It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.It is not the houses. It is the spaces in between the houses.It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.It is not your memories which haunt you.It is not what you have written down.It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.What you must go on forgetting all your life.And with any luck oblivion should discover a ritual.You will find out that you are not alone in the enterprise.Yesterday the very furniture seemed to reproach you.Today you take your place in the Widow's Shuttle.--from James Fenton's 'German Requiem'
Christopher Hitchens, in his memoir, Hitch 22, references this poem by his friend James Fenton in reference to the discovery of Hitchens own Jewish identity--crediting the Israeli historian Amos Elon with teaching him about the vanished-by-destruction Jewish community of Germany in his terrific work, The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933.
"My late friend Amos Elon has written the best history of the German-Jewish relationship," Hitchens explains during a stirring passage in which he describes confronting the Jewish ghosts of his mother's Jewish past, among abandoned Jewish homes and synagogues in Brelau and Kempno.
It's funny. In the Acknowledgments following his footnotes, Elon himself writes, "I am endebted to many authors, but my thinking about German Jews before the rise of Nazism was primarily affected by the learned insights of three great historians far more expert than I: Peter Gay, Fritz Stern, and my friend of many years, the late George Mosse, to whose memory I dedicate this book."
As I read Hitchens quoting Elon quoting his friend James Fenton, I thought of Elon dedicating his work to Mosse, a teacher of monumental importance for a generation of historians, erecting bricks in the illusory memory edifice of a lost nation.
While being wildly entertained reading the bulk of Hitchens' memoir, there was a gnawing pain of absence in his Jewish learning--too easily dismissed by the classic hubris of his atheism, the excessively black and white dichotomization of religion or no religion; and the tragedy of his mother's complex sense of Jewishness.
A pity that time ran out on Hitchens' searching soul. It would have been interesting to see him deepen his understanding, if only to have the privilege of develop more entertaining heresies.
"And with any luck, oblivion should discover a ritual.
You will find out that you are not alone in the enterprise."
So it is that we who survive continue reading, digging deeper, and in the mine's darkness of history and time, we see the flash of a miner's helmet down the path, joining their light with ours.