How does memory speak?
Not with words
in this small country of silenced song.
is the native tongue
of children without food.
-words from Vera Schwarcz’s "In the
Garden of Memory"
When visiting Jerusalem
in 1991, a striking oil painting caught Vera Schwarcz’s attention. The
Romanian-born daughter of Holocaust survivors instantly felt a connection
with the artwork titled “Memories.”
“I was deeply moved by
its abstract depiction of a shattered world,” Schwarcz said. “The painting
evoked huge, shards of stone, a rubbled world held together by a fragile
thread, lace and barbed wire that I envisioned as memory threads held onto
by sheer will alone. In wake of total annihilation, that moved me as an act
of spiritual courage.”
Schwarcz, professor of
History and East Asian studies at Wesleyan and published author and poet,
later met the painting’s artist, Chava Pressburger. Pressburger, a native of
a Jewish community in the Czech
Republic, was imprisoned
in Terezin in1943-44.
Her younger brother was killed in Auschwitz
Although Schwarcz was
born after the war, their similar backgrounds were the start of a friendship
and professional collaboration. Six months ago, the duo released a book
together titled “In the Garden of Memory,” published by March Street Press.
The publication, which they consider “a conversation in paper, poetry and
print,” features 18 poems by Schwarcz with accompanying paper-art images by
is created from paper she produced herself from plants cultivated in her
garden and near her home in Nagev, Israel.
“As a Jew, as a China
scholar, the past is not dead for me. It’s very alive, very important,”
Schwarcz said. “I have been looking for ways to give it voice. Through this
collaboration, we are putting into the world something that will seed
reflection and pleasure. A garden is a bordered space for slow placed
reflection. This is an invitation to come into the garden.”
Before going to print,
Schwarcz and Pressburger exhibited the artwork in Prague, Rhode Island and
Connecticut. The display explored the themes of historical trauma in
Schwarcz, like many
children born in the generation following the war, was named after other
children who had died in the war.
“Our parents often did
not tell us about the earlier kin. We thus grew up carrying the name, the
destiny of precursors who remained a haunting, vague nameless presence,” she
said. “Hence, perhaps my compulsion as a writer to name things, as a
historian to document truth. If something can have a name and place in the
heart, mind the page, it may be somehow be laid to rest.”
“In the Garden of
Memory” isn’t the first time she’s written about the holocaust. In her last
book, “Bridge Across Broke Time,” she wove together her own family's memoirs
to with words of poets and historians to show how it is possible to maintain
cultural identity in the face of the most disheartening events.
“What was new in this
project with Pressburger was poetry, an art form I have been exploring for
two decades. Here finally was a way to write about something historical and
personal--using the craft of poetry I had been polishing for a while,” she
After receiving a
bachelor’s degree from Vassar College in 1969, a master’s degree from Yale
in 1971, and a Ph. D. from Stanford in 1977, she wrote over fifty articles
on Chinese intellectual history and comparative memory studies. She’s also
the author of five other books titled, “A Scoop of Light,” “Fresh Words for
a Jaded World,” “Time for Telling Truth is Running Out: Conversations with
Zhang Shenfu,” “The Chinese Enlightenment: The Legacy of the May Fourth
Movement in Modern China,” and “Long Road Home: A China Journal.”
Since the publication
of “In the Garden,” several other artists – and photographers – have
approached Schwarcz interested in similar collaborations.
She’s interested, but
she’s already made a commitment with a 19th century Manchu Prince named Yi
Huan. Huan (1840-1891) wrote poems in Chinese responding to the burning of
Beijing's princely palaces by French and British armies in 1860.
“I am adapting Yi
Huan's voice to the cadence of historical traumas in the 20th century,
including the post September 11th scorched landscape that is our inheritance
today,” said Schwarcz, who is fluent
in Chinese, French, Hebrew, Romanian and Hungarian, and can read Japanese
and German languages.
To date, Schwarcz has
already published about 25 of these renditions and envisions publishing a
collection of 50 poems in the next two years called “Sea of Shards.”
Recently, she’s working
on a new book, “Truth in the Ruins of History: A Comparative Inquiry.” And
her latest prose/academic book, “Singing Crane Garden; Art and Atrocity in
One Corner of China,” was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania Press
this month. It will be part of a series on the history of landscaped spaces.
“I find myself wanting
to write new books all the time,” she said. "In the Garden of Memory is
available at Broad Street Books and http://www.marchstreetpress.com/.