Monday, July 12, 2004
We're now in the "three weeks" - the period from the 17th of Tammuz (in this calendar year, July 6th) through the 9th of Av that is the deepest period of mourning on the Jewish calendar. The 17th of Tammuz marks the date the walls of Jerusalem were breached by Nebuchadnezzar and his troops, and the 9th of Av marks the date of the destruction of the First Temple (as well as the Second, as well as - according to tradition - many other calamities in Jewish history). I have never observed the daylight fast of the 17th of Tammuz, though I usually observe the full-day fast of the 9th of Av, and I've never observed the restrictions of the three week period between the two dates (e.g., no listening to music or other festive behavior). Nonetheless, I thought I'd do something to mark the period this year: put old writing of dubious relevance on the blog.
Seriously, though, I've always held a grudge against Yom Ha-Shoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day - for a number of reasons. First, the date comes too soon after Passover, a joyous festival, resulting in a radical mood shift I've never been able to handle. The period between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost) is a period of quasi-mourning (at least until La'G ba-Omer, a minor holiday that falls on the 33rd day of the period) but not of deep sorrow. Inserting Holocaust Memorial Day in between is intrusive. Second, the choice of date feels like a slight to tradition, in that traditionally all calamities of similar magnitude - apart from the destruction of the two Temples, only the expulsion from Spain looms in any way comparably in Jewish memory - are ascribed to the 9th of Av. Establishing a new day feels like an assertion of discontinuity: *this* destruction is unprecedented, and cannot be contained in the traditional understanding of Jewish history. And while I understand the impulse behind such a decision, it's not clear to me that the decision was wise.
But mostly I just don't like Holocaust commemorations. I get annoyed for the same reasons Leon Wieseltier gets annoyed (words seem inadequate to address the experience, and so one feels that with regard to that of which one cannot speak one must perforce be silent) and then I get annoyed at *that* feeling (a well-orchestrated throng, shouting silence is, when one reflects, perhaps the least-appropriate memorial for the murdered).
My maternal grandparents lost nearly their entire families to the Nazi murderers; my grandmother lost everyone, and my grandfather lost all but two brothers. Twelve years ago, I made what I guess you'd have to call something of a pilgrimage to Poland, not so much to visit the specific places where they lived (there's nothing really left) but to make some kind of connection with a country that always seemed to me like an estranged cousin. And of course, a Jew does not visit Poland without a visit to the camps, however unedifying such a visit may be.
So I thought, in lieu of anything more intelligent to say, I'd unearth some of what I wrote in the aftermath of that trip, do a little editing, and post the results over the next couple of weeks.
Here, then, and over the next couple of weeks, are:
13 Ways of Looking at a Death Camp.
For the first time in three days the sun made a welcome appearance the morning that they visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex. Their group had spent the previous day’s rain huddled under the sheltering roof of Krakow’s medieval market, scouring the bins and stalls for souvenirs: for amber, silver, wooden boxes and wooden spoons – and little wooden Jews – Jews with fiddles and Jews with scrolls, in streimels, kaftans and payyos, with red, drooping noses and black, drooping eyes – like the wooden Indians one might acquire at a tourist stand in Arizona. Professor Sass bought one. He imagined setting it down at the front of his old desk at the university, the amusement of watching the undergraduates’ reactions when they sat down to discuss their paper topics with his little friend wringing his hands in their faces. On the bus, he leaned across the aisle and waved it at the Muravciks’ teenage daughter, had the fiddler do a little dance for her. She scowled dutifully and stared at the ceiling. He thought it best to leave it on board when they arrived at the camp.
The woman who would lead them through this place stood waiting in the sun. She was solid but soft, a full woman, and the Professor’s eyes were drawn to where she put a gentle but persistent strain on her soft pink suit and white blouse. Her monologue swelled with statistics: so many from Krakow alone, so many Soviet POWs, so many in the month of June, 1943. Eventually, he looked deliberately away from her, still not listening, and feeling the embarrassment of a younger man.
She led them down the paths of suffering, station by station. While the barracks at Birkenau were left bare — the crematoria kept as the ruins the Nazis left them in – the barracks at Auschwitz had been redone as museum installations. There were pavilions for every nationality in Europe. One for the Belgians; one for the Jews. Had you been there, you would not have been redeemed. Because they were an American tour, they were taken to the Jewish pavilion, Americans being too few even by this calculus to merit their own pavilion.
No one in the group needed to re-hear the story that even those who had not lived it had heard firsthand. Sass preferred to look than to listen, and let the guide’s drone fade just so far away from him to be part of the camp tableau for him to view: the shirtless workmen repairing the wall of one of the barracks; the garbled sounds of a protest speech wafting over from the other side of the camp, where the convent had been built; the flowerbed planted by the nuns between the parking lot and the museum cafeteria; the Great Patriotic War tramping in red and white across the black exhibit placards. He thought of David making a comment about that; a smile, thinking that he wished he had more students like David, wished, in fact, David could have been his student rather than this awkward half-relation that he was; then a deeper smile thinking that that is precisely what David would think he would think, and would wish him not to, and, below that, would wish for himself. And below that, his own son’s voice rebuking him in his physicianly tones.
He watched the other members of their group skitter about the camp making their mark upon the place. Mr. Frankel straining to hoist himself up on a bunk in the barracks. It feels like a bunk. Now he has to get down. Mrs. Hauptmann touching the door of the oven, her fingers coming off dusty; the widening of her eyes as she considers the provenance of the dust and her panicked search for a washroom to remove the evidence of her transgression. Mr. Muravcik, holding a camcorder, shouting at his pouty daughter with her tummy sticking out to show some respect for God's sake. Two million people died here, the least she could do is stand straight and smile when he points the camera. Their guide like a chubby-legged sheepdog chasing down her stray lambs before they hurt themselves, and bringing them safely into the slaughterhouse.
And then there were the installations devoted to the dimensions of the catastrophe. The idea was to numb one’s intellectual sense of the number with visual overkill: a room full of shoes is followed by a room full of prosthetic legs. One absorbs the shoes, but then thinks, if there were so many with prosthetic legs. . . . They came to a room filled with hair, grey hair, in soft billows and clouds like wool from a shearing. “The gas,” explained the guide, “turned all the hair grey. So it was no good for wigs.”
As she watched the stragglers of the group file out, she put her hand on the Professor's. “You are alright?”
“Fine, fine. My wife wore one for the last year or so. After the cancer.”
She nodded; she had heard, before, again. “But it was not grey, I hope,” she ventured.
Sass smiled, biting with false teeth. “No, not grey. She had always wanted to be a blonde, like you.”
David trudged through the rain at Majdanek engaging his guilt in dialectic. He hadn’t worn his boots that day, and the rain had soaked through his sneakers. Every squishy step some part of him thought of the hostel in Lublin where he could change into dry socks. So, of course, he felt guilty: in such a place, at such a time, I’m thinking about drying my feet? Wouldn’t the people who suffered here have been thankful to have even wet socks? I should be thankful that my socks are wet; being too comfortable would be wrong somehow. Now this thought made him feel even more guilty: so if I feel a little discomfort, that somehow matters, it brings me closer to these people who were starved, beaten, worked to death, not to mention tortured, maimed and killed at a whim. You want a little rain to set the mood? Maybe you should write a travel guide: Always be sure to visit death camps on rainy days; your discomfort will keep your spirits appropriately somber, and you will be able to appreciate the shattering implications of the events which took place on the ground where you walk all the better if your shoes leak like a sponge every time you take a step. So he tried not to think at all: I’ll let the experience speak to me as it comes, not try to interpret or determine how I feel about this or that. And at this, his guilt glands began to smoke from strain. Maybe, just maybe, this place isn’t about your little experience, they screeched. Maybe you should take off your water-logged shoes when you tread on holy ground.
Most of the barracks were locked, but the open ones had little exhibits set up. In one, a pair of man-sized tortoises carved by Polish inmates as a signal not to work swiftly. his mind whirled; how were such collosi hidden, let alone produced in secrecy? The next barracks was for shoes. It took him a moment to notice them; they were the same black color as the wet wood. When he tried to step further in, a rope barred his way, and only then did he look down and see what the floor was made of. He could not see the end of them; the back was too dark. Nothing was written on the walls for explanation. It recalled a painting by Anselm Keifer, of a torchlit wooden hall, apparently empty but in fact inhabited by the pantheon of German heroes: Leibnitz, Bach, Goethe, Frederick the Great, Beethoven, Kant, Hegel, Hölderlin, Bismarck, Wagner, Nietzsche, Rilke. There were no images of the great men, however; they were represented by disembodied signatures hovering in the drafty air. The painting was technically a zero, and yet somehow affected him more strongly than anything in this place. Perhaps he could more easily see himself as a disembodied signature than as an inmate wearing these shoes.
Some part of his mind knew that he should feel more horribly guilty now than ever – German artists, German heroes you are identifying with? Here? – but the glands had run out of juice.
He had seen the painting with his grandfather at a museum show two years before he died. “This is what I’m talking about – nothing, you see this nothing of a painting?” That was Jacob’s opinion, as it typically was when they went to museums.
David thought about this on the subway back to Queens. “You should paint the war,” he eventually replied.
Back in his studio, his grandfather pulled out a canvas from behind a stack of folding chairs. “You like? I made ten, fifteen years ago this one.” A red-faced, frowning Nazi, mit helmet und führer moustache, opened the door to a room full of Jews. And it was full: faces and arms overlapped one the other, so that you could not tell who belonged to what, so that the whole group became a mountain of bodies, a single organism facing every direction at once, and uncertain where it had put its legs. It was execrable.
David asked, “Is this supposed to be a gas chamber?” His grandfather replied, “No, this is just a room where they are hiding, and the Nazi is finding them out. To take from the gas chamber they used the Jews. I have a friend in Queens.”
David felt the ache of powerful, guilty curiosity. “What’s he like, your friend?” was what he finally asked. His grandfather shrugged. “Like? Well, he’s a little cheap, maybe, when we go out as a group, my friends. And he has no taste for the art, I tell you that.”
David took out his tape-recorder to make a note of his thoughts, when a knock on the door startled him and he dropped it into the shoes.
Rabbi Elisha Parnas, author of the best-selling Where Have You Been All YOUR Life?, sat in a Krakow cafe holding a wet towel to his head.
“Let me take a look,” his secretary said, and the rabbi lifted it to let him. “It doesn’t look too bad; it’s just red.”
“We’ll go back tomorrow,” the rabbi declared, with a forced finality.
“Eli, you got on television today; what’s the point of going through this again? So they can dump boiling oil on you next time?”
“They ruined my good suit, Avi; I should just let them get away with that?”
“So, send the dry-cleaning bill to Lech Walesa. You were on international television. The government will come out with some statement by tomorrow; they’ll move the convent like they promised. You won, I’m telling you. Let me take another look.”
The rabbi lifted his towel again to let him; his secretary continued to cluck, but the rabbi was not letting himself think of his wound, or of the insult dealt him. He was right after all: they had won; that was what mattered.
Yet Rabbi Parnas was not thinking of his victory either, but rather of his ancient namesake, Abraham Parnas ben Chaim, and an ancient victory of his. In his day, Rabbi Abraham had spent his entire life fighting the Grey Friars over their church bells. The monastery abutted the old Lublin cemetery, and many were the times that a Jew would be saying kaddish, on a yahrzeit or even at a funeral, only to be interrupted by a hollow, foreign tolling. Influence was used in the Council of the Four Lands; suit was brought in the gentile courts; emissaries were even sent to Rome; but all were content to let negotiations and proceedings drag on without effect, waiting for when the rabbi’s death would put an end to his pestering.
And one day Rabbi Abraham Parnas ben Chaim did die. And when the men of the burial society carried him out to his dynastic plot, his students following in mournful train, the bells began, louder and, so it seemed to the mourners, more defiant than ever they had dared to ring while their rabbi had lived. And at that moment, hearing the bells taunting him, Rabbi Parnas sat up. His eyes still closed, his body still wrapped in the kittel, he walked out of the cemetery, back to the synagogue, where he took down the Sefer Torah and read one verse. None were bold enough to approach and see which. He then returned the scroll to the ark and marched back to his final rest.
The mourners followed their late master back to the cemetery, and instead of ringing they heard cries and wailing from the monastery. The bells had fallen from their tower, and did such damage as they fell that the tower itself threatened to fall in upon the monks. The following day it did, and the funds were never raised for its restoration. The rabbi, and all those who died after him in the city of Lublin, could be buried in peace.
Rabbi Elisha Parnas had worked up a stirring speech around this little tale, and he was more than a little annoyed that the workmen had prevented him from getting to that part when they dumped scalding water on his head. Still, he had to admit the visuals were fantastic. No more whining from the Church about the ungrateful rabbi evicting the poor nuns that prayed for the martyred souls of Auschwitz.
He let Avi take him back to their hotel, promised that he wouldn’t go back tomorrow, promised that he’d see a doctor, promised that he’d call his wife who was worried sick about her crazy husband always trying to get himself killed, promised he’d take a nap. But when he lay down, the vision returned to him: he hears the bells tolling, and in his mind’s eye he sees himself standing before the convent, a torah scroll laid out before him on a stack of cinderblocks. He cannot find the verse, has wearied his arms with rolling in search of it, and sits bent-over upon the ground. As he runs his fingers through the sparse grass, his nails catch on fragments of bone, a tooth, and his heart begins to shudder. Frantically he tears at the earth, tossing the clumps of ashy soil bound with roots over his shoulder and crying, Oh Lord God, Thou knowest. But when he turns to see the charred teeth of his people rising, he faces into the whirlwind.