Prompted by a conversation with a stranger, Gint Aras decides to travel to Mauthausen, the site of a Holocaust concentration camp. In Relief by Execution, Aras details this journey and his family history, showing the impact of racism, violence, war, and silence on an individual and throughout generations. He explores how much are we our own person and how much we are what others have told us. Aras is going to Mauthausen for an interesting reason—not as many do because of an interest in history and a desire to bear witness and remember the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. Instead, he’s going as “the atrocity’s perpetrator,” saying he will imagine “the prisoners before me must suffer extermination because they are my inhuman enemies.” Reading this is unsettling, and I thought—is this the kind of book I want to read? However, Aras immediately loops back in time to explain the emotional baggage from his upbringing that he’s bringing on this journey.
Aras comes from a family of Lithuanian refugees and immigrants and pulls open wide the doors to his family history and provides an honest and sharp portrayal. Jumping back to his childhood, Aras describes himself as a “child caught in a trap” and details the abuse his father inflicted on him beginning as young as four years old:
Father’s beatings extinguish awareness: you disappear, and the aftermath can be similar to an alcohol-induced blackout. Your father lives with you. In the kitchen or living room, he can come by surprise, from behind, on no predictable schedule, just as he can sit for days or weeks without talking to you.
His entire family responds with silence to his father’s violent outbursts, and his mother tells him to stop crying, “Nothing happened to you.” Violence has lost meaning; these were people “carrying unspeakable losses; dead infants, razed villages, executed spouses, missing siblings, their entire culture heaved up and starved, countries occupied or divided, off-limits for return.” And everything, Aras tells us, was measured against this. The violence and hate are always present, from the abuse Aras describes at the hands of his father to the hateful language used against other ethnic groups, in particular, Jewish and black people.
It is extremely uncomfortable to read the hateful and racist language used by his family members so casually and without hesitation. Hate like this is terrifying, and it swallows everything in its path—from spewing insults at a group of people, to hitting your children, to destroying one’s self. While Aras doesn’t participate in hate speech or violence, he mostly remains silent. In clear and direct language, Aras describes how his “mind finally collapsed entirely” when the fear and shame takes its toll—and this collapse leads to drinking, thoughts of suicide, blackouts, thoughts of harming his daughter. “What sort of father imagines himself punching an infant, his own, for crying in the crib?” Aras asks.
Growing up in a closed community, almost no one challenges the views of his family, even the school omits references to the Holocaust, and any questions are brushed off. Aras realizes “how intensely we considered ourselves separate from virtually everyone else” and how his family erases parts of history that don’t fit their preferred narrative. Except a Jesuit priest pushes Aras to see that even privately harboring hate is an act of racism, that not speaking out is an act of racism. In writing Relief by Execution, Aras has finally broken his family’s long-held pact with silence—for his daughter, for his wife, for himself. In these pages, and on his path to Mauthausen, Aras is reclaiming and reforming his identity.
It is in the last section of this book that Aras’ journey to Mauthausen comes into full focus. When Aras arrives at Mauthausen, he feels the full weight of the place and his reason for going shifts:
I feel reprimanded as if by a judge: you can bear witness here, and you can collect memory here, but this is not a playground where you prove your goodness. You’ll find nothing to accomplish or achieve. There’s no reward for visiting.
It seems impossible that these weighty subjects of identity, violence, racism, and domestic abuse could be approached effectively in this short book, but Relief by Execution succeeds. Aras forces us to consider our history—how we either aid in the cycles of hate and abuse, how we may participate in the erasure of other’s identities and history for our sense of peace and benefit, how we stay silent, or how we break that silence. I wondered if Aras should have taken more time to explore his journey to Mauthausen and the questions raised there, but in the end, it seems right. This noteworthy and powerful book made me look again at topics I’ve read about before and ask new questions and consider new points of discussion. Aras has given enough of himself within these pages, and after reading we are tasked with looking inward and then continuing the conversation.
Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen, by Gint Aras. Mystic, Connecticut: Homebound Publications, October 2019. 94 pages. $12.95, paper.
Emily Webber’s writing has appeared in The Writer magazine, the Ploughshares Blog, Five Points, Maudlin House, Brevity, and Slip Lip Magazine. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. Find more at emilyannwebber.com and on Twitter @emilyannwebber.