January 14, 2008

Honorary Degree

DGM Addressing Graduates at Fontbonne University
(Photo: Fontbonne University)

In December, I had the rare honor of receiving an honorary degree from Fontbonne University in St. Louis. Fontbonne had just completed an innovative semester dedicated to the exploration of Jewish history and culture, with courses across many disciplines. The entire experience was extremely meaningful and moving for me. I reproduce below the remarks I delivered.

Chairman Ferry and the Board of Trustees, President Golden and the administration and faculty, and most important, graduates and your families and friends, I am grateful for the opportunity and the honor to address you this evening. I do so mindful of the traditional responsibility of the commencement speaker to offer profound advice to the graduates, but also aware of how unlikely it is that many of you would be interested in any advice a museum director could possibly impart – especially tonight.

Last May, shortly after receiving the invitation to speak here this evening, I attended my own son’s graduation from college. The president of the college delivered the commencement address, and admitted that he faced a daunting task indeed: he could not hope, he said, to compete in any way with the accomplishments celebrated by the graduates and their families. He could not hope, with his few words, to match the importance of the life transition that the commencement marked for those in attendance. He concluded that we should all “pity commencement speakers, as hapless victims who distinguish themselves only by the ways they fail, and the degrees to which they recognize their miserable performances.” His unambiguous advice to the graduates was “never, never accept an invitation to speak at a commencement.”

By the time I had heard those words, it was too late. So here I am, grateful beyond any words for the privilege to address you, and, at the same time, doomed in some certain sense to fail to reach you on a day, and at an occasion, that properly dominates your thoughts and claims pride of place in your attention and focus. Aware as I am that the odds are against me, I think, however, I may just have something useful for you to consider as you end this important chapter in your lives and turn to all that awaits you outside these walls.

I want to spend a few minutes talking about memory – about the powerful instinct to remember and the equally powerful drive to forget. I want to draw a parallel between what museums do to create public memory and what we all do to cultivate our own memories. In this regard, I will suggest to you that you have power over your own memory, just as museums and historians do over public memory, and, perhaps most important, that you also have power over how you will be remembered.

But before I start, I have a confession: I remember absolutely nothing about the speech delivered at my own college commencement. Absolutely nothing: not the topic, not a single word, no advice, nothing. I can remember who spoke -- Undersecretary of State George Ball -- and I have other memories from that day, but I haven’t the vaguest recollection of what was said. Although I am frustrated, and, especially on this occasion, slightly embarrassed by my failure to remember, I do recognize that memory, indeed healthy memory, is as much about forgetting as remembering. In fact, scientists believe that the act of forgetting is the product of evolution: our memories have adapted to retain that which is necessary for us to operate in our individual environments and to let go of that which we do not need. After all, we simply cannot remember everything, and the few thousand words spoken by George Ball on that hot June day in 1973 did not make the cut for me.

Of course, had his words made a deeper impression, or had I made an effort to imprint them on my memory, I just might be able to remember them today. Memory researchers have found that we can train ourselves to remember certain things. We can decide that something is important for us to remember and can, with the right effort, save the memory.

The power of human memory is staggering; its capacity is almost beyond imagination. Scientists tell us that a single memory is a stored pattern of connections between neurons in the brain. With 100 billion neurons, each capable of 10,000 synaptic connections with other neurons, there are as many as one quadrillion synapses available for connections. To give this number meaning to the computer generation, if we equate a synapse with one byte of information in a computer’s memory, the human brain would be capable of storing the complete digitized print holdings of the Library of Congress – not once, but three hundred times over. To download that much information from the internet, it would take more than 5000 years with a dial-up modem and more than 180 years with more modern equipment!

As much as I can understand it, I must confess that I am unsettled by my memory’s lapses (and increasingly so). I am, after all, in the business of memory. My entire career has been dedicated to trying to make sense of memory, preserve memory, and use memory as a tool to help understand the present and guide the future. As a historian, as an archivist, and as a Museum director, my job has been to cultivate our public memories, to preserve and interpret the past.

To be sure, museums are all about memory, and Jewish museums seem to have a particular compulsion to preserve the past. Carved into the granite wall that greets visitors in our Museum in New York City is a quote from the Bible. It begins, “Remember,” and, to underscore the imperative, concludes, “Do not forget.” I am told that the Hebrew word for memory, Zachor, appears, in its various declensions, 169 times in the Bible. And the cycle of a Jewish year is punctuated with the telling and retelling of the same stories, so that they will be imprinted on memory and will not be forgotten. The Torah is divided into recountable portions, which are recited with cantillation and trope to ease their recollection and retelling.

Museums are, of course, more than simply storehouses for memory; they are definers of memory. Through selection and distillation, Museums preserve public memory and place it in context. In a certain sense, Museums and historians wield tremendous power to shape how the past is perceived in the present and how it can help to define the future. The great Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg, who died earlier this year, wrote in his memoirs, that the artist (and historian) “usurps the actuality, substituting a text for a reality that is fast fading. The words that are thus written, take the place of the past; these words, rather than the events themselves, will be remembered.”

I would like to share with you one recent example from my personal and professional experience that explains why I am so focused on the role of memory and why I choose to explore it with you on this special occasion. Last year, we opened an exhibition at my Museum about Pope John Paul II and his relationship to the Jewish people. We were the only Jewish venue in the country to take this travelling exhibition, which was created by Xavier University in Cincinnati and had previously been shown at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC. The exhibition examines the life of Karol Wojtyla, from his childhood in Wadowice, Poland, near Krakow, through his Papacy, and suggests that it was the memories from his youth and early adulthood that largely defined his papacy.

Walking through the exhibition, I became increasingly convinced that, just as it can be said that all politics are local, so can it be said that all history is personal. History, even that which is played out on the world stage is, in some meaningful way, the aggregate of the personal histories of the people involved, and those personal histories are the product of life experiences and preserved memories.

There can be no argument that Pope John Paul II changed in some significant way the relationship between Catholics and Jews, and there can be no argument that his early history and his memories of childhood events played a major role. We can see in the life of Karol Wojtyla how his childhood friendship with his Jewish neighbors affected his positions as Pope, led him to be the first Pope since Saint Peter to enter a synagogue, and led him to visit and establish diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. We can see how his own experience in Poland during World War II and German occupation made him aware of the persecution of the Jewish people and acutely sensitive to the plight of his own country under Communist domination. In looking at the life and accomplishments of this great man, we can see the influence of the child and the young man that he had been. We can almost track the impact of his early memories on the actions of his later life.

If I am going to draw a parallel between the cultivation of private memory and the creation of public memory, perhaps I should first say something about how public memory is forged – in this case, the way in which museums go about shaping public consciousness, and, in turn, influencing public memory; more specifically, how museums create exhibitions. We begin by choosing specific topics and themes that deliver broader important messages to the public. The process of creating an exhibition – how to convey that topic, that theme -- is a complex one. The curator is the architect of the exhibition; he or she must tell a story in three-dimensional space that is accurate, in proper context, and that does not dumb-down complicated issues, but, at the same, time is accessible and interesting.

The curator interprets historical events, distills their meaning, and communicates it to the public—often through the choice of which artifacts to use, and how to present them to best effect. The process is iterative, each round often increasingly challenging, with the goal being how best to tell the story. Museums, in a sense, serve as the masters of public memory. They stand against forgetting and select what should be remembered.

Two exhibits, among many, in my tenure as a museum director, illustrate this play between forgetting and remembering and the powerful relationship between these forces.

The first exhibition I want to describe was about a Polish Jewish historian named Emmanuel Ringelblum, who, along with hundreds of thousands of other Jews found himself removed from life as he had known it and was confined in the Warsaw Ghetto after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. At the beginning, no one knew what fate awaited them. No one could know, or could even imagine, that they would be deported from Warsaw to an anonymous death in a concentration camp. Gradually, the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto organized their drastically altered and restricted lives and brought meaning to their days, which offered less and less in the way of physical, spiritual, and intellectual nourishment. Ringelblum had the idea to organize a group of scholars and others – artisans, artists, writers-- who met on the Jewish Sabbath and therefore took the name, Oyneg Shabbos, or the Joy of Sabbath.

This group decided to record and collect for posterity all aspects of their lives in the ghetto. Ringelblum commissioned specialized studies and monographs about Jewish life. He called for the collecting of ephemera – posters, theater programs, school art projects. His goal, at first, was to capture and preserve a picture of the lives that he and his fellows were leading. It also helped to bring meaning to their ill-fated lives. Later, when it became clear that death was the only exit from the Ghetto, the goal of Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabbos was to record for future generations not only evidence of their lives but also of their deaths.

When it became clear that the end was near, the archive was carefully packed in metal boxes and milk cans and buried beneath the streets of Warsaw, so that it would survive the deaths of those who created it and would survive the destruction of a way of life that would be no more. After the war, some of the archive was discovered. Among the most moving documents found in the archive are the last wills of young Jews, who called out to be remembered. One of them, Dawid Graber, age 19, wrote:
What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground. I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world. So the world may know all. So the ones who did not live through it may be glad, and we may feel like veterans with medals on our chests. … May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world

The second exhibition, one that we are in the process of developing into an exhibition, is in some ways about the power we all exercise over what we remember. It is a story about legacy, and, ultimately, a story about a mother and her daughter.

Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903 to a wealthy Jewish family. During the Russian Revolution, she and her family were forced to leave their home and eventually settled in France, where Irene attended the Sorbonne. Irene, from her earliest age, was a writer. She was remarkably productive and eventually took her place – a prominent place -- within French literary society. Her novel, David Golder, was made into a major motion picture, was translated into English in 1932, and was well received by critics and the public.

Irene loved her life in Paris and was able, through her writing, to earn quite a good living and enjoy a privileged and exciting existence. She was a member of the French Academy and certainly considered herself fully integrated into French life. Toward the end of the 1930’s, with war clouds gathering, Irene and her family converted to Catholicism, perhaps in the hope that they would be protected from the looming threat of anti-Semitism.

When the Germans occupied France, Irene and her family, despite their conversion, were classified as Jews and subjected to all of the regulations designed to exclude Jews from French life. They left Paris for the countryside, taking up residence in Issy L’Eveque, a small town in the occupied part of France, close to the Vichy border.

To support her family, and probably to remain sane, Irene kept up her writing. Words flowed from her pen and found their way into publication, although she was forced to publish under a pseudonym, providing income for her family. As anti-Jewish measures became more intense and restrictive, it became more and more difficult for Irene to publish.

Her family, which consisted of her husband, Michel, and her two daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, pursued a quiet life in Issy L’Eveque. When the regulation was issued, they stitched Jewish stars to their clothing. Irene could be seen each day writing furiously in her leather notebook. Fearing that her supply of paper would be insufficient, Irene wrote in a script that became increasingly smaller, and the large pages of her notebook filled up with stringy filaments of text. Like tiny capillaries, the blue veins of ink scored the dull ivory pages of her notebook, animating them with her imaginings.

When the French police came to arrest Irene in July of 1942, she could not have known for certain that she would not return to her family. Although she could not have known her fate, she felt increasingly certain that she would not survive the war. Three days before her arrest, she had written her publisher that she supposed her writings would be posthumous works. Perhaps it was this intuition that led her to leave her notebook behind.

Irene was sent to a small transit camp in Pithiviers, and, a day later, along with more than a thousand others, boarded a train for Auschwitz, where she died shortly after she arrived. She had left her husband and two daughters, and all of her belongings, not knowing, of course what would become of her or them. Her husband spent the next three months desperately trying to locate her and get her released. Even after Irene was dead, Michel, unaware of her fate, wrote long letters to French and German officials and even offered to take her place.

When Michel was arrested in October and sent to the transit camp at Drancy, and then to his death in Auschwitz, his two young daughters were left alone in the charge of their nanny. All they had to remember their parents by was a small suitcase and its contents – including the large leather notebook that had been their mother’s constant companion. The daughters survived the war with the help of others and vainly waited for their parents to return. Wherever they went, they carried the suitcase.

They did not, however, explore its contents. They did not open the leather notebook. Believing it was their mother’s diary, and repulsed by painful memories and associations, they let it be, and moved on with their lives.

Elisabeth died in the late 1990s, and Denise, who still lives in France today, at some point, decided to read what her mother had written. She soon discovered that the notebook was no diary, but rather the start of a magisterial novel about the unfolding of the war in France. Sixty years after her mother’s death, Denise read the words that her mother had so furiously poured out onto the page. She lovingly transcribed them and showed them to a publisher, who rushed them into print. The resulting book, Suite Francaise, won France’s most prestigious literary award, was translated into multiple languages, and has, to date, sold more than a million copies in English alone. Suite Francaise is composed of the first two parts of what Irene had planned to be a five-part novel.

For Denise and her sister, the small leather suitcase contained memories too painful to confront. It was, I imagine, an object that was both powerfully attractive and abhorrent, the tangible remains of her mother and the conduit to unapproachable memories. They had chosen not to confront those memories. We will open an exhibition in June 2008 about Irene Nemirovsky and Suite Francaise, and will include not only the leather notebook, but also the small suitcase that was its home for so many years.

I realized that the stories that are the basis for these two exhibitions, relate to each other and to a childhood memory of mine that emerged unbidden as I was preparing these remarks. I have a distinct memory as a child of the 1964 World’s Fair and the publicity surrounding the time capsule -- the steel tube, which was to be buried and remain unopened for several millennia. I remember, in fact, at least one class, in sixth grade, devoted to a discussion of what should be buried in this capsule. Although I couldn’t recall what was actually placed inside, a quick look at Wikipedia reminded me that among the 41 objects were a ruby laser rod, a plastic heart valve, birth control pills, a Beatles 45, a transistor radio, and a bikini.

It strikes me that the two stories I have just related both reflect time capsules of sorts. Ringelblum’s milk cans preserved evidence for the future of a way of life that had been destroyed, and Irene’s suitcase preserved her memory for her daughters and provided evidence of her rare talent for a time when it could be published and appreciated. Ringelblum’s time capsule was opened as soon as it could be unearthed. Irene’s was carefully carried by her daughters from place to place, unopened, until the time was right.

I won’t presume to tell you what lessons are to be drawn from these stories, but I can say that I believe they can tell us quite a lot about remembering and forgetting – about our ability to influence our memories as well as the memories of others. The work of historians and museums is to find these stories and to make them available to all of you. Your job, it seems to me, as educated and responsible individuals, is to open yourselves up to the lessons these stories and others like them, can impart. We must remind ourselves not to forget, and we must not forget how we want to be remembered.

And finally in closing, if I can make one confident prediction, it is that you will all forget what I have said this evening, and forgetting it, will be different for each of you. Some of you will retain a memory only until you leave this room, and others may hold on to an increasingly dimming recollection for some time. I hope, however, that you will not soon forget how you feel this evening. I hope that you will carry into the future a warm association with this event, which marks a meaningful and important transition in your lives. As you move into the future, and you continue to engage in the endlessly exciting process of living your lives, as you form memories and let memories fade, I hope that you can distill and refine those memories that can serve you well, and I hope you can make your mark on the memory of others.

Thank you….

(I learned a great deal about the science of memory from reading Daniel Schachter's books as well as a recent article by Joshua Foer in National Geographic)

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