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This week, I published an essay over on the Atlantic that I’ve been working on for a long time. It’s about my great-uncle Arthur Kahn who was murdered in April 1933 and is believed to be the first Jewish victim of the Holocaust.
When did I start writing it? That’s a good question. Kind of at the heart of the essay itself.
I started outlining this particular story in December 2021, drawing on my most recent trip to Germany in October. I traveled to Germany to learn more about what happened to Arthur for the first time in November 2018. I’ve been reading about Arthur since 2016. I’ve been thinking about Arthur and talking about Arthur since I learned how to think and talk.
So—that’s five months or four years or six years or 30 years. A range!
A few hours after the essay went live, a friend texted me. Reading it had made her wonder when she first found out the specifics of her own grandparents’ survival during the Holocaust. Was it possible that she had been born knowing? After thinking it over, we both concluded that we must have come out of the womb with the narratives coded into our DNA.
Intergenerational trauma—it’s more common than you think.
I love that for us. We deserve breaks from the horror show—from writing about it, from reading about it. A shocking number of Extra Crediters have sent me photos of their artisan ice cream orders over the past week. I just could not be more delighted.
But I wanted to share this piece both because I’m proud of it and because I know that our gorgeous lives—full of mail-order churned milk and saved RealReal searches and access to the full range of reproductive healthcare—are so fragile. This week has proved it, hasn’t it? I come from a long line of people whose lives changed in an instant—not just Arthur. But even I felt bowled over with surprise when a predictable, foreseen, expected Supreme Court decision dropped.
I used to hope that I’d find some hidden secret in the archives that would explain Arthur’s fate to me. The randomness of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of having your name on the wrong list—it made me feel nauseated with horror. At least if he’d been an activist or a protestor or a radical, he would have had some sense of what he was risking.
But he wasn’t. He was a normal person. He planned to be somewhere a week later, a month later, a decade later. He didn’t see it coming. If it all deteriorates even more, will we?
Here’s one detail that didn’t make it into the finished piece: When I made an appointment to visit the Bavarian State Archives in Munich in 2019, I also reached out to a historian who had been there before to get a sense of the kind of documents I would find. He was gracious and responsive, but he wanted to make sure I was prepared to see the photos in the files I was requesting—graphic autopsies, sketches with bullet holes demarcated on them. Horrible descriptions of death at Dachau in 1933.
He was relieved—he told me—that I wouldn’t encounter equivalent photos of Arthur. The files had been lost after being submitted as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials. No one has seen copies of them since 1946. I wrote back with some lukewarm niceties. I understand. Thanks for letting me know. I was in fact wild with disappointment. I didn’t want to be spared the details. I didn’t feel relieved. I wanted the information.
Then I arrived in Munich and picked up the rubber-banded folders from a woman behind a tall desk and saw the photos the historian was talking about. You don’t need me to describe them. Each one is worse than the last.
When I started this—whenever that was—I thought I was setting out to know as much as possible about Arthur Kahn. Years later, I have a better sense of what I was looking for. I know now that what I craved was to feel closer to the Arthur who lived. To understand more about who he might have been.
Do I feel satisfied? I’m not sure I could ever be. The person I want to know isn’t here. There are no details or photos or filled-in timelines that can reverse that. But I do feel like I’ve arrived somewhere. I’m at peace with where I’ve ended up.
In just the past few hours, several people have gotten in touch to tell me that the article is inspiring them to find out more about their own families—about the traumas they know, but don’t fully understand. They don’t know if there’s anything to find, but they’re going to go looking.
Nothing could be a better or more lasting tribute to Arthur. Go on—go looking.