When I was 15 I went to Mexico on a mission trip with my church youth group. We pantomimed bible stories for the school aged children. I was tallest in the group so I played Goliath in one skit. Our interpreter read the story of the shepherd boy who would be king, his five smooth stones, and the horrible six-fingered Philistine. Whenever she said the name "Goliath" I would roar and raise my cardboard sword and tin foil shield and the children would squeal as one and collectively shrink back from where they sat on the dirty concrete floor.
The day before we returned to the States we drove into Monterrey. The road stretched out before us long and flat and dull, with only a few sparse shacks that barely passed muster as businesses along the way. One proffered fresh fruit, while another offered tire repair in two languages. A smell began to bring comments from our crowded van that soon turned to complaints and simulated gagging and then into pervasive nausea and noses buried in shirts or held between thumb and forefinger. The smell increased at an alarming rate until it was burning our throats and keeping us from deep breaths. Our guide informed us of the origin of the wretched stench.
She pointed to an industrial structure rising out of the dirt. It was nearly a mile from the main highway and the only brick building for miles. She said it was called the Bone Factory by the locals. It was a processing plant for an ingredient in soap. The roadkill and waste from slaughterhouses was brought there and allowed to rot in a chamber and at certain intervals the carcasses were incinerated to reduce them to bone ash. This sediment was then taken somewhere off site and added to soap as a substitute for pumice as an abrasive. We were all barely able to keep from vomiting at this point. After getting on down the road a bit and upwind of the Bone Factory I mustered a question about the workers and there ability to work in those conditions. Our guide explained that the workers along with those living in this area had lost all sense of smell and taste. We were astonished. Even more so when she told us just how bad the smell was when the factory had been in operation.....it had closed 2 years previous.
I hadn't thought about the Bone Factory in years until last night when I was reading Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel's book "Children Of The Flames" about Josef Mengele and his wicked experiments on the twins at Auschwitz. In it, one of the twins, Eva Mozes, recounts an incident that happened after the war.
"A couple of years after the war, our Rabbi in Cluj decided to hold a memorial service for all the Jews from our town who had died in the Holocaust. The Rabbi said that if anyone in the congregation had bars of soap left over from the concentration camps, we should bring it to the temple. He told us it had to be "buried" because it had been made from human flesh. It was the first time I had heard that. Before we left the camp, my twin sister and I took whatever we could with us. At a time when goods were scarce, I used the soap all the time. After the Rabbi's address, I felt terrified. I thought, "Maybe I used soap made from my family." For years, I had continuous nightmares. Every night, I dreamt I was washing myself with soap made from my parents or sister."
The "bone factories" of Auschwitz spewed the ash and stench of 8 thousand Jews a day into the German countryside. From the fires of that hell may or may not have actually come soap. Scholars and historians have come to a relative consensus that this was probably one of many lies perpetrated on the Jews by the SS to further break their spirits. (Although there have been a few documented admissions of former SS scientists who did experiment with a process of using human fat to make soap.) Nonetheless, I remember my repulsion at the horrific smell for those 5 short minutes that afternoon in Mexico, and at the thought of using soap made from rotting animals. But I cannot even begin to imagine how young Eva must have felt having lived years in the shadows of the Nazi ovens. Each day breathing in the stench of the dead, and everyday since wondering if she had washed herself with the remains of her family.
I have a very keen, borderline acute, sense of smell. Some small consolation I suppose for my almost as acute nearsightedness, but it has left certain indelible marks on my psyche. One, of course, was the bone factory in Mexico, but another this past weekend at the Holocaust Museum in D.C.. This week marks the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps by American soldiers. There were special exhibits and events all week at the museum. But the one exhibit that affected me the most, the one that will stay with me the longest, was the thousands of confiscated shoes of the victims of the camps.
There they were piled on either side of the walkway, boots, sandals, loafers, even what appeared to be a pair of heels that would have been worn for a night on the town. Of course the shoes were in every size imaginable, the tiniest revealing the youngest victims. As gut wrenching as the sight of those miniature shoes was, what scarred me most was their smell. I have long disdained the smell of molded, damp, leather stored in airless places. That smell gets to working on my gag reflex rather efficiently. But I am thankful now for that smell. I will never forget those shoes, the brutality of Nazi torture. They will never become just a photo facsimile shut in a book, shelved among many other books, every time I smell that smell I will remember. I will remember the ovens, the "bone factories" of the Nazi camps, I will remember Eva and the twins. I will remember what happens when the world sleeps through the screams of the defenseless.