“April is the cruelest month…”

1 Apr


Tsarouches’ Apriles

“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.”
And Roger Cohen’s weird hallucinatory piece in the Times, “A Time of Bullies”:

Every Jew of the second half of the 20th century was a child of the Holocaust. So was all humanity. Survival could only be a source of guilt, whether spoken or unspoken. We bore the imprint of departed souls.

The silence that descended was the silence of the lost. It seems to me that I was raised in silence and that I was far from alone in that. Language could not accommodate such a volume of ashes. Death’s German mastery lingered. The new European prosperity was an epilogue to the unspeakable, its disguise.

Beneath the gleaming postwar surfaces there lurked the indelible stain of barbarism. A human stain, the bruise of complicity in all its shades.

After a while I wanted to understand the things unsaid in the rush to build on the ruins. The covered-over came after me. As a child of the repetitively displaced, I was perhaps a natural target for smothered memory. I wanted to understand where I came from. I wanted to understand my mother’s madness. Never should it be forgotten how onerous it is to forget.

There were clues along the way.

I stand with my then-wife Frida Baranek at Auschwitz gazing at the entangled piles of spectacles left behind by the gassed. Glasses removed for a “shower” form a labyrinthine mound of wire. Frida’s grandmother and most of her maternal family from Poland were killed in the camps. Raised in Brazil, she has never seen this residue of mass murder. Yet her gravity-defying sculptures from the tropics resemble nothing so much as this living tangle of metal.

Some feeling had passed from her murdered grandmother — of the weightlessness of life, of sightlessness, of imbalance and collapse. What it was, at the end, to crumple naked into a cold wall and scream.

My own family skirted the Holocaust. I am not strictly a child of the Holocaust — perhaps a stepchild. They fled the Russian pogroms of Lithuania for the sun and gold of South Africa. My parents left the ravages of apartheid for the tolerance of England. I bounced back and forth in infancy between London and Johannesburg, before being educated at bastions of British privilege, Westminster School and Balliol College, Oxford.

Yet — that old Jewish thing — I never quite belonged. I left England and sotto voce Jewishness to become an American and full-throated Jew in New York. I settled in Brooklyn just in time to see the Twin Towers come down, watch the papers flutter like confetti over the East River, and inhale the acrid-sweet smell of burnt flesh below Canal Street.

Ashes again, vanishing in the air, motes of darkness.

Hatred, fomented in the name of utopian illusion, returns. It is unbearable for some to accept Kant’s “crooked timber of humanity” out of which no straight thing was ever fashioned. The essence of liberalism is acceptance of our human limits and our human differences. It is acceptance of multiple and perhaps incompatible truths. In Europe and America, liberalism is threatened today. Anger rises. Bullies have workable material.

When societies leave many people feeling excluded, they grow volatile. Belonging is a fundamental human need.

In the United States we tend to think of immigration as new opportunity and new hope. That is the bright star of movement and displacement.

The black sun is loss and forgetting, losing an identity to craft another. It is the enormous effort of rebuilding a life far from the familiar — the cherries of Lithuania, the firm yellow peaches of Cape Town, the certain moments and certain pleasures that once inhabited Aleppo or Homs.

The Holocaust was an uprooting, an eviction and an effacement executed on a scale never imagined. For Jews, belonging ceased. My parents, bearing the subliminal shame of Jewish survivors, tried to assimilate in Britain. But my mother was a transplant that would not take.

Hollowness: spaces between the wires, empty spectacle frames and shattered glass. My mother looked for an anchor in a strange land. Her mind raged like an infernal machine, or folded into inertia.

My young cousin in Tel Aviv who took her life, an Israeli unable to establish her own borders in a Jewish state of uncertain borders.

The horror is endlessly refracted.

I feel a great unease. We have embarked on the 21st century with the painful yet essential knowledge of the last one slipping from us. Last month, some American Jews cheered a dangerous demagogue.

Two thousand years ago Hillel admonished us: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

It is incumbent on all the inheritors of the silence of the lost to raise their voices against the barbarians and bullies before it is too late.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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