All posts by Rondi Adamson

A Series of Unpleasant Experiences

[Today is the 75th anniversary of la rafle du Vel d’Hiv. As such, I found it appropriate to post this piece I wrote a while back and put aside. – RA]

The first time it happened, I was in Poland. It was 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I had been studying in Paris and working as an au pair. I had had a classmate at the Sorbonne named Magda and we had become fast friends. We drank wine together and talked about love and what we wanted for the future, always in French, as I had no Polish and she had limited English (but very good Russian). Magda was intellectual and funny and when she returned to Poland at the end of 1989, her studies over, I missed her company. We had always gotten along well.

A few months later, that changed. I experienced some drama or other with a man and decided that a change of scenery was in order. I booked a ticket to Warsaw and flew on Air Lot — mercifully, a short flight from Paris — and Magda was waiting for me at the airport.

Once in Warsaw, I bought some Solidarnosc paraphernalia, which, after the fall of the Wall was relatively easy and safe to purchase. I tried a wonderful cake called “W-Z”: I still remember it fondly. Magda’s family welcomed me, putting me up on their couch. They talked a lot about their fear of a potentially-united Germany. “We get rid of the Russians; we get the Germans again,” her mother said. The family had suffered many deaths from cancer — Magda’s father and brother — which they were sure were due to Chernobyl. I felt for them and appreciated their openness.

Magda and I made plans — visiting pretty-as-a-gem Krakow was a priority. What did I want to see in Warsaw? Well, I ventured, the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. Her face fell. She informed me that the former Ghetto was now nothing more than a plaque. Not interesting. Not worth it. “There must be a museum,” I said. “No. Just a plaque.” I said that I would like to see the plaque and would certainly be happy to go by myself.

She asked me what else I wanted to see in Poland. Well, I told her — I don’t think I was conscious of engaging in brinksmanship — Auschwitz, of course. I suppose “wanted” is a strong word. I felt that I should. I had to. I would. I told her as much. She rolled her eyes. “They made us go there in high school,” she said. I quickly pointed out that again, she need not come with me. That didn’t seem to change her rueful — or was it angry? — expression. “Why do you want to go there?” I pointed out the obvious. It was history. It was horror. I felt that it was the very least I owed the victims.

“Polish people died there too, you know,” she said. I had never suggested they hadn’t. “Yes, I know, many of the Jews in Auschwitz were Polish…” I began, only to be interrupted with, “I mean Catholics died there,” she said. Oy. There we had it. I pointed out that I had never said or thought otherwise. Most of the victims at Auschwitz, however, and of the Holocaust, were Jews. She shook her head. “No.” she said. “There weren’t nearly as many as they say.” And there we had some more of it. I was stunned. I was quite young and had never been exposed to this kind of revisionism and trivializing before. Now, sadly, it is old hat to me. Back then it was new and I was shocked.

When I said again that I would go without her, she rolled her eyes. “Alright,” she said. “There’s a bus.” The discussion was over. I went alone on that bus to Auschwitz. She was more than cool to me for the rest of my visit and made a lot of political comments designed, I think, to pick a fight. I resisted. But it got to the point that I — pathologically introverted and never able to handle conflict well — decided to retreat. I thanked her family, leaving them flowers and a full W-Z cake, and booked into a hotel. At the time, even the fanciest hotels in Warsaw were cheap and I stayed somewhere very nice — it might have been a Marriott. I remember feeling very lucky the option was there. Even another day of dealing with the fury I could feel simmering off of Magda would have been too much.

I did invite her out for a thank-you dinner — regardless of what had happened, she and her family had been generous in many ways — and she accepted. I don’t remember what we discussed other than a bit of gossip regarding school friends, but I’m sure it wasn’t history. After that, I got the odd Christmas card from her, one with the news that she had married and was expecting a baby. The only long letter she sent was a plea for help when she and her husband wanted to immigrate to Canada. I wrote back with the truth — there was nothing I could do. They would be wiser to contact the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw.

I sometimes regret that I didn’t call Magda out more on her comments, or try to talk to her about them. I told myself that if any such thing happened again, I wouldn’t be so peace-able.

(I realize I have not written here about my actual visit to Auschwitz — that would take a column in itself. Suffice to say it marked me. Suffice to say I would like a chance to go back, now that I am older and I hope, have a better understanding of its significance.)

***

It was 1999, during the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia. I was back in Toronto, and had been invited over to dinner at the house of friends, a couple I had met at university. They were now married, with two very young kids and living in a leafy, lovely and expensive part of the city. The TV was on as we enjoyed pre-dinner chat and somehow, what was unfolding in Kosovo caused the wife to say, with a certain contempt, that we wouldn’t be hearing about the atrocities that had been occurring in the former Yugoslavia 50 years from now. Lest there be any doubt about her meaning, her husband chimed in that this was because the Bosnians had no equivalent of a “rich Jewish lobby” and “Jewish-owned media” to “force us” all to hear about the Holocaust “all the time.”

I remember feeling like I had been jackbooted in the stomach. I had known these people for over a decade — we shared startlingly similar WASP upbringings — and, until that night, I had always felt at home with them. Admittedly, there were long periods during which we had no contact other than a birthday card, but I had never heard them speak such nonsense. Were these views newly acquired? Had they held them for years? It wasn’t as though we often talked politics. I managed to stammer out that I believed we would be hearing about the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia decades from now, and that if we still learned and talked about the Holocaust fifty years after the war, it had nothing to do with any lobby, and everything to do with its importance — what Norm Geras would later call its uniqueness and its universality (a quote I wish I had had at the time). My friends fell silent at that, but I suspect it was only to peace-keep. I requested a change of topic and made a mental note to trust my gut, which generally tells me staying home is the safest bet.

But one does want company, from time to time.

***

It was the summer of 2003, and a terribly handsome man asked me out on a date. Now, the summer of 2003 also happened to be the summer of the SARS outbreak in Toronto. Each visit to a doctor saw one filling out a questionnaire about recent trips to Asia, a questionnaire that included the silly question, “Are you experiencing any general malaise?” At my dermatologist’s, I wrote, “Only when I’m conscious,” causing Dr. Eisen to smilingly scold, “You could end up in quarantine for that!” That might have been better than what happened.

Khaled, the terribly handsome man, was originally from Jordan, had immigrated to Canada 20 years earlier, and was an engineering professor at a Toronto university. He was tall, dark and charming. He laughed easily and often. On our first two or three dates, I tried to avoid any discussion of politics, as 2003 was also the first summer of the war in Iraq. By the time July rolled around I had already been bickering with people about it for several months. No more, I vowed. I lived Basil Fawlty’s Don’t Mention the Warmantra. Discussing Iraq, and even Afghanistan, inevitably led to aggravation.

But there was another war I mentioned. Khaled had lived in Amsterdam, and given that I had visited the city myself, I asked him about its many museums. He reeled off a list of those he had visited — Rembrandt House, the van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum — neglecting to include one that had devastated me. ”What about Anne Frank House,” I asked. I wince at the cliché of it all, but the mouth that laughed so often and so loudly stiffened. No, he said. No, he hadn’t visited Anne Frank House because it represented “something that is exaggerated and gets too much attention.” I asked him what he meant, though I didn’t need to. I knew what was coming.

The Holocaust wasn’t “that bad,” the numbers “can’t be trusted,” there may have been deaths in camps but actual “death camps” could not have existed, “Jewish financiers” started the war anyway and various other calibrations. He told me the story of his great lost love, a German woman (a piece of the puzzle) whose father had been sent to Stalingrad. German soldiers suffered as much as any Jew, he said, “but there is no Anne Frank House for them.” I let him know how unimpressed I was with his theories, and he quickly attempted a bit of back-pedal, conceding that the Jews had been done “an injustice,” but that it was “not as bad as current injustices perpetrated against the Palestinians.” He protested that as “a scientist,” it was normal that he should doubt the numbers — most people weren’t trained to do so, he argued, so we gullibly accepted what we were told by generations of Jewish-controlled media and blah blah blah. I tuned out the rest and things ended before they began.

For a few years after that, I would occasionally run into him and he would inevitably mention that he was going to do something with his “Jewish friends.” “I’d love to talk,” he’d say. “but I have a bridge game with my Jewish friends.” “I’d invite you for coffee, but my Jewish friends have invited me for dinner.”

Whatever you say, fella.

***

In April 2015, I was very happy to attend the Festival Internazionale del Giornalismo in Perugia, a city I know well. After the first day of lectures and workshops, I went for a walk with Mauro, an Italian acquaintance who worked in PR, and we happened to pass by one of my favourite plaques in the city. It honours local young men who died fighting what Italians call Nazifascisti. It was erected in 1945 and refers to Teutono Bestiale or ‘the beastly/bestial Teuton’, and Turpe Fascista or ‘filthy/vile Fascist’. Yes, the Nazis were beastly and the Fascists vile, but I can’t imagine such language being used today, even in Italy, where the threshold for politically incorrect blunt-speaking is rather higher than in the anglosphere. I think that is why I like it so much, and why I find the sight of it rather refreshing. The choice of words almost makes me laugh.

I directed Mauro’s attention to it, and the conversation turned to the war and, well, by now you should know where this is going. Mauro asserted that the Shoah was bad, but why do we always have to hear about it? What about Rwanda? I pointed out that we do hear about Rwanda, as well we should. It isn’t either/or. He tried another tack: Jews have a lot of money! They’re rich, and that’s why we have to hear about the Shoah “all the time.” For good measure he added that what the Israelis were doing to the Palestinians was “the same” as Auschwitz. When I dismissed that last comment as patently absurd, he didn’t respond, instead carrying on about Jews being rich and powerful and diamonds, diamonds, diamonds. They’ve got lots of diamonds!

I should have dropped it right there and gone back to my hotel. But I persisted, which — other than the work-out it gave my Italian — was a sorry exercise in futility.

***

These unpleasant incidents are by no means the only such unpleasant incidents I’ve experienced. But they’re the ones that resonated the most with me, that surprised and upset me the most, that woke me up, that ended some relationships and nipped others in the bud.

My partner of ten years is Italian, and while he and I live in Canada, we spend as much time as possible — often months in a row — in Italy, where I am trying to perfect my Italian. I spent the latter part of 2016 taking an advanced Italian course at a university there, and one of my teachers taught us grammar through Italian literature. It was the class I enjoyed most — we got to read Pirandello, Calvino, Manzoni, Moravia, Baricco and others in the original Italian, increase our vocabulary and improve our knowledge of verb tenses. But there was one author she never touched, one I had always loved to read in English: Primo Levi.

As she was wonderfully approachable, I decided to ask her about it. “Oh,” she said, looking embarrassed. “We just try to avoid anything controversial in our classes here.” I asked her how Levi was controversial. “He wrote about his experiences, about facts of history,” I said. “What is controversial about that?”

“Nothing,” she admitted. “But we have students from Libya, we have Palestinians, Egyptians, and others who might not like it.” She shrugged, again looking embarrassed. I thought about my classmates, Middle Eastern and otherwise, and I thought she was selling many of them short. Soft bigotry of low expectations, anyone? And why assume only Middle-Eastern students might have a problem with reading Primo Levi? My own experiences tell me that anti-Semitism is pan-cultural.

Even if the risk for “controversy” exists in a classroom, isn’t the job of a teacher to teach? My professoressa implied it was a directive from above; she hadn’t a choice.

About a month after our conversation about Primo Levi, the same professor led our class in a discussion of same-sex marriage and abortion policies — or the lack thereof — in our various countries. Nothing controversial there.

Can we All Get Along?

Recently read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Highly recommend, and while I am tempted to say that it is relevant now, it has, of course, always been relevant. One thing I found of note was a reference to Rodney King’s famous “can we all get along” query (short answer: no): Haidt provides a longer version of the quote, which I find so touching. Apparently King also said, “Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.”

Kind of broke my heart a bit to read that.

Bloomsday

Today is Bloomsday, a fact which got me to thinking about my New Year’s Resolutions a few years (3, maybe?) back: one of them was to read “Ulysses.” I did indeed read it, and I’m glad I did. It is brilliant, and I can see why it caused such a ruckus when first published. That said, it is also tedious in parts and a tad earthy for my tastes. So for those of you who haven’t read it but would like to appear highbrow enough to have done so, I give you this wonderful abridged version courtesy of YouTube and some guy with what sounds to me like a German accent.

Tom Regan

I am catching up here on things about which I should have posted earlier – for example, the death of animal advocate Tom Regan, someone who has been a big influence on my thinking. One of my favourite Regan quotes:

Because we have viewed other animals through the myopic lens of our self-importance, we have misperceived who and what they are. Because we have repeated our ignorance, one to the other, we have mistaken it for knowledge.

Check out his library here.

Turkey

A long overdue post about the Turkish referendum. I was certainly dismayed by it, but not surprised. Things had been going that way in Turkey for over a decade. I am in touch with several of my ex-students, all of whom still live in the Istanbul area. In general, they are pessimistic but have families and jobs and don’t want to leave. And, of course, they love Istanbul, as do I. Beyond that, I will outsource my commentary to Dani Rodrik, here. I believe it is a spot-on analysis.

UK Election

Monstrously depressing. Corbyn’s deranged worldview — which includes praise for all enemies of the West as well as (not so) thinly-veiled anti-Semitism (which I imagine he would insist is “just” anti-Zionism), his praise for Hamas and Hezbollah, his belief that Israel and the United States are central to all evil on this planet — does not appear to have done him any harm. In other words, either his supporters don’t care or more people than I had understood share this upside-down/day-is-night/ignorant-of-history view of things.

Julie Lenarz sums it up so well here.

Could Not Have Said it Better

This talk by Robin Yassin-Kassab sums up almost entirely how I feel about the Euro-American/Canadian left and how, at times, it resembles the extreme right (they certainly meet where their anti-Semitism is concerned). I don’t agree with everything he says here, but I certainly agree with his analysis of the current tragedy in Syria, and his contempt for the left in general, even though he is a leftist. Interestingly, I think in some ways I probably am too (or rather, I think I am a fiscal conservative/libertarian-social leftist/liberal-animal rights advocate/hawk) in some ways, but due to their useful idiocy (at one point in this clip, he uses that term), I never want to be associated with them. At any rate, Yassin-Kassab captures the sophomoric anti-Western sentiments of much of the left since the 1960s, as well as their racism. Honestly, I have come to the conclusion that if one is searching for racism, classism and sexism, one need only glance left. (Yassin-Kassab has a go at Chomsky, Fisk and Cockburn here, too, which is good.)

The Americans

So I’m feeling that empty feeling one has after Christmas or New Year’s Day or after the last episode of this season’s ‘The Americans.’ Like, wow, that was great and exciting and emotional and now…I’m so down without it. But I have started to realize that I find it bittersweet for another reason: the actor who plays Stan Beeman reminds me so much of my late brother. So much. So I like watching him because it’s a bit like having Alan around, but then it’s so tragic when he’s gone.

The Americans: Thoughts on the Season Finale

I am grateful that ‘The Americans’ does not appear to be going the way of Homeland, the most recent season of which seemed, as my Significant Other put it, to have been written by Barack Obama. For those of you who didn’t watch Homeland this season: first of all, congratulations; second of all, it revolved around a terror attack on New York City apparently committed by an Islamist but actually committed by rogue CIA agents who – naturally – got some help along the way from Mossad.

I am well aware that the left has won the culture wars and that the viewpoints espoused in movies, television and media are going to reflect this fact. But one grows weary. Heck, even my beloved Hawaii Five-0, a show I have long enjoyed because it generally avoids politics and simply shows great-looking cops shooting bad people, had an episode this season where an impending terror attack apparently planned by an Islamist was actually planned by right-wing extremists (somehow affiliated with the government and military, of course).

But ‘The Americans,’ thankfully, has resisted the urge to make communism seem benign and misunderstood. It’s too intelligent for any such nonsense. Oh, it contains its fair share of moral equivalencies, and its share of “no context given” comments: for example, when Elizabeth (as the show’s resident true believer, she is responsible for many silly and baseless assertions) points out that the US can’t be trusted because they are the only country to have used a nuclear weapon. Er, yes, but, you know, some context would be useful here. It wasn’t as though Harry Truman got up one morning and said, “Oh heck, I’d like to nuke someone peaceful and kind today.”

In fact, Elizabeth, with her endless yammering about “justice” and constantly using her interpretation of that word to justify terrible acts, reminds me a lot of the social justice bullies of today. You can draw a line, I believe, from her 1980s-Soviet-totalitarian-bromides to today’s fascism of the left (and make no mistake, it is fascism). And I mean, you can draw that line in real life. I refer here to those lefties who are – and who have long been — pathologically anti-Western.

Enough about such clowns – let’s get to this season of ‘The Americans.’ It has had as its theme, food – the want of the USSR, the excesses of the US. Philip, who way back in the first season was talking about defecting, makes a comment about how the endless fields of wheat in Kansas (where he and Elizabeth are on a mission) remind him of home. “Why,” he asks, “can’t we feed our own people?”

This is an excellent question. The series’ writers have constructed storylines around corruption in the USSR as the main reason for the food shortages. On a micro-scale, yes, that may have been the case. But, of course, the macro-picture, the main reason the USSR could not feed its own people, was that it did not have a free market. So far, this has not been clearly articulated in the show, but at least the writers of ‘The Americans’ have moved away from the absurd notion – hinted at early on in the season — that the United States was planning to try and starve the Soviets (or any other people). One of the best moments this season was when the Jennings realized the US was not only not trying to starve everyone, but rather, was trying to feed everyone. Anyone who knows America and American idealism would not be surprised by that. As my Significant Other said, as we watched that episode, “Twenty years in America and Philip and Elizabeth don’t know America at all.”

They really don’t. (Not to mention that it was their own government that had deliberately starved people in the past.) They will be in for quite a surprise when/if they return home. Gabriel, I think, is beginning to understand one thing about America – it has already won the Cold War. That is how I interpreted the scene where Gabriel visits the Lincoln Memorial before announcing that he has decided to leave. He knows the Soviet jig is up-ski.

Oleg has already returned home, and is getting his own share of surprises: seeing how messed up the food situation is; seeing the embedded corruption; hearing colleagues say matter-of-factly that they have to send someone to prison for ‘treason’ even though all that person did was tell the truth about something or voice a political opinion. But his biggest surprise is learning that his mother had been in a gulag after the war.

Philip has his own revelation about the gulags this season, when he discovers — from Gabriel — that his father had been a guard in one. It causes Philip to view his childhood memories differently: those boots his father brought home one night, for example, were they stolen from a prisoner?

So I tip my hat to the show’s writers and creators…but one cannot stop celebrities from being morons, can one? Alison Wright, who so magnificently gave us the tragedy of Martha, revealed herself in an interview to be not so magnificent when it comes to political/historical analysis. In this interview, she claims – referring to the execution of Nina Sergeevna Krilova on the show – that the Soviets were more ‘humane’ than we (i.e., the United States) about such things because they just snuck up beyond you and shot you in the head. Whereas, you know, we put you on death row and make you wait.

Well, yeah, but we also give you a lawyer, an appeal system that is not a joke and that doesn’t amount to a kangaroo court, and plus, we have the added bonus of actually having to prove our charges against you! Fairly certain that makes us more humane.

Gosh, maybe Martha belongs in the Soviet Union after all.

Bloody Charmer

JFK would have been 100 tomorrow. Here’s a clip of him dealing with the press. At about the 55 second mark, May Craig — a great journalist and one of the few women at White House press conferences 50 and 60 years ago — asks him a question about equal rights for women. His reply is terribly charming and witty and were any president today to try it they’d get blasted by the angry mob. The whole clip is full of gems, so watch and remember — this man would NEVER be selected as presidential candidate for the Democratic Party today. You can also get a sense of why, as my father once told me, more people were weeping on the street when JFK died than on VJ-Day.