Sometimes I think about an aspect of ethnic cleansing, a side-effect really, one that pales to utter meaninglessness in comparison to the actual mass slaughter of innocents. But this side-effect, the destruction of the victims' culture, brings tears to my eyes.
I think about the life of Eastern European Jews, in their shtetls and ghettos. I think about the life of German Jews, like my grandmother and her near-dozen murdered siblings – a Jewish culture that was as cosmopolitan and Western as could be; they were even proud German patriots and often refused to the end to accept that this required hating their own kind. I think about the life of pre-Columbian indigenous North and South Americans, dozens if not hundreds of different cultures, interconnected and isolated from the Old World. I think about the Armenians, the Kurds, the Palestinians. There are other "cleansed" cultures I know less about all over Africa and East Asia.
In most of these cases, the cultural cleansing was never total nor complete. Cultures die hard. German Jews laid down the cultural foundations of Tel-Aviv, and those still alive today often meet in groups to talk German and discuss literature and politics, like their parents did in salons that were later expropriated by the Authorities. Armenian ceramics, in their lush colors and fantastic patterns, are a staple of Jerusalem tourist trinketry to this day. On the same tiny fleck of land, Palestinians still make and sell the simple but delicious traditional food their parents and grandparents would make before the Holocaust survivors came with Western trauma and Western guns and expropriated their land and autonomy.
But while cultures rarely disappear without a trace – even when a majority of their hosts have been slaughtered – no culture can survive ethnic cleansing.
The sharp, cynical humor of shtetl Yiddish culture no longer informs a whole literary tradition. It is instead collected in glossy-covered anthologies, with English or Hebrew transliteration and translation, and recited with an American or Israeli accent by young enthusiasts trying to keep it alive.
Drug- and booze-ravaged, impoverished Reservation Indians can only hope to imitate a vague, near-forgotten shadow of their cultural heritage – and forget about the inter-tribal cultural traditions that once connected dozens of cultures in trade, across vast swathes of land and language families.
Palestinians usually don't bother to create anything new anymore – their culture has been reduced to traditional food, a religion they share with most neighboring countries, a stubborn refusal to be starved, and the endless wait for freedom and autonomy. But waiting while reproducing tradition is not culture, in precisely the way that a zombie is not alive.
At the heart of any culture is a grid, a way to interpret reality. Attached to that are a bunch of customs, recipes for food, and for remedies, and for relationships. Also attached are societal hierarchies and memes to support them.
Grids are easily replaced by those the conquerors use.
Old societal hierarchies become irrelevant when your entire society is shattered is subjugated.
All that remains in the end are the customs and recipes, a standing reminder that something beautiful has been lost forever.