Listening to David Grossman speak at Freie Universität Berlin the other night left me suspended somewhere between inspiration and intimidation. I was so emotionally ravaged by his book To the End of the Land that I couldn’t find the words to talk about it with anyone after I recently finished it. Yet on Tuesday night, when speaking about the Holocaust, Grossman told us “we need words even when there are none.” I continue to struggle with the effort to find the words to tell my stories, but as Grossman also said “you find your identity by finding your own words.”
There are many people in Germany who want to tell part of the story of what happened to the Jews during the Shoah. Some have a professional resume and others are citizen historians. They collect names, addresses, photographs, dates of deportation and death, but they cannot collect memories. They help us learn who we are and where we came from. We need them, but they cannot tell our stories. When I parted company with the members of our group of former Jewish residents of Frankfurt earlier this month, my hope was that they would take ownership of their stories and find a way to share them.
I can’t imagine my own words having the emotional impact of someone as gifted as David Grossman. Yet I have seen my written words touch people in different ways, restore the memory of forgotten relatives, and help me dig beneath all that is superficial in my life. That is the power of storytelling.