- Ecologies of Witnessing: Language, Place, and Holocaust Testimony by Hannah Pollin-Galay
Yale University Press, 2018, 352 pp. ISBN 9780300226041, $50.00 hardcover.
The contest in how Holocaust memory should be carried forward to the future can be characterized as between the universal and global, and the local and individual.1 The debate between those who advocate deterritorialization of Holocaust memory in the service of a transnational cosmopolitanism that promotes universal social justice and those who advocate emphasizing local and unique Holocaust memory is advanced with Hannah Pollin-Galay’s Ecologies of Witnessing: Language, Place, and Holocaust Testimony. In the book, Pollin-Galay, who teaches literature and Yiddish studies at Tel Aviv University, explores the significance of local language and local geography in individual testimony and memory. She examines the testimonies of about fifty Lithuanian Holocaust survivors who live in three different countries and testified in three different languages: in English in the US, in Hebrew [End Page 859] in Israel, and in Yiddish in Lithuania. In addition, she examines testimonies in the Fortunoff, Shoah, and Yad Vashem archives. Pollin-Galay finds that despite their common heritage as Lithuanian Jews, their interpretation of their Holocaust experience and their relation to Lithuania depends on their post-war environment. Jewish Lithuanian testimony shows more consistency across the Lithuanian survivors who live in the same country and speak the same language than across the larger population of Lithuanian survivors. The author argues that what these Jews have absorbed from the social imaginary of their post-war lives has led to a divergence in how they interpret the effects of the Holocaust on Jews. In Pollin-Galay’s words, “They disagree as to which meanings became unhinged, what order was subverted, and how” (3). The book thus presents a challenge to the position of universal meaning for Holocaust memory.
This difference in emphasis regarding how to pass on the memory of the Holocaust is also about whether to keep wounds open or to close them. With every instance of anti-Semitism, every critique of Israel, every negative reference to Jews, a contingent of those who insist on keeping the wounds exposed read the threat of a new Holocaust. In this mindset, Holocaust memory is connected to suspicion and exclusion. That is, it encourages a vigilance that finds cause in its own perpetuation and a narrowing of the meaning of the Holocaust to those accorded the droit de parole, the right to speak. Against this approach to controlling and restricting Holocaust meaning, Sidra Dekoven Ezrahi advocates for diverse and local understandings, thus theorizing an approach that Pollin-Galay applies: “The generation that came of age in the 1980s began to re-create new-old languages and ethics of representation; in each of these cultures, artists working in the visual, literary, and performative media began to localize memory in sites that form alternatives to Auschwitz and to the notion of a predetermined universe of concentric circles with a black hole at its center” (64). Ezrahi chastises those she calls the Holocaust fundamentalists: “Those who view the receding past on an inexorable track leading back to the crematorium; who travel into the future with their stony faces turned toward Auschwitz; who insist on preserving the unique memory of that place as a moment frozen in time, space, and persons have created a culture of the unsayable, the elusive, the inscrutable, and the immutable. Authenticity and authority are strictly safeguarded, and Auschwitz is the sole determinant and ultimate extinguisher of meaning” (64). If such a practice dominates Holocaust memory, Ezrahi intimates, stagnation and ultimately forgetting result. She seems to be encouraging the kind of heuristic that Pollin-Galay employs: “For those who seek alternative sites, alternative histories, and alternative moral discourses in local landscapes, Auschwitz becomes dynamically and diversely representable and authorizes the infinite horizons of a post-Holocaust universe” (Ezrahi 64).
The cosmopolitan alternative to the fundamentalist view of framing Holocaust memory is presented by Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, particularly in their essay “Memory Unbound: The Holocaust and the Formation of Holocaust Memory.” Here they describe their vision of...