Applied Memory: To Reject or To Embrace?

If somebody would tell me 10-15 years ago that there would be the people who would not be moved by restoration of memory, I simply would not believe it. Such thing was incomprehensible to me.  But with my deep involvement into the sector of the post-Holocaust studies and activities, I am observing sustainable reality of rejection of the new commemorations.

There are two aspects in this pain-caused phenomenon, philosophical and practical ones. Philosophically, there are some people who do believe that there is no way back to the life destroyed. And because of that, there is no need in efforts to reconstruct it. It seems to be artificial to them. To me, such disposition although it contains certain logic in itself, does have a principal flaw. In my view, the more remembrance, the better. What else can we do for those whose lives had been taken so barbarically except to remember them?.. I disagree with this intellectual claim as too intellectual, to me. Too distant from life.

And life it should be when thinking on memory. Back in 2013, my husband Michael was invited to create the exhibition for the IV World Litvak Congress, in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto. His was the only personal exhibition for the event. The responsibility was huge. To surprise of many, there was not a single gloom picture in that collection whose title was Jewish Melody. Michael, the grandson of Sofia Litowska, did explain his thought behind his creation that has been dedicated to his family: “When I was creating these works depicting a lullaby, loyfer, in an Yiddish family, Kletzmer musicians, gentle Jewish accordionist under two white doves, a Jewish girl playing her cello, maestro Jewish violinist who plays staying on a cloud, I was thinking on all of them alive, not dead. I was thinking on them in their finest moments. I was as if hearing their melodies. My point is that even if all of those people did not survive the Night, their melodies certainly did. Our Jewish melody is. Our memory is. It is singing, playing and smiling. I would like to remember those people, among whom there were also the members of my and wife’s families, alive. I would like us to remember their melody, not their torment. I would like their melody to live”. I was impressed to see the people’s perception of that commemorative series. They were overwhelmed. They loved it. They were grateful. They were smiling. They called it “cosmos of memory”. They understood.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Ljuli-Ljuli. Yiddish Lullaby. Jewish Melody series. Mixed Technique. 35 x 50 cm. 2013.

Since then, my husband’s metaphor for living memory had been proved right many times, for different projects and aspects of what I call an applied memory. Working in this field intensively, I can see that acceptance of the concept of reviving memory is not that universal, as one would expect it to be, on a purely humanistic ground.

There is also another disturbing aspect of the same phenomenon of rejection. There is a strange tendency of rejection a priory of anything done in the memory of people annihilated during Holocaust if that anything is happening in the non-Western European countries. Some of those rejecting people are hostile to anything positive what is happening in the countries in which the SS veterans are still marching with honours and where the streets are re-named after the glorious Nazi collaborators. I do understand and identify with their indignation over those outrageous activities completely.

I am personally engaged into the fight against those marches from the day that disgust had been started. I honestly am at loss on the civilised world’s position and its closed eyes towards it. I also am monitoring and fighting publicly all and every tendency of the Holocaust diminishing and its revisionism anywhere where it is happening.

But what it has to do with rejecting the good things that are happening in those countries? In my view, the appearance of new museums, new projects, new commemorations are the best and the most important thing that could happen in the countries in which societies are leaving in prejudice and half-truth. The more just things will be implemented in those countries, the healthier their societies could become. To create such project as The Lost Shtetl in Lithuania, for example, it is to seed one more seed of good. I just cannot see why and what for it should be rejected and criticised.

The place for future The Lost Shtetl Museum & Memorial Complex in Seduva, Lithuania. Photo: (C) Inna Rogatchi. 2018

There also another side of this snobbish outright rejection of the projects of applied memory. I call it a laziness of mind. Disputing the subject with the one of the critics of the restoration of memory in Lithuania, I have asked this person on how many times he was in Lithuania during the past 30 years. I tried to understand on how familiar my opponent was with the realities there. The answer has stunned me.  “What you are talking about? – he said with clear low-key’ indignation. – We-are-not-travelling-there. Not to Lithuania, nor to Poland, and not to Ukraine. Our family did not set its foot on the ground of those places since  our relatives did manage to escape from there just before it all started, in July 1941”. It was a clear pride in his voice.

Well, – I told back, – members of our families somehow did not manage to escape. Not from Lithuania, nor from Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Hungary, or Austria, for this matter. And those who did not, they had been murdered there or deported to be murdered. But with my husband and with our Foundation, we never thought of not to going to the places where our families once lived. Quite to the contrary, we were very interested and very motivated to go there, especially to those of the places that had been awakening from their half-of-a century communist-implemented amnesia towards the Jewish people and Judaism, to support that awakening, to participate in the acts of an applied memory to the best we could while fighting anti-Semitism, Holocaust revisionism, and glorification of the Nazi collaborators.

It is only now, unfortunately, that we are unable to visit the graves of our family in Ukraine because we won’t be able to walk on Bandera avenues, observe the non-stop marches of the neo-Nazis there, or to see the state supported commemorations of the SS officers of the Ukrainian descent. And it is only now when the anti-Semitism in Poland has become not only wide-spread-as-usual, but it has become the official policy of the country run by the lunatic ultra-nationalists from the PiS party that we have refused to come there until that government will stay in power there”.

Of course, it is a matter of personal choice to where to visit and what to support. Still, it is hard for me to see how those people who are so active in the sport of rejecting can honour the memory of our past, so tragic one, so fragile one. Clearly, a person is free not to travel, not to know, not to recognise, but in the case of applied memory, it means simply not to remember. Still-born memory does not distinguish the people whose lives had been abrupt in so horrific way. Only living memory does. The projects like the ongoing The Lost Shtetl one is just that: an effort to make our memory the living one. I do not know more noble purpose.

The place for the memorial capsule for The Lost Shtetl museum in Seduva, Lithuania. May 2018. Photo: (C) Inna Rogatchi.

Contrast in Attitude: Lithuania vs Poland

While being in the Lithuanian  Seduva in May 2018 for The Lost Shtetl ground-breaking ceremony, I could not help but to think on the Lithuanian neighbour, Poland. Could anyone imagine the entire leadership of Poland today to be present at the ceremony like we attended in Seduva? Could anyone project such unanimous support by the authorities, both the highest and the local ones provided in an accord, with respect and decency, and remorse, as we all who did come to Seduva on the windy day of May 4th, 2018 witnessed there?

I was not the only one who was thinking that way. A very senior European diplomat told on her impressions from the ceremony: “What a contrast between the two neighbouring countries, Lithuania and Poland, on this so vital for both matter of our common history. What a striking contrast!”  Another close friend who flew in just after attending official commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Poland just could not held his concern, returning to the subject time and again: “ Practically all speeches at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commemoration , from the (Poland) president to the young activists, were infused with strong nationalistic sentiment. Nothing like that had happened there during the many years I am visiting the country. It is very disturbing; very, very disturbing”.

The world does realise what the situation in Poland is like today, and does not have much illusion about it. With the unprecedented official anti-Semitic policy in Poland, the attitude of the authorities in Lithuania to the public restoration of the Jewish memory and respect to the Jewish people is quite different. I am not rosy-glassed on the subject. We know that this matter is continuously difficult in Lithuania and the rest two of the Baltic states. It is difficult because of the burden of horror which has not been disclosed as it should in none of those countries as yet.

Actually, for better or worse, the authorities’ motivation behind it is of a secondary importance. It is the outcome that matters to us today, in memory of those hundreds of thousands of the Jewish people all over Lithuania, its tailors and its professors, its musicians and its cobblers, its poets and its rabbis, its house-wives and its engineers, and all those children who had no chance to become any of them; those whose dead bodies in August 1941 were ploughed into the ground of the fields around Seduva and many other places in Lithuania. The outcome that would make possible for us and our children and grandchildren, and for thousands of students in Lithuania to come to remember them with love and affection to the white dream-like buildings of The Lost Shtetl, so their souls would have the place to be remembered, in the country where they were living for five hundred years before being exterminated there.

Ground-breaking ceremony in Seduva for The Lost Shtetl Museum. May 2018. Credit: (C) The Seduva Jewish Memorial Fund.

After the ceremony in Seduva, the Lithuanian young people, all between their 20s and 30s, had made another point: “When the museum will be built up and opened, this memorial complex will become so important for all Europe – because where else one would be able to see the life as it was once all over here and in Europe, too, with all its features, its style and flavour?.. Creating such museum is important not for us only which it certainly is; but it is important in the pan-European context, in the way of how we today are seeing the story of the continent” ,- 30-year old Lithuanian journalist has told me on behalf of the group of his colleagues of the same age. This is the perspective of the Lithuanian people themselves, and it counts – if only because of the fundamental fact that Europe today has been formed as the direct result and the consequence of the boundless tragedy of the WWII and Holocaust.

Lithuanian students to lay the memorial capsule for The Lost Shtetl Museum. Seduva, May 2018. Credit: (C) The Seduva Jewish Memorial Fund.

In our bus to Seduva, to attend the ground-breaking ceremony for The Lost Shtetl there, there was sitting a nice elderly Jewish lady, small, shy and very pleasant. Initially, I did not know who she was. And then I was told that she is the grand-daughter of the Jewish people who had been murdered in Seduva in August 1941, and that being very little, she was brought by her mother to visit her grandparents shortly before the massacre, for a short family visit. Since then, she never visited this place again, understandably. And when I saw this small Jewish woman staying for the long time in front of a huge bill-board with images of the forthcoming museum to commemorate the Jewish people and Jewish life there, 77 years after that life had been thorn off so bestially, I just could not turn my eyes from that small female figure. I still remember that moment which I hardly would ever forget. During the reception after the ceremony, this lady was sitting at the one of the tables being so very happy. She was beaming. She was glowing from inside. Smile did not leave her face for a minute. And she spoke Lithuanian, freely and graciously. The whole long day before the reception she was talking in Yiddish and Russian.

The grand-daughter of the victims of the Holocaust in Seduva in front of the forthcoming The Lost Shtetl museum, 77 years after. Credit: (C) The Seduva Jewish Memorial Fund.

In re-assuring way, the great architect Rainer Mahlamäki has said about his latest creation, the complex of The Lost Shtetl: “ I can assure you that this building will be staying in a perfect condition for one thousand years. I am making it this way”. I do not remember when I have heard the commitment to memory of the Jewish people made so elegantly and so wholeheartedly. The best of it, he meant it.

May  – June 2018

Seduva-Vilnius-Helsinki