Upset memory and the restorative power of involvement
Water is often invoked as a material and elemental representation of life in the diaspora. It is a fitting description of the distance that can be measured in concrete terms but never adequately described by them. The property of fluid substance tells the story: the surface a transparent horizon into which you can see but never to its unfathomable depths. It is this sense of two distances that water can suggest, one that travels the horizontal axis between continents and nations, the other the vertical axis that symbolises the deep time of ancestral and familial history. As with water, history can be waded in but always signals a threat of peril; history can consume.
My father doesn’t have much to say about our Jewish heritage. In his youth it was ordinary to not ask one’s parents about family history. It wasn’t only him; it seems most of his peers in the community did the same. It was not so much that they did not ask but that their parents did not tell. Resultant is an inheritance of the violence of the Shoah – indeed of a long history of exile and trouble – with a very specific lineal addition: that there is so much that cannot be spoken, in the first place out of a sort of modesty and heartache, in the second because this heartache does not provide a material history as such. If I put it simply, trauma prevented so much from being said, and left us descendants (I belong to the 2nd generation of Shoah descendants) with a silent history, one that can only speak of the Shoah through absence.
This historical frame has a specific truthfulness. It speaks a truth that does not bear out the facts of the event, but is a factual consequence of them; it casts a truer shadow than any data could. It is the truthfulness of the person who cannot articulate in language what they have and have not seen, but whose face, gestures and characteristic way of being tell the story. This truth is a truthful consequence, but it is also a bearer of truth that speaks in its own way to the factual events that remain absent. The primary bearer of absent, silent history is a testimony-in-fact.
With respect to our Jewish heritage, my family is one of nearly forgotten memories. If not for my Oma’s careful but unsystematic archive, I fear that I would know little of the heritage that was and was not passed on to me. This is our upset memory, built upon recollections from the period before my Oma and Opa died, internalised records which I readily store but can rarely cite, and all the culminating false and half-starts of cultural production that fall into the mix. It is this mix, which authors upset memory, that casts silent history as a matter to be dealt with not through the gathering of remote historical facts but through the work of recuperating cultural knowledge, and in so doing to stop the transmission of violence.
Remote historical facts cannot ignite the picture that upset memory creates. They can only fall into the mix and augment the memory image. Like the scientist who uploads every fact, every aspect and conjecture regarding consciousness to her super computer, fragmented memory cannot simply come to life by having more fragments added to it. What she produces is a pantomime of the conscious mind; she and I must deal with is the effluvia of steam, of uncuppable water. I do not want statistics or instruction, I want to experience positionality as an unfolding, as a relation in time between myself and what has been lost.
In lockdown I began to learn Hebrew online, through the family synagogue. My father no longer lives in the country, my mother is a convertee now divorced from my Dad, and my brothers two long term lapsed Jews. I am not comfortable at Temple, so the lockdown pivot to online services was a rare opportunity to enter into Jewish ritual life from the comfort of home and with a certain level of impunity. Hebrew is the foundational language of Judaism. It is the language of prayer, of religious ritual tradition that is passed through the generations. It is also the language of obligation. All blessings, and all responsibilities arising in the key life cycle events (birth, death, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage and so forth) are in Hebrew. If I want to honour my mother and father at their passing, I must learn the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Hebrew prayer.
And so I ventured a generative addition to inherited memory and found a rich connection to the ancestors and the places that I will never know, through this language. It is into this relation with silence and ancient esoteric text that I sense the ineffable, the phantom limb of my heritage before the Shoah. When I trace the form of the letters, so very different to the shape of English, and the form corresponds to sound I feel that I am producing this salve, this stop-up that plugs the transmission of violence by working positively and productively with memory and a silent history.
It is this liquid body, the fluid factor, where I find the sense of history, the assembled modes of truth that heap together at the shore but give no answers. What am I to do with this presence of history that never reveals itself but always sticks close by?
What was not said by those who are passed is lost. There are no facts that speak with their voices. Learning a new language cannot become information that fills that loss. But becoming acquainted with cultural tradition and knowledge begins to answer the question above: what am I to do? In gaining this knowledge I find myself already involved in the historical relation, but in contrast to the disempowered position of simply not knowing, I feel myself a cultural and historical agent, acting to repair cut ties in my own way and in my own time. The answer to the question comes in finding yourself already involved.
This work was created in dialogue with "Moving Oceans" by Anastasia Vorgias, Giyal'dha Guwaali, Josh Ophel and Lucien Wing Yin Leung, which can be found here.