Gint Aras’ book about Mauthausen is not really about Mauthausen. While the crux of Relief by Execution is Aras’ visit to the concentration camp, he takes the opportunity of his visit to explore not only corporate trauma, but individual, internal trauma and his search for existential equilibrium amidst historical chaos. This project in personal archeology turns into a riveting search for Aras’ place within his family tree as well as the human tree.
While exploring his origins and the culture he grew up in, Aras notes, “War was the ultimate reality. Every experience was measured against its bar.” The war he mentions is, put simply, WWII. Expanded, it is also the racial tensions he recognized in his upbringing. Conflict was constant, ever-present. For all that he was conditioned to see other people, specifically people of color, as suspect, as villainous, he never bought into the bigotry, mentioning “I was naturally skeptical and inquisitive as a child.”
Aras’ essay is vulnerable, holding nothing back when it comes to airing his family’s dirty laundry, to analyzing its flaws and prejudices and violence in detail. Through declarative, confident prose, Aras creates riveting nonfiction as he dissects his Lithuanian upbringing and the intersection of his ancestors with the Holocaust in Lithuania, a piece of history he only discovered in adulthood.
The erasure of history eats at Aras through his telling. It becomes an obsession of his to find and display truth as it happened, to find the story behind the façade his community had established. It is easy to recognize why a community might undertake such erasure. Many societies have done likewise, with perhaps the most successful venture in destroying the uncomfortable parts of the past ever undertaken found in American history textbooks.
But what makes Aras stand apart in exploring the way his ancestors redacted certain events and told the stories they did is how he links that collective action to its individual outcome. The deletions “forced me to wonder what else of my identity had been cut and pasted, how much had been edited.” For whatever his community gained in avoiding the shame in their past, as much or more was lost through this deletion.
Eventually, Aras arrives at Mauthausen, as the essay’s beginning demands. Throughout the essay he has revealed the sides of his ancestry that contain elements of perpetration and victimhood. Visiting Mauthausen makes him fear finding himself in the role of perpetrator. What he finds is not so much a conclusion as it is a possible vocation, a way forward for himself, for others attempting to reckon the role of history in where we find ourselves and who we find ourselves to have become.
This is blistering nonfiction. It features a vulnerability reminiscent of The Glass Castle and a personal exploration so intimate that to read Relief by Execution feels like having it read to you by Aras, sitting in an armchair opposite some glimmering fire. What Aras finds at Mauthausen, whose physical presence in this essay amounts to fleeting descriptions near the end, is not so much a direction as a compass. The kind of compass each of us might wield if we are brave enough to stare truth in the face.
In a world that encourages an impersonal spew of words in an online clamor, Aras’ story is careful, cautious, recognizing how twisted false stories can make us. Perhaps our only collective hope is to mirror the way Aras closes when he says “I have a story to tell. My only hope is that I’ll find the words.” This world already has so many words. Refreshingly, Aras, through his own story, shows a roadmap for how we might find the right ones.