Mary Catherine Mueller
A memory is like a piece of glass intricately placed in the mosaic of life. Memory is powerful. A certain smell, a particular sound, a familiar touch, a childhood snack, or a random object – all hold the cognitive power to instantly flood an individual with memories of a particular moment in time. Yet concomitant with the power of one’s positive associations with a memory, there can also be negative associations with one’s memory of an object. For instance, before Auschwitz, a pile of shoes was merely a pile of shoes; whereas, after Auschwitz, a pile of shoes became the shoes a boy wore on his first day of kindergarten, the shoes a girl wore the summer she learned to jump rope, or the shoes a mother wore on the Sabbath. Throughout the Holocaust, objects like the Yellow Star of David sewn onto one’s sleeve, Aryan Papers clenched in one’s hand, striped prison uniforms folded on a bench, or pile of children’s shoes arriving on a train cart became either a death sentence or a life sentence. Objects and their corresponding memories became pieces of life before or life after Hitler, Nazis, Auschwitz. In relation to the Holocaust, when considering this idea of memory in conjunction with an object, one can either turn to the spoken or written testimonial accounts of survivors, or turn to the written narratives of Holocaust literature. One such literary account that inculcates an object and memory into its narrative is Rachel Haring Korn’s Yiddish Holocaust short story, “The Road of No Return.”
“The Road of No Return” is a story that captures one of the Nazis’ greatest assaults: the assault on the family and memory of life before Hitler’s Nazism, Race Laws, and death camp. This story highlights, for the reader, the power an object has in sparking a memory for one particular character. In this story, the object (a wedding dress) unlocks the grandmother’s memory of life before the war, for the reader. This story takes place in the autumn of 1942, in a small Galician village, in a home where a family learns that the Nazis have decreed how “‘every family must send one of its members within two hours […] Each family must choose its own victim. One of us must go, otherwise all of us will be taken. All of us, without exception!’ […] Who, who would go? Go to the place from which there is no return?”[i]
Caught in the claws of Nazi selection process, the three generations (the grandmother, the parents, and the children) of the Hersh-Lazar Sokol’s household sitting around a table are faced with the incomprehensible task of determining who would go – who would go to the place of no return? Who would go to die in order that the other family members’ deaths might be postponed for even one more day, or hour, or minute, or moment? Yet, in the midst of a moment in time where the systematic disintegration of three generations and their relationships to each other dissolves throughout the course of the narrative, Korn unobtrusively brings an object into the narrative that ushers the reader back in time through the grandmother’s memory. This narrative reveals for the reader that this story is a story of a woman who though she happens to be a grandmother, through her memory, is still very much the young woman who once fell in love, married, and had a family.
Before Korn introduces the grandmother’s thoughts to the reader, she crafts the narrative in such a way where the rhetoric, when addressing the grandmother, is of a distancing and dehumanizing tone. Like the other characters in the story who view the grandmother through distancing lens, the reader is introduced to a scene in which the characters are forced into an incomprehensible situation where they must weigh the value and need of each life – specifically, the life of the grandmother:
The father mustn’t go, that was clear. He was the provider, the breadwinner. And the mother, definitely not. What would become of the children without her? As for Lipe, what had he tasted of life in his four-and-twenty years, the last two darkened by the German occupation? […] What about the grandmother, his old bobe? As Lipe’s glance searched for the grandmother it met his parents’ eyes. They had already added up her years, years that had fallen as gradually as leaves from a tree in autumn, leaving its trunk naked and vulnerable. But no-one dared utter such thoughts aloud, no-one dared to say ‘go’ or to become the judge of her last few ragged years. […] Each one’s thoughts lay open to the others in these moments of heightened perception. Only the grandmother’s thoughts had sealed all the avenues to her inmost self in order to ward off this prelude to death. She suddenly felt isolated in the circle of her family – besides the son she had given birth to and cared for, beside her own flesh and blood. Even her son’s eyes sought her out, and pointed to her. And because of it she would resist with all the strength of her being. There was no-one to take her part, no-one to giver her a loving look across the wall of separation. When you will be missed, it is easier to die.[ii]
In the first part of the above passage, the characters’ thoughts regarding “Who would go?” reflects the unraveling of the fabric of family relationships that occurred under Nazi occupation. In addition, this passage captures the breakdown of family roles through the inability of parents to be parents (a father unable to protect his family), children to be children (sons and daughters attempting to assume the protective parental roles), grandparents to be grandparents (the ones who pass down their wisdom and teaching of life and traditions). More importantly, however, the latter part of this passage serves as a prelude to the rest of the story that inconspicuously hinges on the grandmother and her memories of her childhood and wedding. For the reader, the object that kindles the thoughts of the grandmother and breathes life into her memories of bygone moments of happiness, home, and hope – is her wedding dress that her granddaughter (Mirl) is wearing.
In the midst of this atrocious situation – choose one life or have all lives chosen – Korn gradually weaves her reader through the narrative that unveils the significance of the grandmother’s memory when she thinks of her wedding and the dress she wore. In the final moments of her life, the grandmother’s thoughts are not of the future where she will go, how long she will live, what will happen to her family (for such thoughts can hardly exists in a world commanded by death and hate), but rather her thoughts are of the past and a time where she was seen by others. Korn writes,
They imagine it’s less difficult for old people to die. Maybe so. But only if death comes in its proper time and place, in your own bed. But to go forth and meet death willingly, carrying your bundle or worn-out bones! Quite, hold everything, she’s not ready yet – she still has to go back over her life, she still has to remember it once more from the beginning starting with the time she was a child in her mother’s house. […] ‘Mother, Mother’, she murmured through blue lips as if she would call her back from the world of the dead. […] Two big tears rolled from her closed eyes and fell into the net of wrinkles covering her face.[iii]
Here, the reader sees how the grandmother’s memories suspend to a realm where love and life were celebrated, where a mother could answer the call of a child, where families could sit around a table a speak of the future life not of future death, and where concern for the brother and other was taught and praised. In this very moment, the thoughts of her life before Nazi occupation serve as an unspoken protest against her captors – the very people stealing others’ memories by extinguishing the light of their lives. Nonetheless, Korn does not leave the reader in this moment, but she ushers the reader through the memory of the grandmother’s wedding day:
she pictured herself as a bride. She had only seen her bridegroom David once, at the time of the betrothal. Even then, all her dreams were centered on him. When they began preparing her wedding clothes she had insisted on blue silk shot through with roses woven into the cloth. She had wanted to please her bridegroom. Her wedding dress had hung in the cupboard until recently. She hadn’t let anyone touch it. It was only during the last few moths that she had let them make it over for Mirl, because Mirl looks like her. When she looks at Mirl she sees herself as a girl.[iv]
The narration moves away from the memory of the grandmother and back to the present moment, as the “clock struck once and then twice.”[v] Again, who will go? Will it be the father or Lipe, whose lover is waiting for him to meet her? Will it be young Mirl who is wearing her grandmother’s wedding dress? As the tension in the room rises, the father attempts to protect his family even by means of forcing his daughter Mirl from leaving the house:
All heads turned.
She stood there in the made-over iridescent silk dress she had forgotten to take off when her mother scolded her for trying it on. Or perhaps she just enjoyed wearing it. Whether the dress made her look older and more grownup, or whether it was the stubborn expression on her face, it seemed to everyone that Mirl had grown tall in the past few hours.
“Where – what kind of going?” This from her father with his red-rimmed bloodshot eyes.
“You know very well where…Goodbye everyone.” And she was at the door.
With a single leap her father was beside her, holding her sleeve.
“Get back this minute. If you don’t there’ll be trouble! Do you hear?”
As Mirl struggled with her father there was a sharp whistling noise as the ancient silk of her sleeve split and tore.
Everyone looked on but no-one moved, neither to stop the father, nor to help Mirl. With one hand Hersh-Lazar was holding Mirl […][vi]
Like the tearing of a sleeve, in the above passage, the reader sees the tearing apart of any previously held presuppositions regarding a world and environment where of parents could protect their children. Furthermore, in this moment, a father scurries in vain to protect his child’s innocence, only to realize that she “looked older, more adult…during those past few hours.” Here the father and child are both rendered the same and the relation and the role of the father is equated with the role of the child – they are equally helpless to their present situation (a Nazi occupied environment). Yet, who will go? still silently lingers in the story. It is not Mirl the young, Mirl the bold, Mirl assuming the role of family protector, or Mirl wearing the “ancient silk” that will go. No, Mirl will not go, but it is the one who, when she “looks at Mirl she sees herself as a girl,” not just an “ancient” silk dress, or a vulnerable leafless tree trunk in autumn, or a bundle of worn-out bones. No, it was the young girl who remembered calling out; ‘Mother, Mother’ when frightened as a child; it was the young bride who remembered wearing the silk dress on her wedding day; it was the mother who remembered cradling her baby son – the son, now grown and with his own family, whom she could protect once more by walking out the door: “The grandmother’s chair was empty. Everyone was so absorbed in his own thoughts that no-one had noticed her going. Where had she gone? How did she leave the house so quietly that no-one had heard her? Not one of them had heard her. It must have happened only a few minutes ago.”[vii]
Rachel Haring Korn’s short story, “The Road of No Return” pieces together a narrative about a few hours in the life of a family living in a Nazi-occupied Galician village. Although this is a multifaceted story that addresses various themes found in Holocaust literature, a key aspect of this story is the role of the grandmother and the memories of her life before death camps and liquidations. Through the grandmother’s memories of her wedding and early life, the reader is ushered back into a world that was paved by life, love, and future, which serves as a juxtaposition to the world paved by destruction, hate, and death – the Holocaust. If a memory is like a piece of glass in the mosaic of life, then the objects that trigger memories like those that are found in Holocaust testimonies and narratives aid in piecing together the horrific accounts of the atrocities that swept across Europe from 1933-1945.
[i] Rachel Haring Korn, “The Road of No Return.” In When Night Fell: An Anthology of Holocaust Short Stories. Ed. Raphael, Linda Schermer, and Marc Lee Raphael, 191-198. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1999), 194.
[ii] Ibid., 195.
[iii] Ibid., 196.
[iv] Ibid., 196.
[v] Ibid., 196.
[vi] Ibid., 196.
[vii] Ibid., 198.