March 27, 2011

Two Books

Two books which we were involved in arrived at the Museum last week, hot off the presses.  Last Folio: Textures of Jewish Life in Slovakia, published by Indiana University Press in record time --  less than two months -- accompanies our newest exhibition, which opened this week.  Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival, a wonderful cookbook by June Hersh and published by Ruder Finn, has been in the works for several years.  I was privileged to write introductory pieces for both books.  In reading them over this week in their published form, I was struck how, in such different projects, the theme of memory predominates.  Although I wrote them more than 18 months apart, I was struck by their similarities. Here they are:

Photographic Memory
I believe that it is most fitting that this exhibition of Yuri Dojc’s photographs should be inaugurated at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust – an institution that is dedicated to remembering those who perished in the Holocaust by celebrating their lives and exploring the legacy that they left.  Consequently, our narrative is devoted not to how Jews were killed, but rather to how they lived.  I can think of no better way to convey the tragic fate of Slovakian Jews, or to commemorate their lives, than to present these remarkable images.  Yuri Dojc has focused his camera-eye with exquisite care, offering us evidence of lives lived that evokes a heartrending history.  

Following the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the independent state of Slovakia was established.  Closely allied with Nazi Germany and adopting its anti-Jewish policies, Slovakia was the very first country outside of Germany to deport its Jews.    The first transport left on March 26, 1942, a trainload of nearly 1000 young women.  There followed a succession of trains, nearly all to Auschwitz, which emptied Slovakia of almost three-quarters of its Jewish population within six months.   Among those who were taken were the boys who attended a school in Bardejov.  I cannot look at Yuri Dojc’s photographs of the abandoned books from that school without imagining the people who left them behind.  My mind’s eye can see these boys closing and kissing their sacred texts and placing them down for the last time before they left forever.  The photographs of these books, whose words once conjured worlds, show them as if they have turned to stone, frozen in the available light, petrified by the passing of time.  There is no question that they have a certain power over us, and it is not simply their undeniable beauty.  

While we have no way of knowing for sure, we can surmise that the last memories of the poor souls, who were torn from their lives by Slovak police and paramilitary, were populated with images of the kind that Dojc has captured – people, places, and things – the basic elements of life distilled.  In the bleak monotone of the cattle car and the sickening fear that engulfed them, one can imagine that they found comfort in calling upon such images of normal life.  Indeed, our memories can produce vivid pictures from our past – like photo albums -- that can link by reflection to other times.          

It should come as no surprise that when we think or talk about memory, we often resort to photographic metaphors.  After all, our memories are, for the most part, delivered to us as images that play in our minds.  Indeed, psychologists have tied certain memory phenomena explicitly to photography.  Consider eidetic or “photographic memory,” which describes the phenomenon of total visual recall, or “flashbulb memory,” which refers to vivid recollections of particularly meaningful experienced events (we all remember where we were on 9/11).  It is believed that, under certain circumstances -- often those associated with traumatic events -- memories can be fixed into a vivid photographic permanence. 

In the context of the trauma of the Holocaust, Dojc has delivered hauntingly beautiful images -- jewel-like tokens -- that link us by imagination to a lost world and time.  Somehow in looking at them, we can “remember” all they represent.  Our uniquely human capacity for empathy and understanding is triggered, and we are transported inward to a world that is animated by our collective memories.  As we look at these images of all that remained, we remember all that was lost. 

There is no doubt that memories of food and the social context of food -- preparing it and partaking of it-- are among the most potent that humans have.  One need not read Proust to understand the capacity for food to unlock powerful memories and to transport us through time.  Whatever explanation we seek – brain chemistry or something less clinical -- we have all experienced how an aroma or a particular flavor can take us to another place.  This meaningful and warmly written book -- Recipes Remembered -- is perfect proof of this phenomenon.  Here we see how individuals whose lives were disrupted or torn apart by the events of World War II and the Holocaust retain intense memories of the food they enjoyed in happier times.   It is as if food were the grain of sand around which pearls of memory were formed, enduring as tokens of a lost world and time.

We are so very pleased that June Hersh approached us with the proposal to write this book, and we were eager to cooperate in any way we could.  Of course, June deserves all of the credit for the delicious and diligent work that is reflected here, but I would like to think that her experience in our Museum inspired her to approach the complex and tragic history of the Holocaust through the individual stories of those who lived it.  Indeed, our visitors encounter the messages of our Museum through the personal narratives of the people who were lost and of those who survived to build new lives.  Rather than having an impersonal voice guide our visitors through our Museum, they are led from one personal story to another.  They relate to the history we teach by relating to the people who recount it.  In this same way, June has sought out engaging individuals, whose stories and memories connect us to a different time and whose examples of determination and survival are both deeply compelling and inspirational.

Of course, just as recollections of food populate the prewar memories of the people whose stories are told in these pages, memories of the absence of food often plague those who experienced the hardships of war and persecution.  In this sense, the memories—and recipes—revealed in this book have a special significance.   Not only do they link to happier times, but they are, in a way, also antidotes to the poisonous periods of anguish and deprivation.  One of the most powerful stories of our time remains how those who endured the worst –- unceasing hatred, unpredictable violence, unimaginable trauma—found the best in themselves and mustered the fortitude and resolve to choose life and to rebuild their lives.  Surely in this precarious and uniquely personal journey, they were strengthened along the way by warm memories of the kind that animate this book.

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