Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Elizabeth Rosner's "Survivor Café"

Elizabeth Rosner is the author of three novels and a poetry collection.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her first work of nonfiction, Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory, and reported the following:
From page 99 (footnotes omitted):
In 2007, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity issued a letter condemning the denial of the Armenian genocide, a letter signed by fifty-three Nobel laureates. Wiesel himself repeatedly called Turkey’s campaign to downplay its actions “a double killing.”

It’s already more than a year past the one-hundredth anniversary commemorating the Armenian genocide of 1915. At a ceremony on April 24th, 2015, the Turkish government offered “condolences” for the 1.5 million victims, while pointedly refusing to use the word “genocide.”


Inside a former matzo factory in Istanbul, now that Turkey’s Jewish community has found it cheaper to import matzo from Israel, an art installation was created. White pieces of paper, imprinted with images to make the paper look like matzo, hang suspended from wires. They are referred to as “ghost matzo.”

Years ago, while I was wandering aimlessly through the Lower East Side of New York City, my gaze was suddenly drawn upward to a small wire-mesh-covered window through which I could make out the machinery of the once-famous Streit's factory for matzo-making. I watched the baked pieces dangling and drifting in the hot air, slowly drying.

I’ve heard that factory is closed now too.

My friend Lola tells me that among printmakers, the second image printed after a monotype is called a ghost.


According to firsthand testimony, the Sonderkommando observed a Passover seder. Matzo, that is, unleavened bread, also translated as “the bread of affliction,” were baked in the oven at Birkenau. One of the men had worked in a bakery before Passover and knew the special requirements.
I’m humbly gratified to see that Page 99 of Survivor Café serves as a compact example of the book’s structure, its interlocking themes, and even its multi-layered voice. First, these three sections, separated by asterisks, represent the braided organization of my book -- its interweaving of research and conversation and personal story. Even though I don’t always oscillate this rapidly among subjects, and even though more often than not the narrative moves rather slowly and elaborately along a single pathway, the book’s overarching messages are revealed through each of the sub-sections on this page: the way genocides connect us to one another; the way art tries and fails and tries again to comment upon or even to embody history; the way truth can be hidden in the abuses and erasures of language; the way stories of war and loss and beauty and resilience echo back and forth across time and place.

Whether or not it’s explicitly clear to the reader at each moment, in my own mind as the writer, everything in the book is both invisibly and visibly interconnected like this. In these passages, I recognize details that refer to the legacy of trauma (Elie Wiesel calling the Turkish government’s denial of the Armenian genocide a “double killing”) and also the labyrinth of memory (Istanbul and its closed matzo factory and the making of ghostly art). Last but not least, in moving formally and informally between citations and interpretations, between the globally collective and the individually personal, this one page captures the tone of the book, a voice that is intimate as well as journalistic, emotional as well as scholarly. I love the idea that not only the quality of the book but also the cumulative effect of reading it can, in microcosm, be imagined by way of this single page-long experience.
Visit Elizabeth Rosner's website.

--Marshal Zeringue