Memory in the Service of Life
The moral work of memory
by Henry F. Knight
Remembering is something we all do. So is forgetting. But there are times, and occasions, that challenge us to make remembering a moral act. The Holocaust was such a time, and living in its wake is such an occasion.
When we confront what happened during this catastrophic time, we remember in very specific ways. Often, as students of the Holocaust, we recall lost lives when we remember missing villages and their inhabitants. We look back to recall their names, their stories, their worlds in order to breathe life, such as we are able, into the valley of death into which they were cast. It is as if we were joining Ezekiel viewing the valley of dry bones. He confronted the dried bones of Jewish victims left where they were slain after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army of Nebuchadnezzar. After Auschwitz, we confront an even more devastating sight, a continent-wide valley of destruction filled with the bones and ashes of six million Jewish dead. As we hover over this domain of devastation, we take time to give what flesh and sinew we can to these dry bones by telling the stories of those we discover there. We do so for the sake of life-theirs and ours.
We honor them by recalling what we can of their lives, reclaiming their significance for us. We give to them a dignity taken from them. We restore them to a place of significance in our worlds, remembering that they were torn from theirs. We give thanks for their lives, honoring them when we tell their stories and reconnect their lives, with gratitude, to ours and ours to theirs.
We enlarge our lives by reclaiming these missing persons and giving them place and significance in our lives. We declare our responsibility as we honor the stories of others whose presence in memory calls forth our presence to and for them. In The Lost, Daniel Mendelsohn relates his search to learn what happened to six members of his family lost during the Holocaust—six of the six million. In telling this story he articulates not only what he learns about the missing members of his family, but he also shares what happens to him and to his brother, Matt, as they grow and change in relation to this experience. Through the confluence of memory, history, and midrashic musings on the stories of Genesis, Mendelsohn places his life and that of his family in the larger domain of the people of Abraham, deepening both our understanding of the tragedy that happened 60 years ago to the Jews in Europe and the larger significance of his place among this people in the present. Mendelsohn's odyssey is about more than a search for six missing members of his family. It is about his place in that family as well as his place in a much larger one, the people Israel, and the power of memory to heal and make life whole, even when life remains deeply wounded.
I know of no stronger visual images of this quality of memory's moral work than two memorials that watch over two very different places. One stands as a silent sentinel overlooking the hill at the center of what was once the death camp named Treblinka. A towering, granite memorial stone, split down the middle and crowned by a carved menorah, stands guard over thousands of smaller, irregularly shaped stones that populate the grounds of what had literally been a killing field. Except for one marker bearing the name of Janusz Korczak, each of these smaller stones represents a town, a shtetl, that was destroyed by the Nazis or their collaborators. There are 17,000 of them, a valley of stones. One hundred thirty of them are named, bearing the identities of plundered Jewish villages. Each one of those names signifies thousands of other names, while each of the stones, named and unnamed, represents a missing world, some known, others not. Or, to put it another way, the jagged stone markers are shards of those broken vessels of life that were shattered by the Shoah. The work of memory restores what we can of those missing worlds and builds narrative bridges by which we can try to keep our worlds whole by binding them to ours.
A second memorial is the Tower of Faces at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Through the careful work of Yaffa Eliach, those who visit the museum pass twice through a three-story tower of photographs depicting ordinary family life in her (then) Polish hometown of Ejszyszki (Eishishok). The first encounter occurs midway through the permanent exhibit as visitors cross a bridge that cuts through the tower. Two stories of photographs stretch upward to the skylight above; one story of photographs lines the walls below. Standing in the midst of faces from an earlier, happier time, visitors are reminded of what life was like in the time before. Each photograph bears the image of at least one human life-and often the smiling faces of an entire family. The second encounter occurs as visitors pass through the tower at its base and make their way toward the concluding sections of the permanent exhibit. The faces that greet them as they leave remain unchanged. They have become a silent record of missing persons whom we can restore to their place in our world only by learning to tell their story, declaring with Professor Eliach, "There once was a world."
Lawrence Siegel's Kaddish performs a similar task, though its work is aural, not visual. With its musical witness, Kaddish gives vocal presence to survivors whose words reach out to others in memory converted to song. Their diverse testimony declares in distinctive ways for each of them: Here I am-Hear, I am! The survivors' oral presence is mediated by others-the composer and the performers-who on their behalf reach out to listeners willing to hear them. Their voices-the singers and the survivors whom they represent-call for our attention, asking us, "Where are you?"
This, too, is the moral work of memory. As we acknowledge these voices with their distinctive memories, we connect our lives to them, and in so doing we make our worlds bigger, richer, stronger, more diverse in the same way that creation is. Moreover, as we connect our lives to these who can tell the story of what happened to them and declare their presence to us, we connect our lives to others who cannot-unnamed persons whose lives were stolen from them, whose voices were silenced and not allowed to sing. We reclaim them, too, as best anyone can, in a musical act of thanksgiving for their lives. In effect, we draw on the spirit of the Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the sanctification of the divine name and popularly associated with the act of giving thanks for a deceased parent or loved one. The prayer, itself, lifts up the desire of those who pray it to honor God's name with every breath they take and every act they undertake. In so doing, they honor those they remember when they pray that this may be so (let us say, Amen). In a very powerful way, Kaddish-Siegel's composition-and the prayer in which it is framed serve as a vocal window into the world shattered by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.
When memory serves life by reconnecting us with missing and forgotten persons, when memory serves life by restoring significance to lives that were dismissed and attacked as insignificant, when memory serves life by making our worlds larger, not smaller, then all of us are served well. To be sure, the memories are often painful since they are wrapped in wounds. But these restored lives do not wound us themselves; the violence done to them does the wounding. When we restore their place in the moral and spiritual landscapes of our lives, then they make our lives more whole. Rebbe Nachman of Brazlav once said, "There is nothing as whole as a broken heart." When we reconnect our lives by way of memory, with the missing lives kidnapped from history in the violent storm of destruction we call the Shoah, we know he was right.
Memory can wound. Memory can cut us off from the present; it can cut us off from others. Memory can paralyze. It can also hold us hostage. But memory can also heal. Memory can bind us to the wounded; it can bind up the wounded. Memory can warn us of danger and of the urgency of being vigilant in the present. It can connect us to the forgotten and to the missing. It can make our worlds larger, not smaller. Memory can serve life. But it all depends on how we remember. Remembering is therefore a moral act. And how we remember makes all the difference in the world.