Memory Waka

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Where We Come From: The Role of Place in Family Memory

Belinda Castles


In the cellar of the Duisburg metalworkers’ union on 2 May 1933, four trade unionists, one of them my great-grandfather, were beaten and shot by Nazis. Outside the cellar is a row of square iron chairs, a memorial. For me, this is a place of ghostly presence, a threshold between the violent past and the present. It is a place that contains memory: family memory and collective memory. It contains my history, and that of my children. This article, centred on personal experiences, will explore the role of place and memory in informing my creative work, a novel based on my grandparents’ lives. It will draw on Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer’s memoir of Czernowitz, Ghosts of Home, in particular a visit to the crossroads at which Hirsch’s parents made a decision that saved them from transportation to the Nazi death camps. For those who come after, who inhabit the complexities of what Hirsch has called “postmemory”, being in such places can be at once disturbing and enriching, infused as they are with the contingency of survival or death. What do these sites contain? How do they inform what Hirsch and Spitzer call our “myths of origin”? Via Georges Perec’s notion of “fictive memory”, I will suggest that place engenders “potential memory”, a kind of memory linked to memorial, fuelled by imagination and solidarity.