“The Future of Memory” – Hannah Papanek: “From Blossoms” – Rev. John Gibbons

Two Reflections:
“The Future of Memory” – Hanna Papanek
“From Blossoms” – Rev. John Gibbons
given at the First Parish in Bedford
on Sunday, April 22, 2012, Yom HaShoah



Opening Words

“The Only Sermon,” by Andrea Ayvazian

if we dug a huge grave miles wide, miles deep
and buried every rifle, pistol, knife, bullet, bomb, bayonet,
if we jumped upon fleets of tanks and fighter jets with tool boxes, torches
unwelded them dismantled them turned them into scrap metal
if every light-skinned man in a silk tie said
to every dark-skinned man in a turban
I vow not to kill your children
and heard the same vow in return
if every elected leader agreed to stop lying
if every child was fed as well as racehorses bred to win derbies
if every person with a second home gave it to a person with no home
if every mother buried her parents not her sons and daughters
if every person who has enough said out loud I have enough
if every person violent in the name of God were to find God
we would grow silent, still for a moment, a lifetime
we would hear infants nursing at the breast
hummingbirds hovering in flight
we would touch a canyon wall and feel the earth vibrate
we would hear two lovers sigh across the ocean
we would watch old wounds grow new flesh and jagged scars disappear
as time was layered upon time would slowly be ready
to begin

Introduction of Hanna Papanek by Rev. John Gibbons

One of the great strengths of Unitarian Universalist churches is that we attract and are composed of such diversely remarkable persons.  Often I’ve told you that the church of my youth in Chicago was a place where I encountered people I otherwise never would have known: artists and scientists, academics and activists, geniuses and cranks, trouble-solvers and trouble-makers of wide-ranging politics, philosophies and identities.  In a world increasingly homogeneous and segmented, I believe that encountering difference and introducing ourselves to one another remains a radical thing and a distinctive spiritual calling.

In that church of my youth our youth group advisor was Edith Friedman and she was a Holocaust survivor.  My strongest memory of her is of the time when she helped us to make pancakes for a pancake breakfast.  I recall her standing at the stove with a spatula in her hand and – in those days – a cigarette in her mouth, and I watched as the ash lengthened and finally dropped into the batter!  And as she extended her arm, I will forever remember the number tattooed on her forearm.

Hanna Papanek is not a Holocaust survivor of the concentration camps but she is an intimate witness to the Holocaust – as, by the way, is also Daisy Illich and perhaps others in our congregation. Though Hanna’s father was ethnically Jewish, her family’s primary identity was as social democrats – socialists – and, as such, they were especially vulnerable. As the Nazi threat intensified, her family fled their home in Berlin, first to Prague, then to Paris; then on the eve of the German occupation, Hanna was evacuated to southern France where she lived in a children’s home. Her parents also managed to escape from Paris. From there they walked across the Pyrenees to Spain, ultimately emigrating to America. Hanna credits her survival to the social democrats of the Jewish Labor Committee which collaborated with many others, including Quakers and Unitarians, in the work of emergency rescue. Hanna calls this reflection “The Future of Memory.”

Hanna’s Reflection – “The Future of Memory”

Near the city of Riga, Latvia, where my father was born, there are two Holocaust Memorials, in forests where tens of thousands of Jews and others were murdered by Germans and Latvians.  My father’s sisters, their husbands and children, were shot by German special forces and buried in huge pits at Rumbula. Other relatives died in a synagogue set aflame by killers.

…A dozen grains of rice in the pile before us…

At the center of the other Memorial, in the Bikernieki Forest, stands a huge black stone cube under a white archway.  A quotation from the Book of Job is chiseled into its sides in four languages, none English.  The German version stays in my mind so here is my free translation (Job 16:18):

Oh Earth, cover not my blood,

And give my cries no resting place.

It expresses my feelings about the Holocaust, the great catastrophe, the Shoah — that not all wounds should be allowed to heal: some of us — and not only the survivors of the murder camps — must keep them open so they keep hurting.

Hurting for a purpose: to REMEMBER AND TO REMIND, letting me channel my rage and sorrow over these atrocities — and so many others — so that remembering leads to ACTION.  Never to forgiveness.  Only, perhaps, to understanding a little better why things happened, helping to KNOW more deeply what you thought you already knew.

Adele’s Story

Here, as an example, is the story of my friend Adele K., an Austrian teenager whom I knew in France, in the youth group of Socialdemocratic exiles, when I was twelve and she fourteen.  She and her parents did not survive the Shoah.

This is not only her story but WHAT WAS DONE WITH HER STORY, with my help and that of many others — and why Adele K. is now, in a modest way, the Anne Frank of her native Austria.

In the spring of 1996, I was in Paris, visiting my cousin Beatrice, whose father, my uncle Bernhard, had been found by the Gestapo in his secure hiding place in the Hotel Bonaparte (where some of you have stayed), deported and murdered in Auschwitz a few months before the war ended.  I knew that and mourned him.

Now, suddenly, I wanted to learn more about the fate of my closest childhood friend, Dorli L., who had somehow not been in the convoy of endangered children rescued to America.  She and her parents did not survive.  I had long known that too but sometimes pretended it was not so.

Sitting in the crowded Jewish Documentation Center in Paris, I slowly turned the pages of a thick volume of faded pictures and brief stories about Europe’s murdered children, alphabetically arranged, looking for Dorli L.’s story.  It was awful.

Suddenly, I stopped with a jolt and caught my breath: a familiar face looked up at me from the page, like a corpse in an open coffin: a photo of another childhood friend, Adele K.

A newspaper story on that page told me more. That her family’s many suitcases, carefully packed for survival, had been found in the attic of a French police station, fifty years after the deportations, filled with clothes and documents, photographs, letters and drawings.  That a teacher and students in Adele’s old school had made an exhibit out of the pictures and papers in the suitcases. That a courtyard in her old school had been dedicated to her memory. That her haunting photograph, much enlarged, hung in the school’s entrance hall.

Sadly, I found nothing more about my friend Dorli L. but I knew what I had to do, wanted to do, about the story of Adele K., given the wealth of materials found in the suitcases. The shock of recognition, of new knowledge, was very deep.  I had to act: I was too upset, too angry, and very eager to push the story further.


It took several years to get there but by now the story of Adele K. has been told and retold in the schools, meeting halls, and synagogues of her native Austria, perhaps even in churches.  An exhibit of photographs telling the story of Adele and her family has been shepherded to many places by groups of Austrian students.  Two books and a brochure, to which I have contributed, have been published.

This work was done by members of a youth group in Adele K.’s birthplace — the provincial city of Graz.  It was organized by two activist historians and a young teacher whose goal is not only to illuminate the “darkness of the recent past” but to use the history of that past to “deepen education for democracy and human rights”.

The materials I had assembled in France about my friend Adele fitted their plans.  The young people who signed up were enthusiastic.  The project took off strongly and is still going today, more than ten years later.  School and government authorities continue to fund it.

Adele’s story has helped to move Austria out of the morass of denial, of claiming that all of Austria had been a victim of German aggression, rather than that many Austrians had been perpetrators of crimes against Jews and others, had actively collaborated with the Nazis.


In both Germany and Austria, these efforts are part of what is called “the new culture of memory”.  Much progress has also taken place in France.

For the last fifteen years, I’ve been part of a German group of women scholars and teachers — devoting our efforts to documenting, writing and teaching about the thousands of people forced into exile by the Hitler government.  That participation has brought me into close contact with Germans who are opening up the past in order to change the future of a heavily burdened society.  Encouraged by those efforts, I was able to complete a big book about the history of my own family and the many histories of their time — a book written in English that, unfortunately, did not interest American publishers. It has only come out in Germany, in translation.

Like so much else in my life, all this seemed to happen by accident, but accident driven by anger and by a sense of how things were — or could be — connected, how they could be made to fit into a work life as a researcher, teacher, and writer.


I now realize that historical memory does not happen by itself: it is driven by convictions about why things should be remembered.  Too many conflicting forces converge to shape that memory: if I feel strongly, I must do my share. I must act.


John’s Reflection – “From Blossoms”

Sometimes I feel like a juggler who is given random objects – a ball, a toaster, a pair of scissors, and a flaming torch – and is then instructed to juggle.  For some time I’ve known that Hanna wanted to share her thoughts occasioned by Yom Hashoa; and yes I’ve also known that today is Earth Day.  I then looked up what else April 22 is and discovered that today is the birthday of jazz great Charlie Mingus.  And just to ice the cake, I realized that, in anticipation of our all-Beatles Music Sunday on May 6, today we’d also be hearing “Ticket to Ride” – from the 1965 album Beatles album Help!

Actually, it all juggles perfectly.

One of the classic descriptions of what we are trying to build – in this church but by extension in the larger world – is that of “a beloved community of memory and hope.”  Memory gives us clues from the past; hope gives us strength and courage for the future.  Past and future meet in a vivid awareness of Now.

I’m reminded of the Easter hymn:

O day of light and gladness,
Of prophecy and song,
What thoughts within us waken,
What hallowed memories throng!
The soul’s horizon widens,
Past, present, future blend;
And rises on our vision
The life that hath no end

Memory, per se, is meaningless; and I think what Hanna is trying to get at is that, to be redeemed, to be made meaningful, memory must be mobilized and call us to action.

There are those who worship history, who worship the past: those who worship even the Holocaust, to whom it is the central and defining experience of Judaism.  For some Christians, the cross is the central and defining experience of Christianity.

That is not our way.  History, per se, is but a steaming remnant; what matters more is what meaning we extract from history, what moves us to act in the present, in the now.

What Hanna suggests, I think, is that we ought not worship the haunting photograph of Adele any more than we should worship her suitcases that were found in the attic of a police station in France.  Adele is made meaningful only inasmuch as her story “has helped to move Austria out of the morass of denial,” and motivates youth to stand “against violence and racism,” and “to deepen education for democracy and human rights.”

History is made meaningful when we are moved to act in the present according to the lessons of the past.

Whenever I prepare for a memorial service, I ask the closest family members, “What is your inheritance from the person who has died?”  What does the person mean to you…now?  A memorial service is not to worship the dead but to mobilize the living.

I tried out some of these ideas last Thursday at Carleton-Willard and I found myself remembering that, when my mother was an Illinois farm-girl teenager in the 1920’s she got drunk once and she got pregnant.  And who knows how she did it but she arranged for a Chicago back-alley abortion…which must have been enormously frightening and difficult.  And, well, a year or so later it all happened again…another pregnancy and another abortion.  I know she was haunted by these memories.  But these memories also mobilized my mother to make sure that I knew what options I would have should a girlfriend of mine become pregnant; and these memories mobilized her to be a lifetime supporter of Planned Parenthood.  It is not coincidental that I too will be a lifetime supporter of Planned Parenthood.

I challenged the people at Carleton-Willard and I challenge you to consider the mobilized meanings of your memories.  That’s what I hope you take away from this sermon: What are your memories that mean something and mobilize you to act in the present?

Here in this beloved community of memory and hope, we do not live in the past; we neither stew nor revel at past failures or successes; and we mitigate whatever may haunt us by trying to move and learn and act such that we may look to the future with neither dread nor anticipation but rather live in the present moment as it is now, in its infinite possibility.

This approach to memory relates as well to Earth Day.  Now I must admit that Earth Day has never made that much of an impression on me, in large part because I’m not sure what to do with it.  Too often it has a green-washed tiptoe-through-the-tulips-let’s-put flowers-in-our-hair patchouli-scented air about it.  Which may be just the way the oil, gas and energy barons, the financial manipulators and the military-industrial complex want us to celebrate Earth Day.  It is intriguing to note, however, that the international theme for this year’s observance is “Mobilize the Earth” because maybe somebody has realized that celebrating Earth Day just isn’t enough.

It is startling how far environmentalism has fallen off our national agenda.  Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.

There was an op/ed in last week’s New York Times, titled “Early Bloomers,” suggesting that Henry David Thoreau might not recognize Concord in April today.  “This year, after a record warm winter, blueberry bushes began to flower on April 1, six weeks earlier than in Thoreau’s time…The flowering times of other species, like the shadbush and marsh marigold, shifted a similarly extreme amount….There are changes in the timing of plant and animal behaviors, including flowering, mating, migrating and emerging from hibernation…Pollinators may arrive too early for their favorite flowers.  Predators may arrive too late for their preferred prey….Some of the most charismatic wildflowers, like many species of orchids and lilies, have disappeared from the area entirely.”  There have been dramatic cumulative effects over the last 160 years but these changes will be meaningless unless our memory is mobilized.  “As Thoreau wrote, ‘The question is not what you look at, but what you see.’”

Today you have not been asked to look at 11.9 million grains of rice.  You have not been asked to consider Yom Hashoa.  You have not been asked to look at Earth or celebrate Earth Day.  You also were not asked to listen to Charlie Mingus’ “Better Git it in Your Soul,” or, for that matter, “She’s got a ticket to ri-i-i-ide.  But she don’t care.”

The question is not what you look at or listen to but what you see and hear, what moves you.

Hey, hear this, Li-Young Lee’s poem, “From Blossoms”:

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches. 

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach. 

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.




May we not die an unlived life.
May we will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
May we choose to inhabit our days,
to allow our living to open us,
to make us less afraid,
more accessible;
to loosen our hearts
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
May we choose to risk our significance,
to live so that which came to us as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to us as blossom,
goes on as fruit.


Dawna Markova, I Will Not Die an Unlived Life: Reclaiming Purpose and Passion, adapted