Campaign of correction
"SUCCESS!!" I WROTE IN MY JOURNAL, underlining the word for emphasis. I was elated.
I had just heard back from the documentaliste at Mémorial de la Shoah concerning the correction of Owszija's name (I had chosen the "j" version for the documentation, though I still sometimes spelled it with a "y" as my mother had done.)
"Yes," she had written, "the document you sent us will allow us to correct the name on the wall as soon as we will be able to launch a new campaign of correction. We will erase the misspelled Awazyga KAGAN 1908, a blank will remain at the actual place, and we will engrave the correct name : Owszija KAGAN 1908 on the last flagstone of the 1942 year."
THE BLANK SPACES REPRESENT names that have been removed due to errors; the corrected names are written on the last stone for the year in which the person perished.
But who could I share this with? Who would understand, much less appreciate, what this meant? I told my partner Steve, who'd followed my progress in this strange journey, and I wrote to my cousin Mel -- probably the only other person on earth who knew or cared about Owszija Kagan. That was it.
And when would this correction take place? "I am not able to tell you how it will take before we can make the correction campaign," the documentaliste wrote me. "It depends on the amount of corrections we collect." It would be at least a few years, she added. "I wish I could be more precise."
A DOCUMENT I DISCOVERED LATER showed that Owszija Kagan had been in the French camp of Rivesaltes -- where his first name was completely misspelled as Josué,
WITHIN HOURS OF RECEIVING THE NEWS, I felt deflated, despondent. Not only because the correction would likely be years away. Not only because few people would appreciate its significance. I had darker, murkier questions.
I had been running my own "correction campaign" for Owszija, convinced that in some small but important way his name could be "rescued," his life acknowledged.
But paradoxically, the positive outcome of the campaign seemed hollow, corroded by doubts. What an inconsequential task I had set for myself, I thought -- so pale, so dilute compared to what my parents had done, had tried to do. What had I accomplished really, except to vaguely trace Owszija's record from a promising electrical engineering student in Belgium to his capture and incarceration in France and murder in Auschwitz? Who would notice? Who would care?
I had begun to unravel the cursed tragectory of his life, but how could I find meaning in the petty matter of correcting the spelling of his name?
I RECALLED STEFFEN PROSS'S COMMENT after I'd sent him the files from Belgium on Adolf Herrmann. "This is one of these days of schizophrenia," he'd written, "--really satisfying for the researcher and deeply depressing for the human being."
And yet I had come here in search of my own name as well. As I attempted to trace Toba through her sons in France, salvaging Owszija's name had become deeply personal.
I tried to push aside my doubts. After all, I could not even try to save a life. All I could do was to save a name, to give back a name. Even if only one or two people knew or cared. For now, I told myself, that had to be meaning enough.