Cultural Studies, Historical Studies, Life Writing, Literary Studies

Unearthing the Past

20.04.11 | Comment?

Language shows clearly that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre. It is the medium of past experience, in which dead cities lie interred. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging [. . .]. He must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. For the matter itself is only a deposit, a stratum, which yields only to the most meticulous examination what constitutes the real treasure hidden within the earth: the images, severed from all earlier associations, that stand—like precious fragments or torsos in a collector’s gallery—in the prosaic rooms of our later understanding. – Walter Benjamin, ‘A Berlin Chronicle’

When Hitler’s troops invaded and occupied the city of Kharkov in Ukraine, my grandparents Nadia, 26, and Petro, 30, had two young children, aged 7 and 5. My mother had not yet been born. In this tense and uncertain period it was unclear whether Ukraine would ultimately be controlled by Stalin or Hitler. There was nothing to recommend one over the other, they often said. Both regimes were brutal and both targeted Ukrainians. Mid-1943 marked a turning point—the end of their lives in Ukraine and the first stage of a journey into the unknown that led to their eventual arrival in Australia in 1949 as post-war refugees. They were packed into railway goods wagons with other Ukrainians and were taken from Kharkov, where they had built their world, to Dwikozy in Poland. This was the place of their first displacement from everything that made up their history and identity—homeland, language, culture, family, community, and career. Like many other refugees my grandparents attempted to compensate for the loss of their past by trying to recover it repeatedly years later in the stories that they told.

In 1998, when I was in my 20s, I travelled to Dwikozy to try to connect with my grandparents’ memories and to better understand their lives. The place I found was indeed in the same physical location but when I returned to Australia and showed them what I had found it did not refresh or enrich my grandparents’ memories, as I had expected it would, even though there were confirming landmarks and signposts that they recognised. To them the place I was anxious to describe in words and photographs was an alien place, not the place they told stories of, not the place of their memories. Drawing upon my grandparents’ own stories of Dwikozy, this paper raises the issue faced by all biography, but especially intergenerational family biography, of the need to tread carefully when intruding into the memories of others.


Arthur, Paul Longley. “Unearthing the Past: Dwikozy Revisited,” in “Recovering Lives,” ed. Paul Longley Arthur, special issue, Life Writing 8, no. 1 (2011): 101–14. doi: 10.1080/14484528.2011.542643.

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Paul Arthur is Vice-Chancellor’s Professorial Research Fellow and Chair in Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He speaks and publishes widely on major challenges and changes facing 21st-century society, from the global impacts of technology on communication, culture and identity