How Do We Remember?

Visiting those parts of Europe still shrouded in the long shadow of the Holocaust means grappling with the issue of remembrance every step of the way. There are elements of the collective memory of the Jewish people - a visceral, cultural awareness that even if my personal memories don’t include certain events, they are nevertheless ingrained in me in a way that feels like a [hazy] memory.

One of the fun facts that I love sharing with my students is that in Hebrew, there’s no word for history. There’s only zachor - memory - because for the Jewish people, history was never meant to be separate or impersonal. It’s something each of us owns in some way.

Memory was front and center for me this week. Walking the streets of Berlin and Zbaszyn, Poland, there was the constant presence of the past. Through the stories my cousins shared, the Stolpersteine [stumbling stone] memorials to former residents of the buildings we passed, and the facades of places that have been witnesses throughout it all, it seemed like every step I took brought me closer to remembering something I’d never seen before. Jewish collective culture is built around that elusive sensation, and this week brought it home in so many ways. So, with the understanding that our learners aren’t generally going on 40+ person family heritage trips, how do we help them tap into the sensation?

Jewish Ways of Connecting with Collective Memory

  • Learn the names - Names were all over the place this week. Wandering through a cemetery where three of my great-great-grandparents are buried, I came face to face with headstones with the names of both my grandmother and her sister, who was there with me. Do our learners know the names that mark where they come from?

  • Tell the stories - The town of Zbaszyn is where thousands of Polish Jews were deported to from Berlin in 1938, with my grandmother’s uncle Leo Adler and her cousin Norbert being two of them. When we retraced their footsteps and visited the town for the 80th anniversary commemoration of the Polenaktion, we learned that the townspeople never made a memorial or any kind of physical marker to be the placeholder for the story of these events. Instead, they wrote a play that their high school students perform annually, which they did for us. They told the stories of deportees, sang songs, and while there were plenty of issues that the play itself brought up, the concept of remembering through storytelling resonated across cultures.

  • Mark the days - The reason we were in Poland and Germany this week in particular was because it was exactly 80 years after the initial Polenaktion deportations. The dates of Jewish history are numerous, stretching across time and space. How can we better incorporate reminders of them into our teaching?

  • Visit the places - Experiential education, and particularly educational travel, is unique in the impact that it makes on participants. Feeling the air, walking the streets, and touching the buildings is an unmatched experience. If Europe is out of reach, what is accessible? Where are the spaces that your learners can feel connected to their own personal and collective pasts?

Jewish memory