family history and genealogy

What Is Memory?

Memories & Souvenirs by ThunderchildAllen

A few weeks ago, while writing about my “discovery” of my great-grandfather Isadore Katz’s birthplace of Várpalánka, I made a mistake. I wrote at the time that my family had not lost anyone in the Holocaust, but this statement was incorrect. I learned about my error several days later, when my mother reminded me of some earlier conversations we had had on the topic.

Apparently, we did lose relatives in the Holocaust after all. I don’t know how many people we lost. It’s not clear just who they were. I don’t know their names, ages, residences, or even the nature of their relationship to my family, except that they were my great-grandmother Bertha Buxbaum’s people. Cousins, perhaps.

My mother recalls a great deal of anxiety about these relatives during the war years, when she was a girl. Nana and Baba—my great-grandparents—sent packages of clothing and food. They may have also sent money. Their son Martin made inquiries after the war, but he was never able to learn the fate of these lost relatives. After a time, the family assumed they had perished.

I can’t say I’m upset, or even surprised, about my failure to recall speaking with my mother about Nana’s lost relatives. My memory is fallible, just like everyone else’s. But I certainly found the lapse interesting and apropos of family history. Just about every scene, every assertion in my manuscript seems to ask: what is memory? The question is central for anyone searching the past, where memory—whether vague or clear, faulty or eidetic—is key to the whole enterprise.

 I should say a word about my great-uncle Martin Katz. It’s astonishing, the layers of memory I have accumulated about him. I saw him once a year when I was a child, usually at his home on Christmas day. He was tall, white-haired, and slender, and he carried himself with a slight stoop. His face was deeply creased. He must have shaved closely, for I never saw the grain of his beard.  He dressed neatly, in wool slacks, cashmere sweaters, and elegant blazers. I have an image of him wearing an ascot, although I’m not certain I ever saw him in one. He was at once jovial and oddly distant, a man who carried himself with a strange combination of warmth and reserve.

Martin must have been bright as a child, for he was wreathed in an aura of intelligence his entire life. He attended law school at Boalt Hall, clerked for the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, and served as a judge on the Van Nuys Municipal Court and Los Angeles Superior Court. My mother recalls that he was lenient with first offenders but meted out harsh sentences to career criminals. He was politically liberal and well-connected in state and local government, as one would expect a judge to be. As a young woman, my mother used to seek his advice before voting.

Scholar, jurist, pillar of the community … it’s tempting to think of such a man as being warmly connected to his family. Memories tend to clump together that way, positive with positive, negative with negative. But in Martin’s case, there is a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

Certainly there was ambiguity about his relations with his parents. My great-grandfather joined the Masons, an association that apparently irked his son. When Baba died, Martin hauled his regalia to the incinerator and burned it without ceremony, over the objections of other family members. Years later, when Nana was seriously ill, Martin stuck to his plans for a European vacation, again over the objections of family. Contacted by telephone after her death, he declined to return for the funeral.

Recalling Martin in this way leads me naturally back to the subject of memory itself. My recollections consist of three types. First, I see my own memories of Martin, filtered through the years. Images predominate, such as his closely shaven cheeks and elegant clothing, which I noticed as a child. That ascot, which he may or may not have actually worn, sums up my sense of my great-uncle: Martin was one classy fellow.

I wasn’t terribly sophisticated about behavior, but I still noticed his combination of warmth and reserve and perceived it as a posture. I understand now that we adopt a series of masks, or personae, to engage with the people in our lives. Martin probably spoke to me in the voice and manners one adopts around children. The adults in the room may have seen him differently.

Second, I see memories I have received from my mother. She recalls Martin through her own filter of years, of course. She also passed on to me many of the stories I have heard about Martin, such as his strife with his parents or his toughness in the courtroom. These recollections of my mother’s now merge with my own store of memories. I would wager also that my mother carries around her own share of received memories, stories bequeathed to her by her parents, grandparents, and other elders. Martin’s aura of intelligence undoubtedly originated with those elders.

Third, I see emotional coloration in the memories my mother and I hold of Martin. His stoop, his closely shaven cheeks, and elegant clothing—these things represent not only themselves but also the characteristics I associate with him. They are elements in my portrayal of him as a gentle, nonthreatening man—hardly the image defendants in his courtroom would have held.

As for a definition of memory, I’ll venture one right here. Memory is a mental image of a person, event, sensory impression, or previously acquired knowledge. It consists of primary recollections, based on our own experience, secondary recollections, received from others, and a certain quantity of error. In addition, a memory bears the coloration imparted to it by emotions, attitudes, and ideologies—both our own and those of others. This definition might not satisfy the psychologist or neuroscientist. But it’s useful as a rough guide to our inner lives and the way we represent our thoughts on the page.

The more specific a memory is, the greater our chances of storing and retrieving it. The vagueness of the recollections my mother shared with me of the Holocaust victims in our family explains my failure to remember them. Without faces, names, or hometowns, there was almost nothing for my mind to grasp and retain.

Forgetting is not only an accident, but a response to the past in its own right. We might think of forgetting as a form of negative memory. A thing that is forgotten is still a thing that once existed, however, and it is part of the way the living represent the past. In other words, forgetting is also material for the writer: a gift and an obligation, just like memory.

© 2012 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.


  1. Mariann Regan

    I like the idea of forgetting as a form of negative memory. Forgetting can be purposeful, even when done subconsciously. I think the mind has "safety features," and forgetting is one of them. Your memories of Martin seem to suit what you needed him to be when you were a child — I have memories like this, too. In our family, no one every talked about the fact that our ancestors (on both sides) owned slaves. I did not know this fact until I was well through middle age. That feels like a semi-deliberate forgetting, to me. My family memoir (see blog) is an inquiry into what big effects this huge "forgotten" reality has had upon our family, through the generations. Your writing is thoughtful and nuanced, and I like it.

    • andykubrin

      Hi Mariann, and thanks for reading. The more I think about it, the more I realize how rich a topic forgetting is. Of course, forgetting serves many different functions, and \”safety feature\” is just one. And there are so many different types of forgetting: forgetting the facts, remembering false facts, remembering actual facts but forgetting their significance, etc. Definitely a great topic for family historians.
      Thanks for reading and commenting. I\’ve been enjoying your blog, too.

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