It was August of 2003, seven years since my family first emigrated from Ankara, Turkey to the U.S. and four years since, during one of our annual summer visits back, my father was murdered violently in an attack on the apartment we used to call home. It was my first time back to Turkey since the summer of the attack. I was sixteen years old, and as my mother, brother and I entered the apartment I was overcome with emotions at the scene before me. The walls were black with dust, the furniture was upturned and torn up where bullets had been excised, and the remaining police tape stood as a testament to the time-capsule the apartment had become, sealed off from the rest of the world since the days of the investigation and trial. But it was more than grief I felt as my family stood on the brink of this eerily preserved space. I felt guilt, because I knew that a part of me had wanted desperately to come back to Ankara, even to this very spot, since my father’s death. I also felt confusion, because in that moment—finally confronted with the terrifying scene before me—I wanted to know why it was that I had been pining to return.
A similarly painful homecoming is examined by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer in their essay “‘We Would Not Have Come Without You’: Generations of Nostalgia.” The essay describes a 1998 trip Hirsch and Spitzer took accompanied by Lotte and Carl Hirsch, Marianne’s parents, to Lotte and Carl’s hometown of Czernowitz, now Chernivtsi, Ukraine. Although Czernowitz, of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire, was once their beloved home, it was also the place where Carl and Lotte “had suffered anti-Semitic persecution, Soviet occupation, internment in a Nazi ghetto… and… survived the Holocaust” (256). By blending accounts of Carl and Lotte’s first return trip—decades later—with their accompanying narratives about the past, Hirsch and Spitzer seek to answer the question: “why go at all to this place that for Carl and Lotte had been, in Eva Hoffman’s words, ‘home in a way, but…also hostile territory?’” (257).
The answer, according to the authors, lies in what Carl and Lotte’s narratives reveal about “the persistent and shifting shapes of nostalgia in the face of trauma,” and specifically in the concept of “ambivalent nostalgia” unique to survivors of tragedy (257, my italics). The authors define the concept of ambivalent nostalgia as Carl and Lotte’s ability to maintain “positive recollections of childhood and youth” alongside the negative memories of “traumatic events” that took place Czernowitz and ultimately “precipitated their departure” (260). This concept strikes me as exactly an articulation of the conflicting feelings I grappled with myself during the four years between my father’s death and our return to Turkey. On the one hand, I sorely missed Turkey because I had so much love for it as the country where I was born, the country where I was raised, the country where my grandparents, cousins, aunts, friends—all that mattered to me in the world—still lived on. On the other hand, I had lots of anger and hatred for it, as the country where we had to leave my father behind, an evil place seared with memories of a horrendous night that changed my life forever.
Perhaps it is understandable why the ambivalent coexistence of my feelings ultimately resulted in the creation of a third, more painful one: guilt for harboring fond memories of a place where something as horrible as my father’s murder could occur. According to Hirsch and Spitzer however, the very thing that characterizes ambivalent nostalgia is “traumatic dissociation—the process by which painful portions of experience survive and remain vividly present without being integrated or mastered by the subject” through “a psychic mechanism of splitting” (260). This definition of ambivalent nostalgia not only helps elucidate the confusing amalgamation of feelings I had; the dichotomy that it implies exonerates me from the guilt I felt for longing to return to Turkey. I can see how the splitting of memory in the face of tragedy results in two memories that coexist, leading to two different types of nostalgia, and, ultimately, to two distinct motivations for wanting to go back—one more, in fact, than that of the ordinary émigré.
To explain this phenomenon, it is important to first acknowledge the type of nostalgia that everyone experiences—the type that is independent of tragedy and independent even of temporal or geographic distance from a place: regular nostalgia. Hirsch and Spitzer identify it as “affectionate longings for earlier stages and scenes…as well as for pleasurable experiences in familiar places and settings” (259). Such nostalgia is universal and provides its own impetus for return to one’s homeland; it even exists independently, through the mechanism of splitting, for survivors of tragedy. “The disappointment that Carl and Lotte expressed during [their] first walk in the city after [their] arrival” is offered by Hirsch and Spitzer as evidence that they, too were “to some degree affected by” the simple desire to “reconnect an idea of the city that they had continued to keep alive in their minds to the sites they had once held dear: to view and touch them again in a material sense” (259).
This ordinary sense of homesickness also accounts for my own longing to return to the site of my father’s death. I was born and raised in that apartment, on a dusty, sunny, surprisingly quiet side street in the neighborhood of Kavaklidere in Ankara. One avenue removed from the bustling ana cade, or main street of the neighborhood, the apartment was a cherished wedding gift from my grandfather to my parents, two young but poor graduate students who couldn’t otherwise have afforded to live in that neighborhood. The city spilled into our apartment through its open, sun-warmed windows, in the form of the wafting scents of neighborhood cooking, or as the sounds of prayer floating in five times a day from the mosque on the other side of town. In turn, as I grew up, I first ventured outward into the city through those same windows. At the age of five, for example, I finally earned the much-anticipated responsibility of calling out from them to the simitci, the man who carries Turkish crescent breads on his head, to place orders for our Sunday brunches. It was through these windows that I staged my first elaborate imaginary games with my cousins, shouting orders down to them in the rose garden below during pirate sieges and ambushing them from above with snowballs during epic Eskimo battles. It was in the kitchen, living, and dining rooms of that apartment that my family congregated for nearly every other meal—cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, dining together in the traditional Turkish manner, gathered around one huge merry table.
The loneliness my brother, mother and I felt in the States in those years following my father’s death as a result of having left our family members behind only exacerbated the regular nostalgia we felt. It cemented for me what Hirsch and Spitzer refer to as the “contrast between ‘there’ and ‘here,’ ‘then’ and ‘now,’ in which the absent is valued as somehow better, simpler, less fragmented” (258). The fond memories of my childhood and my family provided the first impetus for my longing to return. As Hirsch and Spitzer point out, “Returning the ‘homesick,’ the ‘nostalgic’ to their origins,” was believed by the Greeks to be “the cure for the disease” of nostalgia, its “restorative ending” (258).
At the same time, like Carl and Lotte—for whom “the positively tinged nostalgia for the past was only one aspect of their recollections,” I also carried “very negative and bitter memories” with me (259). Hirsch and Spitzer describe Carl and Lotte’s “determination to find, revisit, and show [them] the different apartments and houses where they had found refuge during their confinement in Czernowitz’s Jewish ghetto in October of 1941,” commenting that “negative and traumatic memories such as these were certainly the complicating other side of nostalgia” (260). Similarly, my fond memories of the apartment in Kavaklidere remain, to this day, overlaid by memories of the horrific: of violent struggle, the ring of gunshots, the crash of breaking windows. The same windows that facilitated my first memories of the city of Ankara now also exist in my negative memory as the route used by assailants to break into my home, and ultimately as the escape route that allowed the man who killed my father to evade prosecution for months following the attack.
What’s remarkable is that the “psychic mechanism of splitting” described by Hirsch and Spitzer allows both positive and negative memories, even of the same exact place or thing, to coexist. What follows from this first “splitting” is the formation of a distinct second impetus, unique to the survivor, for wanting to return to the site of the trauma. The “ambivalent desire to recall negative experiences at the places where they happened” is “a significant motivation for return journeys such as the one we took to Czernowitz,” Hirsch and Spitzer write, and since, “in the act of recollection, traumatic events are inevitably linked to their points of origin” a physical return can “facilitate the process of working through” them (260). In retrospect, it is clear to me that the need for closure, the need to finally come to terms with the trauma we experienced, was my family’s own second impetus. It was the reason why my mother, my brother, and I found ourselves finally returning to that apartment after years of avoiding it—years during which I often questioned the validity of my coexisting fond memories.
This leads me to recognize a key distinction between the Hirsch and Spitzer essay and my own experience. For Carl and Lotte, returning to Czernowitz was certain to be somewhat disappointing; the city was bound to be different, not just because of the substantial temporal separation between memory and reality (1945-1998) but also because of the major ideological and political shifts that occurred in Czernowitz—many of them set in motion while Carl and Lotte lived there themselves. From the beginning, the changes taking place in their city caused them to develop memories “less and less connected to [Czernowitz’s] geographical location and ever more dependent on the vicissitudes of personal, familial, and cultural memory” (256). Thus in returning decades later, they already knew that there existed for them “inevitable disappointments and ironic incongruities in all attempts at homecoming.” (261).
Yet the Hirsch’s journey was still about connecting with the past. It was an attempt to “hold both sides of the past simultaneously in view without necessarily reconciling them, or ‘healing’ the rift” (261). They sought to uphold two realities at once, to be able to give credit to both, by overcoming any denial of trauma or “puncturing layers of erasure and oblivion” to “find vestiges of a vanished past” (274).
My own journeys back, in contrast, are about reconciling the real Ankara of my childhood with the terrifying, warped Ankara that exists as a separate place only in the land of my traumatic memory. In the eight years since my father’s death, Turkey certainly has undergone plenty of changes due to factors such as globalization; however, for the most part it remains the same. Unlike Carl and Lotte, when I return I have no trouble locating all the places I miss, and my family members, friends, and old neighbors are there to remind me that the past is not far behind. Everything remains the same, but my father is gone. The apartment remains like a time-capsule to this day—the one stark physical reminder that the events of that night are real. I might not otherwise believe it all actually happened the way it did; and frankly, in a way it would be easier to deny the whole thing. That first time my family went back, when we opened the musty apartment for the first time, I truly understood the emotional and psychological risk inherent in our journey. Hirsh and Spitzer mention this risk at the end of their essay: returning to the location of the trauma will always “authenticate” it, “to the point where it threatens to re-engulf those who come to tell and to listen” to the narratives of the past (272).
Carl and Lotte are saved from such an experience, tethered to reality by the presence of Marianne—the child who would not have existed had they not survived the Holocaust. The “traffic noises and people around [them]” as they remember the past also “propel[s] [them] back into the present” (272). Similarly, each successive return to Turkey gets a bit easier for my family as the real Ankara seeps into the apartment: supportive neighbors venture inside with us, bake pastries, brew Turkish tea, and help us sort through our old clothes and photos. We are now well on our way to shutting the apartment down and moving on for good, though not without inevitable regret and sentimentality. Nowadays, I no longer feel guilty about that aspect of it: I have come to think of my “splitting” as more of a defense mechanism, allowing me to partition negative memory aside so that positive memory can live on. If it weren’t for this mechanism, after all, every evil event in the world would envelop the positive nostalgia, would snuff it out for good, and that would be the true tragedy.
Hirsch, Marianne and Leo Spitzer. “‘We Would Not Have Come Without You’: Generations of Nostalgia.”
American Imago 59 (1999): 253–276.