We Hear and we Refuse to Believe
Bernard Hoepffner

The young boy would not speak. There had been no need for explanations. No one is a river. How, though, did he stand there, part of a world which - now - looks like patched up pieces of paper where lines of words lead to others, and connections have to be made arbitrarily, through melopoeia, thus provided with rhythm, thus eliminating the need to recognize words.

The harsh call of a fieldfare was heard from a birch tree at the very edge of the forest, yet it might have been a song thrush or a redwing, the young boy was ignorant of what reality lay behind the names, for him it was a foygl, not a thrush; it was a bird song: Niemand ist ein Fluß. / Niemand ist ein Fluß. / "Ein teil hat überlebt. / Und hat erlebt die stunde."

His name is Yankele. An old man now who has come to search, and, though he might well not be aware of this, to legend the images. He now knows for sure it was a fieldfare, never mind that the song has a melody only Turdus philomelos could produce. If he had come back, it was not to remember, it was to discover a correspondence with words hidden inside his memory.

"When the world is lost and correspondence along with it, the first thought is usually coherence. But the answer cannot lie in coherence alone; for a false or otherwise wrong version can hold together as well as a right one. Nor do we have any self-evident truths, absolute axioms, (...) to serve as touchstones in distinguishing right from among coherent versions..."

The young boy Yankele remembered everything, this was obvious, about this the old man has no doubt, yet the same memories in him had remained dormant, still, undisturbed, as if they had been formed in a foreign language from which all pointers had been removed, so that these memories are like a massive block of obsidian polished by the years to a vitreous lustre.

Thus: the old man follows the river, walks slowly along the left bank, starting early and arriving at noon, alone. "After we had been talking for a little less than two hours, he made it clear he didn't want to say more: I am nearly eighty years old, and... I don't want to have anything more to do with that era... I don't want to think about it any more." His father.

He met one farmer; the man stopped his lorry on a bridge, lowered his window, and asked him a question. Yankele raised his eyebrows and went on, carefully following the rails, which were more or less parallel with the long, narrow, often sinuous river, mostly hidden from him by ridges or mounds of sand, gravel and boulders, copses of aspen, birch, alder and pine.

No one is a river. This somehow makes sense, that stream flowing on, within or beneath the stagnant dark glacier, the smooth and compact dark mirror into which the language of this memory is caught. He hears, then sees a woodpecker; Kleinspecht, it is comforting to be able to give this bird a name, the tapping, then the call: ki. ki. ki. ki. ki. ki. Nieman.

The names in his memory are a series of proper nouns: sol, lida, sweechiani, smorgon, and vilna (this is of course Vilnius, the capital, so a proper name - but in his mind there is no correspondence). He had arrived in Vilnius the day before, and there, the smell of wet, burnt beams, wet plaster, soggy wallpaper during a group visit had blanked the river's image.

The Baltic countries will be cleaned of unpleasant memories because, when he arrives here the images in his eyes have no name, thus no function, and cannot even be used as symbols: one triangular structure in a clearing, like nothing, absolutely like nothing to which a name could be attached... Ponar is a name, but this label can be given to all that surrounds him.

The labels he has been using here, throughout (fieldfare, trench, lorry, or nieman) have been severed from his memory, because they belong to his father, although he is included in them, as a young boy who lived there and saw and heard everything with the proper corresponding names. And patterns, in Ponar cannot be of help as he has no direct access to that time.

The boy he was exists, young Yankele is there in the dark mirror, inside, as a movement that has lost its source and its outlet, a movement made - not meaningless, or gratuitous - but simply blank. "Suddenly we see ourselves teetering on the brink of an abyss. Any slight breeze, any wrong move on our part, may cause us to lose our balance and fall into the void."

And they were made to fall into the void; the young boy also fell, and Yankele - which was also the name of the boy - now, as he walks around a clearing ("the clearing" having no more meaning for him than the two syllables of keyver, a word he heard in the plane coming over), he hopes to see the features surrounding him without the frame of his language. Fiction.

He is a man void of understanding, the lies wait at every corner because he hoped he might reconcile everything around him with a fiction of the life he knows had been his (if not here, not very far): from words like trees, or tracks, but he should have given his steps their proper rhythm which he could easily, even before coming over, have known to be "troyern".

"What could be closer to a possible world than a world that once was? Isn't it true that in such a past place, all nouns, even common nouns, are proper names of things, motionless, rigidly designated, forever?" On his notebook he had copied a dozen such quotes from people who had possibly made a similar attempt or at least had tried to understand what memory was.

He had read others', and in reading them had found out they could not be appropriated; memories cannot be "told" or if they are they become tales, stories, they are outside looking in, while as a boy he was inside looking out. Reading, listening are a vicarious experiencing of chosen fragments of a life leading to empathy. As such they are, at best, a first step.

A butterfly landed on the lapel of his jacket and took off before he had time to give it a proper name though he would not have known all the butterflies of Northern Europe. The track came out of the tall grass and crossed a road which lost itself into the trees. There was the site of which it was said that "the earth trembled" and also that "the earth breathed".

As a young boy, Yankele had never been in Ponar, he had only heard or read about Ponar; he had been hidden. But some people had been there, people had created this place, then other people had been forced to wipe out the traces, and people had made a memorial of Ponar. Were the few Lithuanians killed by the Jews before they were shot also buried then burned here?

Were the murderers also included in the memorial? Did their children also come here, and had they lost all links with their youth? If the memories of every war and every genocide could be regained the way he was trying to regain his lost language, would human beings be able to overcome the panic that they contained? "These weeds are memory of those worser hours."

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Yankele's search for a correspondence that might link the frozen and indecipherable images belonging to the young boy with the language he is now using to write twenty-one paragraphs has been partly directed by his reading of what Itzak Dogan, Avraham Tory, Nelson Goodman, Walter Abish, Jacques Roubaud and Franz Baermann Steiner had attempted in their own search.