Recently I watched from afar as my good friend journeyed to Rwanda. She was drawn there, to this African country to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and the noble work of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. She is the daughter of a man, hidden during the Holocaust, but who as an adult reclaimed the forgotten Jewish memories torn from her father and slaughtered with her paternal grandparents. And now she traveled to the sites where one million Tutsi were murdered by their neighbors, the Hutu, in the span of one hundred days. They were not killed in gas chambers but by hand with machetes and clubs.
Philip Gourevitch observed in The New Yorker (April 21, 2014), “A lot of Rwandans will tell you that all through mourning week they are prone to bad and bitter feelings. For those who were there in 1994, during the genocide, memory can feel like an affliction, and the greater imperative has often been to learn how to forget enough for long enough to live in the present for the rest of the year. And for those who were not yet born—more than half the country today—what does it mean to be told to remember?”
Indeed, what does it mean to remember?
Last week as well the Internet was abuzz with reports of renewed antisemitism in the Ukraine. We read that Jews were told to register with government authorities. The truth about these claims appeared difficult to discern. Was this part of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda against Ukrainian nationalists? And yet we, with eyes stained by images of the killing fields of Babi Yar, believed it to be true. It had to be true. Einsatzgruppen (the SS mobile killing units), aided by the Schuma, the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, murdered 33,771 Jews during the course of several days in a ravine outside of Kiev, in those desolate fields of Babi Yar. By war’s end nearly one million Jews from the Ukraine were murdered. How could today’s stories not be true?
The cries continue to haunt our dreams.
Gourevitch again, “All around the stadium, all around the city, all around the country hung misty-gray banners displaying the word kwibuka—‘remember.’ The lacerating voices in the stadium make the banners seem almost cruel. Is it really healing to keep reopening a wound?”
I wonder. At what point does remembering come at the cost of living? If we dwell within houses built of memories how might we continue living?
Perhaps this explains why the greatest of chroniclers of the Holocaust, Primo Levi, ultimately took his own life by throwing himself down the stairs of the house that he once called his childhood home. Perhaps this explains why as well so many survivors married other survivors. They could leave unspoken the painful truths that continued to gnaw at their souls.
Do such searing memories blind us to living?
The great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai offers a poem:
On my desk is a stone with “Amen” carved on it, one survivor fragment
of the thousands upon thousands of bits of broken tombstones
in Jewish graveyards. I know all these broken pieces
now fill the great Jewish time bomb
along with the other fragments and shrapnel, broken Tablets of the Law
broken altars broken crosses rusty crucifixion nails
broken houseware and holyware and broken bones
eyeglasses shoes prostheses false teeth
empty cans of lethal poison. All these broken pieces
fill the Jewish time bomb until the end of days. (Open Closed Open)
Then I worry. If I remember I might lose my hold on life. If I store up within these recesses of my mind, more and more images of murderous fields I might be unable to see the glimmers of light that radiate between the lines that distinguish true from false.
Is it possible that forgetfulness offers an unspoken path to sanity?
Remembrance is the antidote to history.
And then I recall. And I fear. If I forget, if I fail to remember, then tragedies might continue to unfold. And my friends and I will be left wandering from land to land marking ever more catastrophes.
Forget and I am granted a momentary sanity. Remember and I continue to wander.