“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner wrote in “Requiem for a Nun.” Holocaust survivor Ava Kadishson Schieber’s memories of surviving the Holocaust and its aftermath attest to this dictum’s accuracy. Schieber spent four years hiding on a farm during World War II, starting at age fifteen. The experience “turn[ed her] into an old woman of nineteen.” Many of her friends and family did not survive. The author tells some of their stories in her important, powerful book “Present Past,” serving as a witness to collective trauma and as survivor forging her own life after her brutal childhood.
To this end, “Present Past” is a collection of prose, poems and drawings about the disconnected nature of memory and the stamp the Holocaust left on how the author processes experiences. Schieber’s prose pages are numbered and somewhat linear, though her recollections and stories occasionally fold back on themselves or jump forward in time. Her poems and drawings are pageless; they sit within her prose as interruptions, reminding us how the Holocaust disrupted life’s progress. “Floating within the air / showing the entire rainbow color range / a soap bubble / arouses a strange urge to catch / the splendor / although it will rupture at the touch / like an emotion resisting capture,” the author writes, highlighting the impossibility of representing memory in any tangible or focused way.
Schieber is careful to tell us, however, that gaps in knowledge and memory are also gifts. She says while painting, “I leave blank spaces on the canvas to represent the past for which I have no details or distinct color.” She emphasizes the absences dotting the landscape of her past and the ways in which they inform her present. She also cultivates these voids to live a fuller life: “This is why, even today, I can part with what I like and hold in my memory what I love. This freedom from ownership is my war profit.” Schieber’s testimony of life after the Holocaust begs to be heard, and in the fiery rhetoric of today’s political climate we’d be wise to listen. (Amy Strauss Friedman)
By Ava Kadishson Schieber
Northwestern University Press, 216 pages, $24.95