People waiting for the morning bus in Birobidzhan in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in far-eastern Siberia in 1999. Aside from Israel, it is the world’s only officially Jewish territory. Photo by Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum
Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union tell inconsistent stories. What does this say about the nature of memory?
Human memory is a wonderful but fallible instrument… The memories residing within us are not engraved in stone. Not only do they tend to fade over the years; they often change or even grow to incorporate extraneous features. Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (1986)
‘They used to ask me if I remembered her… I don’t. Well I remember a girl. But I don’t remember her specific features. Just a blurred face.’ This was Misha speaking about his sister who was shot in front of him by the Nazis when he was just four years old.
After her execution, an ‘anti-Semitic priest’ ran up to the Nazi officers and told them not to shoot the remaining Jews (including Misha and his mother) who were also awaiting a bullet. The priest said: ‘I don’t like Jews either, but you don’t have to kill them.’ In an eerily Dostoyevskian turn of fate, Misha was saved from the brink of death and a firing squad and, he says, for the ‘rest of my life I would never be able to answer the question of how I survived’.
When the Soviets liberated the camp, Misha was just six years old. He recalls the unusual silence of the morning, the absence of the German Shepherds’ barks. He later found the dogs poisoned, their corpses strewn across the camp. A Soviet soldier picked up Misha and told him to take off the yellow star sewn to his clothes. ‘You don’t need this any more.’
But how much of this was Misha’s memory, rather than his mother’s, passed on through a retelling and perhaps embroidering of events? He is unsure. Memory is not straightforward, particularly when it relates to trauma and the construction of a personal narrative and past.
In 2014, I travelled to Russia to study Jewish life during the late Soviet period, and to collect oral histories. Most of my relatives emigrated to the US from the Russian Empire in the early 1900s to escape anti-Semitism, and this project was my attempt to piece together, if not my own family history, then what could have been my family history.
While first-hand accounts of almost any subject are prone to distortion and lapses in memory (intentional or not), the collection of oral history within a Jewish tradition presents a specific set of challenges. Oral history has become a hallmark of Jewish culture and of the attempt to come to terms with the trauma of the Holocaust. Phrases such as ‘never forget’ are ubiquitous, and form the basis for the preservation of memory. The word ‘preservation’ itself suggests an embalmment of a narrative. In a tribute to the victims of oppression and horror, we give voice to those who were silenced.
When a voice is accorded to those who suffered, it seems insensitive to respond to what is being said other than with sympathy, grief, even anger. Steven Spielberg has started an invaluable project in The Shoah Foundation, collecting thousands of testimonies from Holocaust survivors that can instantaneously be seen and heard in multiple languages at the push of a button. The stories are dynamic and moving, yet they remain frozen and memorialised within the sphere of cyberspace. Perhaps it is inappropriate to respond at all; perhaps silence is the only appropriate response.
We hope that the world will ‘never forget’, but are we in fact forgetting by not entering into a dialogue with the narratives that flash before our eyes?
When I began this project, the idea of questioning a narrative did not occur to me and seemed grossly inappropriate, perhaps even morally wrong. I expected a more or less linear and unanimous narrative about the anti-Semitism that Jews faced in the USSR, and stories about how they fought to preserve their culture and identity. After all, the Soviet Union to which Misha returned after the war was hostile. The Soviet soldier might have removed the Star of David from Misha’s shirt, but in its place he was issued a passport that gave his ‘nationality’ as ‘Jew’. Between the end of the war and Stalin’s death in 1953, anti-Semitism was apparent: Jewish doctors were accused of attempting to assassinate Stalin; after a show trial in 1952, the Soviet leader had 13 Jews on the anti-fascist committee executed; and he was rumoured to be planning mass deportations. In the post-Stalin years, anti-Semitism did not subside. Jews were consistently scapegoated, blacklisted by prestigious universities, and faced difficulties at work…