Updated: Aug 13
What is it to witness? Witnessing is the testimony of what happened. To have lived side by side an experience, to have a testimony of history. But, it can also be passed on, through words, books and movies, among others.
In the movie “Everything is Illuminated” we have very rich textured examples of Witnessing and Memory, as well as four different perspectives of witnessing.
It all seems to begin with the death of Jonathan Safran Foer’s grandfather. Jonathan is called a collector. At this point he acquires a new item: a photograph of a girl which is said to be the reason the older man escaped and survived the Holocaust. He then decides to travel to his grandfather’s homeland so he can thank her for saving him. Jonathan’s collection is a part of his process; these objects are collected so he will not forget! His grandmother has also passed another testimony upon him: Ukrainian antisemitism; and later on, when he finds the object of his search (the girl in the photograph) he will be a secondary witness: Lista’s verbal testimony of what happened to her countrymen. In overall Jonathan visits and witnesses, he places random unrelated things in Ziploc bags and collects them – it is his way of witnessing and passing on his testimony.
Translating for Jonathan and accompanying him in this journey is Alex – the son of an Odessa family who specializes in helping Jews finding their dead relatives. He is also a witness: of Jonathan’s discoveries; of Lista’s story and testimony; of his grandfather’s confrontation with his past; Yet, he also passes on his own testimony. At the end of the movie he writes a book about this trip and sends it to Jonathan along with a message of ultimate witnessing: “I have reflected many times upon our rigid search. It has shown me that everything is Illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us, on the inside, looking out. (…) Jonathan, in this way, I will always be along the side of your life. And you will be along the side of mine“. Jonathan and Alex become, then, witnesses of each other’s history.
“Guiding” them and driving the car is Alex’s grandfather. The grandfather speaks in a way that makes us believe he is an anti-Semite. Throughout the film he never utters a word regarding his feelings or memories, even though we can recognize a small reaction to the photograph Jonathan carries with him.
At the end of the movie one might wonder if he wasn’t, at least partly, the reason of the trip. The grandfather was a witness of what happened in the hamlet of Trachimbrod but, unlike Lista, he didn’t want to leave a testimony. In order to survive he chose to forget his heritage and pass for an Ukrainian man. We only realize that this old, grumpy man is also a witness when the group, finds the village from where Jonathan’s grandfather escaped as well as the only living soul that still remains there: Lista.
At a certain point in the story, the three men find a house lost in a sea of sunflowers. There they find an old woman, Lista, that when they ask for directions answers them:”You are here. I am it“. At that moment they think her to be the girl in the photograph; They are soon corrected: the girl in the photograph is her sister. The character of Lista, it seems to me, is one of the biggest witnesses and testimony givers in this movie. She, like Jonathan, is also a collector: her walls are covered with boxes.
Soon we learn that those are her witnessing of the genocide committed in Trachimbrod, but she is also a witness of Jonathan’s grandfather past and leaving for America, of Alex’s grandfather’s decision to pass for an Ukrainian non-Jew and ultimately she gives a testimony about all she has witnessed, believing they have not come so that witnessing may exist, but that they have come because it exists:
“No, it does not exist for you. You exist for it. You have come because it exists.“