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To be a Memory: Trauma and identity

Cover_classic_versionIt is a strange thing, to be a memory…. I write from a moment in my own past—from within my memories. In fact, I realize that I am my memories. I am everything that I remember up to this point in my life. I drift between the past and the future—living and dreaming and thinking in the past, but writing in my own future.

I know that I will survive and one day live in Eretz Yisrael, but then I will be a different person. And those things I can’t remember now won’t be part of that person—the morning sunlight on the walls of the house where I grew up, the sound of the waves lapping against the sides of ships in the harbor…. I can’t remember those things now, though I know they were once important to me. Now I think only of simple things—food and drink and keeping out of the way of certain people here—and I don’t look into my past or my future. Today is already too much for me to deal with. So all those things that were so important to me before I came here will be lost when I become that future person living in Eretz Yisrael.

Perhaps the same is true of me now; the person I once was is dead. He died soon after coming here. Perhaps he died together with his mother and his sister. The one who remained here is branded with a number instead of a name and is not the same person. He can’t remember all the things that were important to that other person. He is what’s left of memory after the death of the rememberer. “Alex” is what remains of Ovadya.

But even then, something of Alex will survive and go into someone who will continue in Eretz Yisrael, just as something of Ovadya has entered Alex, who was born behind the fence in the spring of ‘43. Perhaps that something is even now entering a new person as I think about all this from inside the walls here.

It is very misty today and I can’t see far beyond the road between the kremas. Even the chimney of the other krema is invisible; it’s been cut off by the clouds. There is no one alive here today.

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It is indeed a strange thing, to be a memory….

“What are you smiling at?” Masha asks. “What do you see?” Her voice comes from just behind me, but I dare not turn for fear that she will vanish.

“I’m looking out the window at the Sharon Plain of Israel!” I tell her.

“Then the rain must have passed.”

I shake my head. “I think it’s still very misty in Birkenau. It was so foggy this morning that one couldn’t see beyond the road. Water was dripping from the wires just from the mist. But now I’m not there anymore—or at least only part of me is there. And in Israel we have Gishmei Brachah—the rains of blessing, that water the fields and renew the Kinneret so we’ll have water in the summer after the rains stop.”

…to be a memory.

I started this day 63 years ago standing on the steps of the krema looking out at the mist. Now, all these years later, I sit at my desk in Israel and type, while the winter rain taps against my windows.


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  • Chaya Rosen

    Reading this, my face is frozen as my thoughts are in competition with my tears. We the sons and daughters (of survivors) followed and filled Ovadya’s future. We inherit some of your memories. We have spent a lifetime pulled by an unexplained force, to touch the walls in your harbor. We have tracked across Europe standing and wailing at what remains of those fences today. We are obsessed wanting to know, did our mothers once dance and how did their songs sound? This is a big one…how did they prepare for Shabbat. Is it conceivable? I wonder was there ever a day back then, before the the slaughter, when my father smiled to say, “Good job Joseph you’ve done well”. We will never know all their details, or of their memories but if Yael can look in the mirror and catch a glimpse of Ovadya, perhaps if one looks a bit further, we can also be seen. Yes all of us are part of each other’s reflections and memory. Chaya Rosen

    • So beautifully put, Chaya. Ken Yehi Ratzon that we recognize in ourselves all those who brought us to this moment of life.

  • Kurt Valeer Albert

    In ‘A Damaged Mirror’ (Are we not, all of us, in some way, damaged mirrors ,p. 85)
    it is hard to see oneself clearly. Such a mirror wherein we glance and see a face not ours. Maybe it functions as the looking glass of Alice in Wonderland. But the story told in the book doesn’t open up to a wonderland. It’s central theme is the Shoah (Holocaust).

    In the narrative time is like the tides of a vast Ocean ever floating back and forward.
    When you step in the book of Ovadya ben Malka and Yael Shahar you will notice (surely
    for me it was) that the way the story is told is completely different from anything you read before on the Shoah.

    The language of the book is one of a constant struggle and revolves (completely in the second part) among the religious/halachic background of a psak din. But there is more to the second part than that. On which I will not elaborate so as not to spoil anything for the future reader.

    Further we find in this work some very deep reflections and questions on memory,
    identity, guilt, trauma, healing, the value of tradition and study (lernen), etc.

    I admire the courage of the authors Yael and Ovadya for bringing this story to us.

    The reading experience of the first part of the book makes me angry (most books on the Shoah do that) and make me remember this particular mitzvah: Don’t forget what Amalek did to you.

    But in the book there is also light. Light that shines forth from the call of Eretz Yisrael. Yael writes here also a love song to Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel). She makes a very strong appeal to her fellow Jews in the galut (Diaspora) as she describe the land as a place where one finds
    healing and wholeness among beauty.

    Facing the pain of memory and trying to deal with all the implications of the past and growing towards a meaningful future is beautifully but also disturbingly described in the second part of the book. This second part can even be read as a kind of responsa to the first part.