Blog: Through Testimony

Memory Lived

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 2:28pm -- deanna.pitre

Contributor: Stephen Smith

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 2:28pm

Pinchas Gutter stepped onto the bimah at the Kiever Synagogue in Toronto, Canada, where for the 27th consecutive time he was about to lead the Yom Kippur services.  He stood tall in his white robe breathing deeply surrounded by eight white-clad Torah scrolls, each held by a leaders of the congregation.  The scrolls appear to jostle for position, their silver shields and finials glistening as PInchas intones the ancient supplication, 'Kol Nidrei'.  But on the bimah there are more than the eight men holding Torah scrolls, because gathered around him are also the ghosts of the Gerrer Hasidim of Lodz.  No one can see them there, but for sure I know they are all around him.

Memory is stimulated by many sensations. We have all had the experience of sight, sound, smell, or taste putting us “back there,” particularly so those memories from childhood.  Hearing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” places me right back in Big Barn Lane Methodist church, age 4. Just the thought of the tune evokes the walk we took to church from Jenny Beckets Lane, the car park of the church, the pulpit and the artwork we did during Sunday school when we also learned the song. Not highly impressionable experiences, but that's how I remember them. 

So imagine an 11 year old in September 1942, creeping up into the dusty attic of 19 Nalewki Street in the Warsaw Ghetto. Imagine a cold draught blowing through the cracks in the tiles as the boy peers down into the square below and sees the corpses of Jews stacked up like logs.  His father, Mendel, and the few Hasidic Jews in their building have climbed in secret into the attic to pray.  Mendel places his huge prayer shawl over the boy and begins to pray.  He holds his son close to him for the duration of the service and there under the shelter of his father's protection, the sound, the smell, the meaning of that prayer become a part of him.  It was the last time Mendel prayed on Yom Kippur. Eight months later, he was gassed and burned in Majdanek death camp.

Pinchas has not only told me the story of the attic before, but he has also written it down and given audio-visual testimony several times.  It was without doubt a formative moment in his life.  After the war, he did not continue to live a Hasidic way of life, but he did treasure the traditions.  I noticed there is lament in his voice when he prays on Yom Kippur.  It is a day of penitence, so one would expect there to be a somber tone.  But lamentation is different to repentance.  Lamentation invokes loss, tragedy and mourning.  It was clearly lamentation in his voice.

I also hear defiance.  He lives to pray on behalf of those whose prayer was ceased.  It is his memorial, his revenge, his memory too.  It is his way of saying “I am still here, and the Nazis are gone.” When the Hasidim of Lodz join him there on the bimah, he gives them one more chance to pray.  When he places his own prayer shawl over his head momentarily before the service begins, he says to his father, I am still here, under your protection.

The mirror of memory is a complex labyrinth in which very little can actually be put into words, because memory is lived, not spoken.  There are no words to describe Pinchas' experience on the bimah every year, but it is memory, raw and plain to see.  A little boy who still feels his father's prayer shawl, the strength of his arms, the weeping of his soul and corpses piled in the streets; leads the congregation in prayer. 

He is here in the present, but not really here at all.

Posts are contributed by individual authors. The opinions are solely the authors’ and are not necessarily a reflection of the views of USC Shoah Foundation.

About Stephen Smith

Stephen D Smith is the Andrew J. and Erna Finci Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 53,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He also holds the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education and is an Adjunct Professor of Religion. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict.

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