I found this documentary on YouTube – simply haunting. There are two parts. This is the first part – Part 2 can be found quite easily, if you are interested.
[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.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko died this weekend. This obituary is fair, I think, describing well both his courage and his limitations. Since most of us only have limitations though, I am less inclined to be critical of his decision to work within the Soviet system. He wrote ‘Babi Yar,’ and for that, we all owe him. I cannot read this poem without tears.
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.
I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.
It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.
I see myself a boy in Belostok.
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.
I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.
O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.
I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”
It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.
-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”
-“They break the door!”
-“No, river ice is breaking…”
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.
No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.
There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!
Today is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Israel. Oh the occasion, Edward R. Murrow’s report from Buchenwald. Extraordinary.
Many moons ago, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I went to Poland to visit a friend of mine. Her name was Eva (Ewa) and she had been a classmate of mine at the Sorbonne. We always got along well at school. But that all changed in Warsaw, when she asked me what I hoped to see in Poland. Well, I told her, Auschwitz, of course, and also the Warsaw Ghetto.
Her face fell. She informed me that the former Ghetto was now nothing more than a small plaque. Not interesting. Not worth it. She then said I should not go to Auschwitz. Why not, I asked. Because, she said, Poles died there too. By “Poles” she meant Catholics. She did not consider Polish Jews to be Poles. I was stunned. She went on to say that it was wrong to think it was mostly Jews who died in Auschwitz and that it was really all about the suffering of “real Poles” and so on. I was quite young and had never been exposed to this kind of revisionism and trivializing of the suffering of Jews. Now, sadly, it is old hat to me. But back then it was new and I was shocked.
I insisted, though, and I went to Auschwitz without Eva. She was mad. She was beyond mad. After I left Poland and went back to Paris our friendship was pretty much over. Once — when I had returned to Canada — she sent a Christmas card, but that was because she was trying to get information on how to immigrate to Canada. She had married a Lebanese man (another piece of the puzzle!), she wrote, and he spoke French so Canada would be perfect.
I could not help her and that was that. That trip to Poland was a disturbing experience for me. I was so naïve (now that I am less so, I hope I will be able to visit Auschwitz again). I regret that I did not call her out more. All I did was say, “Well, mostly Jews died there” and “I am going to visit, even if you don’t want to go with me.”
All of this has never left my memory (which is freakish) but it came back in even more vivid colours when I recently read these two books. The first is about a particularly odious Polish hate crime against Jews, the second is about the intense envy that feeds so much anti-Semitism.
Today we say “never forget” and “never again.” The problem is that so many who want it to happen again don’t care or will not admit that it happened in the first place.
Update: It occurs to me I should link here to one of my favourite novels, Peter Matthiessen’s In Paradise. It takes place in Auschwitz, though in the 1990s, and among its themes is Polish anti-Semitism.
Fascinating and heart-wrenching story about the first letters written by Holocaust survivors after they were liberated from the camps. Researchers at Yad Vashem are compiling these letters, letters full of joy, shock, anger, sadness and, of course, survivors’ guilt. The following — written in Polish by an Auschwitz survivor — is only a small part of the project, but so much is captured here:
How could I justify to you that I left the lions’ den intact, that I saw fiery furnaces, red flames in the skies? That I saw thousands of people led daily to the gas chambers, not knowing what awaited them in ten minutes; that I saw sheaves of sparks and tongues of fire, and sometimes even part of a roasted hand bursting forth from a gigantic chimney; that I stood naked daily at roll call for the Selektion, and the SS man, as if to anger me, sent me back to the camp and didn’t take me to the oven … and a huge prayer, a stubborn prayer for divine benevolence, for death.
Read the rest of the article here.
I don’t usually do book recommendations on my site but today I will. I read insane amounts — mostly non-fiction but some fiction — and the fact that I am taking time to write about these two books tells you what they meant to me.
The books are Bettyville, by George Hodgman, and The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal. In a way, they are similar: both stories about family, about the past, about loss and love and about being grateful in the present. But they are different, of course.
The Hare with Amber Eyes is drawn against the painful backdrop of the relentless (and seemingly endless) persecution of Jews in Europe, the sickness of the Holocaust, and also has a strong art history focus (something I really appreciated).
De Waal is English, but a descendant of the (originally Russian) Ephrussi family, for a time on a par with the Rothschilds (even related by marriage to them) in terms of wealth and influence in parts of Europe. Proust’s Swann is said to have been based on Charles Ephrussi.
When de Waal inherits some “netsuke” from a favorite relative (he represents the fifth generation of his family to inherit them), he decides to trace their journey, which includes stops in Paris and Japan and Vienna. And it is truly something, particularly when you discover how the netsuke escaped being stolen by the Nazis, while pretty much all the rest of the Ephrussi art was taken.
In some ways, the book reminded me of the brilliant movie, “Woman in Gold”, though the former unfolds over a much longer period of time.
Bettyville is, on the surface, a memoir with less grandeur, but Hodgman’s portrait of his mother, Betty, is mighty grand. My own mom died, just short of her 93rd birthday, last year, and I saw so much of her in Betty. Same generation, same decency, work ethic, wit, and a similar stubborn dance with declining independence. The same good, strong people.
Hodgman is a successful editor and writer who, after growing up in Missouri in the ’60s and ’70s as a clever — though struggling and often bullied — gay kid, moved to New York. Along with an enviable career, he got into drugs, went into rehab, had some dysfunctional relationships, all of which he writes about with tremendous humor and no self-pity.
When his mother began fading, he moved back, initially to find someone else to care for her, but then decided to see her home, as he says, himself. In the process he finds “home”, in a manner. It is certainly touching to see him discover Missouri — fly-over country — as an adult, after having felt out of place so often as a kid and teenager. Honestly, I laughed, I laughed so hard I cried, and I just plain cried.
Read them both!