May 9th, 2018, Victory Day Celebration, Jewish Community Campus, Overland Park, KS
May 23rd, 2018, An Evening Celebrating the Music, Art & Culture of Lithuania, 1900 Building, Mission Hills, KS
“Lo recuerdo (yo no tengo derecho a pronunciar ese verbo sagrado…)”
“I remember him (I haven’t the right to speak that sacred verb…)”
These are the opening words of the Jorge Luis Borges story, Funes the Memorious. The story’s narrator recounts his experience with young Ireneo Funes. Funes, an agile, vivacious youth, suffers a head injury that leaves him paralyzed, and he has to live out his days lying on the cot in his suburban bedroom. With his injury, though, there comes an unexpected change in him: he remembers everything — every thought, word and physical contour of each lived moment. The narrator, who listens to Funes speak throughout all of one night, is surprised to hear the apparent victim exalt in newfound liberation as he moves in a world of memory.
Borges offers an allegory in Funes of how people survive paralyzing blows with acts of memory. He points to an artful manner of memory with his latinism, memorious. Being memorious is not just thinking about the past. The narrator suggests, in fact, that memorious Funes might not have thought at all, because his vivid recollections prevented thinking, the generalities we call “ideas.” Funes felt that others existed in a prison of the abstract, while he, confined to his cot, passed freely among the rich contours of well-preserved experience.
In the story, being memorious transforms an isolated individual; but i’ve recently found that the character of Funes extends beyond him. While Funes echos funeral and seems at first to suggest memory's mortal fate, the Latin word funes means, in fact, a band, a bonding tie. Funes is more than the young man who dies in the story’s last sentence; and after my recent experiences at memorial celebrations, i understand his character as a way forward in the injured histories i share with others. Borges’s narrator builds on this allegorical possibility for Funes, pointing to options for how we hold and share memory. “Platonic” memory, the narrator suggests, fixes past events in generalities and ideas. It would seem to be the ground of inflexible identities that protect their histories as their own. Another form of memory, though, is embodied in the character of Funes and his nightlong recounting of memory to someone who doesn’t know him well, but lends an open ear. With such bonding acts of recollection, people move forward from injurious losses with supple, creative minds, discovering the freedom to do so as they share out the past. It results in a poetics of survival i’ve recently found in the modesty of local, memorial celebrations.
On May 9th, i attended, along with a hundred and fifty others, a celebration of the end of World War II. Seventy-three years after the war’s destruction of over 25 million lives in the Soviet republics, Kansas City’s Jewish Family Services and Russian Cultural Association inaugurated an annual Victory Day commemoration in the Social Hall of the Jewish Community Campus. When i arrived, the organizer, Lana Yeager, greeted me, saying, “Welcome, Anne! You are now part of this global movement!” A little perplexed by the unsolicited membership, i wondered what the “movement” might mean for me.
I held, as many Midwesterners, only vague ideas of the Victory Day tradition — mainly images of military parades in Eastern Europe. But the event i attended was an extension of household commemorations. For decades, some Kansas Citians have brought back names, faces and stories of people who perished from 1941 to 1945, that is, between Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union and its surrender. While the loss they felt doesn’t appear in the images of my lineage, i shared with them the impulse to build a memorious sense of time. I’m tempted to say, “a memorious way of thought,” but that would leave me arguing with Borges (an unnerving prospect) whose narrator says of Funes:
“He had effortlessly learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nonetheless, that he was incapable of thinking. To think is to forget differences. It is to generalize, to abstract. In the crowded world of Funes there was nothing except almost immediate details.”
I don’t know what people were thinking as we passed near the samovar on a table at the back of the Social Hall. The teapot spoke a Slavic language that most of the people were speaking as well, and like them, it quietly steeped the past in the present. Arranged around it, photographs of perished loved ones looked at us from their side of an injury that would have erased them. All the guests had been asked to give a photograph of someone lost in the war and i set on the table a picture of my Grandfather Gatschet, a native Kansan killed in 1945 when the plane he piloted crashed outside Karachi. A set of Russian nesting dolls was spread out near it, hand-painted with flowers. From behind a big frame filled with photographs of hatted soldiers in posed regiments, the picture wire poked out, holding the imprint of a nail it had recently hung on. I was still uncertain about my own part in a “global movement,” but could see that the contours of its details reached me more fully than grander images of its history.
The conventionality of the room filled with “10-top” convention tables was challenged by the unpredictable, diverse memories appearing among us. A Farsi accent and a Russian one stopped their conversation beside me for the start of a program. Projected images and mild voices described tremendous loss to families. The audience entered into this with a singularly quiet activity of ear and eye. Ordinary voices carried us through the details — dates, professions, proper names — of riven families and perished ancestors and my mind returned to Lana’s word, “movement” as i, with a room full of strangers, observed doorframes, lapels, hairlines, handwriting in letters to husbands who would not return, handwriting of the husbands. This felt like a concerted movement, but it was not contained in a given image or idea: there was no blueprint, no score, no map to follow as our singular memories labored together. One man said that after the Siege of Leningrad in which all his family members perished, and after mass burials, “family treasures were traded on the open market. We have so few objects to maintain memory.” Attentively, the people in the room gathered the remnants of the brutal blow.
A class of sixth graders in Russia’s town of Ulyanovsk appeared on screen in a video, holding large-format photographs of their ancestors. As memory becomes “globalized” and we find ourselves daily amidst one other’s traditions, we can count on the resilient, candid perception of children to navigate our awkward course. When this group of kids greeted “Kansas City” in English and Russian, the room grew animated and our polite airs relaxed. Then, the youngest around us joined middle-aged folk musicians and people across the Social Hall sang along in Russian. Lana’s 10-year old son, Oliver, spoke about his great grandfather whose remains had been lost in battle and discovered in Belgorod in 1975. I had not brought my own children to this event nor to any such public event — not ever. Had they considered, in their great-grandfather’s photo that lay near the samovar, three sets of gold wings pinned on his uniform, the question in his right eye and kindness in his left?
“A circle drawn on a blackboard, a right triangle, a rhombus— we fully intuit these shapes; the same happened for Ireneo Funes with the stormy mane of a pony, a herd of cattle on the hillside, a dancing flame and its innumerable ashes, the many faces a deceased person has throughout a very long wake…”
On May 23rd, i attended a concert at the 1900 Building in Mission Hills, KS, called, “An Evening Celebrating the Music, Art & Culture of Lithuania.” Steve Karbank hosted the event in his venue’s art gallery and its intimate listening room, The Rose Hall. Ben Sayevich, a classical violin master at the International Center for Music produced it, calling on the talent of his wife, pianist Lolita Lisovskaya Sayevich, and his extended family who came from Israel for the occasion. Steve and Ben had known for years that they shared Lithuanian Jewish heritage, and they undertook to make what Ben called “a collage for celebrating that world.”
Of the 200,000 Jews in Lithuania in 1940, nearly all were massacred in the Holocaust — close to 195,000 lives in four years. Ben’s parents were among the survivors. They lost their two children. After the war, they returned from separate concentration camps to Lithuania, and started a family again. Their offspring would be artists with an exceptional ability to build and explore cultural memory. Some weeks after the Lithuanian celebration, Ben explained to me his motivation for creating it. He had personal interest in opening his heritage to descendants of Lithuania’s Jewish world; but there was another meaning within that motive. “Culture is on the outside of people,” he said, “It identifies a group, not the individual. Every person is afraid of pain, everybody wants to love and be needed, and if you shoot him he’ll die. Culture is the wrapping…” To find my way in Ben’s words, i returned to the allegory with which i’m familiar: the protagonist who listened to Funes could not experience his injured condition while he listened in darkness to his voice recount awesome and unique memories, but, he said of the incredible recollections he witnessed, “these things he told me, not then nor ever have I placed them in doubt.” Similarly, the lived heritage of loss that was around me on the evening of May 23rd belonged to others “wrapped” in another culture, but its truth came to me in details they conveyed: names, melodies, personal objects, and, especially, the stunning contours of faces.
When Ben told me about the event’s initial concept, he said, “We decided to present windows, snapshots of a life.” The changing daylight pours constantly through the windows of the 1900 Building’s Fountain Room. This present tense played a fugue with the past when the guests looked into Aviad Sajevitch’s paintings, realist views on a fourteen hundred year heritage. Our eyes passed from one another’s faces to the face of a medieval merchant and that of an eighteenth century Talmudic scholar and on to many others, including portraits of people in the artist’s family. I studied the painted light in an old woman’s eyes and turned to the daylit face of the grandson who had portrayed her — and i introduced myself to him. Aviad told me how he had imagined these scenes from Lithuania’s past — children, artisans and intellectuals whom he and i recreated between us, carrying particulars into our present and back again to his family’s past. From a portrait of his uncle, holding open an accordion and looking at the viewer with a weighty, steady eye, i turned to the gallery’s crowd: that same eye poured like a long note among the perambulating guests. I approached the man, Shmuel Sajevitch, and he intoned in the same key as his gaze. Through a strong accent, he spoke very softly about the voices of the accordion, its ability to sound like a whole band. Then he pressed on to tell me, with a stream of words i could hardly hear and can’t now recall, his understanding that “peace is very complex.” We parted suddenly so that he could play the piano in the concert.
In The Rose Hall, Steve Karbank welcomed the eclectic crowd. His address moved between scenes of childhood and figures of popular renown as he catalogued traits of the people he called “Litvaks,” a term from the Yiddish, for Lithuanians. He made us laugh ironically at Litvak traits: sarcastic humor, a critical mind, dispassionate drive. This steely profile was obviously belied by the gentle nature of the host himself and by the warmth of the gathering. The deeper irony: as we were invited to smile in the paradox of a certain, cultural imagery we were at the same time sharing in that culture’s shrewd and unrelenting survival. It is both an incisive and delicate voice that calls the stranger or the public to join in matters of memory without closing around itself the “wrapping” of culture. Borges opens his story with similar irony and humility: as he launches into the long recollection of Funes the Memorious, he dis-claims any right to enact remembering, even “to speak that sacred verb.” This rhetorical paradox points to a greater-than usual-reserve in the storyteller, a humble courage that welcomes listeners, audiences and strangers into memorious acts.
That evening, the Sayevich family invited us into memory with audacious gentility: the alchemy of family memory. What Ben called “…I don’t know, maybe a family selfishness” was, onstage, a convocation of experience that brought folkloric voices into jazz riffs and classical music into popular culture. I was both delighted and nonplussed by the idiosyncrasy of the program, as if I’d unexpectedly appeared in the Sayevich household.
As the concert’s poetics presented a range of Lithuanian Jewish inheritance and personal style, it reminded me of the other motley, moving, singular displays of the memorious that i’d recently known: the cataloging style of the host’s address, the painter’s row of “windows” peeking across fourteen centuries… and i heard also the voice of Borges, renowned for odd, obscure and sometimes fanciful literary references that cross time’s and space’s inconvenient boundaries. I couldn’t resist looking around to take in the differing responses in The Rose Hall. One that i’ll not soon forget was Margarita’s: Ben and Lolita’s 8-year old daughter stood by the stage, dancing at her own party, and threw an easy thumbs-up to me where i sat, a little dazed, in the shadows of the audience.
Borges’s narrator listens through all of a night to the vast recollections of Ireneo
Funes, whose first name derives from an ancient Greek word for “Peaceful.” At the close of the story, the darkness that has shrouded the paralyzed savant gives way to dawn. “Then I saw the face of the voice that had spoken all night long.” Twice last May, faces were revealed to me that would have remained in darkness had not their children and grandchildren brought them into light. They appeared in unassuming settings flooded with vivid detail. They looked ancient to me and they came from histories i can’t and wouldn’t try to claim, but neither then nor later did i doubt that they belong in me, in the movement of a memorious light that falls, too, on the face and the name of Ireneo Funes: Peaceful Bonding Tie.
IM-Magazine Arts Writer
Anne provides arts education program services through
Anne Gatschet Consulting, LLC.
She writes poetry and commentary on the arts.