Day #7: ‘The data is not enough’

By Amanda McGowan

Sign for the exhibit at Block 5, “Material proofs of crimes.” Photo: Gabriel Kahn.

“The data is not enough”: That is how neuroscientist Tali Sharot describes the psychology of changing minds. Data by itself, she says, cannot always sway people — no matter how clear or definitive it is. But when emotion is introduced, when storytelling is introduced, it can drive people to act.

I found myself thinking about this after visiting Auschwitz and interrogating my own emotional response. There is a permanent exhibit in the old barrack known as Block 5 labeled, simply, “Material proofs of crimes.” Inside are 20,000 pairs of shoes, suitcases with their owners’ names written on the outside, locks of hair in a graying, disintegrating pile, a tangle of eyeglasses.

The evidence of crimes at Auschwitz, in other words, is staggering. And as I looked, I found all of it — the enormous scale, the human tragedy behind each physical object — difficult to grasp.

But then there is another section of the museum, a more recent exhibit established by Yad Vashem in what is known as Block 27. It focuses not on how the victims of Auschwitz died, but on how they lived. The visitor walks slowly through a room where videos of Jewish families from the days before the war are projected onto the walls. Another wall of photographs shows survivors with their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

It is devastating.

It was impossible for me to see images of children riding bicycles, of couples smiling at each other, of a pair of young women — maybe sisters — posing together for the camera without thinking of my own childhood, my own sisters, my own friends, my own parents. When I recall these images, even days later, I tear up.

What can a journalist do when confronted with such cruelty, from the past or from today? In our sessions this past week, we’ve talked about what our role and purpose should be. Are we merely chroniclers of facts? Dispassionate observers? Is it our responsibility to change minds? Is that even possible?

Maybe presenting evidence is not enough. Maybe our purpose should be to tell stories that show another person’s humanity and make it impossible to look away. To create empathy. To make people emotional. To spur people to act.

Maybe it is not enough to say, “In this place, one million people were murdered.” We must say, “In this place, one million people were murdered, and one of them was a woman named Etty Hillesum, and she was from a town called Middelburg, and she loved to write, and she had a brother named Mischa, and she liked Dostoevsky…”

But there is another kind of journalistic response to visiting Auschwitz, too, one that writer A.M. Rosenthal had upon visiting the site in 1958.

“There is no news to report about Auschwitz,” he wrote. “There is merely the compulsion to write something about it, a compulsion that grows out of a restless feeling that to have visited Auschwitz and then turned away without having said or written anything would somehow be a most grievous act of discourtesy to those who died here.”

After my own visit, I can better understand what he means. In response to something so incomprehensible, I understand feeling like it is impossible to make an argument, to make “news,” to do anything but bear witness. I understand feeling that it is impossible to say almost anything at all, except “I was here.”


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