Prison was a central pillar of communism and an experience shared by generations of eastern Europeans. The USA today can also be described as a carceral society, its prison system the expression of a ‘new Jim Crow’. What does the comparison mean for the definition of the ‘political prisoner’? A conversation.

Marci Shore: The original impetus for this forum was horror of the children being taken away from their parents at the American border, and my thought that we should use material from the Fortunoff archive to prepare a film about parent-child separation during the Holocaust. This then opened a larger question about historical comparison.

How do we understand both the uses and disadvantages of thinking across time and space? How do we negotiate the fact that in any biography or historical event, there are both elements that are unique, and elements that are universal? For me, these questions belonged to a larger question: namely, how can we understand somebody else’s experience? We cannot see into someone else’s soul or live someone else’s experience. But some kind of understanding must be possible.

I’m American, but I’m a historian of eastern Europe. Since Donald Trump, however, one of the things I’ve come to appreciate is the centrality of mass incarceration in the context both of American racism in particular and of our political system more broadly. Many of the people I’ve known in eastern Europe, especially among the generation born just after the war, have also had the experience of being in prison – in their cases, as political prisoners.

For a still earlier generation – the avant-garde poets, for example, who got themselves involved in communism – there was an assumption that sooner or later you would sit in prison. In an interview with Antonín Liehm in the late 1960s, the Czech novelist Jiří Mucha, born in 1915, described prison as ‘simply a writer’s postgraduate education’.

And I thought: perhaps, across all these differences, there is a conversation worth having?

Irena grew up in postwar Warsaw, in a family of Polish-Jewish communists. And Dwayne grew up in inner-city Washington, DC. The differences are obvious. But I also wonder whether there aren’t moments of connection.

You’ve both had formative experiences of prison. Poetry has played a central role in both of your lives. You’ve both found yourselves speaking for the world from which you come, for your friends, for people who have been locked behind walls of different kinds.

And you’ve both been, it seems to me, extraordinarily loyal to those places and those people; neither of you has erased where you’ve come from or tried to free yourself from associations that might be painful or cause people to treat you and the world from which you come as if you and it were inferior. You’ve never lost your commitment to explaining those worlds to a wider world.

In this sense you’ve both played the role of translator, sometimes literally, but more often figuratively. Irena’s native language is Polish, she learned Russian and French growing up in Poland, and Italian and English as an immigrant, first in Italy, then in the United States.

And Dwayne, you command bilingualism as well. When I read, say, the ‘Overheard in New Haven’ conversations you relate in your Facebook posts, I often literally don’t understand the languages. It’s your language – but it’s not the language you speak, say, to me. You code-switch, as Irena does when she moves between English and Polish in, say, New York, depending on who’s joining or leaving a conversation. So, I was thinking about the connections among poetry, prison, language, loyalty and friendship…

Dwayne Betts: One thing about being in the American melting pot is that everybody else disappears. I think partly it’s because as children we don’t learn geography, and partly because we don’t learn world history. We aren’t seeking to migrate to other countries. We tend to really be disconnected from the rest of the world. So, my question for you, Irena, is what aspects of your early education ultimately shaped your identity and the choices that you ended up making as a young adult?

Irena Grudzińska Gross: For me prison was a shattering experience, because I had to face a reality that I didn’t understand. My parents were communists and went to prison before the Second World War. In communist Poland, my father was in the government and my mother a physician in the best Warsaw academic hospital.

There was a lot they did not tell me and my brother about themselves. But the stories we did hear were about their illegal communist activities in pre-war Poland. It all sounded very noble. They never expected that the regime they helped to create would turn against their child and against them.

Dwayne Betts: I didn’t go to prison because I was a dissident. In fact, I wasn’t political at all. This feels contrary to what people think about mass incarceration. It creates, for me, a disconnect between my former identity as a prisoner and my current identity as someone who wants to radically change our system of incarceration – I have trouble recognizing the continuum.

I was watching a video of a young Black man in Chicago. He was probably my age or close to my age, maybe a decade younger. He said growing up every day was a risk, that you had to carry a gun because you might get shot, and that because you had a gun, you had to stay away from the police because the gun was illegal.

Now I’m not suggesting that the experience that he described is the typical experience of Black men in America. But when I think about the community of men that I was a part of as a teenager, and when I think of the community of men in prison, the through-line of the experience tends to be playing with guns, engaging in violence. And that’s quite contrary to being incarcerated because you were in opposition to the state. And still, I believe I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages.

Irena Grudzińska Gross: Brodsky.

Dwayne Betts: See? But if you know, you know. And if you don’t know – then you might think I’m talking about myself. And maybe I did experience a profound mistreatment by my government, but the beginning of it, the kernel of it, was not protest and was not a fight for justice or democracy. It was a sort of villainous act.

Irena Grudzińska Gross: When I came to the United States, I was talking once to a lady, Marjorie Schell, she was a peace activist, she organized the Vietnam war-era Pan Am boycott . We spoke a long time ago, 1974. And she told me she was fighting against mass incarceration. She was a white lady. She was saying, ‘all these prisoners are political prisoners’.

I was incensed. People who committed crimes cannot be compared to political prisoners. I thought. But now I’ve completely changed my mind. Because being a dissident in Poland or in Russia or any other communist country was breaking the law. It was very often mischievous. It was often not very heroic, just fun. And it was not very politically conscious. At least in my case. Of course I cannot say it for the entire student movement, though it happens often in history that actions have unexpected consequences. So, I was very surprised when I went to prison.

Ostrów prison, Poland, where many Solidarity activists were imprisoned during martial law. Author: Stiopa. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dwayne Betts: I was surprised, too!

Irena Grudzińska Gross: Being a dissident was what happened in later years. But when I was in prison that term did not yet exist, or was not applied to us, imprisoned students. Many of us had very idealistic motivations, but the fact was that we were breaking boundaries. Not violently, there were no weapons. America, in this respect, is unique. But you were a teenager. Everybody was doing things when they were teenagers that were illegal, challenging, and so on. So, I don’t feel that there is such a big difference.

Dwayne Betts: I struggle with it as an artist, but I also struggle with it as a father. As a parent, you frequently find yourself holding on to the failures of your children as your own, you know. And I’m certain that my mother was ashamed. My mother won’t grow into a belief that me pulling a pistol out on a man asleep in his car was somehow noble.

I think about George Jackson and how he became a political prisoner. It is not what he did to get to prison. Jackson had gotten incarcerated as a teenager for an armed robbery and was sentenced to one year to life. While serving his time in California, he became a Black Panther and a voice for Black liberation. Our ideas about mass incarceration won’t change the perception of the individual crimes that lead to people’s incarceration, despite the legitimate ways we criticize the system. In other words, I am not sure that vis-à-vis incarceration alone, we become George Jackson.

Am I a dissident? I know I was out there robbing people for nothing: not really for money, without a strategy. I was trying to get killed. And it’s hard to hold that truth and imagine myself a revolutionary.

I want to talk about mass incarceration in the same way that I talk about your incarceration, but it just seems like something is missing. And I guess that goes to the question of the uses of comparison. You know, for me, the use of comparison is to help make clear my own understanding of the current context. Brodsky makes me understand how incarceration made me feel like an eternal exile to my community. And it clarified my relationship to the state, without this relationship being in any way synonymous to his.

Irena Grudzińska Gross: I have two children. And I was always telling them, the one thing that I don’t want is for you to go to prison. Because the American prison for me is a vision of hell, basically. I think about the American prison as a place of concentrated violence, because the people inside are put into these extreme conditions.

I do respect enormously how people deal with their incarceration. This is something that is incredibly difficult. And the people who manage to turn this into something useful for other people as well – that is incredibly impressive.

Dwayne Betts: I’m going to read you a poem … I’ve actually never read this poem before. And I’m not even going tell you what it’s about because, if it’s a good poem, you should know what it’s about when I read it. It’s called, ‘In the Center of Every City is a Memory’ and it’s dedicated to my friend Daniel’s mother.

Everything lost fits into a story:
memories, time, & all of histories
forgotten caverns. The story is always
a song & the song is always about

music & after it’s told the world echoes
all changed, changed utterly.

New York was then a different kind
of exile, a city at the center of everything,
begging for those lost to become lost
again, those faces darkened by exile,

& all the hours it takes to carry you
from there, whatever there is in the past
that is buried, to here. We never understand.

This is what Daniel says, in a way,
we never understand. The reluctant gift
of mystery is what he means.

In the story the only song is the dress,
it is history & legacy, yours & all that ties
strangers to the teeming & endless
& mercurial city that neither sleeps or pauses.

The dress is the color of freedom & when
you walk out in the world, becoming
softened by the smiles, welcomed by the faces

that recognize you, somehow, as if an ocean
& history is not the burden that it is.
I’m told the dress was knitting by the hands

of someone who would miss you.
At some point you realized why the men &
women smiled, everything they’d learned

about this country had made them too
feel exiled, & there you were,
unknowingly saying that economics

is the science of knowing home
is found quickest by those who share
what others have lost.

Irena Grudzińska Gross: That’s how it is.

Dwayne Betts: You should never explain a poem. But I love the story behind this one. I wrote it for my friend’s mother. She was from Poland. And they moved to the United States, and she didn’t speak English, and they moved to New York.

And so she would go around, and Black folks would always, like, smile at her. And, you know, we got a certain kind of confirmation bias, right? So at first, she just thought Black people liked her, though she didn’t understand why they would smile and wave and pump a fist in the air when they’d see her. She didn’t speak English well at the time. And then it hit her that it was only when she was wearing this one dress.

The dress was red, black, and green. This was the ’70s, and so these Black folks that would see her connected her to their struggle for equal rights and their struggle against racism. The colours of her dress were the same colours as the Black Liberation flag, so they saw it as an expression of kinship. And anyway, my man tells me this story and it demanded a poem. And when we graduated from Yale Law School, I gave it to his mom.

Irena Grudzińska Gross: I really absorbed it very personally, which is the way that poetry should be read, or heard, absorbed. Yes, it’s a beautiful, an amazing thing. You took my breath away.

Dwayne Betts: Wow, thank you.

Jeff Goldfarb: One thing that interested me is that you both described your experience of being imprisoned as starting with surprise. You shared a common response. But what was behind the common response for each of you?

Irena Grudzińska Gross: I have a feeling of shame about my experience because I truly did not understand my situation. And I am now obsessed with trying to figure it out. I’m writing about people who were in prison in Stalinist Russia. And I see that I get very irritated at their memories when, even years later, they do not understand what was going on,

But I was like them. I was young, but I was not that young, I was not a teenager. I absolutely did not understand what I was doing. And I should have expected the consequences of my actions. Actually, I was told – Jacek Kuroń told me directly. Jacek was one of the two people – the other was Karol Modzelewski – whom we considered our leaders. They went to prison for writing a critique of the regime.

We distributed their work, tried to help them get out. When they were liberated, we were in full rebellion. In 1968 we were preparing an illegal demonstration, I was very, very enthusiastic, overjoyed. Jacek kind of shook me and said: you know, we are all going to prison. I did not believe him. He’d just come out, eight or nine months prior. A few days after that conversation, he was back. Our demonstration was assaulted by the militia and soon all the schools and universities in Poland were in revolt. I was interrogated by the police, but the moment I understood I was trapped, that I was not going to be released, I was astonished.

The government propaganda was that we – the group of rebellious students – were ‘Zionists’, which was their way of saying Jews, but denying that it was ‘race’ they meant, only our free political choice. I knew I was ‘of Jewish origin’, which was our way, the way of assimilated people, not to use the word Jew. I certainly considered myself Polish; I was brought up as a Pole and I did not ever face for myself the issue of my origin.

Many years later, in the US, I read an interview with Hannah Arendt who said that her mother told her: when you are attacked as a Jew, you have to defend yourself as a Jew. I did not know how to defend myself. I was accused of being an alien, without any right to do what I was doing, since I was not Polish and did not represent anyone. It shook me to the core.

Dwayne Betts: I was surprised, too. But I was surprised more as if somebody had thrown cold water on my face. I was young. I was sixteen. I’d read Stolen Legacy, I’d read Things Fall Apart, I’d read a lot. And what I knew about the world from books was that, in committing my crime, I wasn’t the man that I expected to be. And I didn’t even fully realize it until the cuffs were on my wrists.

While they were a very small subset of folks I know, I had friends who committed crimes – I knew people who committed robberies, fought in the streets, carried pistols. And though I had never held a gun until the night I committed my crime, though I wasn’t even a fighter – you drift into things sometimes. You don’t believe being adjacent to the madness – or I didn’t believe being adjacent to the madness – might one day put me at the centre of it.

I thought that we could exist in the world in this way without ever having anybody challenge either the prudence of the behaviour or the legitimacy of the behaviour. When I got incarcerated, and I expected to go home because I hadn’t confronted on my own how illegitimate my actions were. And the surprise quickly went to shame.

I have no robust account of what accountability is. If I murder somebody’s son, what do I owe? Not in a superficial way, but what do I actually owe? And the reality is that most folks are probably willing to do ten or twenty years rather than to pay what they owe. I mean, my homeboy, he was convicted of murder… I just went up to the parole board for him. I’m arguing for him to be free. He’s done twenty years. He’s forty now. Let’s say he lives to be seventy, he gets another thirty years of freedom. But somebody’s son has been dead for the  decades he’s been in prison and the decades that he will be free. And if what he owes is to be this mother’s son?

You might find he just says, ‘I actually don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be the son of two mothers. I would rather do the time.’ Though, my friend likely would have long committed to being that woman’s son, because inside you have a far better appreciation of what you owe than the world gives you credit for.

When you tell me what you did, I find that it’s absurd for me to try to compare my conduct to yours. Thinking about the experience of people who are fashioning their actions as a fight for freedom or fight for democracy or a fight for justice… If I hold up their conduct as a mirror to my own, I find that the reflections don’t match. And the ways in which the reflections don’t match trouble me immensely. And I actually don’t really know what to do with it. The comparison is revealing because it helps me understand why I’m so uncomfortable with my own regrets.

District commander with the keys of sector B/13 in his belt in 1985 at one of communist Hungary’s renowned juvenile prisons in Tököl. Photo by Fortepan / Urbán Tamás.

Irena Grudzińska Gross: You know, I did things that caused a lot of harm to my family. My mother was kicked out of her job. My father was kicked out of his job. My father would have been fired anyhow – 1968 was a purge of old comrades by the new apparatchiks. But the fact is that the consequences of my being in prison were dire for everybody around me. But I have never regretted what I did. What I do regret very much is that I was so stupid, that I didn’t understand the politics of what was happening. Hence my obsession is now to understand everything.

I think that the difference between our stories is radical because the United States is a country of violence, unlike any other country that I know of. The fact that everybody can have a gun – this is mind boggling. The fact of so many weapons in private hands – this privatization of violence, when in other countries the violence is state-owned. It’s something that completely changes the possibilities of dissidence.

Dwayne Betts: I don’t know if I agree with that. I’m not like a pro-gun rights person. But I got my gun permit right there, though. It’s actually on my wall. It’s interesting ’cause… you look astonished!

Irena Grudzińska Gross: I am.

Dwayne Betts: In the United States, you know, a lot of states strip you of your right to vote if you have a felony conviction. You might decide to move to a different state to get the right to vote, but most states won’t give you a right to own a gun. The gun is almost a badge of citizenship in the United States – until no one has a gun. And so I wanted to get my gun rights back. And I went back to Virginia, and I appeared before a judge because I wanted the judge to have to confront who I am now.

I’m probably in agreement that most people shouldn’t have guns at all, but given that people have a right to carry guns, to hunt, for protection, as pieces of brutalist art, I wanted a judge to have to look at me and make a decision about whether or not I had access to all the rights of an American citizen. And so I went before the judge and the prosecutor. The judge said, ‘I am going to grant this’, and ‘does the state have anything to say in the opposition?’

Now, mind you, I’ve been in front of a judge and a prosecutor in that very court house before. Then, having pleaded guilty to carjacking, the prosecutor was calling me a menace to society and suggesting that I be punished to the full extent of the law, which at that point was a life sentence. Twenty years later, the prosecutor in this same city, in this same courtroom where a judge sentenced me to nine years, says to the court, ‘this guy is a super citizen. I have nothing to say except I commend him on all of his positive work.’

In some ways it’s kind of moot. I have a permit to own a gun in Virginia. But the permit is worthless in Connecticut. In Connecticut, a felon cannot own a gun. I am still a felon, unless I’m pardoned. So I do not own a gun. The last time and only time I touched a gun was the night I robbed and attempted to rob some folks.

I’m certain people would think me absurd for saying the right to own a gun is the mark of full citizenship. And I hear the absurdity of it in my own head. But there is a tension – who determines full participation in society? What should it be permissible to give up? Maybe the right to bear arms, in exchange for a prison system that isn’t as wretched. Maybe the right to vote in exchange for a prison system that doesn’t believe that years and years and years in prison solve anything.

Anyway, there are dissidents here. People in the street. And the kinds of rights they are fighting for, the freedoms they are demanding, are capacious. The Black Lives Matter protests. I see your story reflected in that work. I think. Because they are about trying to radically transform the society.

Irena Grudzińska Gross: You know, in eastern Europe now, in Poland and in Belarus, there are powerful, active movements that are structured very similarly to Black Lives Matter. In Poland the movement was triggered by an extreme abortion ban and is organized by women. It took on even the Catholic Church, which never happened in my lifetime. In Belarus, the massive protest was triggered by stolen elections. It too is organized and led by women. In both countries the state has a monopoly of violence and people do not own guns. These are street movements, with massive support. They have an ideology of care, loose structure, no leadership that you can arrest and remove, and then the movement is finished.

In Poland the state has so far been relatively restrained. But in Belarus there have been mass arrests, tortures and killings. The difference between Black Lives Matter and these movements is that there’s no street violence, no eruptions of looting, there’s not even a threat of this type of violence.

It’s a very, very radical difference. And it’s a difference that is historically motivated. The Solidarity movement in Poland in 1980 was a pacifistic movement. Not only because all the weapons were on the other side, but also because of a certain tradition. Violence doesn’t make sense there.

Dwayne Betts: In the United States, within these movements, we have a conflicted understanding of what it means to be incarcerated. There is more grey area in conduct that is criminal than there should be. Even saying that, I hear the criticism that Dwayne sounds like a conservative.

I had a poem that said some people are throwing the trash can through Sal’s window, calling that protest. I’m talking about Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. And at the end of the movie, after they choke out Rodney King and kill him, a protest erupts that includes the destruction of Sal’s Pizzeria.

What seems to justify the destruction of Sal’s Pizzeria is that Sal was a racist. Even within that film, it is subtly suggesting that a certain kind of criminality is okay if like, the ideology that the people who are engaged in it believe in is right.

But I also feel that first it’s important to say that when we talk about protests in the street, and we talk about Black Lives Matter, that frequently the police started the violence.

Marci Shore: This difficulty of grasping how a single person can be both victim and the perpetrator is also at the centre of the debates about Polish–Jewish relations during the war. The difficulty of coming to terms with Polish antisemitism and the role of Poles as co-perpetrators of violence against Jews is bound up with the overwhelming reality of Poles as victims of the Nazis. Why is it so difficult for us to come to terms with how the victim and the perpetrator can be one and the same person? Why are we wedded to thinking in dichotomies given that much of our lives are lived in conditions of moral ambiguity?

Irena Grudzińska Gross: I am not making the Polish and Belarusian movements saintly, at least not intentionally. But I think I am right in describing them as non-violent. Rightwing movements in Poland are extremely violent and the pre-war leftist movements in Poland were also very violent. The states in Poland and Belarus are as violent as all states are. But I am making a much more limited point, which is possibly wrong: that the eruptions of violence during Black Lives Matter demonstrations are conditioned by people’s possession of weapons. That causes an acceptance of violence as means of expression of social anger.

Dwayne Betts: I think the problem is that the critique of mass incarceration doesn’t equip us with the tools to understand crime. And because it doesn’t equip us with the tools to understand crime, I think sometimes we are at odds. You know, if I support the end of mass incarceration, does that mean that I can’t vigorously protest certain kinds of criminal conduct?

I used to be on panels, and they would say: ‘Dwayne, don’t tell people what you were locked up for.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, don’t tell people what I was locked up for?’ They said, ‘well, that’s kind of counterproductive, and it makes people focus on the crime and not the policy.’ And I was like, ‘Well, if I put a gun in your face, you’re going to focus on the crime.’

And then they’d say, no, you’re joking, right? And I’d say, ‘See, that’s the thing: you don’t like crime and violence either, but you’re afraid to confront it because if you do, you might end up agreeing with the people who think I should spend the rest of my life in prison.’

I think we don’t discuss it enough in the United States. And because we don’t discuss it enough, we can’t get to the root of why every conversation about Black Lives Matter ends up also being a discussion of looting.

I think we’re consistently attempting seventeen different conversations simultaneously, and all of them are contradictory. And maybe clarity comes when we recognize that Black Lives Matter, in this moment, gives us a lens to contemplate and challenge police violence.

But I think the other tension arises when we necessarily expand the conversation as a condemnation both of police violence and mass incarceration. This tension, the one I hold close to vest, is that if you just talked about violence and the historic notion of Black communities being under-protected by the police, and overincarcerated and overpoliced, you would ultimately have to ask why I thought it was okay to pull a pistol on someone. No matter how we appreciate the broader societal challenges, that question demands an individual explanation that is never going to be satisfactory.

I think the answer to those two things often feels at odds. And it’s smarter people than me who have thought about it. I’m just a poet. And I think about getting people out of prison, based on who they are in this moment, not who they were when they committed the crime. Many people don’t like my friends who have been convicted of murder and robbery, many of these people are in state legislatures and on parole boards and working as prosecutors, not to mention just shopping in your local grocery. And many of these people would want to see my friends and others like them stay in prison forever. The fact that those serving ten- and fifteen- and fifty-year sentences aren’t the emblem of the fight against mass incarceration is telling.

You won’t find many stories arguing for their freedom.  You will find documentaries arguing for the freedom of people who are innocent and were exonerated or are still in prison. But you will not find a single documentary – a popular documentary – that’s about somebody like me, who was guilty and confessed and did their time, but probably shouldn’t have been imprisoned for as long as I was or in places as violent as I the ones I was in. Like, we don’t have a story. I’m sure there are people making the arguments that we need to dramatically decrease prison sentences and radically reimagine parole. It’s just not at the centre of the talk and I fear the reasons why it’s not.

No, wait, this is not exactly true. I recently saw the documentary Time, by Garrett Bradley. It’s about a woman’s fight for her husband’s freedom in Louisiana. Unlike most of these stories, her husband was guilty of robbing a bank. She’d been there too and was sentenced to maybe three years. Unlike most documentaries that cover a twenty-year stretch, you don’t have images from year 1 or year 2 or year 5. You’re recreating things. In this case, Fox had kept these home videos, as a way to make sure her children knew their father and that he could share some of the moments that he was missing when he came home. The documentary is heart-breaking and stunningly joyous and wild in that you see this woman age and fight and mature and fight, and the question is not about innocence or guilt, but when enough is enough.

Marci Shore: Dwayne, you just brought up the difference between the person who committed a crime and the person he or she might be twenty, thirty years later. This raises a philosophical question about the continuity of the ‘I’ across time. Critics of postmodernism have pointed to the turn in Heidegger’s post-war philosophy away from anything approaching a substantive subjectivity, to Paul de Man’s deconstructionist insistence that texts undermine themselves, and to Hans Robert Jauss’s insistence on the non-identicality of the I who is remembered and the I who is remembering, as being too personally advantageous for thinkers who have a vested interest in separating their past selves from their present selves.

Neither Heidegger, nor de Man, nor Jauss took responsibility for their engagement with Nazism – none of them owned his past the way you do every time you speak. So there’s a question about guilt, confession, responsibility, and about the relationship between taking responsibility and the continuity of the self across time. I think this question, perhaps in a slightly different way, is also central to the relationship of Irena, her friends and their milieu/generation of 1968 in Poland, to their parents. Did – do – your parents acknowledge their complicity, their guilt? Did they take responsibility for their own past?

Irena Grudzińska Gross: From early on in my life I asked my parents about their past. Without understanding much, I sensed that there were secrets that had to be faced. This may have been one of the reasons for the rebellion of my group of friends. My parents did not speak about their past; they were masters of not talking about what was most important. My mother told me some facts I had been asking about for years and years only after she turned one hundred.

In the early Stalinist times, they did not talk about it because they were afraid. They continued to be afraid after 1956. And then, after 1989, they did not talk about it because they were ashamed. I understand it was very difficult for them to review their lives in an atmosphere of total ideological devaluation. The old comrades had not only been defeated, they had also been humiliated.

For me the most important fact is that the system they were part of was organized in such a way as to subjugate every individual, so that nobody could say ‘I lived my life honestly and I maintained self-respect.’ There are ways to expiate guilt; but humiliation remains.

I was very angry, especially at my mother, who escaped into her work and denied everything else. Now that she is over 100 years old, we have both mellowed. My experience of prison was humiliating. Her experience of prison, Nazi camp, party membership was humiliating. She did not want to talk about it. When forced by me to say something, she played down her past beliefs. When I retreated and stopped asking, she told me some facts. A family mini-tragedy.

 

This is a shortened and revised version of the transcript of a conversation held on 9 December 2020, first published by Public Seminar. It is part of a larger forum engaging artists and authors, from very different places and writing in very different genres, in a conversation on ‘the uses and disadvantages of historical comparisons for life’. Read Marci Shore’s introduction to the project in Eurozine. A collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the Democracy Seminar, and the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at the New School for Social Research.

Published 24 January 2022
Original in English
First published by Public Seminar

Contributed by Public Seminar © Dwayne Reginald Betts / Irena Grudzińska Gross / Jeff Goldfarb / Marci Shore / Public Seminar / Eurozine

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