A fragment of the lecture I gave at the unveiling of the monument at the 17th century Jewish cemetery in Piła on June 2, 2015, translated into English:
What can be communicated through objects, and often just fragments of objects? What value do the broken mementos of the past have? Material remains of history can seem more and more distant from us. Preoccupied with our daily concerns, we rarely think them. The fragment of the Jewish cemetery in Piła, destroyed during the war, reminds us of earlier times of prosperity and peaceful coexistence among the city’s residents; it simultaneously reminds us of events that even today inspire anguish and opposition. It is understandable why people might try to forget painful memories. It might seem easier to look toward the future instead of back at the past. But reality is not so simple. Something connects us to the past, especially to tragic memories. They function below the level of consciousness and influence us in spite of our desire to forget.
A monument like this one on the remaining fragment of the Jewish cemetery in Piła is an expression not only of respect for the people buried in this place, but also a tool for focusing attention on what used to be. That life will never return, but recognizing its passage can serve as a reminder and a warning. A monument can help us establish a connection with the past and also with the future. It is impossible to think of the future without also thinking about the past. A monument invites us to learn about the history of this city and its residents. It encourages us to reflect on what remains—a fragment of the cemetery wall and several preserved tombstones. We can also have a dialog with nature as we stand under the oldest trees that were witnesses of the history of this place. This island of remembrance helps us connect with our humanity; it makes Piła a more beautiful city and its contemporary citizens better people. Standing in the preserved fragment of the cemetery, we remember all of the former residents of Piła who, like us, had their worries and dreams. From these memories, hope for a better future can emerge.
It is worth getting to know and understand what came before us so that we can understand ourselves better. The way we treat the tangible and intangible fragments of the city’s past communicates to those we associate with everyday, and to those who watch us from afar, including those who seek their own identity and roots.
When we listen to what fragments of the past have to tell us, the past comes alive. Fragments speak to us regardless of whether we try to remember or forget them. Although memories can cause us pain, the absence of memory can also wound us. This can happen when we close ourselves from the past and we don’t want to understand it. That is why it is better to remember and to try to understand the past as well as its influence on us. That is the only way we can heal the trauma of the horrors that transformed this place and so many other places like it.
Marked by a monument, this space functions differently than it did without the monument. The monument fills, however incompletely, the void left behind by loss. Left empty, the void could be interpreted as indifference, disrespect, and even a sign of hatred. A monument inspires memory work and contemplation. The cemetery has been returned to the map of the city and to the consciousness of its residents. It is once again a place for focusing on the experience of loss, and simultaneously on respect for the phenomenon of life. We are not alone. We share common feelings. Memory brings us closer to each other, making us a community despite our differences.
This translation is a little different from the Polish text. Even translating my own writing, some things are easier to express in one language than the other.