Shapiro Scholar Sara R. Horowitz Lectures About How Holocaust Survivors Craft Their Stories

Fri, 04/29/2022 - 4:15pm

"Reclaiming the 'Ruins of Memory': Gender, Agency, and Imagination in Stories of the Shoah”
Sara R. Horowitz  (York University, Canada) 
2020-2021 Sara and Asa Shapiro Scholar in Residence 
March 23, 2022

On March 23, 2022, the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research and the USC Shoah Foundation presented the annual Shapiro Scholar public lecture by Professor Sara R. Horowitz, the 2020-2021 Sara and Asa Shapiro Scholar in Residence, entitled “Reclaiming the 'Ruins of Memory': Gender, Agency, and Imagination in Stories of the Shoah.” In the lecture, Professor Horowitz focused on the ways in which Holocaust survivors deliberately or unconsciously craft the stories they recount in literature, memoirs, and testimony.

Professor Horowitz began her lecture by focusing on Ida Fink and her book A Scrap of Time and Other Stories, from which Professor Horowitz drew the phrase “the ruins of memory” for the title of her talk. Fink crafted memories – those of her own and her husband as Holocaust survivors, those of other survivors whose stories she recorded at Yad Vashem – into stories, using the tools and license of the novelist to draw the reader’s attention to the issues most important to her, leading readers to understand the stories the way that she understood them. Professor Horowitz explained that it is not only literary writers that craft stories, but ordinary people do as well. They tell stories in deliberate and unconscious ways that shape how they hope the listener or reader will understand them. 

As a literary scholar, Professor Horowitz is interested in examining the fabric of testimony in order to explore how the person who remembers and shares their story wants the people who listen to it or read it to understand or to receive it. The fabric of testimony includes how people structure their accounts, the language they use, their affect, their non-verbal expressions (silences, pauses), what they leave out, how they signal what they are omitting, among other elements. The fabric of testimony helps amplify the facts they are sharing. 

Professor Horowitz is particularly interested in what she calls deferred accounts, the accounts of experiences that happened decades and decades ago and often include things survivors did not talk about, make public, or even think about before. The passage of time, Professor Horowitz argued, can sometimes help survivors figure out how to talk about or how to psychologically bear talking about something that may have seemed unspeakable in the past. 

Drawing from testimonies and memoirs – including The Violin by Rachel Shtibel (2007), Buried Words by Molly Applebaum (2017), and The Weight of Freedom by Nate Leipciger (2015) -- Professor Horowitz’s lecture focused powerfully on several categories of these deferred accounts, including accounts of infanticide, sexual abuse, and sexual activity. In the lecture, Professor Horowitz presented each survivor’s story in rich detail that evoked how they told their own stories. Professor Horowitz examined and illuminated the ways in which survivors came to acknowledge, make public, and integrate episodes of their lives that they have suppressed or never told publicly. In each compelling case, Professor Horowitz illustrated how the survivors give shape to their stories and experiences, how they define and describe their experiences and account for their impacts, the ways survivors structure their stories to elicit certain resonances with other forms of literature, and the ways that survivors insist on being the arbiters of their own memories, resisting the interpretations, judgments, and assumptions of others.  

The inhibition of memory because of shame is a common thread through the stories Professor Horowitz shared, although shame operates differently in each account. Discussing the writer Aharon Appelfeld, himself a Holocaust survivor, at the conclusion of her lecture, Professor Horowitz described how he would talk to her about shame and the importance of owning one’s past, even the most shameful moments. Shame is part of who you are, he would tell her, and you cannot be yourself without facing and integrating shameful memories. In an essay published posthumously, four years after his death, he reflected on memories. What would he be without memories, he asks, “I would be less than an insect. In the end, those memories preserve my humanity.” 

In the Q&A following Professor Horowitz’s lecture, there was much discussion about the tension between allowing survivors the agency to represent and define their experiences as they want to represent and define them and the urge we may feel to classify and define those experiences the way we see them, especially when the experiences involve sexual abuse or sexual assault. Allowing survivors to define and redefine their experiences in an ongoing way opens the space for the details and complexities of how survivors experienced and describe those episodes, Professor Horowitz argued. More discussion followed about the layers and depths to shame and how those point to the experiences we may never hear from survivors. In response to a question, Professor Horowitz discussed how she teaches this material, and the Q&A period concluded with Professor Horowitz pointing out that the complexity of stories is not only what restores humanity to the people sharing their experiences, but that complexity also allows us to probe our own humanity. From these stories, we learn not only about genocide or experiences during the Holocaust but about how complicated we are as human beings.

Summary by Martha Stroud


Martha Stroud