When memory becomes history

When memory becomes history

Cracow is a city where Jewish grandmothers used to sit and drink their “glass of tea.” When I visited Cracow’s Jewish quarter, 20 years ago, the only Jews drinking tea were visitors like me “coming home” to sip the taste of life as our grandmothers had described it. When I visited again last year, the quarter was rebuilt and reenergized, no grandmothers with tea, but young people everywhere ordering lattes.

Twenty years ago, the ghostly remains of Cracow synagogues featured small huddles of elderly men — memory brokers selling painful recollections to pilgrims like myself. They are gone today, as are their first-hand memories of the way it really was. This time round, my bright and bouncy guide duly walked me past the corner where Jews were rounded up for deportation, but all she had was distant history: what researchers had uncovered and then wrote down for her to read and then tell me. How easily memory fossilizes into history.

We need real memory, this week’s Torah portion insists, for the Haggadah’s “four sons” who ask why — not just of Egypt but of Cracow, too — as it says, “When your children ask you, tell them….” 

Tell them what? How God took us out of Egypt? No problem. But also, “What happened to the Jewish grandmothers who once smiled over glasses of Cracow tea?” What do you tell them when memory becomes history and history is just not good enough?

For a while, memorials keep memories fresh: as at Auschwitz. 

Twenty years ago, when I first walked the rusting Auschwitz railroad tracks that once brought cattle cars of Jews to die, I felt it in my bones. It was winter, very cold, with darkening skies scowling down on the barren grounds; I was the only visitor on that late December afternoon. The chill was everywhere, as was the horror of the place as if it were still up and running and smoking with the stench of burning bodies. 

This time round, Auschwitz the memorial had become Auschwitz the museum, but not a good one. It was more like a theme park, where visitors are herded through with earphones tuned to robotic explanations intoned by guides whom they can barely see. The young man behind me shuffled past the glass-encased exhibits of suitcases, shoes, and hair — drinking a Coke. Did he even vaguely comprehend the final ignominy? All that’s left of all those Jews, under glass! 

What happens when guides know only the history they studied in “guide” school, and memorials become semi-autonomous guided tours?

I now appreciate this week’s Torah portion, which demands we set aside as sacred a day of memory (Exodus 12:14) and a night of watching (12:42), to remember what we can for our “four sons” — as if we really had been there.

To foolish children, we can do no more than summarize our story in a single simple line, and hope for the best.

Worse are evil children who think Hitler happened to someone else. Auschwitz is just another museum, like the one downtown with the old Greek sculptures. Cracow is just another place with bars and nightlife. 

The wise, thank God, insist on knowing it all, getting it straight, and maybe (with effort) dredging up some distant memory and making it their own. 

But I like best the child who “knows not what to ask.” I have come to admire that child as no simpleton at all, for what can you ask, if you begin to grasp what Auschwitz really was? And how can we respond, except to do the impossible: to convey the Auschwitz story as if we still remember it, the way we remember the Exodus, as if we ourselves had been there? 

The seder is not just fun and food. It is for children to know that in Egypt, Jews went free; and in Auschwitz they did not; and then to move on, but with a memory in mind, not a Coca Cola in hand.

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