In 1942, while Jews were crammed into the earth then covered with a dusting of soil, men crawled into the startled darkness of Lascaux. Animals woke from their sleep underground. Twenty-six feet below they burst into life in lamplight: the swimming deer, floating horses, rhinos, ibex, and reindeer. Their damp nostrils trembled, their hides sweating iron oxide and manganese, in the smell of subterranean stone. While a worker in the French cave remarked, “What a delight to listen to Mozart at Lascaux in the peace of the night,” the underground orchestra of Auschwitz accompanied millions to the pit. Everywhere the earth was upturned, revealed both animals and men. Caves are the temples of the earth, the soft part of the skull that crumbles under touch. Caves are repositories of spirits; truth speaks from the ground. At Delphi, the oracle proclaims from a grotto. In the holy ground of the mass graves, the earth blistered and spoke.
While the German language annihilated metaphor, turning humans into objects, physicists turned matter into energy. The step from language/formula to fact: denotation to detonation. Not long before the first brick smashed a window on Kristallnacht, physicist Hans Thirring wrote, of relativity: “It takes one’s breath away to think what might happen to a town if the dormant energy of a single brick were to be set free…it would suffice to raze a city with a million inhabitants to the ground.” ❞