Paralleling

Note: I’ve recently published the latest issue of Musing on the Muse. In it you can find links to the works discussed in this post. [go]

I have been living three parallel lives, it seems. I’m not even sure if parallel is the right word to describe the relationship of the three very different places I’ve been inhabiting these days.

First, there’s the so-called everyday or “real” world which, right now is dominated by economics even more than usual. In this world commentators struggle to name the condition the United States and hence most of the world is in. A recession? A depression? Merely a crisis or a melt-down (these last two have the implied benefit of being brief and temporary conditions). Lately, some of the professional namers seem to have settled on “The Great Recession” which, I think, is pretty depressing. Whatever you call it, the poor are poorer, the wealthy are distressed and the middle classes are in shock, panicking and grieving the death of their honorable, American dreams (no irony intended) of home ownership, limitless education for their children and a long, dignified retirement, or regretting the bad counsel they all-too-willingly believed and the indulgences they were given no reason to deny themselves.

Next is the world of Budapest in the year 1944 when the Germans finally invaded and, making up for lost time, set new records for speed and efficiency in achieving their final solution. In a mater of weeks they exterminated three hundred thousand Hungarian Jews. My point of entry to this world is a play I’m writing, inspired by a short piece of non-fiction by Irvin Yalom, who’s known to many as the accomplished author of several novels and collections of short stories and as an eminent psychiatrist who has authored seminal works on group therapy and existential psychology. The material he asked me to adapt for the stage is about his friendship with Dr. Robert Berger which began in the fifties when both were students in the Medical School of Bastion University. Berger, who went on to become one of the world’s great cardiac surgeons, was born in Hungary in 1929. After his family was taken by the Germans in 1944, He escaped from a group that was waiting for trains that would take them to a concentration camp and spent the rest of the war underground. Forged identity papers let him pass as “Aryan” while he worked in in the Jewish Resistance. He was fifteen. In 1947, after a couple of years in displaced persons camps in Europe, he came to the U.S. as a refugee. He put himself through Harvard by working construction and getting scholarships before starting med school.

The Holocaust came late to Hungary. Because the country had allied itself with Hitler’s Germany when the war began, It had not been invaded or occupied until the last year of the war, when elements in the government tried to make a separate peace with the allies. The Hungarian Fascist government that took over, the Nyilas or, “Arrow Cross” are said to have outdone the German Nazis in violence. rapacity, and delight in random murder. Fortunately they were only in power for a few months before the war ended.

I feel honored by Dr. Berger’s willingness to tell me his stories as I write the play. Since he lives in Boston our talks have been by phone. Both he and Irv are amazing men. I need to resist going on at length about their friendship and Robert’s story. I’ll just say that the precipitating event in Irv Yalom’s story and the play I’m writing is a new desire of Robert’s to finally tell his story. During the last sixty five years, he has maintained a nearly complete silence about his life in Hungary. But not too long ago, an unusual and surprising experience triggered a flood of memories, and he turned to his old friend for guidance in forging a relationship to them.

When I listen to Robert. I’m keenly aware that I’m listening to one of the last witnesses to that world-engulfing phenomenon that is still so hard to talk about, write about or imagine. This has prompted me to look at the fact that I’ve been relating to the Shoah [1] one way or another for many years. Perhaps because I’m an American Jew born in 1945 just weeks after the official “liberation” of Auschwitz or for reasons less knowable, I’ve not been able to avoid it for very long. Having committed myself as an artist to material connected to the Jewish imagination, its shadow is unavoidable.

At one point, Robert suggested I read Fateless a novel by a Hungarian author, Imre Kertesz, who is the same age he is. First I saw the film by Lajos Koltai from a screenplay by Kertesz, who was the 2002 Nobel laureate in literature.

It just might be the most powerful film about the Shoah ever made. Both the film and the novel bring a shockingly fresh approach to the experience of a 14 year old, middle-class, extremely assimilated Hungarian Jew without any sort of Jewish identity before his descent into Auschwitz, Buchenwald and a small slave labor camp.

Probably the most unusual element of both film and book is Kertesz’ refusal of all received ideas, all clichés about suffering and victimhood. Like Israeli author David Grossman whose masterpiece, See Under: Love I adapted for the stage ten years ago, Kertesz refuses to sacralize the Shoah, to treat it with the reverence and piety that overlay so many worthy yet ultimately deadening works about it. This allows Kertesz and Koltai to admit the possibility of happiness and beauty even in the deepest layers of hell.

There is a moment in the film when inmates of the slave-labor camp, in striped uniforms and caps are forced to stand in “roll-call” formation for a horribly long and painful time. Koltai places his camera behind and above the prisoners with the entire group of about fifty or a hundred visible. The camera hardly moves for a vary long time. There is mist or fog. After a while various prisoners can no longer keep still and begin to sway, very slightly. As the swaying spreads, stops, starts again, I could not help but be moved by the ethereal beauty of the human movements which had the same ineffable quality as the movement of trees. At the same time, the raw brutality of the situation remained present. The ability to hold both truths in a single image is the sign of artistic mastery that, in this case, is ruthlessly free of ego, polemic, or any hint of inflation. The same mastery exists in Kertesz’ writing. An example, after the boy is back in Budapest just after the war’s end:

But one shouldn’t exaggerate, as this is precisely the crux of it: I am here. And I am well aware that I shall accept any rationale as the price for being able to live. Yes, as I looked around this placid, twilit square, this street, weather-beaten yet full of a thousand promises, I was already feeling a growing and accumulating readiness to continue my uncontinuable life. My mother was waiting, and would no doubt greatly rejoice over me. I recollect that she had once conceived a plan that I should be an engineer, a doctor or something like that. No doubt that is how it will be, just as she wished; there is nothing impossible that we do not live through naturally, and keeping a watch on me on my journey, like some inescapable trap, I already know there will be happiness. For even there, next to the chimneys, in the intervals between the torments, there was something that resembled happiness. Everyone asks only about the hardships and the “atrocities,” whereas for me perhaps it is that experience which will remain the most memorable. Yes, the next time I am asked, I ought to speak up about that, the happiness of the concentration camps.

If indeed I am asked. And provided I myself don’t forget.

After watching Fateless, I thought about the times I’ve heard myself and Jewish friends say that we’d burned out on the Holocaust, the Shoah, not even knowing what to call it any more. We had studied it, researched different aspects of it. Seen every film about it from Night and Fog to Schindler’s List, laughed at Woody Allen’s neurotic, Holocaust-obsessed persona, hoped that the lessons of the Shoah would make genocide unthinkable and agonized over every new replay of “ethnic cleansing” of madness in Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, where it kept happening anyway; agonized over the Israeli refusal to let go of the Shoah as the justification for their own brutality only to be confronted with elements of the Muslim world embracing Holocaust denial and nineteenth century anti-Semitic screeds that had been discredited for over a century ago while Hindu nationalists in India started book clubs to discuss the management principles for success outlined in Mein Kampf and progressives, people of the left, in Europe and the Americas, with whom I’ve always identified, were responding to Israel’s overwhelming use of force in Gaza with language that seemed to cross some invisible line into, once again, anti-Semitism.

Even so, I thought, after watching Fateless, continuing to contemplate the endless stream of suffering and madness, selflessness and courage that flows from that fissure in the middle of the twentieth century and allowing it to work its way through my imagination seems to be part of my job description for this incarnation. [more about Fateless from NPR]

Way back in the first paragraph I said I was living in three parallel worlds. The third is the newest. A few weeks ago, a health-care practitioner I know hired me as a creative guide and mentor to work with a young man in his care who is being treated for various cognitive, emotional, and substance abuse disorders. I’m being purposely vague in the name of confidentiality. The relevant part right now is how powerful an experience it has been to spend time with a young man so brilliant, aware, sensitive, multi-talented and so lost. I can remember all too well my own lost years at the same age, in my early twenties, and how much I longed for guidance. Whether it was less available then or I just didn’t know where to look I’ll never know. But I catch myself feeling, now and then, when spending time with this young man, that I’m actually able to live the fantasy, that I know many of us share, of being able to time travel and offer reassurance to my younger self that, more or less, things will improve. I’m sure the therapy industry has a term for this. Something like positive-counter-transference maybe.

So here I am, living richly and fully in a couple of different centuries (and I said nothing about my wife, son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren who are another huge part of the collage) while, from a narrow economic perspective we’re all supposed to be teetering on the edge of the abyss. What I can’t figure out, when it comes to the economy is: how much of the enormous losses of recent months are related to what we could all agree has real value, and how much of this panic is in the realm of consensual unreality? But I’ve never really understood what money really is once it gets very far from its origin as a way to make bartering a little easier.


[1] Shoah is the Hebrew word for catastrophe that many prefer to Holocaust which carries, in its etymology, a sense of sacrifice and offering which the extermination of Jews, Gays, Roma, the deformed and mentally ill and Communists was definitely not.

art and last two photographs: corey fischer; others from Fateless

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