Difficult Material

Rebecca Heilweil, University of Pennsylvania


On the day my anthropology course covered rape and sexual coercion, I skipped. An hour later in my next class, my comparative literature professor played us the Eichmann trial videotapes.

Our room in a University of Pennsylvania library is beautiful, modern–21st century. We have long, glistening pinewood tables. Everything is pretentious, clean, Ivy League. There are graduate students here, too. They are here as scholars.

An expensive projector is neatly installed in the ceiling. A clock recounts the passing minutes.

We are given no warning. I chose to take this course on Hannah Arendt. I knew the content would make me nauseous.

The video is old–black and white makes it look like history. The countries where we were killed are read like annotations of an atlas. Everyone wears suits. There are too few women.

I watch Eichmann stumble to stand as the judges enter. His face, a slight frown, has no apparent anxiety. His tie neatly sleeps on his chest. Hair spiked above his head, like fuzz. He looks like a father, someone’s son. I wonder if his knee buckles.


I am taking my observations from the tape down. You’re supposed to take notes in class. But the typing starts to hurt my fingers.


I transition my focus away from Eichmann to the environment of the courtroom. His surroundings. My professor tells us to focus on the juxtapositions. The translators and judges move between German, English, Hebrew. The language of my last name, my country, my prayers all echo over each other. They’re buzzing like flies.

Someone offers Eichmann headphones, so that he can comprehend the charges against him. Three languages, and they didn’t know how to describe what had happened.

Six million dead is just three words– at least five million nine-hundred and ninety nine thousand nine hundred and ninety seven too small.  

Eleven million dead is just three words too.

I think genocide needs its own mother-tongue.Three languages aren’t enough.

My classmates and I sit quietly. We check Facebook messages on our phones. I try to think about another assignment, due a few hours later, but I can’t. The counts of people killed become too large. I took calculus in high school but I cannot add these numbers up.  This is “difficult material.”

When the video pauses, a non-Jewish student and the professor pontificate about the absurdity of theater, but I can’t figure out how to comprehend the discussion. She begins talking about states, politics, show-trials. I can’t hear it. This is a comparative literature class but I’m not sure what this can be compared to. Who wrote that play again? Right, him. Of course, we knew this all from high school theater. They found him in Argentina–remember? Yes, of course, we remember. Hasn’t everyone read this text. God!


I want someone to scream. But our seminar room is quiet. We maintain decorum. We can’t yell at history. That’s absurd. We’re in a library.

My classmates are taking notes on this, but by the end of class I’m not sure what I’ve transcribed. A mix of feelings, anger, historical facts, legal musings. I’m trying to think about the nature of audience. I can’t.

The bright Fire Exit sign above our classroom door shines brighter than ever.