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Good Letters

One morning this semester in “The Holocaust and the Arts,” a course I’ve written about several times this year, I asked the students to spend a few minutes repeating internally, with their eyes closed, a phrase I adapted from Ruth Kluger’s book Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. The phrase: “my memories, our memories”.

Born in Vienna at an unfortunate moment—on the eve of Germany’s annexation of Austria—Still Alive tells the story of Kluger’s life from the 1930s to the 2000s. At one point in the book, Kluger, who survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Christianstadt and after the war settled in the United States where she eventually became a professor of German, recounts an evening in the 1990s when, visiting with friends in Germany, the conversation turned to the subject of claustrophobia.

They talked about the Chunnel, the rail connection between Britain and France which at that time wasn’t finished, wondering whether “the average person would be able to stand the confinement or freak out”; one man recalled getting stuck in an elevator; many “remembered the air-raid shelters of their childhood.”

Kluger’s story, were she to tell it: deportation to Auschwitz, nights and days in a cattle car, and one particularly unpleasant incident involving her mother and another woman who had grown mad during the transport.

Had she told it, her story of claustrophobia, writes Kluger, “would have effectively shut up the rest of the company. They would have been bothered, troubled, sympathetic, and thoroughly uncomfortable…. They would have resented me as a spoilsport. It had been an occasion for reminiscing, but there are limits. And so my childhood falls into a black hole.”

Despite all that she and her German friends have in common—a common language, a common culture, “an old war that had destroyed much of both”—the difference between her experience of claustrophobia and theirs is what Kluger felt most acutely that night.

She observes: “the bridges had been blown up; we squat on piers that don’t connect anything, though our houses are postwar and the equipment is state-of-the-art. But if there is no bridge between my memories and yours [the reader’s] and theirs, if we can never say ‘our memories,’ then what’s the good of writing any of this?”

What’s the good of writing—a Holocaust testimony or anything—if the writing doesn’t create a bridge that connects one person to another, one culture to another, history to the present? What’s the good of reading and requiring a group of students to read a text, any text, if the text is squatting on one pier and the reader on another far down the coastline?

What if Ruth Kluger’s story will do nothing more than merely inform its readers, so they can say, if they are ever stopped on the street by the Jay Leno show or suddenly chosen as a vice presidential candidate, yes, I know about the Holocaust, I know what is was like for women in the Holocaust?

Is that enough? Can we bridge the gap between informative and transformative?

Clearly, Kluger knows we must but fears that we can’t. In that, she’s like Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, two other major contributors to the literature of the Holocaust. Both Levi and Wiesel fear that their stories will merely be heard but will not transform the lives of those who read, for whatever reasons, their Holocaust testimonies.

As an educator, I have always been interested in creating transformative experiences for my students and myself. Moving or provocative reading assignments; energetic, lively discussions; inventive, challenging writing assignments, formal and informal—these have been the means by which I’ve tried to create an atmosphere in the classroom and beyond in which something energizing, surprising, revealing, clarifying, illuminating will arise.

Now, inspired by my own mindfulness meditation practice the growing field of contemplative pedagogy, I’m experimenting with contemplative exercises in my classes, including the one I’ve introduced here. I hope that given the opportunity to pay as much attention to their inner experiences as readers, writers, and learners as they are expected to pay to the world outside of them, students will become more genuinely curious about everything they encounter.

Curiosity may lead to passion for learning, and passion for learning combined with useful skills of inquiry may lead to rich insights into whatever catches their attention, including the experiences of others who have suffered, who have been or are at this very moment victims of injustice—experiences that are painful to open to, difficult to hold, and, perhaps, impossible to understand.

That, of course, is often our first inclination: to try to understand new material. There’s nothing wrong with this inclination. It’s one of the defining characteristics of lifelong learners, something I hope I am preparing my students to become. The desire to understand may also be a natural reaction to the discomfort of being confronted with something new and strange, a discomfort that can trigger feelings of inadequacy and failure. Most of us, I expect, don’t want to sit with such unpleasant feelings, and we might be willing to do anything within reason to rid ourselves of them. The sooner we understand, the sooner we’ll feel better about and more in control of ourselves.

What would happen if we resisted the urge to understand immediately, or at least as quickly as possible, the unfamiliar? This question occurred to me during the discussion we had in class after doing a short contemplative exercise.

The exercise was simple: repeat the phrase, internally, quietly, “my memories, our memories” for five minutes. When you discover that your mind has wandered, no big deal, just go back to repeating the phrase.

In inviting the students to participate in this exercise, I didn’t have any particular insight in mind that I hoped the students would arrive at on their own. I just had a hunch that this phrase is central to Still Alive, that it expresses one of Kluger’s intentions in writing the book.

As I think about it now, I see that the phrase also suggests an idea that is at the heart of a liberal arts education. In my university’s mission statement, we promise students, among other things, that we will help them “cultivate an understanding of the dimensions of human diversity while recognizing the common humanity of all.” “My memories”: human diversity; “our memories”: common humanity.

I gave them one more instruction before we began: don’t think about the phrase; don’t try to understand it. Just repeat it quietly to yourself. Ready? Then I rang the bell.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

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