Memory and history exist as fundamental opposites, creating a situation in which history is at risk of one day disappearing, author Michael Dorland said while speaking at Concordia last week.
“Memory is life and history is the always problematic and incomplete construction of what is no longer,” he said, quoting Jewish history scholar Yosef Yerushalmi.
Dorland, author of the Holocaust Commemoration and the Disappearance of History, believes memories of the Second World War and the Holocaust risk being left being behind, effectively erasing them from history.
An important distinction to be made in understanding his theory, Dorland noted, is the difference between historical and collective memories.
Historical memories consist of external materials, dates and events that can all be memorized. Collective memories, on the other hand, are the stories and experiences of the people who lived through an event.
Paul Bard, 84, is a Holocaust survivor. “How I survived, even after 65 years if I think about it, seems to me very unrealistic,” he said, thinking back to himself as a 19-year-old boy who, despite living an honest life, was suddenly issued a set of striped pyjamas, had his head shaved and became a slave. “Surviving that hellhole was possible only with luck. No bravery or heroism.”
Stealing helped Bard survive Auschwitz, the first camp he went to, he said.
He would steal items from the camp, then sell it to Polish workers in return for cigarettes. “Those cigarettes enabled me to supplement that horrible food, which left the whole camp on the brink of starvation.” This is how he survived the first camp. But the evacuation from that camp to another marked the beginning of more suffering.
Despite Bard’s traumatic experiences, the memories of over 60 years ago remain fresh in his mind, rendering his voice unstable and shaky when he talks about them out loud.
According to Dorland, personal accounts of experiences, like those Bard spoke about, will help ensure the memory of the Holocaust lives on. But it’s not a guarantee.
“Living memory falls into the clutches of history,” Dorland said, “while traces of the past remain either in the form of books, the archaeological discovery of monuments and public efforts by city authorities not to entirely obliterate the historical urban architecture.” Memories are progressively displaced from living forms, he explained, and are reappropriated into physical states in various locations.
Memories of the Holocaust do not have to disappear, Dorland said. Continued storytelling, and religious rituals and practices can help ensure the history lives on for generations to come.
Some memories are hard for Bard to recount. But it is only because the experiences are so vivid, not because he has a difficult time drudging them up.
He said he remembers the feelings of when he and other inmates were sentenced to a death march and ordered to walk barefoot for three days.
“I don’t know if you can imagine,” he said. “I still remember the third day I was marching, I was sleeping and dreaming about a house with electricity and shelter.”
On May 2, 1945, Bard was sleeping aboard a train that was taking him and other inmates to their deaths. Due to starvation and typhoid fever he was reduced to skin and bones. After being woken up by the sounds of yelling, he saw a jeep with a white star on it.
Choked up and in tears he said, “I knew it was a miracle, and then I collapsed there.”