A Voice in The Dark: Text of Launch Speech for In The Shadows of Memory

on Sunday, April 17, 2016
After a month hidden away at a writers' retreat, I resurfaced today to launch a fantastic book at the Jewish Museum of Australia. Okay, so it isn't a novel but it is on a topic that is very close to my heart. About two hundred people rocked up to watch it all go down and I've had a fair few requests to post my little spiel online somewhere. I figure this is as good a place as any. Sorry it's quite a bit longer than my usual yackathons but here goes!

In The Shadows of Memory: The Holocaust and the Third Generation (edited by Esther Jilovsky, Jordana Silverstein and David Slucki)
Sunday April 27 2016
Jewish Museum of Australia

What does it mean to carry the torch of memory?

How do we continue to bear witness when those who were there have all gone?

How do we heal so that inherited trauma and post memory do not come to define who we are while, at the same time, honour the suffering of those we loved, those we lost and those we never got the opportunity to know?

For the past few years I have been grappling with these questions as I seek to learn and write about the stories my grandparents could not bring themselves to tell. It is, I’m sure, a common challenge for those of us in the third generation. How do we make sense of our family history – with the benefit of time and distance - whether we heard it first hand, read it in a memoir, learnt it in whispered snippets or, as was my experience, read about it in a newspaper article years after they had died, when it was too late to ask questions?

As members of the third generation we are in an historically unique position. But for a few exceptions, we are the last ones that will know survivors. We are the bridge, we are the candle. It is both an honour and, I dare say, a burden. Our relationship with the Holocaust raises new, often difficult questions. Why then, have we shied away from discussing them?

When I first heard about In The Shadows of Memory, I realized, somewhat surprisingly, that the conversation had not yet been had in any meaningful way. There were, of course, cultural touchstones – works like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love or, more recently The Replacement Life by Boris Fischman. But we had not yet shifted the lens of intellectual scrutiny from the first and second generations to our own. In The Shadows of Memory is, to my mind, the watershed moment for talking about and coming to understand the multiverse that is the Third Generation.

The breadth of what lies between the covers of this book is extraordinary. That the editors – Esther, Jordana and David – chose not fix it to any discipline but, rather, opened it to the many ways the third generation might seek to understand not only the Holocaust but their very identities makes this much more than you might expect. As they rightly note, it is much harder to characterize the third generation as some kind of homogenous group than those who preceded them. They incorporate “a whole array of religious, ethnic, political, national, sexual and gender identities”. And so we read pieces from all of these perspectives, whether it be a young Australian human rights lawyer reverse engineering her family history, a study of post memory and its effects on masculinity, a Romani scholar and musician interrogating the silences of her people’s Holocaust experience through song or the fieldwork of a young Jewish German anthropologist seeking to reconcile her national and religious identities.

In The Shadow of Memory also does not shy away from asking the difficult questions. What right do we have to tell the stories that our survivor grandparents did not want to be told? How do we share the trauma with other survivor groups who suffered – the Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, political prisoners, the disabled – to give their experiences legitimacy and meaning in more than just a tokenistic way? Can we find it within ourselves to sympathise with the other third generations – the grandchildren of perpetrators and those who were displaced in the creation of the State of Israel? And, of course, what active duties fall upon us to give meaning to the phrase Never Again?

What really sets this book apart, though, what makes it essential reading, is its deep humanity. Never before have I read an academic collection that eschews the rigid conventions of its form and allows us instead to view the writers at their most personal, their most vulnerable and their most fierce. These are not merely intellectual studies but vehicles for searing self-examination. That such a variety of great minds have dug deep into their personal histories and then turned their intellectual skills to examining what they found is not only fascinating but, also, intensely moving.

In The Shadows of Memory is, however, only the beginning of the conversation. It raises just as many questions as it might answer and, I have little doubt, will be the book to which countless writers, thinkers and casual readers will be turning long into the future. On a personal note, it really got me thinking about the role of the creative artist in perpetuating memory. Heeding Adorno’s famous clarion call, Jonathan Safran Foer is said to have stumbled, unsure of whether it was proper to imagine the Holocaust in fiction. I too struggle with this question – what is there left to say when there are so many iconic memoirs and novels by those who experienced it first hand? Who owns memory? How do we properly confront the taboos of Holocaust representation in respectful but fearless ways? I don’t pretend to know the answers, but in continuing on my quest I know that this book will remain an invaluable resource for thought and self-reflection.

As someone who devoured this book with a profound sense of appreciation and admiration, I would like to congratulate Esther Jilovsky, Jordana Silverstein and David Slucki as well as all of the contributing authors and, to officially launch this wonderful, essential book - In The Shadows of Memory: The Holocaust and the Third Generation.