Weaving Memory and Imagination

Oct. 1, 2014

By Marjorie Agosin

I grew up listening to the stories of my great-grandmother, Helena Broder, a refugee from the Nazis. I also learned from what was left unsaid in our conversations, spoken in German, Yiddish and Spanish. I never realized that her history as a Jewish refugee would later became my own. History has its peculiar ways of manifesting itself and it often unfolds mysteriously. My immediate family left Chile in the 1970s due to political unrest that culminated with a 17-year military dictatorship.

Growing up with my great-grandmother Helena, I understood that women became the guardians of memory. She always told me stories about her beloved Vienna, but also spoke of the times in which her son was forced to clean the streets because he was a Jew or the clear fall afternoon when she returned the keys to her apartment to the Gestapo.

I listened very closely to her stories and it seems that I have always intertwined her own life with my own poetic imagination. I am grateful for her passing on to me her memories, which I in turn pass to my own children and to the world as they have become an essential part of my literary work.

Gender and memory play an important role in my own writing life. In my family, women pass on the family stories over several generations from Helena Broder to my mother, Frida Agosin, to me. The experience of being part of a tiny Jewish community in Chile, less than one percent of the entire country's population, gave my family ways to understand the meaning of being a foreigner, a displaced person. We understood the complexities of learning a new language and finding ways to feel at home amidst strangers.

My wise great-grandmother always told me that as Jewish women we have learned to live in the Diaspora. Being a Jewish woman and growing up in the close company of my Diaspora relatives, I had plenty of stories to share and even more to imagine. I also learned that memories do have a special relationship to gender. The house was filled with material objects that Helena Broder was able to save such as her embroidered wedding dress and silver candelabras. In her notebooks, she documented her journey to the New World and also how she learned to love her new country, Chile, especially the port city of Valparaiso.

I have always wanted to write about this colorful and poetic port and wanted to bring the memories of Helena Broder to life. She is a prominent character in my novel, "I Lived on Butterfly Hill," and she is also able to pass her own memories of her life in Vienna before and during the time of the Nazis to the central character of the book, "Celeste Marconi," the protagonist whose life as a young emigrant mirrors my own.

In the uncanny way that history repeats itself, Broder found joy and refuge in Valparaiso, Chile, and this is the story I want to share. These memories are not mine but somehow I have adopted them and they've become engraved in the ancestral fables of my family, in which arrivals became the central themes of our conversations. As a young girl, my imagination was always vibrant and alive with their tales of exile and homecoming. I often felt that imagination was the key to our family past.

Celeste Marconi, the young protagonist of "I Lived on Butterfly Hill" (Simon and Schuster, 2014), guided by the hands of her grandmother, inherits fundamental Jewish values. She learns of a hidden library that her grandmother preserved during the dictatorship and thus she becomes the guardian of the books that contain the memories of exiles. She becomes an activist as she builds a traveling library through her beloved city of Valparaiso. Books and memories, through the shadows of the Holocaust as well as the ghosts of the disappeared who live in Chile intertwine in the life of Celeste Marconi as she comes of age and she is able to honor all. She unfolds like the wings of a butterfly.

Marjorie Agosin is the Luella LaMer Slaner Professor in Latin American Studies and a professor of Spanish at Wellesley College. She is a poet, human rights activist, literary critic and published author. She is a member of the HBI Academic Advisory Committee.