Image Courtesy of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center
“When I understood that I am the last one on Earth who can name the relatives in the old shoebox photographs, the photos of my family members whom the Germans murdered, I decided to write and tell what I know, what I remember, or remember being told.”
—Alona Frankel, a Polish-born Israeli writer, illustrator, and memoirist. She was born in Kraków, Poland, and is a holocaust survivor.
On the border of Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus, there is a small but significant cultural center that works with regional survivors of World War II and their descendants, some of whom had stopped communicating with one another for decades. The goal of the center is to revive the stories and traditions of local groups murdered by the Nazi regime. They do this through live performances of poetry, drama, music, and other art forms, often presented in a space connected to an old and nearly forgotten synagogue. The performances—such as a Klezmer orchestra or historical theatre amplified by the use of expressive handmade masks—are arranged through a community effort to piece together scattered fragments of culture and uncover buried truths.
These cultural acts bring to life a once vibrant world the fascist regime tried to permanently extinguish. The performances bring warmth back to the places which stood empty, both in the physical realm and in the psychological. In so doing, community members are able to rekindle a sense of belonging to a world that is beyond the temporal self, and they often experience healing and reconnection in the process.
Survivors of traumatic events such as war and genocide understand the urgency and value of telling their stories. They know they alone are responsible for holding together the remaining fabric of their family history and community culture. They also know that if they do not bear witness to the world that existed before a traumatic event, the perpetrators will have succeeded in their mission to erase those memories. Their efforts are living proof of the dependence we have on each other for our sense of connection to something that transcends our individual being.
Live performance of stories, however, has its limits insofar as it is not accessible to everyone at all times. Therein lies the power of life-writing—to create a lasting, shareable narrative which invites a reader anywhere, anytime into a web of interconnection. When family and community feel hungry for a familiar voice to remind them to whom they belong and what their shared story is—and they inevitably will at various points throughout their life—they will be grateful to have a written story to return to. Unfortunately, in the fast-paced, materially-oriented world we live in, it is all too easy to neglect to record life stories in an accessible, timeless form. This is a woefully missed opportunity. Whether the life-writing focuses on the private experiences of a person or family, or the story is about another individual or community, its value is immeasurable when we consider that it saves important wisdom and truths from being lost to the passage of time. If we do not awaken to the significance of this task and do something about it, who will? If we don’t start recording our stories today, when will we?