Dear beloved members of Yale’s Jewish community,
I hope this message finds you well.
Yom Hashoah’s annual occurrence is a reminder to remember, a call to memory. The perennial question is how. We light candles, we tell stories, we gather. We try to hold memory in our hands, in our voices, in the space between us, all while knowing that it is not something so easily made tangible or visible.
We are tasked with both the re-opening and preservation of the metaphysical archives, which contain the memories of the victims of the Nazi genocide. Recognizing that it is not an easy task, we undertake it anyway, keeping alive the stories and lives of victims and survivors alike by telling and hearing them. We insist on seeing and hearing horror in its dark totality. We deliberately re-engage with the experiences of the very people the Nazis tried to erase.
When thinking about questions of memory and storytelling, I often return to the powerfully lyrical words of Alejandra Pizarnik, an Argentinian Jewish poet, and contemporary of the Holocaust’s victims and survivors. Pizarnik was preoccupied with silence, suffering and language – and her work develops the themes of estrangement, childhood, and death, which are central to Yom Hashoah’s meaning.
The six lines of her poem “Tabla Rasa” or “Blank Slate” from the collection Uncollected Poems (1962–1972) depict the depth, fluidity, and fragility of memory:
cisternas en la memoria cisterns in memory
ríos en la memoria rivers in memory
charcas en la memoria pools in memory
siempre agua en la memoria always water in memory
viento en la memoria wind in memory
soplan en la memoria whispering in memory
Always water. Memory is like the sediment that collects at the bottom of a riverbed. Time is liquid. It flows like blood through veins, its current fast, slow, and strong and never in one direction. With its current we leave behind small particles, slips of sandy paper, that float to the bottom. What is painful, unjust, traumatic does not get sifted out, but settles with the rest. We are left with what appears to be a singular murky mass, but what is actually layers upon layers, built up and sometimes washed away.
This question returns to “how?”: how do we remember to remember? What do we do when all we have is memories of memories? How do we reach to the bottom of the riverbed and make sense of the grains of sand?
Renee Hartman, a Holocaust survivor, author, New Haven resident, and one of the creators of the Fortunoff Archive at Yale crystallized her defiance of the Nazi attempts to kill her and her sister through her poetry and memoir – and made these memories into public knowledge through reading her work, keeping her evocations from fading. Renee was born in Czechoslovakia in 1933 and lived with her sister, Herta, and their mother and father. Their family was deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and Renee and her sister were liberated in 1945 as the only survivors from their family. Renee has published books of poetry, Bergen-Belsen 2009, a chapter in the anthology, The Power of Witnessing: Reflections, Reverberations, and Traces of the Holocaust, and her memoir Signs of Survival, A Memoir of the Holocaust. I urge you to hear her own voice in this episode from the Fortunoff Archive, to make your memory into a tool to defy the disintegration of the past.
You can find others who, like Hartman and Pizarnik, resisted evil and inertia with poetry, in any and every Holocaust poem; this collection of Holocaust poetry is a good starting-place. In each author’s attempt to express what might be ultimately inexpressible, we see them in more than one dimension, as both those who suffered and those who made art with or despite this suffering. Through poetry, they process individual and collective histories and their violence in public. They navigate an aesthetic medium as both object and subject, creating work that transcends and interrogates time and geography.
Thank you for dedicating some of this solemn and sacred day to making our community a living place of memory, care, and resolve. As always, I am grateful for your questions, ideas, and memories.
Yours, in search of memory,