We have a strong new genre on our hands: call it the inventive memoir. In this genre a woman at mid-life heads back to the major trauma of her childhood, traveling by means of fragmented memories, other women’s stories and her own inventions. That trauma, for the
authors of these three books, was World War Two. Being peripheral to its battles, they all
dispense with “objective” history and linear chronology. They move back and forth across
time, and whatever they don’t know for sure, they make up.
Of course any memoir recreates the past, but these new ones are bold in asserting their
inventiveness. Their fragmentary structure brings out their news: that fifty years later, the
war still fractures lives; that its survivors deal with trauma by time and again circling back
to absorb a little more; that women far from home still suffer from what they experienced
in their native lands.
This intriguing genre should be set apart and named so it won’t eclipse the conventional
testimonies we need whenever Nazi genocide is denied. Inventive memoirs do not testify as if in court, yet they prove the immense collateral damage of the war. When it came,
Agate Nesaule was a little girl in Latvia, Alicia Nitecki a small child in Poland, and Marjorie
Agosin not yet born in Chile. None are European Jews, the primary target of Nazism,
and all now enjoy fruitful lives in the US. Yet all three were so displaced by the Master Race
that they ended up not quite belonging anywhere.
Each author feels compelled to go back in memory, and the return causes a jolt-hence
the irony in their titles. Agosin’s A Cross and a Star, called in Spanish Sagrada
(“Sacred Memory,” with chilling overtones of “Sagrada Farnilia,” the Holy Family),
portrays a Chilean family considered irredeemably unholy just because they were
Jews. Nitecki’s title, Recovered Land, borrows the Nazis’ euphemism for German-occupied
Polish temtory to describe her own recovery of that territory. Nesaule’s title, A
Woman in Amber, plays on amber’s double use for healing wounds or sealing living
beings at one past stage in time. These titles introduce each author’s imaginative
way of retrieving events not grasped verbally during the war, and scarcely reported
since: how Chileans cheered Hitler and tormented Jewish citizens in their midst; how
Germany deported and enslaved Poles and Latvians, how Communist states crushed
What prompted these writers to tell their frightful stories at this time? Perhaps it took a while to voice the complex experiences of women on the margins of the war, at least until intractable dictatorships-Nazi, Soviet, Chilean-loosened their hold, and feminism validated women’s memories. And why do we need to hear them now? Because it’s wrong to suppose that genocide acts like a forest fire, that once the primary fuel is burned, it just goes out. The Nazis’ onslaught against every single Jew in Europe consumed others too, like Latvians and Poles and Jews elsewhere.
MARJORIE AGOSIN’S FAMILY were Jews living in Osorno, a German-settled
town of southem Chile, where they received their relatives fleeing Nazi Europe.
Years ago I visited Osomo and noted in a journal: “The German immigrants, with their
newspapers, clubs, social exclusiveness, make the town clean, somewhat colorful, but
without interest” What I missed! Osorno, says Agosin, harbored fifty German Nazis
and three Jewish families; unlike me, they all knew exactly who lived there.
This powerful memoir answers a question often asked but rarely aloud: Why do Jews,
thousands of miles from Europe, decades after the Holocaust, still feel unsafe? Agosin
shows anti-Semitism echoing through the Chilean population, in the absence of factors
used to explain it in Europe–that Jews stood out by language. dress and choice. The distinctive “foreigners” in Chile, by the way they spoke, ate and kept to themselves, were
not the Spanish-speaking Jews but the many German Christians. Chileans respected them
-and despised the Jews.
Agosin tells the family story through the eyes of her mother who, as a girl, was not
allowed to go to the German school because she was Jewish, nor to the Catholic school
because she was Jewish, nor to the English school, where children sang about “Jewish
dogs.” “That honible and melodious song clung to our necks, to our bones, and to the
root of our memories.” The only school left was the one “where the Indian girls, natives,
and orphans went.” There she was accepted and loved, for Indians, like her own people,
were poor, excluded, persecuted, spat on. She learned silence and resignation, being
unable to imagine a place–not Europe, not the forests of Chile-where people wouldn’t
condemn Jews. The family’s suppression is captured in an image: the long gloves always
worn by the narrator’s grandmother to conceal a concentration camp tattoo.
In 1993, the narrator takes a moving journey back to southem Chile, which she tries
(in powerful language, awkwardly transpopulalated) to repossess: “I walk through the
streets of my childhood again and think that I still have a country to which I can return and
recall my own.” But portraits of Hitler are still on sale there. The narrator cannot finally call
her childhood land her own.
All three memoirs center on this disappointment. Each dashes about in time–but leaves a hole somewhere. With Agosin it is the absence of her own story. She outlines all the household figures in innovative memory bursts, but gives no profile of herself, the heir
to all this family history
In fact, the narrator’s “I” is both her and her mother, an inventive but confusing device. Yet the problem is deeper than that: mean imaginative devices are allowed to replace hard evidence. Why is Chile “a mythical and myth-making country,” when it seems plenty
real? Why undercut the history at stake by saying “I didn’t invent anything or perhaps I
Agosin’s memoir is beautifully produced-glossy pages, stunning typeface and full-
page photographs, worthy of its Spanish title, “Sacred Memory.” But there are too many punctuation mistakes and misspelled words like “their’s” or “her’s” or “the Montecino’s family”; ungrammatical translations (“as many Jews as was possible to say”), overaccented Spanish words and misspelled German ones. All of this is especially annoying when we begin tounderstand just what the family legacy was: a gift of words where only language offered hope. “For my grandmother books were like homes where Jews could live united as in the kingdom of dream. Gazing at the lips of [grandmother] Helena, I learned the word
utopia, that sense of not being in any particular place.”
A SENSE OF NOT BEING in any particular place, of not having a present free of
the past, is central to all these memoirists. But they differ in defining the
cause of displacement. Agosin takes a racial view, seeing the homelands of Eastern
Europe as the incinerator of half Europe’s Jews, but without specifying the other
peoples uprooted too. Nitecki and Nesaule take a national view, seeing their homelands
of Poland and Latvia enslaved by two occupations, but overlooking the anti-Semitism
at the core of Nazi policy, as well as the support by their own people for persecution
of the Jews. Where Agosin reveals racial hatred against Jews spreading to government
and movements across the world, Nitecki and Nesaule show their own
nationalities everywhere ignored. Alicia Nitecki’s memoir, Recovered
Land, strongly supports the second, national view of the war and of the Poles. Born in
1942, Nitecki “inherited a women’s view of wartime Warsaw”: she absorbed her female
relatives’ fear and was helplessly abducted with. them, stuffed by the SS into cattle cars
Zand sent to Germany. (She could not have known then, nor does she mention it now, 3 that had they all been Jews. the cattle cars would have gone to death camps in her own
country.) Her male relatives, like most other men, had already disappeared into concentra-
Alicia Nitecki. tion or POW camps, so the forced laborers were women and chil&en;, called “guest workers,” like Turks or Yugoslavs exploited in Germany today.
After the war, Nitecki left Europe for the US, returning much later to the places she
had known as a child. She finds the populalation willing to forget how the anti-Nazi
Polish Home army suffered at the hands of Soviet liberators. Against Communist revisions
of Polish history all she has is the word of women in her family. (Yet this memoir also forgets how little the Home Army helped when Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, after 300,000 deaths, mounted the first resistance against the Nazis in Poland.) Returning later to Germany, she realizes many people have skipped over the time when kidnapped Polish workers labored there. With all the erasure caused by Germans and Soviets, “the Poland I have known all of my life was a family invention.”
These writers are all unsure how meaningful their accounts are, originating as they
do in family invention, in women’s reconstructions, in exile or escape. Nitecki writes: “And what does my family’s story amount to, really, compared to the millions murdered in the camps? On the scale of human atrocity, it is trivial.” It is not trivial, as she shows eloquently. Yet it scarcely mentions the Jews or the complicity of many
Christian Poles in killing them (“millions murdered and “human atrocity” are safely
vague). Its strength-a gift for forceful words-increases with Nitecki ‘s postwar
visit to Flossenbiirg concentration camp, where her grandfather was imprisoned-not
as a Pole, not as an army officer, but because “he deliberately and intentionally and in full
knowledge of the consequences of his actions, committed the crime of sheltering
Jews.” By interviewing American officers who’d found the camp’s survivors “yellow
with starvation, their arms and legs the width of your thumb,” she was finally able to envision her grandfather “as he had not allowed me to see him, in the dreadful shape my
mother had refused to describe.” She becomes the one to speak-brilliantly-the
family story at last.
0NLY SEVEN WHEN THE WAR ended, Agate Nesaule heard few family war
stories and found historical research too painful to engage in. “I have had to speculate
and guess, even to invent,” she says. From the start of A Woman in Amber we’re
in the hands of a master storyteller, though sometimes the detail is too abundant, like
those nineteenth-century paintings that competed with photography.
Maybe Nesaule wants to encompass everything because her country’s history was
so long submerged. Lawia’s Jews were “exterminated” by the Nazis and many of its
non-Jews deported and killed during the Russian occupation of 1940-41, during the German occupation of 1941-44, and during the Russian re-occupation of 1944, which lasted the next fifty years. Like Nitecki and Agosin, Nesaule sees her war experience as “not so bad” compared to the primary victims. Nonetheless, in her own ghastly story. Latvian women and girls uprooted to Germany were starved by invading Soviet Mongolian soldiers who also gangraped each woman in turn. Yet when her mother later says that
women suffered more in the war than men Nesaule is the only one in a crowd of survivors to agree.
After the war, she spent five years in a Displaced Persons camp in Berlin, learning never to complain or cry, only to wait till she was thought worthy to leave. Young, unattached men got emigration papers long before women like her mother who were caring for children and aging parents.
Finally immigrating to Indiana in 1950. Nesaule bettered her condition miraculously, she she felt estranged. Like Agosin and Nitecki, she found her true exile- home in language, struggling to read Gone with the wind–will Scarlett suffer in the war? Will she get back home? When Scarlett declares “I will never be hungry again.” Nesaule understands English for good.
This memoir’s approach to retelling the past is psychological, where Agosin’s tends to be mythological, Nitecki’s political. Nesaule too plays with time, trying to heal traumas by moving between the present, the postwar past and the war itself. ( Unfortunately, Latvians had a complex history, and the undated criss-crossings may confuse readers.) Her wartime experience leaves her, even decades later, feeling utterly without value, always knowing “I wasn’t even worth feeding.” Poignantly she describes being unable to give her own child a happy smile. Survivors “all have to learn how to live with their terrible knowledge.”
What “terrible knowledge” do these memoirists hold in common? They all know a nation is merely a station for ceaseless movings in and out, by compulsion or by choice. They are all haunted by trains. Cattle cars take Polish women and children lik Nitecki to forced labor in Germany. Trains separate Latvian women and children from home, leaving survivors like Nesaule to say long after, “I dream a lot about trains.” “Jews dream about trains,” writes Agosin, “about doors that shut tight and about a world that hides itself so as not to see them.”
In such images these books convey the strengths (and drwasbacks) of inventive memoir: exquisite writing, recollection fashioned into a work of art; imagination as a soucre of historical truth ( not tested against other sources); flashbacks as a form of chronology; healing and recovery through finding a female past; a belief in stories told by female ancestors ( not balanced agaianst other evidence): a fascination with dreams; a tragic sense of displacement; a struggle against worthlessness born of exile; a homing instinct for language and languages; a need for journeys as awakenings.
When it’s women who do this sort of remembering, what do we learn about the Nazi era? Some direct answers would have deepened these books, but clues are there. Through fluid shifts in time and space, these memoirist are working their way from the war’s margins back toward the center, exposing the Nazi design itself: to remold populations to expel women and children– the rooted ones, the future ones- from anywhere they belonged.