A haunting meditation on the legacy of racism, violence, and abuse, Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen by Gint Aras is a gut-kick of a memoir in which Aras contemplates the far-reaching tentacles of anger and hate from the normalized cruelty of a boy’s childhood to the genocide of World War II. After a prolonged bout of PTSD following a violent attack, Aras visits the Mauthausen concentration camp in Lithuania and reflects on its horrors, acknowledging that as a descendant of Lithuanians, there exists within himself “the energy of the victim and the perpetrator.”
While depictions of the Holocaust remind us of the enduring human capacity for dehumanization and extreme cruelty, Aras’s essay is at its strongest when recounting the socially accepted racism of his Lithuanian-American community in Chicago. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Presidential run provides a backdrop for Aras’s father’s racist diatribes; the community’s anti-Semitism is equally virulent and ingrained in their language. Aras writes: “The Lithuanian word for Jew is žydas. My family used this word to mean snot, and for a time I knew no other word. Mother would see me picking my nose and scold me, Netrauk žydų, or Stop pulling out Jews.” Aras draws the connections between the family’s denialism and scapegoating of Lithuanian Jews as Soviet collaborators with their refusal to see the physical and emotional abuse perpetrated against him by his tyrannical father. As an adult, Aras confronts his father in a harrowing scene, yet a cathartic reckoning remains elusive.
Aras reflects on whether he is imposing “the personal on the collective,” but most readers will recognize how hate, in its various manifestations, informs the cultural assumptions we carry. Aras’s willingness to confront this legacy is a useful reminder that we all bear the responsibility to do the same.
Review by Chuck Augello
Chuck Augello is the author of The Inexplicable Grey Space We Call Love (Duck Lake Books – April 2020). His work has appeared in One Story, Literary Hub, The Vestal Review, The Coachella Review, and other fine journals. He’s a contributor to Cease Cows and publishes The Daily Vonnegut, a website exploring the life and art of Kurt Vonnegut.