And So It Goes? – Greg Buckingham
And so it goes.
When I read this phrase, I immediately flashed on Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and its main character’s resignation. Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim offers these words like a solemn “amen” throughout this WWII novel each time someone dies, and Vonnegut ensures we understand Pilgrim’s sentiment with elaborations such as: “Among the things Billy could not change were the past, the present, and the future” (1969, p. 60). Pilgrim has no agency; he can only witness and acknowledge.
And so it goes.
Due to Vonnegut (with a Billy Joel tune hrown in), I feel these words as heavy, disheartened despair. So, I was disquieted (as well as puzzled) when my eyes landed on them in Stories to Change the World, whose writer-participants purportedly “look at storytelling as [a] catalyst” to improve society (Solinger, Fox, & Irani, 2008, p. 213). Perhaps an editor missed this phrase – this additional example of our human fallibility and imperfect world.
And so it goes.
With this pronouncement, Deborah Roth-Howe punctuates the first paragraph of the chapter “An Unlikely Alliance: Germans and Jews Collaborate to Teach the Lessons of the Holocaust.” My intuition insists she’s alluding to Vonnegut, and I believe she purposely reflects a sober acceptance of what was, and is, and is to come. The Holocaust happened, the Holocaust happened personally, and those resilient enough to live through the Holocaust cannot outlive life itself; the numbers of survivors are disappearing as no one survives life, ultimately.
One might justifiably feel hopeless given those facts, and furthermore, one might decide to reach for Viktor Frankl’s balm, with which one attempts to assign meaning to the uncontrollable “is” (1992). However, Roth-Howe and some similar souls choose to discover what can be done and what they can control. She and her allies find a solution to what might seem to be impossible at first glance: she and her allies choose to resurrect the lives of some lost during WWII by sharing the stories of the specific families and individuals from a small town in Bavaria – a town named for her forebears. In doing so, they hope to return their humanity to them (p. 58) and to help others recognize that the Jews from Roth, Germany existed not merely in a statistical sum, but were real people – neighbors – who were systematically persecuted by their own government (p. 62).
Along with her father, a rabbi, a teacher in Germany, and probably others, Roth-Howe has dubbed their collection of histories “A Reason to Remember: Roth, Germany 1933-1942.” She and her partners decided to display family photos, documents about jobs and marriages, and even lists of individuals’ hobbies so that the public can “meet” the people lost in the numbers and know them to be real. This tactic is terrific. “The exhibit does not allow for abstraction,” Roth-Howe contends (p. 63). They have permanently installed their project at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, as part of its Institute for Genocide, Holocaust, and Memory Studies.
I applaud their strategy wholeheartedly. It’s difficult to consider the holocaust as something that happened a long time ago in a land far away to some people who happen to share a religion when we’ve looked into Herbert Roth’s eyes in his soccer team photo, at Otto Stern’s broad smile as he mounts his motorcycle, or at Hermann Hochster’s proud pose with the community chorus (“Permanent Exhibition: A Reason to Remember | Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies | UMass Amherst,” 2018).
Several of the Reason organizers chose to contribute to this chapter – Rabbi Sternberg, Gabrielle Schmitt, Annegret Wenz-Huabfleish, the Roths – and share some strong reasons for her/his participation in this project; each notes how they hope to change the world. Deborah Roth-Howe sums up the salient purpose poignantly: they wish to encourage others to “speak up, protest loudly, and resist passivity” (p. 64), so that society will never succumb to a totalitarian regime like the one which murdered specific citizens of a small, country town where her family used to live, work, and play.
While I am certain patrons of UMass’s center will be affected emotionally and psychologically after “meeting” the residents of Roth, I find myself wanting more information. If one of the aims of the exhibit is to prevent atrocities such as what happened in Roth from ever happening again, what tools might a visitor walk away with if s/he notices such a blight starting to grow? To what extent do visitors’ values change because they interacted with this carefully crafted collection? Do we find differences in the attitudes of the community surrounding Amherst, or are those who visit the exhibit largely those whose values reflect those of the curators already? What of those “places in the timeline” where an intervention may have irrevocably interrupted evil’s progress; these potential interventions which were clearly missed or ignored as Roth’s Hebrew population began to be marginalized (p. 63)? Can we generalize these points to any type of oppressive dynamic, such as in the Rohingya conflict, or the targeting of Coptic Christians in Egypt?
I’m sure there are lessons we can apply to these (and other) situations across the globe, but we’ll need to discover even what they are – and even more – if we are to hope to successfully dismantle even the most nascent negative movement.
After reading this chapter, I find myself once again asking more questions about what I’ve read than discovering answers, and I find myself wishing I had more resources – especially time. I feel like Roth-Howe, et. al. have handed me a muscular and writhing trunk and have declared it a snake. If I had more/different information, would I discover the rest of an elephant? As I continue to remind myself, I need to focus my efforts on what’s most important – at least what’s most congruent with my values and goals – even in my writing. To succeed in one discipline, I’ll need to ignore another, and to answer some questions, I’ll need to ignore others. So, I suppose this is where I’ll end this investigation, at least for now.
And so it goes.
Frankl, V. E. (1992). Man’s search for meaning : an introduction to logotherapy (4th ed.). Boston: Beacon Press.
Joel, B. (1989). And So it Goes [Recorded by B. Joel]. On Storm front. [sound recording]. New York, N.Y.: Columbia.
Permanent Exhibition: A Reason to Remember | Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies | UMass Amherst. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.umass.edu/ihgms/permanent-exhibition-reason-remember
Roth-Howe, D., Roth, H. L., Schmitt, G., Wenz-Haubfleish, A., & Sternberg, R. R. (2008). An unlikely alliance: Germans and Jews collaborate to teach the lessons of the holocaust. In R. Solinger, M. Fox, & I. Kayhan (Eds.), Telling stories to change the world : global voices on the power of narrative to build community and make social justice claims (pp. 55-64). New York: Routledge.
Solinger, R., Fox, M., & Irani, K. (2008). Telling stories to change the world : global voices on the power of narrative to build community and make social justice claims. New York: Routledge.
Vonnegut, K. (1969). Slaughterhouse-five; or, The children’s crusade, a duty-dance with death. New York: Delacorte Press.