Thoughts for the 75th International Holocaust Remembrance Day
“What is this memory?” We must ask ourselves every now and again. On memorial days, when our memory is making headlines, the question is asking itself. It’s hard to define this elusive substance which seems to have infiltrated every hidden corner of our existence. Is it history? Is it mythology? Is it a collective trauma? The worn category of identity? Alongside the many questions, one thing is clear: remembrance is a repetitive act of return.
“The Truce,” Primo Levi’s sequel to his first memoir “Survival in Auschwitz,” in an odyssey through war-torn Eastern Europe. Levi’s way home was a long, circuitous one: nine months of train rides through today’s Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany passed between the day of Auschwitz’s liberation by the Red Army and before Levi finally crossed the Alps back to Italy. Recounting that last stretch of his journey, he ponders: “Were we returning richer or poorer, stronger or emptier? We did not know; but we knew that on the threshold of our homes, for good or ill, a trial awaited us, and we anticipated it with fear.”
Rather than joy or relief at the prospect of homecoming, Levi recalls apprehension. Unlike many other survivors who immigrated elsewhere, Levi is about to return to the same place he was forced to leave—his home. It is there, in this intimate space with the same old family, the same old friends, and the same old food that he must confront the weight of what he carried back from the camp; the weight of memory.
We, who were born into the inevitable world of the first-person plural inhabited by Levi’s memories, can testify to the long-lasting presence of that amalgamation of horror and warmth identified by Levi on the threshold of his house. In our lives, his questions have only continued to accumulate; the trial is still ongoing. Mainly, we struggle with speech.
As the decades are piling up one on top of the other, memorials are erected, decayed, vandalized, renovated, museums sharpen their technology and narratives, textbooks are revised and updated, we are left with fewer words to describe our own journeys through those memories we’ve inherited.
We can begin by saying that memory might not be the right term. After all, none of us has experienced it first hand. It’s been passed down to us by real and figurative ancestors. It’s been theorized, collectivized, nationalized, politicized, and instrumentalized. It’s been personalized and aestheticized for us to feel something. It’s been talked about in all the words possible. This overabundance is our culture, a petri dish where life grows.
Our memory is a shapeshifter; it takes many different metaphors. It can be a rhizome like Sebald’s “Austerlitz”—a multi-layered maze of images, documents, and narratives, interconnected to all other narratives in the world; it can be a dark, empty forest like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah; it can be a pile of ominous, immovable stones like Peter Eiseman’s Berlin memorial. Also, our memory is an excruciatingly long history lesson or a restless leg during a school ceremony. Often, it makes us apathetic and numb.
Memory, then, despite its inherent deception, might be our nearest available name for it after all, as it constitutes a perpetual search after an ever-receding past. In our case, this past is older than us, and its images continuously fade and are made clear again. We dread these images and their violence, and yet, we cannot let go—we know them intimately and from a young age; we shared sleepless nights with them; we ate them for dinner with our mothers; they are part of what we know about ourselves. These images are the threshold of a space nourishing and warm and full of unshakable horrors—a home. As evident from the compulsive repetition of the possessive article, our memory is our home.
“Home,” as defined by the social phenomenologist Alfred Schuz, who himself escaped Nazi persecution from his native Vienna to Paris and later New York, “is a starting point as well as terminus…” It is that from which one starts and to which one intends to return when she is away from it. Home for Schutz is a space of intimacy, familiarity, and, most importantly, patterns. The interpersonal experience of being at home is predictable. At home, one knows what to expect and is prepared to deal with the unexpected.
And so, we always return to our familiar island of memory from the rough seas outside. Over and again, we return to the overused metaphors and the known stories. The many filters that were used in transmitting this memory to us, have grown to be the filters through which we perceive our realities. Through them we read the news, we travel the world, we exchange thoughts in our most intimate of interactions. These filters are our way of making sense of the increasingly shuttering grounds of our planet and our political systems. Levi, who fought through inferno for his return, eventually chose to end his life at his home. Memory infiltrated through the walls and drowned it in nightmares; home can be a dangerous place.
Our object of memory is an always accessible point of reference. It contains a story of certainties, of absolute evil and absolute heroism. We return to it every time we need confidence; we give it different shapes, tell it in different ways, argue with each other over the details. But, despite the layers and evolutions, our way home is always circular, always a return.
Didi Tal is a PhD candidate in German literature at Columbia University