Shana Tova. Yesterday was the start of the Jewish New Year, and for me, this autumn of 2013 marks the beginning of a new stage in my life: new house, new country, new license plates (on my agenda for today) and new job. I’ve just arrived at the University of Missouri, Columbia, with my family in tow to begin my work as Assistant Professor of English, specifically of creative writing. I’m teaching writing workshops in creative nonfiction (memoir, personal essays, lyric essays, biography, and so on) and returned last night from a graduate seminar feeling energized and inspired by the discussion I had with my students.
Our project for this graduate seminar (called “Raw”) is to write from material traces. I’ve asked each student to choose an object and to use it as a starting point for reflection, investigation and creation. Some have chosen family heirlooms or documents; some are using things collected while traveling; others are going to the archives. What a gift to have a group of writers who come to the table with real questions and projects that matter to them, and that I believe will matter to others if they do their jobs well.
Last night, we dove into our first deep discussion with Maggie Nelson’s Jane (A Murder). The book takes a family diary, penned by Nelson’s murdered aunt, as its starting point. It reworks Jane’s journal entries, and treats fragments like poetry. One of my students remarked that by doing so, Nelson has made these fragments whole — I thought it a stroke of brilliance. If you don’t know this book and are interested in archives, personal writings, diaries, trauma, grief, or women’s life-writing, I highly recommend it.
Our Jane discussion led to reflection on the sacred, on the responsibility that we as authors have to the creators or owners of the objects we use in our work, and on who has the right to tell stories. An auspicious start.
Happy autumn. May it be a season of discovery and growth.
[Photo: Thomas Hawk]
We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust tells the story of Ellen Cassedy’s personal journey into the Jewish heartland of Lithuania – the land of her Jewish forebears – and then expands into an exploration of how Lithuania today is engaging with its complex 20th-century history. Probing the terrain of memory and moral dilemmas, the book shines a spotlight on fragile efforts toward mutual understanding and carries a cautious message of hope.
Ellen Cassedy has explored the world of the Lithuanian Holocaust for ten years. She is a former columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Her articles have appeared in Huffington Post, Haaretz, Jewish Journal, Hadassah, The Jewish Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Lilith, Bridges, Utne Reader, Polin, and Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. She is a frequent speaker about Jewish and Lithuanian issues, and a regular contributor to VilNews, the international web magazine based in Vilnius, Lithuania. She lives near Washington, DC.
Julija Šukys: The frame for your book is a trip to Vilnius to study Yiddish at a well-known summer program there. Tell me a little bit about your relationship to the Yiddish language. How much Yiddish did you speak or understand before arriving in Vilnius? How did your relationship to the language change over the summer? How much Yiddish did you encounter in Lithuania?
Ellen Cassedy: My mother used to sprinkle Yiddish words into conversation like a spice. At the window on a rainy day: “A pliukhe! (a downpour.)” In the kitchen: “Hand me that shisl (bowl).” On the telephone: “The woman’s a makhsheyfe (a witch).” After she died, I missed those homey syllables. I began studying Yiddish as a kind of memorial to her, a way to hold on to my Jewish heritage.
By the time I arrived at the summer program run by the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, I’d progressed far enough to be placed in the second-to-highest level – where I held on by my fingernails! Spending several hours a day in class and doing hours of homework every night was a mekhaye – a great pleasure.
Within a few weeks, I became able to conduct interviews in Yiddish – with a Holocaust survivor from my ancestral town of Rokiškis, with the leader of the Jewish community in the city of Šiauliai, where my family members had been imprisoned in the Shavl ghetto. And occasionally I’d encounter a Yiddish-speaker on the beautiful streets of the Old City in Vilnius.
The Yiddish scenes that I weave through the book serve as resting places for both me and the reader – places of laughter and love.
The central focus of this book is the Holocaust bystander. You seek to consider the role of the bystander in a nuanced way and struggle to understand what it meant to be a non-Jewish witness to the Holocaust. In the end you arrive at a kind of reconciliation or entente in your understanding of the opposing forces and tragedies that were at play in Lithuania during World War II. Tell me a little bit about how you came to take this path.
On the brink of my journey to Lithuania, I learned there was an old man in my ancestral town who wanted to speak with a Jew before he died. In 1941, when he was 17, he watched as the Jews of the Rokiškis region were rounded up and marched off into the forest to be shot. Those memories had tormented him all his life. He wanted to tell what he knew, and he wanted a Jew to hear his tale. Would I be that Jew?
The time I spent with this haunted witness – and with numerous other Lithuanians who shared with me their family stories of the Holocaust – showed me that “bystanders” are not an undifferentiated mass. We need to look closely enough to understand each person as an individual. And our goal must be to create the kind of society where it is easier to stand up than to stand by.
I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that you discover that your uncle was a member of the ghetto police force in the Shavl Ghetto. The ghetto police forces were and are, of course, extremely problematic – they are both victims and oppressors. You cite Primo Levi’s term “the gray zone” to describe the moral space that people like Efroyim Gens (head of the Shavl Ghetto Police) and his brother Jakob Gens (head of the Vilna Ghetto Police) inhabit. To what extent should we, from our perspective, suspend our judgment of those in the gray zone? What conclusions have you come to about people like your uncle and the Genses? Do your uncle and the Genses belong in the same category?
I don’t think I’ll ever stop wondering about my uncle and the complex truths he embodies. I’m less interested than I used to be in assigning people to one category or another. Maybe, when it comes to people like my uncle and the Genses (who had more power than my uncle did, but still faced inhuman and impossible choices), the answers are less important than the questions we continue to ask ourselves. Maybe it’s the moral attention we pay that will help to prevent future genocides.
Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands caused a firestorm when it appeared in 2010, because some historians and other readers considered that he equated Nazi crimes with Stalinist ones, thereby minimizing or excusing the former. He was accused of “Holocaust obfuscation,” among other things. By contrast, you, like Snyder, seem to view Nazism and Stalinism and the ways in which those eras are remembered in Lithuania as interconnected. Wartime and postwar Lithuania itself is portrayed in your book as a kind of gray zone. Is this a fair characterization of your position? Could you expand?
I learned a great deal from Bloodlands, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the cataclysms of the 20th century. To examine both Nazi and Stalinist crimes, to explore the connections – that’s a basic job for a historian.
The term “gray zone” doesn’t mean we turn away from morality. When we see things going wrong, we must speak up loud and clear. Bloodlands can help us do that.
In Lithuania, it was hard for me to open up to “the Other,” to hold in my head the reality of non-Jewish suffering alongside Jewish suffering. Hard – but essential, especially for those of us in the successor generations. Can we honor our diverse heritages without perpetuating the fears and hatreds of the past? Can we appeal to one another not as victims, bystanders, or collaborators, but as fellow beings with the capacity for moral choice? Those are the questions I hope my readers will ask themselves.
My final question is about the Lithuanian language and the ways in which you had to use mediators to “access” Lithuanian narratives and memories of the Holocaust. With the exception of Yiddish speakers, you interviewed most of your Lithuanian contacts in English or through translators, and employed third-party intervention to collect and work through archival sources. What risks does working through mediators in this way bring with it? How do you account for or deal with what necessarily gets lost, censored or simplified in translation?
By the time I left Lithuania, I had a Lithuanian vocabulary of about 60 words – pitiful! I don’t know Russian, German, or Hebrew, either –all of which came into play in the writing of my book. But I’ve always been intrigued by what happens when people from different cultures, using different languages, make the effort to communicate. My experiences with translators and interpreters turned out to be utterly fascinating encounters in themselves. I make sure the reader gets to meet Regina, Hirsh, Emil, Natasha, and others who helped me make sense of what I was seeing and hearing.
When you think about it, aren’t we always mediating, always translating – no matter who we’re talking to, no matter what languages are involved? Reaching out and attempting to understand, even when it’s a challenge – in the end, that’s exactly what We Are Here is about.
A few months ago, a friend asked me before departing to France on sabbatical if she should be concerned about anti-Semitism there. “Oh no,” I said, dismissing her concerns. Now, in the wake of the Toulouse Jewish school shooting, I see I may have been wrong to be so quick in my assurance that all would be well.
I have complex emotional relationship to France, but I love Toulouse, “la ville rose.” My family and I spent a few weeks there while I was doing research for Epistolophilia. Ona Šimaitė lived there for a time after 1945, and we went to the city to retrace her steps. We liked it so much that it was one of the places we considered when searching for a place to spend our 8-month sabbatical.
My visit to Toulouse was my first return to the south of France in almost two decades. I had lived in Aix-en-Provence for a year as a student in my 20s. It was an incredibly difficult year, and I returned home shaken and traumatized. It took almost twenty years before I could consider returning without anxiety. So it was a big deal when, a few weeks ago, my son (on the cusp of turning 5) and I boarded a plane from Malta to Marseille to visit my old friend, Sarah.
Since I last saw her, Sarah has married a Moroccan man. Out of love for his wife, Mohammed left his country for her and settled in France. The stories they told me of raising “mixed” kids and of the difficulties that Med (Mohammed’s nickname) has finding and keeping jobs — despite the fact that he’s friendly, competent, fluent in French, and a highly trained professional — revealed how little had changed since the summer I left Aix after an “Arabe” had been savagely beaten on the swanky Cours Mirabeau for no apparent reason. One of the things that troubled me back then was the overt racism against “les Arabes” — mostly Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians who have lived in France for several generations. Now, if anything, things appear to have gotten worse.
North Africans born in France call themselves “Beurs,” a distorted anagram of the word “Arabe.” Generally speaking, Beurs have a tough go of it in France. On the one hand, young people of colour are told that they must assimilate and become French. But on the other, the fact that they are always identified as “of Algerian/Moroccan/Tunisan/etc. descent” reveals that they will never, despite their best efforts, be French enough. (Incidentally, there are a lot of good books about Beur culture, and even more good music produced by Beurs. See, for example the books of Leïla Sebbar or the music of the group Gnawa Diffusion. I’m a bit out of the loop at this point, and not nearly cool enough to know much about the music, but with a bit of digging, you’ll unearth some interesting things.)
The point is that we’ve now learned the Toulouse Jewish school shooter (also the killer of French soldiers of North African origin) is a French Algerian, a Beur. And this fact has sent me into despair. All I see is a spiral of hatred upon hatred, and I can’t see a way out.
I ache for the families of the dead.
And for the Jewish kids in France who will now go to school under armed guard.
And for the innocent Beur kids who will suffer for this crime.
And for Sarah and Med, for whom things are bound to get worse.
[Photo: celine nadeau]
This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.
In her new memoir, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past, Nancy K. Miller tells the story of how she reconstructed her family’s missing past from a handful of mysterious objects found in dresser drawers and apartment closets after her father’s death. The strange collection–locks of hair, a postcard from Argentina, a cemetery receipt, letters written in Yiddish—moved her to search for the people who had left these traces of their lives and to understand what had happened to them. As Miller slowly pieced together her family portrait and assembled a genealogical tree, she felt connected in unexpected ways to an immigrant narrative that began in Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, when her ancestors headed for the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At the end of her decade-long quest, Miller started to imagine the life she might have had with the missing side of her family. Suspended between what had been lost and what she found, Miller finally comes to terms with the bittersweet legacy of the third generation—tantalizing fragments of disappeared worlds.
Nancy K. Miller is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She has written, edited or co-edited more than a dozen volumes, including Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death, But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People’s Lives, and several books on feminist criticism and women’s writing.
Julija Šukys: I once heard a novelist talk about how she decided to write a book about a house. One by one, she told the story of each room. I very much like the idea of writing biographies of objects or places. Your book, it seems to me, has similar origins; in your case, a private archive of objects passed down in your family, including a collection of letters, a tallis bag containing tefillin, a map of a plot of land in Israel, and a lock of hair enclosed in a soap box. Talk a little about this collection of items, and how your contemplation of them led you to write this book.
Nancy K. Miller: Not long after my father’s death in 1989, as I emptied the family apartment, I found the tefillin and the locks of hair in a drawer. More precisely, I found the tefillin in a set of drawers that resembled a secretary and that was part of the living room furniture, and the box of fancy French soap in which the hair had been preserved in a bedroom dresser. The distinction seems important, if only because following the model of the house, I now in memory recall the objects in their original location. But also perhaps because, now that I think about it, the tefillin were destined to be worn in a public place—a synagogue, or any other place of prayer—and therefore were stored in the living room, whereas the box of hair was stored in the more intimate space of the bedroom. Not that I thought then about what possible difference that made.
At that point in my life, I was about to take off for a year’s sabbatical in France, and there was little time for contemplation. All I could do in the days I had before leaving was to gather these objects—and others, the letters, photographs, and random scraps of paper—and set them aside for storage. I knew I wanted to hold on to these things, but the idea of writing anything inspired by them was very far from my mind. I was working on the book that was to become Getting Personal (1990), and while I suppose I might have contemplated, to use your word, the significance of these objects, I did not. Weirdly, though, it now strikes me, before my father died, I wrote a very short essay about his debilitating illness, a meditation I called “My Father’s Penis,” and that constitutes the last chapter of that book. Even when I wrote the book Bequest and Betrayal (1996), in which I deal with the death of my parents and their legacy, as well as other family matters that I dwell on in What They Saved, I did not turn my attention to what now seems to me a precious collection of memorial objects.
It was only when I received the strange phone call from the realtor in Los Angeles telling me that I had inherited property from my paternal grandparents that I began to realize that this small cache of objects contained, or potentially contained large stores (not yet stories) of information about my father’s side of the family. Since I knew almost nothing of these people—his people—I started to wonder about who they were, what had happened to them, and how their absence, their silence might have affected my childhood. But again, I was not thinking about a book. I related the anecdote about the phone call and the meeting it led to with my father’s nephew (I had known neither my father’s brother, nor his son, except for their names) in an epilogue to But Enough About Me (2002), saying that it was a good story. But the story, such as it was (and wasn’t) kept tugging at my mind, and I continued to research the missing family members. I wrote an academic essay (2007), in which I sketched out whatever I then knew—not much!—and interwove those bits of knowledge with stories of immigration (Mary Antin, Amos Oz) in order to create some perspective for my very slender speculations.
Still no book.
In 2008, after vowing I would never follow the path of the “root-seekers” heading for Eastern Europe, I traveled there myself. And when I returned home, I realized that I had to write this book. It was at that moment that I first understood that the objects not only grounded my story, in some sense they were the story, or at least they provided the clues I needed to construct a narrative.
While reading your book I felt a host of tensions at play in the narrative. You write how as a young woman you rejected your father’s surname, Kipnis, and took on your mother’s name, Miller (retaining only the middle initial K. from your father). Yet, here you are, many years later trying to reconstruct the very past, the otherness, and the patriarchal footprint, I suppose, that you once rejected.
There’s another similar moment: the story of the tefillin — sacred prayer boxes — that you inherited. You consider what to do with the tefillin: “Because the paraphernalia of prayer belongs to men, I could not see the point in saving this legacy, but something about putting the velvet bag in the trash along with the household garbage made me uneasy – would I be throwing away an entire tradition? Part of me said yes, and why not?” (217). In the end, as a kind of compromise, you get rid of the bag and straps, and keep the boxes themselves as a souvenir of your father’s (and your?) abandoned religious past.
It’s a big question, I know, but I wonder if you could talk about this complicated desire both to excavate the past (by tracing family trees and reconstructing histories) and to turn one’s back on it (by discarding pieces of the past like family names, languages, and religious beliefs).
The fact that all the objects were, in one way or the other, connected to Jewish history posed a conundrum. How could I pursue this research when so many of these markers—the pogrom-driven immigration, the property in Palestine, and so on, were parts of my inheritance that I had rejected, or at least distanced myself from? In particular, because of what you nicely call “the patriarchal footprint” (I love that phrase), I had rejected religious observance and, what we used to call “the name of the father.” Above all, in keeping with the seventies feminist ethos I believed in, I dreamed only of self-invention, the second-wave version of the “new woman.”
But by the time I had launched myself into this project of reclaiming the past, I could not quite so neatly sever myself from everything that had shaped it—and me. What surprised me the most and what led me to backtrack on some of my earlier positions was seeing how much closer I was to my grandparents’ immigration than I had realized. I mean that I understood in a wholly new way how much my parents were touched by the fact of their parents (on both sides) being immigrants, and then, by extension, how their manner of inheriting that immigrant past—my father was probably conceived in Russia—had been passed on to me, if only through their silence on the matter. There’s a term from psychoanalysis that one of my students (Molly Pulda) writing about memoir has introduced me to: nescience. Not knowing. The notion is that knowing that there is something you don’t know, in this case in a family setting, can have a powerful effect on one’s psyche. The further I delved into my research, the more I saw that what I saw as far from me—having nothing to do with me—was not outside me, but in me.
[Photo: Nancy K. Miller, courtesy of the author]
Julija Šukys: I loved reading your descriptions of how you related to “The Old Country” before this quest. “Russia, a vast faraway, almost mythical kingdom ruled by Czars, was filled with mean peasants, who lived in the forest with wolves [. . .]. Basically, Russia was a place one left, if one was a Jew, as soon as possible” (36).
As you begin to piece your family’s past together, you start to see a much more nuanced picture. Your family, it turns out, comes not from this fictionalized Russia, but from Bessarabia, present-day Moldova. Thus “The Old Country” morphs into a real place. You learn too that your family likely lived a middle-class life rather than a shtetl existence as you’d imagined. How did this process of discovery and understanding change your thinking about both about your Jewish past and your American present?
Nancy K. Miller: Like many third-generation descendants, I had pictured my ancestors as Jews from Eastern Europe were portrayed in Fiddler on the Roof. What other image was there? It took my second trip to Moldova to understand that my paternal grandparents were already modern, Westernized, and to some degree distanced from Orthodoxy (my grandmother was not wearing a wig, my grandfather trimmed and then shaved his beard): city dwellers and not living with goats. True, as Jews, they were subject to pogroms—and probably witnessed the famous pogrom of 1903 that took place in Kishinev (now Chisinau, the capital of Moldova) where they were living before emigrating in 1906, but they were not peasants; nor were they wealthy (alas). At the same time, their decades on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—where my father grew up—had to have deeply influenced my father’s tastes, and ultimately mine. When I was in Kishinev, for instance, I was amused to be served “mamaliga” (polenta), a Moldovan specialty–one of my father’s favorite foods and that he made for himself when he was living on his own after my mother’s death. I saw my father as both more Jewish—and less. In other words, he did not “lay” tefillin, he and my mother joined a Reform synagogue—horrifying my mother’s parents—but he saved what his mother had saved, the traces of their immigration. I now see myself as an inheritor of that history, not purely American, unless we understand American as always marked by ethnicity and coming from another place, never fully belonging.
I was very interested to read your book for purely selfish reasons: I too am writing a sort of family history largely based on a collection of letters that my grandmother sent to her children from Siberia. A constant preoccupation as I write this story is whether or not anyone outside of my immediate family will or should care about this narrative I’m piecing together. I imagine it’s the preoccupation of anyone writing a book based on private and invisible lives. Was this the case for you? How did you work through this question of why this story matters, and what conclusions did you draw about what family stories and private histories can teach us?
Indeed, I was tormented by the “so what” that all autobiographers grapple with. Why should anyone care about these people? The way I convinced myself that readers could care was by trying to show their story as representative—generational and historical. But beyond that, and only readers can say whether I succeeded in wrestling with this paradox, I tried to bring out the less specific, more universal aspects of my quest: wanting to know the story of one’s origins, who our parents were before we were born, where our grandparents came from, how we always come so late to wanting to know, and therefore not being able to ask. I confess that I’m always thrilled when someone who isn’t Jewish, who isn’t from an immigrant past, connects to the story as just that: the attempt to grapple with the past, with incomplete memories, with loss, with absence. I don’t expect anyone to care about my dead ancestors—as people, I’m not sure I did, either—but I hope that readers will relate to my desire to discover them, and the importance of finding out whatever one can. The book is a celebration of knowledge—maybe that’s because I’m an academic at heart. I guess that’s the lesson: there is so much to be learned, it behooves us to search for it. The search itself is probably the most important aspect of my book.
A major theme of this book is the absence of children. You are the last in your father’s line, and therefore there is no one to inherit these objects. It seems to me that your book is a kind of meditation on life, aging and death. Can this book take the place of the heir? Even if there is no child to inherit the dunams, there are the story and map of them, and these will never die. To what extent is writing about the family archive a way of creating non-biological continuity?
Yes, I hope that this book can take the place of the heir—even though I also know that that is impossible. I have found some consolation in having turned the objects into language, put them as words on the page, even though after I die, no one will want them, keep them, save them. That is a sadness but a fact of life, of my life, anyway. So it’s true that the book meditates on the meaning of loss and expresses the mad desire to hold on to whatever remains as traces of what we have lived.
The book ends with the acceptance that some things are unknowable. You can’t connect all the dots. You can’t know what caused a seeming rift between your father and his brother, but “a story about finding always returns to the places where the story got lost. It’s also a chance to begin again.” How does this new beginning look for you now that the book has appeared?
Well, for one thing, I have a different, richer view of my childhood, which always seemed mysteriously unhappy and vapid—standard issue professional, middle-class New Yorkers. But it’s not only about the past. I also feel newly excited to experiment as a writer. To circle back to your first question, in my mind, I’ve created a book about objects, from objects. I had no clue about how I was going to write this book until I did. So I look forward to my next projects emboldened by the adventure.