Logically I knew that many people had died here but I did not experience the attack of panic and tragedy I had expected.

Nor did I in the barracks, if you can even call them such: dismal wood flats stacked on top of each other for sleeping and slowly starving, that each bore a seldom-used chimney, even in the freezing winters.

Not even the infamous piles of shoes in which once walked feet that had since been burned and scattered in the field, not even they really shook me as I had been in Berlin at the Memorial and now anticipated again.

That which broke me—that which reached down in betwixt my ribs and snapped a cord to my throat and sent shivers coursing over the pink skin of my pre-corpse—was the hair.

In a room on the second floor of Block 4, in a glass case inset into the entire length of a long wall, weighed a magnificent mountain of hair.  It had belonged to hundreds of thousands of people who were cremated like clockwork seventy years ago.  But their hair—that which they styled nervously before first dates and watched sorrowfully recede and grey—their hair had not lost its color.


Last night, I planned to have a quiet night in writing these reflections and reading my book (and let's be honest, watching Breaking Bad).  Although my hostel sponsors a pub crawl every evening and apparently everyone was going, a few hours living hidden amongst the heteronormatives in a space I'd normally want to dance and sway my feminine, feminine hips did not sound so appealing.

Nevertheless, the introductory festivities—drinking games—were fun, and the more I made friends with the two London schoolteachers to my left, the better it all seemed.  They had also been at Auschwitz that morning.

“So are you coming yet?” Anna asked, grinning as if she already knew my response.

“I don't know,” I weakly protested.

As we walked to the first pub a few minutes and shots later, I chose to tell the two how I actually identified.

“Be careful on your trip,” my mom had warned me a few days before. “You probably don't even want to tell people what you're researching, for safety's sake.”

But the combination of adrenaline, alcohol, and the real need to be with someone ignored her advice.

“So like, normally, when I go out, I'd be wearing a dress,” I said.

“Really?” asked Kayleigh.

I explained as we walked, and although they didn't fully grasp it (they later made several inaccurate references to potential conquests: “Do you think he might be gay?”) they also made no deal of it whatsoever.

By the time we reached the third establishment of the night, the combination of adrenaline, alcohol, and the unsuppressability of myself at last expressed itself in the sway of my feminine, feminine hips as I danced.

“Hang on!” I shouted over the music, removing both hair ties from the little buns on top of my head.  I ran my fingers through the red to loosen it up and whipped my neck to the beat, my locks a diving cardinal.

Anna approached me when I had a moment paused.

“This is really cute,” she shouted, adjusting my mane. “You just need a little mousse or something.”

“Really?” I was doubtful. “It's not long enough yet.”

“Sure it is!”

And for the rest of the night, I wore my growing hair down, because it is getting long, and looking good, and femme, and because for now, the pink skin of my pre-corpse is yet flushed with blood, and I am alive.

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