Postmemory is more than a simple term


An article in The Jewish Voice (3/2/18), “A Liberator’s Tale: ‘In my nightmares the scenes recur,’ ” has been recurring in my mind. It is the story of Rabbi Bohnen of Temple Emanu-El, who served as a chaplain in the Army, and described in detailed letters to his wife his part in the liberation of Dachau concentration camp. At the end of the article, his daughter Judy (Bohnen) Levitt is quoted: “There are so few survivors left at this point, who is going to be telling this story? If people don’t remember, it could happen again.”

I do not believe we need to worry that people won’t remember. I do worry that it could happen again.  Jews, African-Americans, Muslims,  Hispanics, gays, immigrants, and, we cannot leave out, women, have been targeted more than before. Since the current president took to Twitter with his distinctive carelessness, crassness, and demagogue rants, we are experiencing something that is un-American. (Just the use of that word un-American brings back another memory of a hate-filled demagogue.)

I have a name for what I experience that relieves me of the worry that people won’t remember. Having heard Marianne Hirsch speak last year at the Pembroke Center Archives Conference, I learned what can happen to children of survivors and to those of us who identify so closely with people who have experienced the hatred, enslavement, torture and murder of people other than ourselves personally.

She has coined the term “postmemory” to describe how traumatic events live on in the memories of people who have inherited the memories of those who have experienced these events personally.

My novel, “Eavesdropping in Oberammergau,” could not have been written without my postmemories, though until I had this word for it, I did not recognize how the memories of others influenced me.  My mother-in-law’s story of the loss of her mother in the 1918 influenza epidemic had been adapted into the story I wrote.

As I realized the number of people I knew who had escaped Nazi Germany after Kristallnacht, I realized how I had absorbed their experiences, enabling me to write of it in the voice of Stefan Hirsch in my novel.

My identification with Stefan, based on the true story of Peter Max Myer, who lived in Oberammergau in the 1930s and was attacked on Kristallnacht, allowed me to imagine the life of a German Jew who experienced the evolving Nazi nightmare and the collusion of ordinary Germans with the Nazi movement. One of the scariest parts of this identification is to realize how German Jews did not believe it could happen there.

When I wrote “Eavesdropping,” I had no glimmer of a sense that it could happen here. But now I do. We, of all people, do remember, need to keep the stories alive that have enlivened our memories. I have heard so many Jewish people say, I don’t want to hear any more Holocaust stories. Enough already. And it’s true, we have heard much about the Holocaust, and, true, these memories, whether through direct experience or postmemory, are painful. I get that we need to get on with our lucky, lucky lives.

But right this moment, we need to use the memories to awaken our sense of danger for ourselves and for so many others and even for our democracy.

HILARY SALK is a Rhode Island writer.