Combatting a climate of hate: a path through history toward love
On the day after the terrorist attacks in Israel, on my usual Sunday call with my mother, the first words she said were: “All the cousins are safe.” I held my phone tight as I listened– my phone had been shut down for the holiday the day before, so it was the first I had heard of those attacks. Underneath her words I could feel the layers of pain.
What’s going on now—in Ukraine, in Gaza, in Israel—will soon be history. What can we learn now, when we most need it, about surviving abrupt or ongoing violence? It’s a time when stories can help us the most—stories of the wise and the not so wise—a time for unpacking those tiny heroic moments that can emerge in the face of overwhelming events. It’s a time for learning how to survive the present and salvage—call it meaning, or a truer understanding of the confusion, a sense of the way forward—from the rubble of the past.
Finding Zbaraż is a true, archival/collaborative story of love, loss, and coming out of hiding—of missing people and open secrets.
Nothing could prepare me for how to feel about this little Ukrainian town that had shown only two tiny streets on Google Earth the first time I found it. Could I be its equal, the equal of this day, this place? What would happen if the moment slipped to the side of me?
For my whole childhood, my family spoke of the town of Zbaraż (now in Ukraine, once part of Poland) as if it were a mythical, distant place that was almost part of another dimension. The secular Jewish life that my grandmother, Sabti, led before World War II, before she moved through Paris and Israel to the Upper West Side of New York, was a storybook life, full of horses and buggies and mysterious basements, night pots and cooks and maids, aristocrats and grape scissors and beggars who came for challah on Fridays. Yet the myths of the past have a living dimension in the present—they animate our loyalties, our sense of our place in the world, our enduring resentments, enmities, and passions.
Opening the past, untangling the present
When I was in high school, Sabti started telling me the story of how she and my mother escaped during the war by passing as non-Jews, living at the home of some equally mythical lady named Kazia (first name only) and her husband Piotr in a little town called Kozaki. During college I worked on the topic of autobiography and how elliptical it all is, how hard ever to grasp the true events of war and loss of a previous generation, which come to us in non-chronological fragments—and I typed up the stories she told me from the cassette tapes we made together. Yet when I graduated, and Sabti was dying of cancer in my mother’s dining room on a hospital bed she set up there, I wanted to try to understand more deeply what had happened to them, where it had happened, and how all that hiding in plain sight had affected not only them but also my own life. Why did I always know that there were certain topics that could only be mentioned in whispers if at all, and yet they seemed to be the most important topics of all? When we delve into the past, the story does not come out all orderly as we might like—in fact, the past does not stay closed in its box anymore, but opens up to new perspectives on a torn-apart present.
Joyous encounters, new discoveries
One taboo subject opened another, and soon I was also trying to understand another unspeakable/unspoken topic. From the story of my mother and grandmother’s life during wartime—which could explain to me how I wound up growing up in a suburb of Connecticut rather than in New York, Israel, Paris, or Poland—I started to ask questions about what happened to my brother Jonny who was given up to foster care when I was five, another topic I always knew was too difficult for my family to speak about openly. And then there was the late revelation, while I was in college, that my father had all through my childhood struggled with mental illness—how did all these open secrets fit together? Why do families hold some of their most important topics in silence and what does it mean to break that silence? Could I meet my brother, my mother’s rescuers?
Moving toward deeper love within a complex sense of identities and empathies
I wanted to know where Zbaraż and Kozaki really were, what they looked like and smelled like and sounded like—and I wanted to try to find the family who rescued Sabti and my mother. I wanted to find my brother Jonny. I wanted to understand the soil from which my own life grew, and that even made my life possible, and uncover whatever was possible to know about the many stories we could no longer ask about Zbaraż, about our family, about all that had been lost—and to discover what and who could still be found to make sense of it all in our lives today.
Miryam Sas is a writer, scholar, and professor of Comparative Literature and Film & Media at the University of California, Berkeley. She earned her B.A. summa cum laude in literature from Harvard, her Ph.D. in Comparative literature and Japanese from Yale. The fields of memory studies and post-Holocaust representation within Jewish studies have long been among her comparative interests. Her dissertation project and first book, Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism brought models of memory and trauma to intervene in the debates about cross-cultural relations and to overturn simplistic models of influence. Many of her courses over the past two decades have taken post-Holocaust representation and war representations as key subject matter, and have drawn on examples from Japanese and European (and Jewish) literature, film, and culture. Her second scholarly book, Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan, contained a chapter on theatrical representations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and she once co-edited a catalogue of photographic representations of ground zero, Nagasaki Journey. Her next scholarly book, Feeling Media: Potentiality and the Afterlife of Art (Duke University Press, 2022) includes examples from post-3.11 Japanese contemporary art.
Her memoirs and stories have been published in the literary journals Change Seven, New World Writing Quarterly, Sanskrit, North Atlantic Review, Portland Review, Meow Meow Pow Pow, Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, and in Japanese in Subaru magazine and in a monthly series in Asunaro journal. Other writings, interviews and literary translations have been featured in Cabinet, Mondo 2000, Covert Culture Sourcebook, Luciole, [Five] Factorial, Newsweek Japan, among others, and in forthcoming books from New Directions and Brown University Press.
In addition to Comparative Literature and Film & Media, she serves as core faculty in the Center for Japanese Studies and affiliate faculty in the doctoral programs in Women, Gender and Sexuality, Performance Studies, Asian Studies, and East Asian Languages and Cultures. Miryam served as core faculty of the Joint Doctoral Program in Jewish Studies at Berkeley for seven years.
When she took her graduate qualifying exams in literature, her Professor Edward Kamens commented that he had never met someone less interested in “facts” than she was. In her old(er) age, she has come to find a passion for the historical archive, which means she has at last found a passion for “facts” as well as stories.