Monday, June 21, 2010

The ashes of memory

In the late spring of 1945, a group of resistance fighters watch the Brenner Pass, hidden in the forest, on the steep mountain range dividing occupied Northern Italy from annexed Austria. A long column of military convoys is heading north: a defeated army on the run, a heavy march of infantry, armored vehicles, artillery. A human mass in disarray, the tentacles of conquer hastily retreating, the invincible army that terrorized Europe finally crushed. Hour after hour, they watch the German army go by, the mass of tired soldiers, the acrid smell of defeat, the metal rattling of tanks, the shouting. They watch for an endless time, until the human river begins to dry out. Fewer soldiers now pass and the noise dies out in a shower of faint echoes bouncing around the mountain tops. It is cold at this altitude in the Alps, even that late into the spring. Silence. The partisans keep watch. The Brenner Pass is empty and silent, as if all that immense retreat had been but a passing dream in the much larger river of history. Then silence is broken once more. A single military vehicle advances on the same road. A different color, a different flag. American. The end of World War II.

One of those partisans was my father. He was fifteen at the time. During those five years of war he saw the sealed trains heading slowly north along that same route, that cut through the majestic wall of dolomitic rock. The trains carrying their human cargo to the furnaces of Birkenau. They fought a guerrilla war, barely more than children at the time, against the most powerful and technologically advanced army of Europe. They fought in the name of that Socialist future they were hoping to create... "to conquer our red spring, where the sun of our radiant future rises". Songs, memories, words transmitted and repeated. My father passed away some ten days ago. With his ashes we bury a part of our memories, of our connection to the defining moments of European history.

Memory is the most precious possession of human civilization. We keep historical records, we create literature and art, to the purpose of maintaining a link to our collective and individual past, preserving human history near and far, recording, whenever possible, not only the facts, but a sense of the feelings that went with them. Memory fades away slowly, until it passes suddenly into nothingness, in that transition of substance from alive to inanimate. What stays behind are not the improbable afterlives depicted by religions, but the gestures that enriched the lives of others, and a few scattered thoughts, collected in writings and in whatever other forms of artistic expression we leave behind when we depart. Ultimately, all human acts are transitive and impermanent, but the larger texture of history, to which they all contribute their part of the thread, grows on and transforms.

There will be still, one day, young guerrilla fighters watching powerful invading armies from the mountaintops. They will not be the same men and women who fought the resistance war against the Nazi back in 1945, as my parents did. Whoever and wherever they will be, they will share similar songs and similar thoughts, and will pass on their memories to their next generation. Meanwhile, we, the descendants of those partisans, who knew the postwar Europe they helped to create, will continue their fight in whichever way our time permits.

... Con lo stesso impegno che si chiama, ora e sempre, Resistenza
(Piero Calamandrei)