March 11: Of Archives, and Palestine

Kyiv at night, before the war

Teaching, in these dark days of war, is oddly sustaining,  a place to make some sense of things. I weave Ukraine and war, into my lectures – a constant compulsive return.

I am teaching the students about feminist archives. I want very much to convince them of the importance of the archival turn, a relatively new methodology in the humanities in which artists and scholars critically examine and redeploy official and unofficial archives.

The students are enthusiastic about feminism but are unmoved by archival theory. So I tell them about the archive of the Centre for Urban History in Lviv. I attended a webinar with the Centre earlier in the week. The people at the Centre are preserving archives of the present day, for the future. I tell the students that that the Centre has in its holdings a contemporary photographic archive of Mariupol. That, since the flattening of the city, this has become a very precious archive. That, when and if Mariupol is rebuilt, this archive will be of great use. I sense a shift in the air of the classroom. Perhaps now they are listening.

It’s strange to utter names like Mariupol and Donbas in the classroom. The words are close to my heart even though I’ve never been to either place. How I wish I had. I’ve heard Donetsk was once a beautiful city.

I speak with one of my students, J, a bright eyed Master’s candidate with fetish jewellery, elaborately made up, sad eyes over her mask, and a skateboard under her arm. Casually, I ask her how she’s doing, expecting to hear of midterm deadlines and hopes for warmer weather. Oh, you know, she says, with a shaky voice, eyes glittering. I’m Ukrainian. I have family in Kyiv. We diaspora Ukrainians are everywhere, moving through our own absurdly privileged lives as though in a dream.

My own relatives, my cousin R and her husband and 5 children, are safe, or relatively so. Last weekend they drove for twenty hours across Ukraine, seven souls and whatever belongings they could grab,  packed into a small car. They drove directly to the Polish border. R walked across, while her husband edged forward in a long queue of cars. R posted a selfie of herself and her kids in line at the border, her face a mask of shock. That photo chilled me to the bone. They spent the first two nights in a shelter in a small border town. I call on the third day, thinking they are still there, but they are on the road. R is laughing. Where are you I ask. We are in Warsaw, it’s such a beautiful city! Her voice is light, filled with both pleasure and tension. They have convinced their children that this is a vacation. Perhaps they have also convinced themselves. Relief sings through the fibre optic cables, in this miracle of a Facebook phone call. I was having panic attacks every night confides R. I was so worried about the children. To suddenly not hear air raid sirens and bombs. Yes, it must feel like the best vacation in the world.

They are headed to a friends’ place near the Baltic Sea. They are thinking of migrating to Canada.

I watch a Guardian video in which my people’s bodies are thrown into a mass grave in Mariupol. I recall being told as a child that my uncle Taras, my brother’s father, had been buried in a mass grave somewhere near Kyiv. I think about the children of forthcoming generations who will hear about their relatives’ bodies wrapped in body bags and thrown into muddy trenches. War and more war, echoing through all of our Ukrainian generations.

I’m reading Duras again – The War, her account of being part of the resistance movement in Paris during WW2. It helps me, to think about how she, and the bombed cities of Europe survived. It helps to read about war: ”In the street, I am like a sleepwalker. My hands are thrust deep into my pockets, my legs move forward. I must avoid the newsstands…”

While the world focuses on Ukraine, Israel unleashes more attacks on Palestine. Two homes in the West Bank are demolished, in supposed retribution for Palestinian boys stabbing two Israeli soliders in Jerusalem. For the first time, what’s going on there looks oddly familiar. Young men killing each other with unequal means. Illegal occupation. A colonized people defending themselves in whatever way they can. Knives vs. stun grenades. Genocide followed by resettlement. The shrinking of territory. Al Jazeera reports, on March 8:  Today, between 600,000 and 750,000 Israeli settlers live in at least 250 settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

I have attended solidarity marches for many years but, really, I have been so silent about Palestine. In The War, Duras writes of collective responsibility:

…If Nazi crime is not seen in world terms, if it isn’t understood collectively, then that man in the concentration camp at Belsen who died alone but with the same collective soul and class awareness that made him undo a bolt on the railroad one night somewhere in Europe, without a leader, without a uniform, without witness, has been betrayed […] the only possible answer to this crime is to turn it into a crime committed by everyone period to share it[….]  in order to bear it, to tolerate the idea of it, we must share the crime.


Duras, The War: A Memoir, The New Press, 1994.