Coda from Memory Unearthed
The pull of history and the soul of memory are heard in a Yiddish expression: “Es hot undz dos lebn gerufn.” “Life called for us.” It is a phrase of the mamaloshn, the “mother tongue,” that resonates and expands, stemming from its place in the past and reaching forward to the generations to follow, to those who will inherit the knowledge of all that was once done to extinguish its breath. For every occasion on which the memory of the Holocaust is unearthed, Time finds us newly located. We have moved along its linear path, through the measured passage of days and with the accumulation of years, repeatedly to discover that the protective boundaries of our selves have been altered by a ghostly refrain. And it is one that addresses us with a request, accompanied by the awareness of a debt to be paid: “Remember us.”
There are age-old practices that prescribe the rituals for burial as well as for the process of mourning that follows. Their purpose is twofold: to show respect for the dead and to comfort the living. When the death of a close relative occurs—a parent, a sibling, a spouse, a child—there is the rending of a garment, a cut of cloth symbolic of the tear in the hearts of the bereaved. At the gravesite, the community of family and friends assists in filling the grave, all with the understanding that it is the last act of kindness one can perform for a loved one. Each individual will pick up the shovel and use its backside to place the earth into the ground: a reversal of natural order to denote the difficulty of the deed and a demonstration of one’s reluctance in the face of what needs to be accepted.
It is only a small step of imagination to move back and forth in time, from one ground of burial to another: from July 1944, when Henryk Ross buried his prints and negatives—the sum of his camera’s eye up until the closure and liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto—to their disinterment in March 1945 in the presence of a handful of friends. It is impossible not to wish to make complete and fill to the measure the unknown lives of the ghosts who call to us for their remembrance. Yet we have the orienting compass of our hearts to guide our ways through memory. Once more there is a symbolic tearing of our clothing—for another’s parents, their siblings, their spouses, their children. Just as Henryk Ross fulfilled a promise to safeguard and preserve for the future history’s ineffable lament, his offerings come to be understood as a gift—an endowment to our humanity—that has grown as it ages through the seven decades since its delivery.
Memory widens and enlarges, not only during the moments in which we place ourselves within its midst, but also as its form broadens to gather in new voices. The survivors of the Holocaust, who were once meticulously recorded into ledgers and indelibly numbered, their names transferred into books of accounting, are now diminished by age and dying. After liberation, they adhered to the community of one another in the shared knowledge of their incalculable loss, and began to re-seed life. In the course of their years, they would come together in celebration and in hardship, both extremes layered with hope and trust. The meaning of the words “life force” is illuminated by the paths of their lives. Their witnessing testimonies, their stories, are the continuant expression of all that is borne to be remembered. And what now passes before our eyes is the seat of our consciousness.
Who will dream You?
Yearn after You?
Who will flee You,
only to return
over a bridge of longing?
ווער וועט דיך חלומען?
ווער וועט דיך לייקענען,
ווער וועט דיך בענקען?
ווער וועט צו דיר, אויף אַ פאַרבענקטער בריק,
אַוועק פון דיר, כדי צו קומען צוריק?1
The world of memory is an ever-present entity in which our moral imaginations are rooted, sown by our hearts’ pressing yet fragile wish to understand. Therein lies the all-embracing setting for observation of and reflection on the immutable legacy of our history. The future of remembrance has already been set down and engraved by a legion of historians, philosophers, artists, writers and poets who have responded from time immemorial. They have steadily mapped the pathway for us to maintain, in the hope that true bearing could be found without faltering, or be directed either to the right or to the left.
The souls of so many are present. And as we are entrusted to hear their voices, and feel their presence, we have performed an act of kindness not only for them, but also for the generations to follow. And in doing so, a debt continues to be fulfilled.
1 Jacob Glatstein, “Without Jews,” from The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, ed. Irving Howe, Ruth R. Wisse and Khone Shmeruk, trans. Cynthia Ozick (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), p. 436. © 1987 Irving Howe, Ruth Wisse, and Khone Shmeruk.