The Importance of Our Stuff

There’s a George Carlin routine – you know the one – in which he talks about “stuff.”

“A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.”

Funny as that bit is, and true as it may be, there’s another side to the stuff we all have. For most of us, what surrounds us  – the things we choose to buy and bring home, whether from Bed, Bath and Beyond, Neiman Marcus or the Flea Market – represent our daily lives. The wooden spoons, the fluffy towels, the universal remote control, the broom, and dustpan – these familiar things are part of what makes up our little corner of the world where we feel safe. We don’t pay much attention to these utilitarian objects most of the time – until they break and need replacing, or we can’t find them (especially the remote).

It’s because of this that I was deeply saddened by an article in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times entitled “The Banality of Robbing the Jews.”

For the most part, I avoid reading or watching anything about the Holocaust. Call me a coward, but stories of the suffering of the Jewish people – including my ancestors – in Europe during World War II leave me so anxious and upset that I made the decision years ago to not amplify the information I already have in my head with more photos and recollections. I have never seen Schindler’s List, nor have I visited a Holocaust museum. I don’t need to hear or see another thing to comprehend any more intensely how horrifying the Holocaust was.

And yet, I couldn’t help but read this article, perhaps because it spoke to my deep attachment to the concept of home. We have all thought of what it must have been like for the Jews who were taken from their homes and sent to concentration camps. But this article brought to mind those homes and what was left behind – the bits and pieces, large and small, that made up the lives of Jewish families. The image of warehouses filled with pianos, pots and pans, sofas, rugs, teaspoons…it left me so upset. Each of those objects touched and tended to on a daily basis by a Jewish (most likely) woman, proud of her home, caring for her family – it overwhelmed me to consider the thousands upon thousands of those homes that were dismantled.

This is what happened to some of those people and some of those objects:

From 1943 to 1944, nearly 800 Jewish men and women worked — ate, slept, lived — among these objects. Some saw their own possessions or those of family members pass before their eyes, and at that moment understood that they, too, had been slated for internment or deportation.

I live in a home filled with objects old and new. In 2012, when my grandmother passed away, I was fortunate to be given many beautiful things of hers, things that bring me such joy and comfort when I pass by them each day on my way in and out of rooms. Even the things that are chipped or a little battered by time are beautiful to me because they take me back to her home and the sense of security I always felt when I was with her and my grandfather. Also in my home are things from my childhood, things from my mother’s kitchen and objects she collected over the years.  None of it is especially valuable except as a part of my history.

When my family moved across the country in 1976, there was a box that was filled with talismans of the life I was leaving behind – photo albums, letters, a bag full of notes passed in the hallways during junior high school. After the (two) moving trucks had been emptied, the box was nowhere to be found. I was 14, and this was a tragedy for me – I sobbed so hard that I broke my braces. After searching and searching through the house, my mother finally found the box, marked incorrectly, and I fell upon those things with such relief and joy.

This is what the Nazis did to the personal effects of the homes they plundered:

The contents of each apartment were divided into two groups. Damaged objects or personal ones, like papers or family photos, were burned almost daily in a bonfire at the Quai de la Gare. The other items were sorted and classified by category, rather than source. A saucepan taken from one family would be added to a stack of other saucepans rather than kept in the original set. Stripped of their provenance, items lost their identity. Belongings became goods.

I think of all of those papers, photos, letters, mementos – the things that document a life, that remind us of where we’ve been – all of those things destroyed, burned, tossed away with as little thought as was given to the people to whom these things meant so much. I think of those homes, systematically dismantled and warehoused, much like the Jews who were interned in the camps. I am ashamed by my lack of interest in expanding my knowledge of what happened during those years, but I am hugely grateful that there are people who make it their life’s work to continue to remember and remind us.

It may just be “stuff,” but it’s the stuff of our lives.

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  • You’re so right, Sharon. It’s this stuff–the odds and ends that have personal meaning and value–that we turn into a material history, and pass along. Without it, we can fee un-anchored, torn from our past.

  • Sharon….this is beautiful. Honestly, when I think/read about the Holocaust and the loss of dignity and lives, I’ve never considered this aspect much… the loss of goods and home and belongings. Thank you for opening up my eyes to another important aspect of this human tragedy.

  • Linda Bernstein

    This is so nicely done, Sharon. Our history, our sense of who we are, is reflected in our stuff. So now let us praise our stuff, because our stuff is more than just stuff.

  • Sharon, this is a powerful post. A few years back my neighbor’s home burned and they lost everything. I remember someone commented that it was just stuff. I was angry by that callous comment. I look at the art that hangs on my wall or the dishes I inherited from my grandmother and know it is my connection to my life and my heritage. And it will one day be my daughter’s. It is not just stuff. Thanks for your words today.

    • People sometimes say the stupidest things.

      I worked with a woman who lost everything during Hurricane Ivan. I remember people telling her how lucky she was to be safe. True? Yes, but…

      After a few dozen people shared their thoughts about how ‘blessed’ she was, she finally snapped. She told me; “I don’t have any wedding pictures. I don’t have any pictures of my kids. I don’t have a picture of my grandparents or parents. I’ve lost my history.”

      Yes, Connie, our stuff does matter.

    • Thank you for reading, Connie. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose everything in a fire – what a horrible experience for your neighbor.

  • Beautifully said, Sharon. I, too, am sentimentally attached to the stuff of my past. As I get older it seems even more important to me. I have stuff I use every day and stuff I have packed away; all equally precious. No, our stuff is not just our stuff. You are so right. It is our history. The atrocities done to our fellow human beings is sometimes too much to comprehend.

  • Our lives are always bound up with the things of our lives. A bowl from my grandmother reminds me of the cookies she made and the smiles that we shared. Often you cannot separate the item from the memory. Sharon, this is a beautiful piece and having just moved, I have a sense of your sorrow when you thought you had lost the box. Even now I go to look for things and remember–I gave it away in the downsizing. I have a sad moment and then look around at the things that I did keep.
    The robbing of life and of heritage can never be replaced for the generations that lived the Holocaust and the generations that came after. I understand why you stay away from the films and books. I, on the other had, always go there. I need to know. I need to build my life and my children’s lives on that time so it will NEVER be repeated.
    Thank you again for sharing this, Beth Havey

  • Sharon, thank you for writing about the story today in the NYT and to draw a connection to those possessions lost to tragedy and our “stuff.” While I treasure the things of value passed down from grandparents and parents, I will never again take for granted those more commonplace items that previously belonged to a loved one, part of a household now part of the past.

  • Thank you for beautiful and touching post, Sharon. In every city we travel to we make a point of visiting the synagogues and Holocaust Museums. Of course, visiting the museums are very sad and disturbing, yet, they are part of our family and our culture, and we feel deeply that they should be seen, so as they say it should “never happen again.” In every museum there are piles of shoes, eyeglasses, dolls, utensils – piles of “stuff” that reach the ceiling, that had been taken away. The numbers are mind-boggling and heartbreaking.

  • I spent the better part of today with my father at the rehab facility where he is currently residing. His roommate fought in The Battle of the Bulge, and dad, as you know, escaped Nazi Germany.

    Today I told him the story of what I think happened in The White House when an aide discovered, somehow, that a painting hanging in one of the rooms was originally owned by a German family who were sent to the camps, and their artwork was confiscated. The survivors of the family were invited to The White House to have this painting finally returned to them. This was, at least, one happy ending.

    Thank you for writing about this, Sharon. I know I could have written here about the importance of stuff for Americans, but I can’t help always thinking about all possessions that were stolen from innocent citizens all those years ago. The heartache of that will never die.

  • Sharon this is such a powerful piece, thank you so much for sharing it.

  • Janie Emaus

    Great post, Sharon. I have too much stuff! But I’m attached to it all.

  • Helene Cohen Bludman

    Beautiful post. Stuff does matter, and when it is taken away so brutally, we lose a part of ourselves. Like Linda said, one of the most moving exhibits at the Holocaust Museum and Yad Vashem in Israel is the pile of shoes that were once filled by innocent feet.

  • Sharon you make some great points about what is important to one person is just ‘Goods’ to some one else. I am surprised when I meet people who are disrespectful of other people’s belongings or home. Is it they don’t value their own or is it they don’t have any emotional ties to stuff?

  • Very powerful and enlightening, Sharon. Count me in as one of those who hadn’t thought about what happened to all the goods in the homes the Nazis invaded.
    As for stuff, I have accumulated a lot. But I honestly can say there really isn’t much that I would mourn for if it was destroyed. I haven’t put much sentimental worth on my belongings; I just look at it as “stuff” that can be replaced. I think the only thing I’d be upset to lose would be my photographs. But I’ve taken steps to safeguard every photo, negative and digital print I have. I believe I can recreate most of the pix I have.

  • Loved this post -I am kind of attached to some things – and get all bent out of shape when something goes missing. …how much more so – when things are just taken away forever in such brutality.. I too am a child of survivors, however, both my parents did not go through the camps thankfully. My mom’s family actually came from Germany in 1938 and arrived on Kristallnacht (in November) in NY. They took all their stuff with them – including photos and everything. My dad’s family also came with their stuff – but less because they were escaping in the early 1940’s. Stuff is very symbolic – especially for children, and I wonder if that helped my parents cope….then again, most people were just happy to get out alive.
    Your post is so deep and thought provoking – it’s hard for me to express the different facets that come to mind…but this is a start. 🙂

  • I, too, haven’t seen Shindler’s List and stay away from all things holocaust (although I did go to Yad Vashem and cried my eyes out).

    But I think that losing belongings that you’re not ready or willing to lose breaks people down. We all find comfort in many ways, including in the things we cherish, for whatever our own personal reasons.

  • After Katrina I learned what possessions I should truly be attached to. Those things that link us to our loved ones, and to the past, are on top of the list. And while losing stuff the way I did was hard, nothing compares to the violation of having it taken from you as an act of hate.

  • It is beyond comprehension…the last book I read on it was “Sarah’s Key” and it made me so upset I didn’t know what to do. As for “stuff”, I have been cleaning things out so there isn’t as much dust around (for my hubby who had a double lung transplant, talk about a journey), and in chatting with my daughter I realized that the “stuff” that has such meaning to me, doesn’t have the same meaning to her. I sat and cried. But my kids didn’t know my grandmothers, they didn’t see them polishing silver, or making me a Farmer’s Soda in amber depression ware glasses. “Stuff” has meaning….but not the same meanings to everyone.

  • I read this when you wrote it but decided to come back and read it again. I have just seen both The Butler and I have been watching the PBS series Many Rivers to Cross because I do not want to forget. However I totally get where you are coming from emotionally in not wanting to linger on the parts of the past, at least the Holocaust part. I have been engaged in downsizing in my personal life so I am being forced to face my issues with my “Stuff. ” And it is true, some stuff holds no meaning for anyone other than me.

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