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Number 12: Summer 2016

Be Deported…and Bear Witness! Psychoanalysing, Bearing Witness: A Double Bind?

Anne-Lise Stern

Outside, a little girl aged three or four—she was holding a cup in her hand—was trying to draw her grandmother out of the line, in the direction of the barrack. Finally, she moved forward on her own. So, in the blind spot where I couldn’t see it, would there have been a tap? This question long troubled me. A Posten SS was there, a family man type with a moustache. I had seen him walk past the window. She went towards him, towards the tap, who knows. I could only see his arm, raised, involved in a wide forthcoming motion. He was pointing over there, to the left: ‘Da unten gibt’s Wasser’. Down there, there would be some water. There, not far, was the crematorium. The little girl returned to the line. Around her, around the grandmother, people started talking. They seemed a bit relieved. But the line was hardly making any progress. Like a stopping train, it moved forward a bit and then stopped. I could still see the same little girl and her grandmother, framed by the window. And at the same time, from the same eye, in the slightly tilted mirror, above the type writer, I could see the SS with the jewels, behind me. He now had a foot on a stool, near the table, so that an ‘old-timer’ could sew up a button on his fly more snugly. She was on her knees, giggling a bit. This is not an erotic scene. At some point, the gaze of the SS met my gaze in the mirror. He could read in it what I could see: behind me, this intimate, ridiculous, mad scene, involving jewels, family jewels, and outside, on the other side of the window, a little girl headed for death, with a promised tap,1 promised water, headed for death with all the other people in the line. Too much, was it too much, even for an SS—who had read that other scene in my gaze—or for the old-timer sewing on her knees? Weren’t my jewels typed well enough? In the afternoon, I didn’t have to come back. I was no good for the job. I now think, I am now able to think: fortunately. A few days later, I went to the Revier—despite the risks of being selected. Revier referred to the hospital but the word itself means ‘reserve’, a place where animals can be kept safe from being hunted or, on the contrary, be handed over as a result of some surprise selection, handed over to the gas chamber. I never forgot that scene, but it had not come back to me either. It took the topographical occurrence of the photo taken from another point of view, from ‘the other side’. As Lacan said, a window is often the frame of the unconscious fantasy. What I had seen through that window was not a fantasy. Granted, what was reflected in the small tilted mirror could be connected to it. But that scene could not have come back to me if, thanks to some long psychoanalytic work, I hadn’t investigated the full spectrum of the gaze, of the gaze as an object, of the function of the gaze. This must be taken into account, if we are to gauge the extent to which everyone, not only the survivors, struggles in, struggles with the Shoah—not to mention those who frolic2 in it. That’s because the tatter, the abject- object (l’objet-déchet) is inscribed in the psychic structure of each and everyone.


  1. Translator’s note: The French word for ‘tap’ is ‘robinet’ which can also be slang for ‘penis’, a reference sadly lost in translation.  

  2. Translator’s note: The French verbs translated respectively as ‘struggle’ and ‘frolic’ are ‘se débattre’ and ‘s’ébattre’ but the translation could not retain the débattre – ébattre word play.