Garbage and Heritage
The last time I was in Zhovkva, Ukraine, in 2016, there was no signage at all at the site of the Jewish cemetery––a large open space of nearly 4 hectares in the center of the town. Now at the western entrance to the site, there is a sign, placed in 2016 by the “Protecting Memory” project based in Berlin. The sign informs us that the cemetery was in use from the late 16th century through the 1940s, and contains a map showing three noteworthy locations in the space. On the southwest length of the perimeter wall is a new ohel for Rabbi Sender Schorr. In the far northwestern corner are remains of tombstones. In the middle of the northern length of the perimeter wall are three mass graves for 800 Jews murdered on November 22-23, 1942. The sign further informs us that the cemetery was destroyed in 1942-43, and its tombstones used for road repair. Here is the sign:
I took a slow clockwise walk through the cemetery grounds, a walk I’ve taken several times before. For some decades during the Soviet period, the cemetery served as a farmer’s market, and maybe it still does, but I’ve never seen any trading there. A large complex of empty stalls extends a few hundred feet from the entrance. In the grass that covers the territory, a well worn dirt track makes a horseshoe shape around the stalls, defined in some places by rows of half-buried truck tires.
From speaking with locals in Zhovkva, I've known for some years that massacres occurred along the northern wall of the cemetery. I first learned about them from a half-drunken man who lived in a run-down house behind the wall, who showed me shell casings he collected there from time to time. Until the sign, however, I didn’t know the specific locations of the mass graves. As I walked the northern wall, I followed my progress using Google maps on my telephone. I wanted to find the precise spot marked no. 1 on the sign. That spot was on the other side of a long, narrow market building, extending from the wall perpendicular toward the center of the cemetery. I walked around the building, and when I got to the site marked no.1, I made a screenshot of my telephone to verify my location. At the mass grave site itself, there is no marker.
This is what I saw:
It’s not that I haven’t seen garbage piles in places of Jewish heritage in Ukraine before. I’ve seen plenty. Several garbage-strewn sites of Jewish heritage appear in my project, An Unfinished Memory, which I made in 2014.
There is the postwar Jewish cemetery in Boryslav:
And the unmarked old Jewish cemetery in Drohobych:
And the synagogue in Bibrka:
And the synagogue in Sokal:
But there was something different about the garbage pile in Zhovkva, something having to do with the size of it, the seeming continuous use of it––old garbage and new, fresh garbage and burned garbage––and most of all its location precisely on the spot of the mass graves. My own first reaction was shock, disbelief, anger at the obscenity of this particular instance of the Jewish nothing.
My mother’s response was along these lines when I sent her some pictures from Zhovkva. She wrote:
Looking at your photographs of this mass grave sickens me. I am overflowing with anger and disgust at such unspeakable disregard and disrespect for a burial sight, any burial sight… Worst of all is that they are mass graves of innocent people being defiled.
And then she asked a rather more sympathetic question:
Do you think the people who do this know what they are doing?
This is the right question, and a hard one. Is the location of the garbage pile an accident, or an expression of something? I wrote to her:
Garbage is a problem in Ukraine. A lot of people throw garbage liberally, as if a certain baseline level of public trash were socially unobjectionable. It seems that any area not obviously defined as private is open to dumping, including the stairwells of one’s own building, as if whatever belongs to no one can be fouled with impunity. It can also be beautified with impunity, and sometimes you see this in the form of small gardens planted and tended in public places.
Some people explain this attitude as the legacy of the Soviet period, in which people learned to forfeit a sense of responsibility for the public and even private realms over which the state claimed dominion. Some say that people also learned to express dissident toward the state by trashing public space, precisely because it belonged to the state––to the system in its impersonal mystique. So in this sense, the Jewish cemetery might look like a normal place to throw garbage, having nothing to do with its being a Jewish cemetery, rather because it looks precisely like a public place belonging to no one. On the other hand, its orphaned status in the city is a function of its specifically Jewish history––and the fact that it was a Jewish cemetery is no secret. In this sense, it is one example of a normalized neglect, even contempt for things Jewish, certainly not among all Ukrainians, but as an attitude inherited from pervasive, low-grade historical anti-semitism, and Soviet minimization and obfuscation of the Holocaust specifically. Still, why there is there an active garbage heap exactly on the mass grave? This I can’t explain.
And I went on.
My colleague from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Roma Sendyka, has a thesis that throwing garbage on sites of atrocity is in fact a way of marking them––of cursing them. She thinks that locals somehow feel the bad energy of murder sites and genocidal places, and respond by making them foul and disgusting. I don't know whether she is right about this.
My mother wrote back:
Your explanation seems to complicate the subject. Desecrating burial sites with garbage is OK? What else about living with and around garbage is OK? Is such desecration allowed at Christian cemeteries? Do sacred sights for the dead exist anywhere in Ukraine?
I didn’t answer her because I don’t have an answer for her. I don’t know how to speak back to what is obvious to her: that garbage is garbage, shit is shit, and this is precisely how Nazis and their collaborators saw Jews––as human garbage, human shit. For my mother, an American Jewish woman who has never been to Ukraine and likely will never go there, a Jewish mass grave piled with garbage carries a simple message from those contemporary Ukrainians who throw it: “Dead Jews are no better than garbage for us, too. We shit on their bones and ashes.”
Should I talk to my mother about memory theory? Should I write to her something like this?
There is a concept associated with the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, known as “non-sites of memory”––sites that do not function in any communal practice of memory, that remain uninvested with memorial imagination, and that signify as grievous precisely through confrontation with the lack of memorial references in and around them. Roma Sendyka approaches these non-sites not as places that are fixed in static states of forgottenness, lostness, inert nothingness––this is how Lanzmann himself basically sees them––but as taboo places which locals neither cultivate in memory nor ignore. Where you see insult and denial, Sendyka sees evidence of ritual neglect and ritual polluting. Where you consider positive, honorific expressions of memory to be wholly reasonable, maybe the only reasonable expression of memory, Sendyka finds negative expressions of memory, acts of cursing as ways of acknowledging sites of catastrophe and death. Where you see straightforward forgetting, Sendyka sees cultures of forgetting.
To this I imagine my mother’s reply: a well-arched eyebrow aimed equally at Zhovkva, Sendyka and me, boomeranging across oceans and continents, flung and flying through time and space, ripping through my pictures and my sentences.
And my mother's skepticism wouldn't be misplaced. The logical conclusion of Sendyka’s approach would claim not only that garbage accumulates for specific reasons at Holocaust sites, but that such garbage becomes an aspect of Jewish heritage, and throwing garbage is actually one type of heritage practice at and for Holocaust sites.
Actually I appreciate the boldness of this claim, which forces a reckoning with the simple distinction between sites and non-sites of memory. Against my mother's skepticism, I feel the urge to follow Sendyka into the garbage pile, and if I indulge the urge, I see in the garbage a model, a theory, maybe as robust as the garbage itself is revolting. I would elaborate the model this way:
Site of memory ———————————- Non-site of memory
Site of non-memory ———————————- Non-site of non-memory
The first line describes a spectrum from site to non-site of memory, and the second describes a spectrum from site to non-site of non-memory. By these terms, I mean the following:
* At a site of memory, memory functions by means of a memorial culture;
* At a non-site of memory, memory functions through the lack of a memorial culture;
* At a site of non-memory, the culture of memory dissimulates or falsifies memory;
* At a non-site of non-memory, the absence of a memorial culture dissimulates or falsifies memory, to the point of essentially effacing memory altogether.
If we cross these spectra, we are given four positions:
Site of memory
1 | 2
Site of non-memory ———————————- Non-site of non-memory
3 | 4
Non-site of memory
Position 1: A site of memory which is also a site of non-memory. Here, the culture of memory exists in the tension between verification and falsification, between accurate and manipulated accounts of specific atrocity.
Position 2: A site of memory which is also a non-site of non-memory. Here, the culture of memory exists in the tension of admission and denial of atrocity in the first place.
Position 3: a non-site of memory which is also a site of non-memory. Here, the absence of a culture of memory abets the falsification of memory.
Position 4: A non-site of memory which is also a non-site of non-memory. Here, the absence of a culture of memory swallows even the falsification of memory.
In my notebook, I try to find what seems a morally decent way of describing the theoretical complications I see––a way of describing to my mother the ways that each of these positions describes some aspect of the garbage pile in the Zhovkva cemetery. I write:
What characterizes a site of genocide? In a word: its contradictoriness. In a few words: the paradox of that contradictoriness being both stable and unstable, static and dynamic, clear and baffling. Here, in Zhovkva, the violence of the Holocaust was perpetuated in the conversion of a site of Jewish heritage to a non-site during the Soviet period, and endures as confusion and complication in independent Ukraine, where site and non-site, memory and non-memory keep changing places. The pile is, after all, both signed and unsigned as a mass grave, which is to say both specifically signed and approximately signed: unsigned at the site itself, but signed on the wall of the cemetery, some distance away. The result is that site-specific cultures of memory and forgetting resemble each other. The garbage pile on the mass grave could be called an accidental desecration which coincides with patterened, non-accidental neglect and suppression of the Jewish, in which quasi-intentional acts of memorial marking could be called forms of remembering, but look very much like contempt.
And when I read what I have written, I feel that theorizing garbage is the very definition of overthinking. Writing to my mother feels like an exercise in avoiding truth whose ugliness precisely exceeds the good intentions of study. The last paragraph of the unwritten response to my mother in my notebook is this:
If it is right to say that memory is a force of aliveness, a force that wills aliveness toward that which is in itself not alive, and endows death with continued life, is memory not hopelessly quixotic, a vast and strange life-support system in defiance of all the evidence? But maybe it is better to speak of memory as a zone between the forces of aliveness and deadness, where the dead are not quite dead and the living are not quite alive––not a purgatorial zone or a realm of zombies, rather some hinterralm of crossings and transitionings, from which the forces of life and death are born into their distinctnesses.
In the last picture I made at the Zhovkva cemetery, before I left through the same gate I entered, the garbage pile is out of the frame to the right. In this picture, there is a silhouette of a man standing in the shade of a shrubby tree, and the dirt path and the grass of the destroyed cemetery, and the half buried tires, and the market buildings, and the sun not eclipsed by the cloud.
I have no good end to this encounter with garbage and heritage. It is not a story, also not a picture. There is, though, the question of what I then did with the situation in Zhovka? I stayed at the site for quite awhile, and found myself putting my video camera on the tripod. When I found the right place to stand, I turned the camera on and let it run, with the clouds moving in and out, the sounds of goats and dogs and teenagers behind me in the cemetery, and the wind. I let the camera act on the site. At 18 minutes and 18 seconds I turned it off. And I imagine not a film but an amidah, footage that itself functions as a standing-forth, a standing-into, a standing-up to the guessing and reaching and seeking and metaphorizing and most of all the littering of meaninglessness with meaning.
July 30, 2018, Budapest