Memories of Absence

In The First Man the forty-year-old Albert Camus visits for the first time the grave of the father he had never known. Prompted by the coincidence that his childhood mentor lives in the vicinity, this late encounter also fulfills his mother’s oft-repeated wish that he go up to the grave she had been unable to see. But as he stands there, many years older than his father had been when he was killed in the battle of the Marne in 1914, he is filled with a sudden urge to find out more about this man who died for France only a few days after he had set foot on its soil for the first time in his life. Yet no one remembers. The mother has long forgotten, not only because so many years have passed but also, as he says, because the poor are too preoccupied with making a living, with surviving from day to day. “Remembrance of things past,” writes Camus, “is just for the rich. For the poor it only marks the faint traces on the path to death.” And besides, she cannot read and write, and is hard of speech and hearing. Upon meeting his father for the first time, Camus is confronted with his absence. For a brief moment he is there, and the next he is gone again. Searching for the lost memory of his father, Camus discovers instead his own childhood, recalling how his teacher would read aloud to the class from Roland Dorgeles’sWooden Crosses. Not long after this encounter, the old teacher presents him with a copy of that same book as a final farewell gesture. Having previously had only the most tenuous link to World War I, Camus’s visit to the grave invests it with a deeply personal meaning, across two generations and another world war.

There is a remarkable similarity between Camus’s recently published, unfinished autobiographical novel, found by his side when he was killed in a car crash at the age of forty-seven in 1960, and Georges Perec’s semiautobiographical novel W or The Memory of Childhood, published in 1975, just seven years before Perec’s death at the age of forty-six. Perec visits his father’s grave for the first time when he is twenty years old. A mere toddler when his father was killed in 1940 during the German attack on France, Perec has very few memories of him. And it takes yet another twenty years for him to begin consciously searching for his childhood, when he is, just as Camus was at the outset of his own quest, forty years old. But while Camus must reinvent his childhood because the people who could tell him about it are inarticulate and stricken by poverty, hard work, and mental and physical handicaps, Perec cannot return to his childhood’s scenes because the people who accompanied him there were taken away from him and killed. Camus’s mother lives in a distant, unreachable world, staring out of the window without a word; Perec’s mother was deported to Auschwitz when he was six. He asserts, “I have no childhood memories,” but he writes to save the absent, the parents whose disappearance erased his memory of childhood: “I write because they left in me their indelible mark, whose trace is writing. Their memory is dead in writing; writing is the memory of their death and the assertion of my life.”

This loss of parents, of childhood, of memory is bound together with war and atrocity. Here the destruction of human beings leads to the erasure of their memory, indeed, even the erasure of the survivors’ memories and, in a different, perverse manner, also that of the perpetrators (the memory of their deeds, the memory of their victims). No one remembers. Yet everyone remembers. But the memory of everyone is also the memory of no one; it is the illusion of remembrance. As Perec writes, up to his twelfth year, he could hardly remember anything: “I took comfort in such an absence of history.” This absence protected him from his own history. Not remembering was an avoidance of pain. The answers to his history were “a different history, History with a capital H . . . : the war, the camps.” History, he thought, had an “objective crispness,” an “apparent obviousness,” an “innocence”; whereas his own history, “the story of my living, my real story, my own story,” was “presumably . . . neither crisp nor objective, nor apparently obvious, nor obviously innocent.” Hence the memory, or rather the knowledge of History, can also serve as a refuge from the memory of one’s own, one’s private history; it is the illusion of History. But Perec can hardly escape History’s reach into his own personal tale, for the private has been swallowed up and devoured, and all that is left are fragments that can be put together this way or that, not knowing what belongs where, for the instructions, the guides, have all disappeared. Thus he flees to his imaginary, and increasingly monstrous W, the dreamland of his childhood transformed in his adult imagination into a land of sports and inhumanity, progressively taking the shape of the Nazi “concentrationary universe.”

Having once escaped from his home(land) to France, the nation to which he feels a cultural allegiance, Camus now seeks the path back to Algeria, the site of childhood’s physical pleasure of life and nature, the land of the “first man.” Yet there is no return, for he can no longer communicate with the “first men” of his life, his long-dead, silent father, or his inarticulate, worn out uncle. Having been touched by civilization, he is now a foreigner in his own land, on the eve of yet another bout of war and atrocity, the bitter and bloody struggle between France and Algeria, which will destroy his homeland (for him) once and for all. Thus Perec and Camus return to the scene of the crime, to the physical traces of death, the father’s grave, the war, and from those sites of past slaughter they seek a passage to their childhood, the houses where they were raised, the streets through which they ran as children. It is a belated return, long postponed, painful, almost paralyzing, but by opening up the possibility of memory, it also makes life possible, for it provides the capacity to think of the future and its own still unrealized memory. We have emerged from a century saturated with the memories of shattered childhoods, lost parents, devastation on an unimaginable scale. The memory of the destruction may be so unbearable, so debilitating and wrought with despair, that we are often tempted to forget. But absence of memory makes life equally unbearable, for it is lived in an incomprehensible, uncharted void, without hope of a future. We remember so as to be able to forget and forget only to remember all over again.

We remember. But memory is an elusive entity, and the human mind is never the same. What some remember, others forget; what some excavate, others cover up. Memory can liberate; it can also be burried under its own weight. The memory of the past will always extend into the future, always threaten to monopolize our hopes and aspirations. And so we mold and twist it to fit our needs, and project that newly fashioned image forward, making it into a distorting mirror of imagined, fabricated recollections.

One of the most striking features of World War II is that both Germans and Jews remember it as an event of mass victimization. The perpetrators may be remembered, but they rarely record their memories, or do not remember themselves as perpetrators, or claim to be victims. To be sure, the sites of German and Jewish victimization are different. Germans remember bombing raids and rapes, murderous battles and cruel captivity. Jews remember starving ghettoes, inhuman camps, and mass murder. Hence, with a few sinister exceptions such as Rudolf Hoss and Franz Stangl, the scene is emptied of memories by the agents of destruction. While evil reigns supreme, its messengers are faceless; they wear the dull mask of Adolf Eichmann in the glass cage. Both German and Jewish memories negotiate between recollection and repression. But the former repress the memory of complicity, since it delegitimizes their assertion of victimhood and undermines their identity, whereas the latter repress the memory of atrocity, since it makes life after the disaster unthinkable. In the process the numbers of the victims are enormously expanded, while the numbers of the perpetrators drastically diminish. To the outsider the two groups may appear identical, not because they share a common fate or memory but because of their self-perception as victims.

Memory is conditioned by the relationship between past events and present circumstances. More durable than the ephemeral events it remembers, it is also malleable, unstable, and fragile. When the past is violent and traumatic, both memory and forgetting are crucial for coming to terms with the present. But when the event is also permeated with loss and absence, identity itself is deprived of coherence and constantly threatens to disintegrate. A few memoirs of Germans who served the Nazi regime while opposing it and of Jews who survived the Holocaust by ceasing to be Jewish may illustrate this process. These memoirs all reconstruct the memory of childhood and youth from a distance of several decades and, while keenly aware of the menacing implications of the past for the present, nevertheless retain a measure of optimism, rooted in their writers’ personal survival from destruction of inconceivable dimensions. But these are the stories of ruptured lives and double identities: their protagonists are complicit nonconformists, dissemblers of faith, traitors of lost causes and shattered allegiances. They expose the facility to assume contradictory identities in time of crisis and the immense difficulty of sorting them out once it is over. They belie the very notion of a “true” or “authentic” self even as their authors strive to re-create it through the very act of narrating their lives. For the attempt to record traumatic memory is hampered by the narrators’ precarious identity and the need to purge the narration of precisely those elements that made past events unendurable. Trauma, in this sense, cannot be overcome by confronting its unexpunged reality but by constructing a bearable image of it. But because it is incomplete and unstable, this image remains a constantly threatening presence in the mind, the site of a daily struggle to keep together a self unable to look into the mirror lest it reveal what must not be allowed to resurface. The fragmented record of atrocity is thus made of the loss and absence produced by physical and mental destruction and by the inability to confront it in its entirety and yet survive its memory.

This is also the point at which we begin to distinguish between German and Jewish memory. The writer Heinrich Boll was raised in a Catholic family that sustained and supported him in his inner resistance to Nazism and his decision not to join the Hitler Youth. In his memoir What’s to Become of the Boy? (1981), he describes the roots of his courageous postwar moral stance and his opposition to all forms of hypocrisy and control, the seeds of his independent, unconventional Catholicism that made him into a thorn in the flesh of the conservatives and the Left alike. But during the war years, as we know, the boy becomes a soldier, reluctant to serve the Fuhrer, but brave and resolute all the same, so much so that he returns to the front even after being wounded several times in combat. In this memoir, Boll does not reach his army service, but other quasi-autobiographical stories, mostly written in the immediate aftermath of the war, focus on that experience, as in A Soldier’s Legacy and The Train Was on Time. The gist of Boll’s perspective on the war as a site of victimhood is succinctly summarized in Henri Plard’s blurb on the latter’s 1972 German edition: “There are authors who grant war an apparent nobility, others, who have known the humor and rough joys of warriors. In none of Boll’s writing can one find even the most qualified approval of war; nowhere does man appear there as anything but its victim.” Boll evokes painful, tormenting memories, yet he also cleanses them of all that would have made them unbearable and thus impossible to tell. By concentrating on his own and his comrades’ suffering, he leaves out the annihilated presence of their innumerable, truly innocent victims. His is, finally, a memory of moral courage and victimhood—or perhaps of the courage of victimhood—in a world remembered as demanding ever more human sacrifice, yet humanized by moments of love and devotion. This is a memory more suited to serve the future than to excavate the past. The hero may die, but his humanity is preserved; and if he survives, the memory of his true faith and conscience sustains his future existence, if only because he remembers himself always as victim, never as perpetrator.

Otl Aicher’s memoir Innenseiten des Krieges (War from Within, 1985) has much in common with Boll’s recollections. Raised in a Lutheran environment and inclined to unconventional theological ruminations, Aicher refuses to join the Hitler Youth. Consequently, he is ostracized by the authorities and barred from taking the Abitur (matriculation examination). While he despises the military establishment, declines an officer’s commission with the argument that the junior officers are “Nazis without party membership cards,” and attempts to avoid frontline service, he in fact spends much of the war in combat zones. Similarly, despite some vague references to Nazi atrocities, Aicher relativizes them by enumerating all other massacres in human history. His memoir is a strange but not an uncharacteristic melange of anti-Nazi sentiments and complicity, of recriminations—especially of the German bourgeoisie—and assertions of personal integrity. Painful recollections are qualified by Aicher’s self-perceived role in the period. Ultimately he can live with his memories because, just like Boll, he was sufficiently part of the system not to be persecuted and destroyed by it, and sufficiently apart from it to feel redeemed by his refusal to share the sentiments of his environment. Both were, in a sense, “inner emigres”; hence, too, the title of Aicher’s memoir. But both, perhaps due to their upbringing and nature, could not desist from active participation, even if they were in total disagreement with the larger scheme of things. Thus Aicher can direct the Wehrmacht’s guns at the Russians in his capacity as an artillery observer and yet feel that he is not “really” part of the Nazi war machine. He can perceive himself as a close friend of Hans and Sophie Scholl—leaders of the White Rose resistance group uncovered and executed by the Nazi authorities—and yet escape arrest by the Gestapo in a somewhat unlikely episode that finds him part, but not a full member, of the resistance. Ultimately, Aicher will enjoy a long and successful postwar career in Germany, even if, like Boll, he bitterly criticizes “the State” and most of what it stands for. But for all its disturbing complacency, his memoir also betrays deeply repressed feelings of guilt and self-doubt, of which the author himself seems mostly unaware.

When the memory of Holocaust survivors comes, it is a memory of loss and separation, absence and uprooted identity, repressed, fragmented, traumatic. All the more so in the case of converted children, whose unrecoverable memory, if it finally resurfaces, threatens to undermine their last remaining, fragile refuge, that third, postwar identity, constructed with great care and pain. “An adult conversion,” writes Saul Friedlander in When Memory Comes, “may be a purely pro forma affair... or it may be the result of a spiritual journey that ends in a decision freely made; nothing disappears, yet everything is transformed: the new identity then changes one’s former existence into a prefiguration or a preparation.” But for him, a child whose parents were determined to save at any price, conversion had a much deeper, traumatic, enduring meaning: “The rejection of the past that was forced upon me was neither a pro forma affair—for my father had promised not only to accept my conversion but to assure me a Catholic education if life resumed its normal course—nor, of course, the result of a spiritual journey. The first ten years of my life, the memories of my childhood, were to disappear, for there was no possible synthesis between the person I had been and the one I was to become.”

Friedlander’s life was saved through conversion. But this spelled an irreparable loss of parents and childhood, of self; spiritually, it was the equivalent of a child’s hell. Having escaped from the Catholic boarding school to which his parents had sent him, and before being taken back, never to see his parents again, the child clings to the bars of his father’s hospital bed. “How did my parents ever find the courage to make me loosen my hold, without bursting into sobs in front of me?” He does not know, he does not remember: “It has all been swept away by catastrophe, and the passage of time. What my father and mother felt at that moment disappeared with them; what I felt has been lost forever, and of this heartbreak there remains only a vignette in my memory, the image of a child walking back down the rue de la Garde, in the opposite direction from the one taken shortly before, in a peaceful autumn light, between two nuns dressed in black.”

Shlomo Breznitz parted from his parents at the entrance to the Catholic orphanage, where he was to remain with his older sister. As he writes in his memoir Memory Fields (1993): “The final farewell was brutally brief. We all knew what it meant and said nothing to each other. The tears of all four mixed on our faces, and even after they left I could feel the taste of salt on my lips. That was the last material remnant, and for a while I tried to distinguish between mother’s and father’s salt. ... Did my official admission into the orphanage mean that I had become an orphan?”

For Friedlander and Breznitz, their previous Jewish identity is a threat, a hidden blemish not to be revealed, the cause of endless anxiety and shame, but also their only link to their childhood, their parents. To survive, perhaps also to make up for their lost identity, both excel in their religious studies as children and youths. After the war Breznitz is told by his mother—who returns from the camps— that the local bishop had protected him precisely because he knew that the boy was Jewish and admired his extraordinary skill in memorizing Latin prayers. Hence both the facility to remember foreign texts and the ability to repress the memory of past identity had been instrumental to his salvation. Friedlander discovers his identity through a Jesuit teacher just as he is about to be launched on a promising career in the clergy. By now the war is over, but he is ignorant of what had happened. They stand under a painting of Christ on the Cross: “‘Didn’t your parents die at Auschwitz?’ Father L. asked. What did this name mean? Where was Auschwitz? He must have understood then that I knew nothing of the extermination of the Jews: to me, the death of my parents was enveloped in vague images, indistinct circumstances that bore no relation to the real course of events. And so, in front of this obscure Christ, I listened: Auschwitz, the trains, the gas chambers, the crematory ovens, the millions of dead. . . . ” The Father tells him further about antisemitism: “For the first time, I felt myself to be Jewish—no longer despite myself or secretly, but through a sensation of absolute loyalty. It is true that I knew nothing of Judaism and was still a Catholic. But something had changed. A tie had been reestablished, an identity was emerging, a confused one certainly, contradictory perhaps, but from that day forward linked to a central axis of which there could be no doubt: in some manner or other I was Jewish—whatever this term meant in my mind.”

Friedlander’s reconversion to Judaism is not the product of memory. In some ways, he, too, is an “imaginary Jew,” as Alain Finkielkraut, member of a younger generation of French Jews and the child of immigrants from Poland, had described himself. His rediscovered identity is based on defiance, not on familiarity, on absence, not presence. But for Friedlander it springs from sudden confrontation with the facts of the past. And with that knowledge, he says, ultimately comes memory. But is it knowledge that makes the need to remember so urgent or is it memory—however fragmented—that endows knowledge with this and no other meaning, that redefines him as a Jew? Is knowledge not Perec’s History with a capital H, the History that protects him from his own past, and that must be discarded, made into an adult’s version of a child’s nightmare of atrocity (in that imaginary land of W), so as to make room for his private, unique memories?

“As a child who happened upon the wrong place at the wrong time, caught in the whirlpool of events, I too became one of the centers of the earthquake,” writes Breznitz. “I was born in Prague at the worst possible moment, four months before Hitler came to power,” writes Friedlander at the opening of his memoir. This was bad timing because vast numbers of children became victims of the Nazi murder machine. It was also bad timing because the few who survived were left with gaping absences, not only of parents and siblings but of the memory of their own childhood, of their identity, which became split into disparate fragments and had to be put together again and again in different and contradictory versions. These are the unbearable memories that need to be repeatedly juggled and rearranged, day in day out, in a perpetual struggle to preserve a reconstituted identity. For even as memory comes, it always slips back into the abyss. “For many years my memories of those times played tricks on me,” writes Breznitz. “While some could always be recalled, others were more elusive, surfacing for a moment, tempting me to chase them, and then disappearing again without a trace. And there was a third kind of memory, whose existence was evidenced by the deep voids in the story of my childhood. As if it too had been buried under the debris of the earthquake. For too long it remained beyond my reach, its secrets locked behind the faithful bars of repression.” Can one ever reach back with any kind of clarity or certitude? Can one express these recovered memories in words? For Friedlander the text of his own memoir is “very far removed . . . from my memories, and even my memories retrieve only sparse fragments of my parents’ existence, of their world, of the time when I was a child.” But precisely because of this loss and absence, precisely because only a few, fragile memories remain in his mind, Friedlander, just like Perec, feels compelled to write. Not because he remembers well, but because he remembers at all; not because of the need to describe a rich, multifaceted past, but because of the urge to save even a fragment of biography from that vast absence before it too recedes into total oblivion: “I must write, then. Writing retraces the contours of the past . . . it does at least preserve a presence, and it enables one to tell about a child who saw one world founder and another reborn.”

Boll and Aicher experience the trauma of war, devastation, and the destruction of the world into which they were born. They must rebuild their lives and forge for themselves new identities from the debris of fallen friends, shattered cities, discredited beliefs. Their return to the homeland is a difficult journey, but a possible one. They retain their language, their family, their landscapes. Boll once wrote that at times he failed to comprehend how he could live in Germany. And indeed, throughout his life he was a harsh and demanding critic of his society. Yet he became and remained a German author, deeply rooted in his culture, honored and respected by many readers. He and his generation underwent a deep trauma, but if there was an absence, if many members of their age group felt that with the collapse of the Third Reich and Hitler’s suicide their whole world had broken apart, they could at least pick up the pieces and march on into a new future in the old land and culture. To be sure, some regions of Germany were torn away, and many millions pushed out; but the bulk of Germany remained to flourish again.

This return to the homeland is barred to Camus. While he experiences the trauma of World War I only vicariously through the loss of his father, the path back home is no longer open to him; he must remain in the land he adopted without ever fully belonging to it. Although Perec does not leave his homeland, he must lead his life without a memory of childhood, for the loss of his parents has deprived him of his own past; he must reconstruct the lost years from material remains, houses, streets, photographs, and each time he tells a different tale, for no one remembers. Friedlander has lost both the sites and the memory of childhood; along with Perec and Breznitz, his survival in conversion links the loss of childhood with a new faith and identity, belied once more with his final salvation. InWartime Lies, Louis Begley recounts survival through deceit, after which his protagonist can no longer trust the distinction between truth and lies, and must settle on one of several optional identities. So, too, Breznitz and Friedlander must re-create themselves, with few points of reference and only shards of memory. But the blank spaces on which their new selves are established force them to search for the past, to travel to their place of origin, to reconstruct in their minds the universe and people they had lost. Their new identity is an act of choice and reason, not of faith and memory, and as such it is always fragile and tenuous. They are there, and yet they are not. Their survival is a cause for hope, but unlike their German counterparts, it is grounded in despair, for they are always perched over an abyss that makes them homeless in their own selves. As their memoirs alternate between “now” and “then,” they relate to the present as a focus of coherence, a scrap of firm ground to which memory can be anchored. Yet behind this illusory solidity we sense the anxiety of recollected identities on the verge of disintegration, the orphaned memories of solitary children. Theirs is a daily struggle with memory, with what it remembers and what it forgets. And always there remains the fear of plunging into the void of oblivion.

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