Odd as it may seem, these traits relate to a life-changing trip in 2005 that Marti embarked on called “The March of the Living.” I say “embark” because a commitment touring Jewish concentration camps is a somber and painful undertaking. This was a propitious time of particular significance, as it memorialized the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I myself, for some reason I have never quite fathomed, believe that I died and was reborn during or slightly after the Holocaust. Perhaps it is a cultural memory because I cannot explain why I wrote this stanza, honoring poet Carolyn Forche:
I would shed six years
of my life to join your cause
but my past is stuck in Auschwitz
with my own grandmother
whose fine linen kerchief
withered in the gas.
Neither my grandmother, nor any other relative, perished in a concentration camp. But I, like many Jews, feel a personal loss.
Scholar Marianne Hirsch talks about cultural memory as “an act in the present on the part of a [person] who constitutes herself by means of a series of identifications across temporal, spatial, and cultural divides” (405). It feels like her own experience, inserting itself into the “life of her imagination.” Many of us grew up in the specter of the Holocaust. As a teenager, I felt the walls of the Anne Frank house shrink around the young girl as I pretended gazing at an imaginary butterfly outside her window. It didn’t happen to me, but experientially it did. And most of us in our generation knew about families who lost grandmothers or aunts in the ovens. So, when Marti identified with names on a paper across the cultural divide of Europe, I was not surprised. At the Majdanek concentration camp, originally constructed by Heinrich Luitpold Himmler, a leading member of the Nazi party, as a forced labor camp in Poland, Marti was handed a piece of paper with the name Chaim Guzowski, a twenty-year-old man from Lublin, Poland, who had died at Majdanek. Standing next to a pile of ashes at the Majdanek memorial, her imagination wandered: “Did the unmarried Chaim have a love? Was Jzach Finkielstein, another twenty-year-old from Lublin, his friend” (Interview Aug. 2012)? Now I wonder too, “Did these young men foresee that 18,000 Jews within these Lublin camps would be murdered in a single day? Would they learn that the Erntefest, the Harvest Festival of killing, would be drowned out by music from the camp and the town?” The past and the present merged as Marti uttered Chaim’s name when she lit his memorial candle. She could hardly catch her breath.
“Marchers” of the Living also trekked from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the same path taken by the two million, soon to enter the gas chambers, and Treblinka, another death camp. It was death, but it was also life—as experienced in the famous cultural centers of Lublin, Warsaw, and Cracow. The March of the Living itinerary includes these once thriving Polish cities, so contemporary Jews connect with their rich intellectual, historical, and spiritual heritage (Interview Aug. 2012).
Lublin was a famous center of Jewish learning, particularly in Talmud (commentaries on the Bible) and kabbalistic mysticism. The sages that Lublin spawned “led to the city being named the ‘Jewish Oxford.’” Some of them enjoyed equal rights to scholars “in Polish universities with the permission of the King in 1567” (Jewish Virtual Library). A Hebrew printing press was also established in this period. Even earlier, Jacob Savra, from Cracow, was a Talmudic sage in the thirteenth century, preceding Moses ben Israel Isserles in the sixteenth century. Isserles, also from Cracow, founded a religious academy there and was conversant with the Greek philosophers (Jewish Virtual Library). It is no wonder that this entire journey was “somehow deeply important and holy” (Interview Aug. 2012 ).
Hirsch’s cultural memory, referred to as postmemory, is powerful “precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection, but through projection, investment, and creation” (406). Marti’s creative ponderings led her to an insight about the significance of Chaim and Jzach, among others.
It was the names, and it was wondering about the beautiful mother in the video clip we saw on the bus, carrying a single suitcase headed for the boxcar. Who was she? What were her stories? It was the single, backless, openwork shoe among the thousands of shoes that I couldn’t pull myself away from—who wore that shoe? Who was there to remember her(Interview Aug. 2012).
I too, like Marti, have been invested in these projections, particularly confronting material objects of torture and dehumanization. At an Auschwitz Exhibit, in an American museum, I stood before an enormous case of piled-up shoes and wrote:
I move trancelike among these artifacts—
fighting an impulse to add my shoes
in the beveled glass case to theirs,
to seize the yellow armband
branded in the flesh of my imagination,
to burn at least my hair, adding to the ash
of my ancestors resting quietly here
in the simple clay jar
We bear witness, in Marti’s words, “honoring the victims—those who survived and those who didn’t—the continuity of saying Kaddish” (Interview Aug. 2012). This prayer, an Aramaic prose poem, is so embedded in Jewish consciousness that even nonreligious Jews are haunted by “strong rhythms stirring sounds … and sheer hypnotic power over the listeners” Lamm). The words do not allude to mourning but praise of God, which reflects Marti’s deeply optimistic view of life.
Yit’ga’dal v’yit’kadash sh’may ra’bbo, b’olmo dee’vro chir’usay v’yamlich malchu’say, b’chayaychon uv’yomay’chon uv’chayay d’chol bais Yisroel, ba’agolo u’viz’man koriv; v’imru Omein.
(May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified, throughout the world, which he has created according to his will. May his Kingship be established in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future;