Biography 26.1 (2003) 151-153
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The Holocaust is weighty, both as a cultural power and as an inexhaustible source for loss and guilt. It appears so momentous, so blindly other, that we can either lose ourselves in its overpowering vastness, or carefully reconstruct our identities without thinking too much about "dead Jews." I, for one, have followed the latter course, but Epstein and Lefkovitz's edited volume on cultural memory and the Holocaust have made such a willful act far more difficult. Indeed, the various essays in the volume argue that conflicting memories and narratives inform Holocaust remembrance. To evade or embrace are no longer, and really never have been, our cultural options for encountering human tragedy. Instead, moments of absence and presence, loyalty and betrayal, guilt and freedom shape and inspire cultural memories of loss. The title of this book, Shaping Losses, evokes these conflicting pressures, and speaks to the deep human need to shape and control the very things that remain beyond our grasp. The Holocaust is just that kind of thing that we continually reconfigure, even as we know that it evades all borders, and defies all shapes.
Epstein and Lefkovitz have configured their text on cultural memory into four parts: 1) Journeys: Recollection and Return, 2) Images: Photograph, Film, Sculpture, 3) Voices: Memoirs and Stories, and 4) Legacies: Paradox and Ambivalence. The most powerful and quietly elegant piece in the volume is Irene Raab Epstein's recollection of her experience just after surviving the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. Raab Epstein (the editor's mother) recalls her friendship with Edith, another camp survivor, and their short but intense, if not fragile relationship. The writing is compact, clear, and discloses only what we need to know: "In my hospital room in Karlstad, the high point of my day was the arrival of the mail." After recounting one such letter from Edith, in which all hope for a "normal life" had been "crushed and everything seems dark again," Raab Epstein concludes her essay: "That was the last time I ever heard from Edith Domber." For the reader—or at least [End Page 151] for this one—Edith lives beyond Raab Epstein's account to provoke dreamlike images of friendship, death, broken promises, and a whole range of personal reflections triggered by a writing style that invites reader response.
I emphasize this sense of playful and private openness because the editors labor to close it down. In the introduction to the volume, Epstein and Lefkovitz tell us exactly what Raab Epstein is up to: the story reminds us that "any effort to shape loss cannot give voice to the silence of the dead or begin to imagine what meanings the millions of the murdered might have contributed to the world." This may be true, but I would not have read it out of the story if Epstein and Lefkovitz had not already read it in. One senses that the editors—both children of Holocaust survivors—are protecting their parents. I would have preferred a more exploratory introduction, one that broadened the powerful thesis of the collection:
Giving some form to emptiness is, however flawed, a necessary betrayal, and we therefore find ourselves obliged to engage in the process as though to fulfill a sacred duty. It is a duty to participate in the making of cultural memory and not leave it to others. (8-9)
The betrayal, in this case, is participating too much, and thereby limiting the cultural memory of other readers.
There are many fine essays in this volume, including Froma Zeitlin's reading of Henri Raczymow's Un Cri sans voix and Jaroslaw Rymkiewicz's Umschlagplatz (Part 3: Voices), and Lefkovitz's moving and profoundly honest account of inherited memory as a "repetition compulsion" (Part 4: Legacies). Excellent as well is Carol Zemel's essay on Roman Vishniac's photographs...