We Jews value memory, but no one can remember everything. If we paid attention to what we choose to remember–and what we don’t–we might find that retrieving the past has a lot to do with supporting the present and directing the future.
In his recent, much-praised book, Three Minutes in Poland, Glenn Kurtz finds a long-forgotten home movie in his parents’ closet. After painstaking recovery, he discovers within it three minutes of color footage from a visit his grandparents took in 1938 when they cruised from America to their Polish hometown of Nasielsk. Kurtz devotes his book to his diligent—in his own words obsessive—efforts to recover the names and lives of the people the film shows.
Through hard work and luck, he succeeds. Kurtz learns much about Nasielsk and its people, how they lived, and what became of them. Many were murdered in the Shoah. Some were evacuated to the Soviet Union, suffered, and survived. Of the few who managed to escape, one man who now lives in the US was Kurtz’s major source of help in identifying people and places in those three minutes of film.
Truly, a touching homage and an impressive act of memory. But what does Kurtz remember?
Pre-war Polish filled their lives with religious, political, and intellectual ferment. Zionists, Bundists, Hasidim, and Communists all vied for primacy, as did members of the Agudah and Mizrachi within the religious community. Kurtz introduces us to a long list of people, but has little to say about what they believed or stood for.
Three or four people are described as “religious.” Each of these is cranky, impatient, and old-fashioned, like the irascible patriarch who punishes his granddaughter for combing her hair on Shabbos, or beats his grandson for daring to ride a bicycle during the week. The grandson gets revenge by cycling to the next town and buying treyf sausage.
We do learn that such a man came from a family that worked in iron, another one’s folk worked in wood, that a prominent clan owned a button factory, dressed its women in furs and stylish clothes, and drove through town in an open car. Kurtz expends much effort trying to identify a young woman looking out of a window in one film frame, and figuring out exactly which of Nasielsk’s restaurants appears briefly in a few others.
The world is full of towns whose streets, factories, and restaurants have been forgotten. The people who lived there had jobs and relatives and family stories that nobody cares about. Two things make the people in Kurtz’s three-minute film worth remembering. The first, for Kurtz at least, is their relationship with him and his family. Second—and this is what makes the book of interest to the rest of us—is that most of the people smiling and waving in those fleeting images would shortly be killed because they were Jews, though of course neither they nor the ones who shot the film could know that.
All the people in the film are Jews, yet we learn nothing about what was Jewish about them beyond the fact that being Jewish was about to get them chased and murdered. Synagogues do appear in Kurtz’s book, but only as places where Nazis rounded people up to dispose of them.
In a striking scene, Kurtz visits an abandoned Jewish cemetery. His Polish guide, Zdzislaw, takes a blue velvet yarmulke out of his pocket—brought back from Israel by a relative—and puts it on. “Places should be respected,” he says.
Kurtz too has a yarmulke in his pocket, “a black rayon giveaway that had ended up in the pocket of a suit after some wedding, funeral, or bar mitzvah.” Someone at that event had presumably died, married, or come of age. Is that person worth remembering? Evidently not.
Kurtz does not put on his yarmulke. He feels that would be a “hollow gesture.”
Kurtz also has “a little blue booklet from the Riverside Memorial Chapel” from his father’s unveiling. “This booklet,” he says, “had the Kaddish…printed in Hebrew, English, and the transliterated, phonetic Hebrew for people like me, who cannot read and do not understand the original, but who are occasionally called upon to fake it.”
Kurtz had not planned to say Kaddish, because “it would be pretending to something that had no meaning to me, and to which I felt no connection.” In the end, he sends his Polish companion away and says Kaddish to himself, then picks up some stones to take back to his family cemetery in Queens, New York.
Along with his publishers, Kurtz remembers East European Jewry as people who went to school, had jobs and families, ate in restaurants, and whose world was cruelly destroyed. All were Jews. What made them Jews? Did faith, history, a sense of peoplehood have something to do with it? Anything? Or was being Jewish no more than a death sentence most could not escape?
Based on what Kurtz decides to remember, Jewish learning, faith, and practice were the fading preoccupations of old-fashioned, small-minded people from whom the younger set hoped to get away.
People, in other words, like the author. People who feel that even saying Kaddish is meaningless fakery.
Were there Jews like him in pre-war Eastern Europe? Sure there were. Plenty of them. There are lots of them now too, all over the world. Americans can read about some in the recent Pew Report.
Are such people worth remembering? Of course they are. Everyone is worth remembering, especially people whose lives and posterity Hitler obliterated.
But not everyone, worthy or not, merits descendants willing to make the effort to retrieve their memory and tell the world about it. The man—or was it woman?– from whom Kurtz got his giveaway rayon yarmulke, the one who got married—or was it buried?—also went to school and had a job and a family. Kurtz is unlikely to write a book about him (or her?) He can’t even bring himself to join the respectful Zdzislaw and throw on the skullcap left over from whatever person or occasion it was.
Descendants who do make the effort to recall their forbears often have an agenda: to recall the part of their past that reminds them of themselves and validates their own choices.
We all want to shape our future. One way to do that is to choose our past.
The past is complex. It offers too much to choose from.
Remembering the past is important. Which past would you like?