The Jewish as Enigma: Some Sightings and Notes
for many people in the west, eastern europe––especially poland and what used to be poland, including lviv, where i am now––is the name for a jewish enigma. to speak of the east is to speak of a once-pulsing jewish world that is dead but not quite pulseless, a lost jewish world whose relics can be found but not recuperated. the east is a name for the jewish in the condition of sunderedness and incompletion, brokenness endowed with the quality of inertia, as if to say it is still going on, still a rending we can feel. this is the case even admitting that “feeling” the eradicated world amounts to little more than a kind of magical thinking that repairs very little.
or to put it differently, the east is where “rupture”and “abrupt” meet as the jewish world itself. the two words in english share an etymological origin in the latin rumpere, to break, with the addition of the prefix ab-, meaning off or away. that prefix is also at the heart of the word “absence,” which is a conjoining of ab– plus the latin verb esse, to be, and so designates a concept that is contradictory in its very annunciation, namely a form of being that is precisely self-retracting and self-displaced, not merely unmanifested but precisely dismanifesting. it might be for this reason that many jews find in eastern europe a spiritual potency, as if the whole region were––now, after the genocide––a momentous argument over ultimate questions. maybe i am one of those jews. after all, it's me who has been asking myself question after question. am i standing in the same godless torture chamber that the condemned once stood in, only i am somehow free to come and go? is withdrawnness the best name for whatever we mean by god? are the visions of divine oneness that reside in the books here, too, in the place of the condemned, in ways that are forcing change on it and on me? if i were looking for a way to rehabilitate goodness, would i find it here? and if i were looking to grow in the practice of nondual awakening, in which presence and healing precisely retains all the qualities of absence and rupture, would i find it here? i have no answers to these questions, and i let them pass just as i let them arise. where i remain, here in the east, there is a palpable sense that the dis-manifesting jewish is something we can actually experience. it is an enigma that is real and continuous.
my thoughts here are something of an addendum to my recent piece on lviv ("to go to lviv"), which sits atop pieces on kraków's podgórze district, which itself sits atop a piece from jarosław, poland. all of these pieces can be found on my website. running through them are questions about the ways that "seeing" the jewish means reading places for what cannot actually be seen. just what such acts of reading really amount to continues to perplex me. as i've noted before, partly it's that this type of in-situ reading begs prepositional qualifiers almost from the beginning. “reading” places jewishly after the holocaust turns out to mean reading-into them, as in going beyond mere appearances, and also reading-against them, as in not taking surfaces merely to be superficial, and reading-between-them, as in reading between the lines, parsing the commonplace for small clues pointing to larger questions.
lviv is a good test case for the dynamics of this kind of reading. its situation today is almost the inverse of a city like kraków, whose abundant undestroyed jewish architectural patrimony is justly famous. in lviv, by contrast––for example in the krakivsky district just north of the main market square, a place whose jewish community dates to the fourteenth century––vacant lots correlate closely to sites of destroyed jewish religious buildings. if i put together a picture sequence of these empty spaces, it might begin like this:
the problem here is not an empirical one. un-rebuilt spaces in this part of the city are indeed a marker for eradicated jewishness, predominately if not perfectly. perhaps this correlation between vacantness and jewishness is an accident, and perhaps it indicates a deeper cultural logic. as i suggested in my previous essay and in my work on the former płaszów camp in kraków, a place's forsakenness may itself indicate a type of remembering, rather than communal amnesia––a concern i share with others, for example my colleague in kraków, roma sendyka. this issue remains to be unpacked. for the moment, my problem is aesthetic, inasmuch as pictorial emptiness forms a trope––a too-easy convention––for depicting the enigma of present absence and the dis-manifested jewish. what i mean by too easy is not just factographic easiness, though that is one part of it. pictures of empty spaces like the ones above are not just inventorial. they operate by way of what i would call an anti-theater. each presents the visual equivalent of a stage in which the production consists of no production, a cancelled and ruled out production, leaving the unoccupied stage as itself the production––null, inert, ripped out of time and offered as a permanence. of course the problem is that the shoah was a cataclysmic assault on permanence, stability, predictability, intactness. moreover, as is obvious, the world is going on in these places. it was not the unmericful of the world who planted trees around these would-have-been emptier spaces, and not the german nazis who painted the swastika on the wall in the last picture above.
the question of pictorial emptiness as a too-simple index of catastrophe becomes intensified by the appearance or non-appearance of color in these kinds of pictures. for some critics, the same picture sequence above offered in black and white imparts abjectness and inescapable melancholy:
i myself see no general correlation between monochome and melancholy. i would not agree that black and white images intrinsically represent a draining away of color––of vitality and life––just as i would not agree that the presence of color all by itself beautifies, or removes things from a state of bleakness into vitality and life. rather i would call the black and white images quieter, and perhaps freer in the kind of attention they ask for, while the color images seem to me more particular and more insistent, as if to demand that we parry the claims of more details, more information, more points and counterpoints. neither aesthetic is reducible to the other, and neither trumps the other. more than this, neither captures the enigma at hand. instead, each is a way of stylizing the destroyed but incompletely vanished jewish. each is fair to the enigma of still-emergent destruction to the extent that we recognize a gesture that attempts "to show what we cannot see," in the words of georges didi-huberman. on the other hand, both such image types are unfair to the extent that they remain deficient as both fact and puzzle, and are not sufficiently denatured to register the world as it is. it seems to me that the images which count need to be equal, at the least, to the root meaning of the word enigma itself, which derives from the greek ainos, meaning both tale and riddle––as for example the kind of story that becomes increasingly strange and oracular as it unfolds, or the kind of problem that must be unplied to considerable lengths to be grasped at all.
but something else is nagging at me about the photo-iconography of jewish emptiness. if lviv must be read-into for the sake of the jewish, and if images are readings-into that themselves must be read-into, how to keep from slipping toward an infinite regression in which jewish life is figured, finally, not just as a void to be filled with readings, but as categorically unpresentable? and how to keep from the related conclusion that displaces the genocide itself into an absolute distance? how, in other words, can a reader of the city work with the emptiness in such a way that the emptiness does not itself begin to work against memory? i am speaking here not about the legitimacy of this or that rendition of the past, but a search for a way to grapple with memory that does not end up perverting the very possibility of memory.
or to ask differently: would i be wrong to say that history cannot be written in a way that leverages silence as knowledge––that history, in other words, cannot be written in the condition of poetry? and if i am not wrong, do images lend sense to historical silence in a way that writing cannot? would i be wrong to say that it is the silence of photographs of empty spaces and not the emptiness legible in them that signifies the enigma of jewish absence? admittedly (as if it needed to be admitted), these questions come to me from the poetry and not from the history i read. i am thinking of the poet yankev glatshteyn's dialectical definition of poetry after the holocaust: on the one hand, "organized silence, a silence that has no boundaries around it but is disciplined, a silence that has substance" and on the other, a coming-forth out of silence to create an amalgam of song and prose, of singing and saying, in which it is precisely the prosaic elements of the poem that test the poet's insight, and form the remains of the poem after its singing.
by way of an answer: the voicelessness of still pictures should be distinguished from silence, inasmuch as this voicelessness is generally pitched against silence. rather this voicelessness constantly solicits commentary and interpretation, becoming a garrulous voicelessness by which the photographic image is often collapsed, ruthlessly, into the “stories” that it tokens and invites. the silence of still photographs, on the other hand, is linked to semantic ambiguity, so that the testimonial capacity of still pictures is a matter of uncovering the ethical force within semantic ambiguity. the aspect of still photographs that counts toward the enigma of the jewish in contemporary eastern europe, in other words, trades on the potential of unreified ambiguity––rejecting both transcendent nonverbalism (à la high modernist dogma) and semiotic reductionism (à la poststructuralist pieties). this way of thinking would suggest, in the case of lviv and perhaps the east more broadly, that visualizing the jewish means going beyond an inventory of marooned sites of jewish presence (in color or black and white). rather it means attempting to see inferentially, by way of frictive associations of pictures that might spark an encounter with the absented jewish. in this way of thinking, it is the unexpected recognition that occurs when pictures are made to touch one another, rather than a denotative naming suffused with emptiness, that lends sense to silence.
i could, for example, put together a picture sequence like the following. i made the color pictures recently along shpitalna and shevchenka streets in lviv, and the black and white pictures along staroevreiska and arsenalska streets. both locations were once deeply jewish parts of the city––the latter forming the heart of the jewish community within the city's walls from medieval times. parts of those walls are still standing, visible in the second picture below.
the proposition that seeing-into means seeing associatively is of course not specifically jewish. more strictly i would say it is just historical, though here in lviv, seeing jewishly and seeing historically are effectively synonymous.
but something else is the case with a sequence such as this, and needs to be acknowledged. there is already something amiss if the presumption is that the jewish to be encountered in an induced abrasion between pictures is some sort of isolated, autonomous civilizational entity. the truth is that the jewish as it once existed in lviv was not merely jewish, and it would not be merely jewish today, if for example we were the inheritors of some counterfactual history in which the jewish world had not been wrecked seventy years ago, and the city were still, say 30% or 40% jewish, and the golden rose synagogue still stood, so that praying there did not mean standing in garbage and looking at the bare sky.
it seems to me worth emphasizing that the jewish capital that lviv was—and it was—was not hermetically so. were we able to see it for ourselves, it would, i think, be immediately apparent that the city at large flowed in and through the jewish, and the jewish likewise flowed in and through the whole city. there were places with jewish gravity––i have mentioned the medieval section along staroevreiska (generally the southern side of the old city below the rynek), and the krakivsky section of the city, largely where poor jews lived. but jews were scattered throughout central lviv. i have also mentioned the section to the west of svobody, especially between shpitalna and rapoporta and panteleimona kulisha streets along to prosp. svobody, and up horodna street to the railway station along both sides, and then also in the podzamcze neighborhood, an area of poor jews and non-jews that the nazis later enclosed as a prison-ghetto. the preponderance of old signs bears out the perviousness of the jewish, though it admittedly forms a very small sample: almost none are entirely in yiddish, rather in yiddish and polish both, and often including german also. these were not stores where only one kind of person shopped, not stores for one community to the exclusion of others. the lviv that once existed was jewish-with the non-jewish world and jewish-against it, but not jewish-without it.
to encounter what were once the most ordinary places of jewish life is to encounter places that were not easily so differentiated from ordinary non-jewish places. it is not that emptiness has covered their jewishness. i venture that this is why synagogues, where they exist, are so prized as relics, and why their absence is particularly charged. they were among the few places in jewish life to proclaim some sort of jewish exclusivity––an exclusivity that was precisely missing from so many of the other places of jewish life––so that those exclusively jewish places come to exert a special compensatory claim on memory after the genocide.
seeing the absented jewish through a picture sequence, a montage or some other form of aesthetic instigation does not license a purist fantasy of former jewish lifeways untouched and unimpacted by the world. the jewish void that has come to exist does not beg that indulgence. on the contrary, we come nearest to the former jewishnesses of the streets, stairwells, courtyards and everyday places of jewish life precisely when we appreciate their contemporary ordinariness, which is to say an ordinariness that endures and is greater than what was their jewishness, but which also encompasses their polishness, their ukrainian sovietness and their post-soviet ukrainianness today. the question is how to receive that ordinariness on its own terms as evidence also for other terms––the terms of remembrance.
i might, to try one thing, make an intervention into these ordinary places through pictures that plainspokenly describe everyday once-jewish places, while drawing attention to the artifice of plainspoken description. it occurs to me to seek a source of contingent pictorial logic in the commonplace––for example by looking to the particularities of actual windows to broker the (incorrect) assumption that photographs are transparent windows onto the world.
if i am right to say that we should be careful not to register absented jewishness as simple emptiness, or as jewish disappearance from the everyday that never distinguished very well between jewish and non-jewish to begin with––still, these pictures also fail adequately to register the enigma. it is not enough simply to introduce a "critical remove," to emphasize the constructedness of an account of the commonplace as a way of inviting historical contemplation and implying the presence of the unseen. the missing ingredient, that which gives the once-jewish everyday its once-jewish evidentiary force, is a more disruptive recognition of what these places' contemporary ordinariness cannot countenance. when speaking of the jewish, the fact is that the inferno of the genocide illuminates the everyday from behind, as in a backlit transparency.
eva hoffman observes correctly that no exaggeration is possible when it comes to the genocide, which is why all aesthetic strategies are, if necessary, without virtue in visualizing the jewish. their calculatingness seems to cleave, eventually, toward whatever they omit, and these omissions in turn cleave toward the pathologized silences of the past and the present both. i am speaking of the kind of silence that gripped many non-jews as they watched the horror of their jewish neighbors' fate, and that persists in eastern europe in the form of untouchability concerning the jewish––what might be called tacit judeophobia, which is occasionally overt anti-semitism, and sometimes residual competition between jewish and non-jewish suffering, especially among older generations.
seeing the jewish in eastern europe sooner or later amounts to a question of responsibility for the loss as a local inheritance. as a corollary to hoffman, i would suggest that it is hard to exaggerate the difficulty of judging other peoples' decisions without standing in their shoes. without explaining away wartime polish and ukrainian anti-semitism––from the actions of theives and snitches and conniving betrayers to pogromists and guards and trained murderers––i am not convinced that the silence of the many amounted then to a variety of collusion with the fascist occupiers, for poles or for ukrainians. i am likewise not at all convinced that silence now amounts to post-factum collusion, or that what looks from a distance like contemporary indifference is in fact indifference, or that today's non-recognition or compromised public recognition of jewish experience in poland and ukraine, while frequently unacceptable, is a party to yesterday's evil. we should be careful not to mistake widespread polish and ukrainian ignorance of the jewish for malice toward the jewish. on the other hand, i am not convinced that the wartime polish resistance both to the germans and the soviets broadly understood itself as a progressive freedom movement for jews and non-jews alike, even if key figures such as jan karski certainly did. and i do not consider the ukrainian nationalist movement any such thing. likewise i am not convinced that the taboo that still hovers around the jewish in poland and especially in ukraine––even if largely benign––is something many people want to undo. i am not convinced that the growing movement for a better, freer and more democratic future in both countries extends just yet to broad social consensus about embracing the truths and the difficulties of the multicultural past. it is wrong to judge a whole people by the crimes of its worst members, just as it is wrong to credit a whole people for the virtues of its most visionary members.
the cautionary lessons i see lead back, in the form of images, not to tokenized emptiness to stand for the jewish, or to the supposition that a skillfully induced dependence between images can unvoid what has in fact been voided, or to a subtly denaturalizing account of the commonplace. rather the lessons i see lead back to the streets themselves, to the unscriptedness of daily life itself, where aesthetics and ethics stand to be bridged in the encounter with others––with strangers received as allies against the impossibility of imagining. the cautionary lessons i hear––mostly in sentences that begin tentatively and end by trailing off, sometimes in fragmented melodies that come to me unbeckoned in places where i know jews once stood and sang together––these cautionary lessons lead back to the figure of the stranger. the non-jewish stranger stands closest to the absented jews. it is the stranger who dimensionalizes the enigma. it is the stranger, the one in the place of the erstwhile jewish––if out of place within it––whose presence moves memory. it is the stranger who sustains the paradoxical sighting of the jewish in the east––that which emerges continuously as something irreparably removed. and it is the stranger in her and his strangerness whose image somehow supports both warm sympathy and cold knowledge, and whose silence holds one's own voice in check against the voicelessness of the murdered.
4 march 2014