What exactly is “personal history”? Is it a cousin of political history, cultural history or revisionist history — an account steeped in perspective before objective truth — or is it just a fancy term for “memoir”? With a spate of memoirs-turned-fiction rattling book stalls, the Holocaust chronicles, published this year, chosen for review this week confront head-on the fine lines among scholarship, memoir and imagination, and show the increasing importance of second- and third-generation narratives — the retelling of a parent’s or grandparent’s experiences during the Shoah as filtered through the descendant’s research and remembrance.
In the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, the cityscapes are dotted with evidence of the wanderers, invaders and empires that have crisscrossed this region throughout the centuries. Medieval monasteries built by native Slavs in the ninth century stand alongside fortresses built by Bulgarian generals shortly thereafter. Orthodox churches flank Turkish mosques, Roma settlements are only but a short walk from Byzantine remains and — as is expected in most distant European locales — Jewish history, culture and sometimes even some actual Jews reside quietly in the background.
In the summer of 2005, the suburbs of Paris went up in flames. Television screens and newspapers were filled with images of frustrated Arab and African youths, most often the unemployed children or grandchildren of immigrants, burning and slashing the already dour infrastructure around them. It was a sight that many observers thought mirrored the frustration seen throughout the Middle East. In any case, the riots in the French suburbs were the sign of a vexing European crisis.
What is Jewish Eastern Europe? A geographical space, or a frame of mind? The eternal homeland of Ashkenazic Jewry, or simply its birthplace? A field of academic inquiry, or just a touchstone for nostalgia?
In northern New Mexico’s Sandoval County, there is a tombstone of a World War II veteran in a cemetery nestled in the desert brush. The name of the man, who was born in 1921 and died in 1980, is Adonay P. Gutierrez, and it is engraved on the stone below a cross. Nine different Native American communities reside in the surrounding counties, and even if cemetery visitors see his cross before his name, this lone Jew lies among them.
When you look at a photograph that depicts an act of violence — or, in the case of Lane H. Montgomery’s new photography book, “Never Again, Again, Again” (Ruder Finn), an act of genocide — you might assume that the photographer took a substantial amount of time to frame, say, a heap of murdered Tutsis drying out on wooden planks, or a horrific scene in which a Serb soldier is kicking a Bosnian woman while she lay bleeding on the ground. “What people might not realize is that many of these photos are quick shots, taken when I had that second to jam my arm into this windowsill or climb to that viewpoint,” said Montgomery, who edited the book and contributed some of her own photographs.
On March 20, Purim will be celebrated in Ashkenaz. This Ashkenaz, however, refers not to the Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe but to a performance space in Berkeley, Calif., named Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center. This year, the festival of Esther and Mordechai will be celebrated there with a party featuring Shivat Zion, a reggae band based in the Bay Area.
It’s been more than three quarters of a century since young intellectuals were voicing their Yiddish-inflected ideas in the parks, cafés and tenements of lower Manhattan. But the days of the Yiddish intelligentsia are still rolling for 24-year-old Menachem Yankl Ejdelman, who is the newly appointed leader of Yugntruf, a worldwide organization of young Yiddish speakers and learners. “We attract all types of people, from high-school students to young people with day jobs. Many of the people who come to our events love languages,” he said.
In 1946, a fictional memoir of a resistance fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto appeared in a Yiddish newspaper in Argentina. Titled “Yosl Rakover Talks to God,” the piece described the destruction of Jewish Warsaw in such sensitive detail that it was translated into a multitude of languages, propelling its Lithuanian-born author, Zvi Kolitz, into the international spotlight.
As incredible as this might seem to some, the generation born in the 1980s has no knowledge of a dangerous New York City. Criminals, the crack epidemic and the streetscapes of starving children are largely foreign to them, rooted more in images of the developing world than in the everyday life of a young Manhattanite. Frustration on our blocks is hidden behind the juice bars, sushi joints and real estate brokers’ fees.