Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Hannah Pollin-Galay's "Ecologies of Witnessing"

Hannah Pollin-Galay is senior lecturer in the Department of Literature at Tel Aviv University, where she teaches on Yiddish, oral narrative, and memory.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Ecologies of Witnessing: Language, Place, and Holocaust Testimony, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The witness goes on to tell that his grandfather, a representative of an even older generation, also supports his leap: “And my grandfather got involved and said that when I’m in Israel I should remember that [his] son is there, your uncle.” Next and last, Kalman’s father helps him execute the escape.
Then my father, quietly, in his calm manner, said, “Yes. Come, I’ll lift you up.” I tried to pack myself in like my cousin with my head first. This I remember very well. He said, “No, Kalmanke, not with your head, with your legs.” Today, I understand that…He lifted up my legs and at the moment I looked around. I wanted to get support. Nobody cried. A kiss or a hug or something? I don’t know what I was expecting.
Kalman’s father gives him the proper physical instructions that allow him to survive the jump, showing the kind of bodily aptitude so valued in the Zionist ethos. He gives Kalman permission to both literally and figuratively leave the family and move on. The family resists embracing Kalman at this moment, redefining filial love as calm, tactical support.

Kalman’s daring leap from the window closely fits one version of Zionist historical progress: a transfer of agency from older Eastern European Jewish society, which is sadly going to the extermination camp, to the young and the brave who are going to remake Jewish society in Eretz Yisrael. Most important to our discussion here is the manner in which Kalman uses family relations to dramatize the march of history and conversely, employs broader ideological frameworks to remember his intimate family. It is precisely the kind of parental love that Kalman receives that allows him to make his escape successful. Likewise, his family’s supportive behavior demonstrates the integrity in his survival and aliyah to Israel, proof that this shift, no matter how drastic, is nonetheless in confluence with the Jewish past.

This moment marks a clear transition in Kalman’s testimony. After this scene, he ceases to remember himself as a member of the previous polity, the “we” that includes the ghetto, the family, and his school friends, and begins to speak of an independent struggle for survival.
Page 99 of Ecologies of Witnessing presses on several tough questions: What is the connection between the experience of Holocaust victimhood and Zionism? What is the connection between politics and personal emotions?

Here, Israeli Hebrew-speaking Holocaust survivor Kalman Perk recollects the last moment he ever spent with his family. The Perks are in a cattle car, among the last Jews to be expelled from their beloved hometown of Kovna, Lithuania. Though they are unaware at the time, they are on their way to Dachau. Perk is the only one in the car who manages to jump out of a high, narrow window. As Perk recalls it, jumping out the window not only meant saying goodbye to his dearest ones, but starting Jewish history all over again.

Perk depicts his jump in way that is both monumental and intimate: The political and the familial are inseparable for him. As a last show of love, his family instructs him in the proper jumping technique and tells him whom to greet when he arrives in Palestine. Clearly, this story tightly correlates with a Zionist approach to history. But, this framework is completely spontaneous and necessary for Perk; He cannot remember without it.

Other parts of the book show how survivors from different places recall parallel moments of family separation with different lessons in mind. Yiddish speakers who stayed in Lithuania, for instance, speak more about maintaining a low profile in order to survive. Rather than narrating heroic leaps, solo journeys into the unknown, they focus on the distant relatives or neighbors who adopt them. Their stories are about reintegration, rather than reinvention.

We are accustomed to talking about memory “constructs,” as if they are purposeful distortions. This book does not. No witness is whitewashing or distorting her past; She is making honest use of the normative and conceptual resources in her ecology.

Interestingly, some lecture audiences have understood this passage about Kalman Perk to be a harsh critique of Zionist historical imagination, while others see it as a vindication of the same. Many audience members have trouble locating this page on their ideological spectrum. That is precisely the uncomfortable space that I want people to enter when they read this page, and when they read this book. The stories should pull readers so deeply into the logic of each ecology of memory, that they cannot help but suspend their typical modes of judgement.
Learn more about Ecologies of Witnessing at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue