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!