The Purpose of Memory

The Purpose of Memory

What is the purpose of memory? If we don’t look to history, what is it for?

Last night, in a dream, my grandmother and great uncle visited me. I thought of how long it had been since I’d seen them. Uncle Steve spoke of his immigration to Canada in 1952. In 1950, he had crossed into Austria illegally to escape Soviet Czechoslovakia. Before that, as a Jew, he had been “illegal,” a non-person, under the definitions of Hungary and Germany.

In my dream, my grandmother and great uncle were giants, tall and formidable. The three of us were searching for somewhere to go. We couldn’t find my grandmother’s apartment. The elevator wasn’t working. I’d left my purse somewhere.

We didn’t know where was home, what we could keep and what we would lose.

The extent of the abuse occurring today at the southern border of the U.S. will be revealed by history, and even then, the story will be incomplete, just as we’re still learning and struggling to understand what happened during the Holocaust. So many stories lost, precious few known or preserved.

We have said and believed never again. Yet now, there are concentration camps at the U.S. border.

The Trump regime recently expanded a policy enabling “expedited removal” of undocumented immigrants. According to Royce Bernstein Murray of the American Immigration Council, the new policy would allow the Department of Homeland Security “to essentially be both prosecutor and judge.1

Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, stated, “Under this unlawful plan, immigrants who have lived here for years would be deported with less due process than people get in traffic court.2

Before it joined the Axis in World War II, anti-Jewish hysteria swept Hungary. The country passed legislation that culminated in the Third Anti-Jewish Law, which emulated Germany’s Nuremberg laws.

On July 12, 1939, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published an article titled “Ruthless Anti-[J]ewish Drive Pressed by Hungary in Carpatho-Ukraine.” It stated, “[N]ow the Jews are being subjected to systematic persecution. Hundreds are receiving deportation orders and many are being pronounced ‘stateless’ without reason. Three hundred Jews have been arrested in the town of Kaschau alone as ‘illegal immigrants….’.3

By August, 1941, about 14,000 Jews were deported to German-occupied Ukraine by freight car. On August 27 and 28, the SS shot the deportees and the local Jewish population. Over two days, about 24,000 Jews were massacred in the forests of Kamenetz-Podolsk.

Never again is forward-looking. The actions of the current regime occupying the White House, its racist, xenophobic rhetoric, its policies, its concentration camps, parallel Hungary and Germany’s drive to genocide.

Formidable in their understanding, our ancestors visit our thoughts and dreams, delivering messages and mandates from the past. To refuse to listen is to dishonor them and to dishonor history. It is to reject the power of memory.


  1. Deanna on July 26, 2019 at 9:14 pm

    I just read this post & reread “What My Son Learned at School.” Thank you for fighting the good fight, not only for your family but for all of us. These occurrences MUST be taken seriously, not merely shrugged off as inconveniences. Stay strong, my friend!

    • Johannah Knudson on July 26, 2019 at 9:38 pm

      Thank you, Deanna!

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My Great Uncle Stefan
My Great Uncle Stefan