Crossing Boundaries: Memory and Trauma
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Crossing Boundaries:
Memory and Trauma

Simon Schama wrote, in Landscape and Memory, that he learned from his teacher how history is not to be found only in the text but through the archives of the feet (24). In my eleven lengthy journeys throughout Lithuania beginning in 1993, I was, like many others, searching out my Jewish roots in a country that I never imagined I would visit. But my American feet took me back into the villages once inhabited by my family. And to the very places of massacre where their lives came to an end. At first it seemed only in the compressed silence of poetry could such experience find its language. Or in testimony of survivors, despite the view of some historians about the unreliability of testimony. I began to realize that it was this very unreliability that contained what was to be learned, the variations in the descriptions of specific traumatic incidents. And I discovered that an image from my childhood that I had not understood—the sight of my mother and father sitting in stunned silence on the stairway between the first floor of the house and the second—took on new meaning as I wandered in the forests and villages of this place where our family had lived for so many centuries and where the stories of childhood had taken root. For this was the moment, in 1941, when a letter arrived with a plea for help, but by the time the letter was in their hands, it was already too late. Sixteen years have passed since I first walked in Lithuania. I was privileged to know those survivors, rescuers, and witnesses who talked with me and became my friends.

After the war, the writer Chaim Grade returned to the Vilna Ghetto: "I go home, and gliding behind me comes the ghetto, with all its broken windows, like blind people groping their way along the walls" (429). He imagines that the dead have come back to study their books and scrolls, for he finds scattered pages from sacred books. "Perhaps the tears that drenched the Techinas will live again for me, perhaps my own boyhood face will shine out as so many years past, and I will be [End Page 102] able to go on dreaming over a book of wonder tales" (429). Perhaps that is what we all wish for, that the stories will not be lost but will reveal themselves once more.

Just as the partitions between disciplines in science and medicine are being dismantled to our great benefit, so the wide gulf between literary exploration of experience and scientific investigation may be diminished, letting in more light through this synthesis. And rather than dismissing the narrative of testimony, may it be the basis for new insight in a way similar to what literature has to teach us. At least that is the effort in this work.

It's not the echo of bullets at the edge of the forest,it is a swarm of silver bees on the way to the hive of our orchard.

Algimantas Mackus

If we could rewrite history, we would do as Lithuanian poet Algimantas Mackus instructs us: we would transform bullets into living creatures, used not to destroy life, but to propagate it. Perhaps that wish is behind the great variety of historical "truths" that have emerged in Lithuania since World War II with regard to the deaths of approximately 95% of Lithuania's Jewish population. Most were killed during the opening months of the German occupation in 1941. It was said that the killing was done by Germans with Lithuanian collaborators or by Lithuanians at the instigation of the Germans or orchestrated by the Germans even before their arrival in Lithuania or done to avenge Jewish sympathizers during the previous Russian occupation––1940-1941—when numbers of Lithuanians were exiled to Siberia. Now, far more detailed information is available thanks to the courage and willingness of researchers to confront this history. Saulius Suziedelis, in "The Burden of 1941," writes that

how we imagine the past is an important, perhaps even the most decisive, catalyst in the formation of collective identity, especially national consciousness...