Down Memory Lane: Historians Debate Historical Recollection

Down Memory Lane: Historians Debate Historical Recollection

Geoffrey Hartman of Yale thought that videotaping the historical narratives of those involved added emotion to the presentation of history, helping among others to overcome psychic numbing from what he termed “over-objectified history.” Hasia Diner of Maryland looked skeptically at the letters and diaries of American immigrants longing for “old country” foods that in most cases they never had eaten before emigrating. Shlomo Breznitz of Haifa argued that some kind of historical traumatic shock is needed as a prod for people to remember events.

They were three of some two dozen lecturers from the United States, Germany, France, and Israel who gathered at the University the last week of February to discuss “History and Memory.” The conference, which featured talks in English and in French, covered periods from the Middle Ages to post-World War II. Hosting the three-day event was the Department of General History, with the cooperation of the Reuben Hecht Chair in Zionism and History.

Of the three speakers mentioned above, only Diner is a historian. Hartman, whose specialty is Romance Literature, is Sterling Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yale University. He is also co-founder and projects director of Yale’s Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. The unusual archive was the subject of his talk, which culminated in the screening of a short clip from one of the videotapes, which held the audience enthralled.
Hartman saw other advantages to videotaping survivors’ accounts. As oral history, he said, “it recovers the words of those who have spoken.” Perhaps more importantly, it has for him an educational purpose. “What is the best chance of getting through to the young in the future?” he asked rhetorically. To appeal to youth, he went on in reply, experiences have to be transmitted by film, which means TV and, of course, video.

According to Hasia Diner, Professor of American Studies and Chair of the Department at the University of Maryland at College Park, Italian immigrants developed an elaborate culture based on food. They resisted food from outside cultures, remembering only what they supposedly had eaten in the old country. There was one unacknowledged problem, however. “Memory was at odds with the reconstruction of history,” she stated.
Diner pointed out that much of this food was not Italian, but Italian American; in other words, dishes actually invented in America. In America, she continued, the foods were richer—with meat and much more cheese and even oil—than the immigrants had eaten in their poverty in Italy. In fact, those who returned—and about a third of the Italian immigrants did, the historian said—took back with them these American foods, which were then reinvented in Italy.

The speaker defined food as “a stand-in for a mythic yesterday.” Despite the thousands of references to it in immigrant literature, Diner is apparently the first to investigate the subject systematically. As a reminder of poverty, shame, and shackles to the past, food was a subject of social conflict, Diner explained. It brought memories of home to the various immigrant groups who came to the United States from 1880-1920, along with reminders of the seductiveness of the American ethnic experience.
Unlike the Italians, the Irish hardly referred to food when writing about their new home, according to Diner. Although hunger and the memory of hunger were a leitmotif in their migration, these immigrants did little that defined food as an ethnic heritage. Food was connected with shame, so there was no construction of an Irish foodways culture in America, she said. The Irish immigrants ate better in the new world, but they didn’t talk about it.
If anything, Diner added, Irish-American popular culture was based on alcohol. This practice, however, met with resistance from the Protestant Yankee culture, which pushed for Prohibition.
The third group investigated by Diner were Central and Eastern European Jews, who in her description, fell somewhere between the two other immigrant groups in their relation to and memory of food. The Jews’ behavior in this regard was accordingly more complicated.
On the one hand, she explained, Jewish immigrants seemed to venerate the traditional foods of Europe, which were often the food of poverty. On the other hand, they rushed to consume the new and at times the forbidden (foods at variance with the laws of kashrut). In their attitude toward food, the immigrant Jews were positioned, in the historian’s colorful phrasing, “between gefilte fish and chop suey.” The abundance of food in the United States also broke down remembered barriers between the everyday and the sacred, Diner said. Because of their scarcity and/or expense, certain items and dishes were eaten only on the Sabbath and holidays in the old country, but were served weekdays, too, in America.

Shlomo Breznitz is a survivor of the Holocaust who has earned a world-wide reputation for his work as head of the University’s Ray D. Wolfe Center for the Study of Psychological Stress. Professor Breznitz, who was keynote speaker of the conference, asked whether we can free ourselves from the clutches of the past. “Genetic memory,” he reminded his audience, “is prologue to our destiny.”
“It takes much longer to unlearn something,” he went on, “than to learn it in the first place.” We have “little behavioral plasticity.”
It is through the impact of chance events, Breznitz believes, that we have the opportunity to escape the past, the memory of which he calls a harsh master. But what in the fabric of our lives, he asks, can turn the incidental event into an opportunity? “Random shocks open the cracks to liberation,” he answers. “The unique event is the antithesis to the tyranny of routine. Traumatic memories interfere in life, but can emancipate it.”

Back to Table of Contents