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Archive for the month “November, 2018”

On Writing

Because writing is what I do, I want to write about my week, and yet, growing up boomer, there is a line between private and public that people of my generation respect – unlike the Millennials and after, who believe every bit of their lives is so interesting that whether shopping for broccoli, sharing a medical scan, traveling to the post office to buy five stamps or their dog’s cute tricks is a topic worthy of post and unduly note, showcasing their fascination with self , really an extended selfie.

But I know where to cross the line, I think. Perhaps because my mother always scolded,”Pat, you don’t have to tell everything you know”. No doubt when she was shocked to discover I had revealed some family secret. So over the years, I have tried “ to think before I speak”, another admonishment: that I was less able to contain growing up, my messy emotions unable to avoid censure as I blurted out words I later wished I could have retrieved, for perhaps at the moment, I thought them true, but upon reflection understood them as knives of retaliation, painful daggers of spite, or weapons of wounding. But once released in the cool air of quandary and confrontation , too late discovered they could not be recalled or put to bed. And of course, once my irritation or anger fled, the conflict might have vanished from my imagination, but once flown from my castigating lips, damage inflicted.

These lessons learned or experienced myself have taught me much, and the wonderful thing about writing is editing, revising and rereading before thoughts are released into the atmosphere. I used to tell my students to find fresh or unique ways to express a cliché, make it come alive because a cliché has already lost its pow. Write it in a way to be remembered . Your writing resembles a tapestry, the wool or threads maybe knotted, joined, overlaid on the back, should be smooth and compelling on the outside to be seen, the hard work hidden and the viewer/ reader unaware of the work that has gone into your piece, seamless on front.

I love writing and am so pleased all three of my children commandeer the art and science of expression: almost all in their everyday work as brilliant professionals. And just yesterday one wrote me two pages that touched me deeply about the importance of saying what we feel. It is a treasure.

Words. This week words made my experiences real, palpable, words I would have preferred not to write them, but as my son discovered – therapeutic ( much like my knitting). Writing helps the writer. The act of thinking through what goes on paper is an activity that separates you from the actual event, causing you to stand outside it, frame and describe it so it can be communicated beyond your own head into the medium of a screen or paper. The words stand alone, beyond your body, transformed by your mind, to speak a certain truth, even though it comes from your personal truth, tinged with a personal perspective, but opened to others’ interpretations much like a good piece of visual art that draws you in, makes you think so it becomes your own, you transformed by a new thought you might not have had previously, opening your head to a new way of viewing life. The puzzle, the “ aha” moment when suddenly, it all makes sense, or something that had not occurred to you taps you on the shoulder and your eyes open wider. You gasp, refreshed,” why didn’t I see that before”. Or as the Millennials and even my eight year old grandson piques, OMG!!!!

So I write and in venues where my experience is appropriately told, I will tell it, helping me through my ordeal.

In this new world, as in my writing, I stand outside of myself, made alien to my before life, not unlike my writing where the objective words extend distance. This is good to put it outside, lessening the burden of keeping all the nastiness inside ourselves. My words are separate from me, yet part of me. They can be manipulated, as I now am. They can coolly portray what is still a miasma of emotions. They can be wise, dark, fearful, ironic, even wise or funny which signify the essence of who I like to think myself to be. They stand alone. Somewhere they will persist. It is their beauty.

Fania’s Heart

Your name is Sandy, but your mother prefers Sorale, a diminutive Yiddish version and you’ve just watched, unblinking, an episode of Father Knows Best, one in which the topic of adoption has been explored. Lately you have been troubled and wonder if you too are adopted so when your parents are busy, you carefully find your way into their bedroom, and you decide to go through their things where from your father’s drawer, you unearth some sepia photos and documents of family, but only a few. But when you rifle through her mother’s drawer all your fingers discern is this hard shape which turns out to be this little heart. You turn it over in your hands intrigued, but your mother finds you and admonishes you not to touch it. It’s obviously something very precious because it’s taken out of your hands and returned to its place in the dark drawer.

Years later you will told it has been donated it to the Holocaust Museum in Montréal and you will be upset because you believed the hard little heart was a family treasure that belonged to the family, kind of like their family jewels. By that time, however, you know about the Holocaust and the dark numbers incised on your parents’ wrists.

And so the story of Fania’s Heart begins to unfold.

I heard the story from Heidi, a fellow art student when she related her Yom Kippur break- fast this year, meeting her partner’s cousin Sandy for the second time. Her narrative focused on Sandy or Sorale as her mother affectionately called her, the daughter, and Fania the more than ninety- some year old mother who survived Auschwitz. Heidi is describing the backdrop for her telling, one we have known before, of young women- from Czechoslovakia ,France, Belgium, Germany,Poland , some as young as 15, who were able to remain alive because of their tiny hands.In Fania’s case, she too was put in the munitions section in the Weichsel-Union Metallwerke because her small digits could load tiny ball bearings and prepare weaponry for the Nazis.

Heidi explains that when the heart was donated, a Canadian filmmaker, Carl Leblanc, so interested in the tiny purple heart embroidered with an orange F, began to work on a documentary film entitled “ The Heart of Auschwitz” in 2010 ; more recently in 2018 a children’s book, “ Fania’s Heart” has been released showcasing Fania’s unbelievable story.

She was an adolescent, directed where she could help the war effort against her own people, a Jew imprisoned because she was a Jew. She had all ready been separated from her brother, Leybl, her sister, Moushka and her parents from Bialystok, Poland. In the film, Fania bitterly opines, “ We (the girls at the munitions plant) did not go to the gas chamber…we were ‘privileged’.” To aid the Nazis in the destruction of their own was particularly troubling to the girls who sat ten to a side so occasionally they would misassemble or spoil a part, adding a few pinches of earth, small but incredibly brave acts of defiance. At dusk they would be searched by guards for any smuggled items that could be used against them. It was an existence of lice-infested mattresses, often five to a bunk, lunches of nettles and weeds and shivering for hours in roll call. To survive, Fania imagined her mother’s fragrant chicken soup and attempted to take comfort in small things like the warmth of the sun, encouraging her workmates with smiles or even funny stories.

It was Fania’s 20 th birthday and the women who lined each side of her table knew and wanted to commemorate the day, even in the bleakest impossibility of the camps. Bronia and Zlatka ,also Polish, were Fania’s best friends, slightly older than Fania. It was Zlatka who originated the plan. Each of the twenty girls at her table contributed to an act that could have cost them their lives: paper, scissors, even a bit of torn cloth from Zlatka’s thin purple shirt hidden beneath her striped uniform. The heart they created underlines the bravery, posing the question “ Why would you risk your life for birthday wishes?” The inmates were forbidden to talk, or move from their benches for twelve hours, their elbows touching as they worked. Discovered, this collaborative act could have cost them their fragile lives. Yet somehow, they managed: rubbing bread and water together in their fingers to make glue, scavenging threads..

In a tunnel of fear and hunger, deprivation and worse, an unbelievable undertaking exemplified a form of resistance and strength of the human spirit. Much later, Zlatka wondrous at making a birthday “souvenir” for her friend queries ,” I do not know how could I have dreamed about freedom.”

Fania reflects that on December 12, her birthday, something was being slowly handed from one coworker to the next, making its way towards her. A guard observing bodies and heads brought too close together pulled the main instigator, the genius behind the amazing gift, away and beat her mercilessly, almost costing her her life. Returning to the table bruised and hurt, Zlatka takes her seat again with her friends, their eyes now holding back their tears.

When the uproar settles, Fania discovers “ a small birthday cake my friends had pieced together from their precious bread rations…[t]ucked inside the bread was the heart.”In order to avoid detection, Fania hides it in her armpit, but only in the evening, back in her bunk does she open the heart to realize it is actually a birthday card in the shape of a heart about the size of a butterfly or a daisy and inside, much like origami that folds in on itself, each woman has added a tiny page, each contributing best wishes in her own language. During the days, Fania presses her treasure between the boards where she sleeps at night.

In the pages that fold out from the heart, Giza inscribed,” A lot of luck and freedom.”Mazal scrawls, “May your life be long and sweet.”Irena writes,” I wish that all wishes should be fulfilled.” Others pencil, “ Be light when you dance” and, “When you get old, put on your glasses and read my name.” A little humour perhaps from those forcing themselves to forget that most of them will disappear into the gas chamber by age 20. The backdrop of beatings and hunger has been momentarily erased and each has cast themselves back to the world they once knew: where parties and pretty dresses and tasty dishes and family hugs accompanied all celebrations, but especially on birthdays.

From these sentiments we can imagine they revisited in their heads a relaxed clump of laughing, chattering ingenues, ready to set out on their discovery of the world, love interests and delicious endeavours. Love, food, family, smiles and the embrace of normal life. Like the recipes they recited to one another and aspirations to eventually eat to their heart’s content, the crafted gift was an object of moral resistance, a way to recapture their lost worlds and endure until their futures were resurrected.

The words carefully written by each friend and lasting even now, but especially the fourth petal of the heart held Fania’s favourite line ,” Freedom, Freedom, Freedom.” Fania later explains,” My friends wanted to prove that despite all that was inflicted upon us, we could still treat each other with humanity”, adding, “ Their words saved me…”

And even in 1945, when the Red Army approaches and the Nazis empty the concentration camps, putting 60,000 on the roads with only a bowl and a spoon, somehow Fania kept her illicit gift, again hiding it in her armpit as she walked the death marches.

Naysayers, in fact the Jewish supervisor of the girls sorting bullets at the factory who lived through Shoah and interviewed by the filmmaker is adamant that such an incredible subversive feat could not have taken place. Scornful, she underlines ,” Absolutely impossible…one woman in the camps wrote a letter to her husband, and she was hanged… if you deviated one centimetre in rollcall, you were beaten,” she pronounces, indignant. When Leblanc tells her that Fania had carried the heart in her armpit on the death march, she starts to laugh at how ridiculous that would’ve been. She states again, more enraged, that everyone was freezing and it would’ve been impossible to have a hidden an item in her armpit. Turning her head from the camera, even angrier, she maintains,” It’s not a reality.”

The interviewer points out that -in fact -the heart does exist.

Fixated on tracking down Fania’s tablemates, Le Blanc goes to Washington, Red Cross Head Quarters, ,International Tracing Services, Germany ,Cambridge, Washington,Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, Auschwitz Deportee Union, Paris even Buenos Aires. With only the first names of those who signed the heart , the search is complicated. The names Fela, Guta, Helena, Eva, Ruth, Hanka, Mania,Giza and others are discernible still. Even when the leads do not produce results, Leblanc pursues the quest. With the death of her father, Sandy sorting through his papers, unexpectedly comes upon a letter sent fifteen years previously from a Lidia Vago in Israel.

Heidi, continues, “Since everyone was aging, it was hard to know if anyone was still even alive, but this woman in Israel had kept a dossier of women survivors from Auschwitz.” Comparing signatures, they see names align. It is a moment of triumph for Leblanc and Vago. Helena now living in Cannes acknowledges the making of the heart by telephone, but refuses to participate, taking her memories to the grave with her, but Fela, now 86, her remembrances dimming recalls signing and Zlatka in South America contributes,” [we] felt like sisters.” Bronia has now passed away, but Fania is asked to represent her as a kind of grandmother in absentia at her granddaughter’s wedding. Sandy and Fania are welcomed as guests , the family feeling that it was as if their own mother was attending in spirit, reminiscent of one of the girl’s thoughts penned on the little heart back in the camps, “…not dying will be winning.”

And from this remarkable impossible story, a children’s book and the film, a film my friend Heidi had related was so emotional, so breathtaking , particularly as the surviving women met again.

How do we talk about the deep and haunting introspective looks that appear on Sandy’s face as she walks through Auschwitz with her daughter. Or the daughter of Bronia who almost whispers, “ She ( her mother) had the biggest heart for everyone but me,” but told me nothing about the years of imprisonment in Auschwitz. Vivian Rakoff and Helen Epstein have written of the devastating effects on the children of survivors, those who relived their parents’ horrors vicariously. We can observe in Sandy’s face the traumatizing pain as she confronts her mother’s life in Auschwitz and struggles to keep her emotions private, away from the camera that seeks to document and record the trajectory of her mother’s birthday gift so many years ago.

Words. The words in the little heart, incandescent perpetual flames that guide us back to the time of our forbearers, and the unknowable times of terror, when girls were torn from their homes and thrust into hell. We, the observers, can never know the complete narratives, but the words of the heart, the words of the school children in Montreal in Leblanc ‘s film attempt to establish a balance perhaps, providing hope, for the school children have listened and are the living words that will go forward with this terrible story from the past, remembering the little heart made for a birthday .Fania writes”,I read the messages my friends had written. Their words gave me strength and carried me through each day until the war ended , and I was free once again.”

Fania’s Heart written by Anne Renaud, illustrations by Richard Rudnicki,Second StoryPress,2018

The Heart of Auschwitz Film by Carl Leblanc, 2010

Reviewing Paul Auster’s 4321

There are those books and authors we tend to identify as “Jewish”: Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Irene Nemirovsky, Nicole Krause, Jonathan Safran Foer, Philip Roth, Nora Ephron, for example. We consider these books Jewish because the protagonists exhibit characteristics we are familiar with, they interact with other Jewish people or the set of cultural events reflect our religion or history. Often the authors use their own Jewish lives as reference points in the stories they are sharing.

Interestingly, Paul Auster, the author of 4321, is himself born in New York to Jewish parents, four grandparents Eastern European Jews. Facts regarding his own background are woven into his tome, such as being close to his mother, distant from his father, his work as a translator of French poetry, passion for writing and writers, and even a childhood friend being struck by lightning. Yet, I would not have believed that Auster nor his protagonist Archie is Jewish.

In fact, on reflecting on the catalyst of the unravelling of 4321, – only the opening vignette of the book appears to be a Jewish one- Reznikoff from Russia arrives at Ellis Island and is counselled to give the name Rockefeller to the border agents, a name more worthy of respect and able to provide a smooth transition into the new world.However unable to recall the name when questioned, the haggard immigrant mutters, “Ikh hob fargessen” and so he is renamed Ichabod Ferguson. Seemingly it is a cynical not so funny tale story we’ve heard before, and we let it go, shaking our heads, familiar that in our own lineage the family moniker “ Yskervotiz”had been rechristened “ Ash” as an insensitive or uncaring agent unable to understand a foreigner’s accent had altered the names of Jews coming to America.

So, anticipating more Jewish- ness to the book after this incident, I’m surprised to find none, deciding the author has merely decided to use the anecdote as a structural moment that will unravel the tale he will so expertly relate. There is no bris, bar mitzvah, no Jewish geography, except New York, no get togethers at Passover, no Yom Kippur atonement, yet the names of the people with whom Archie associates are all Jewish: Adler, Marx, Blumenthal.However, I no longer expect that this book will be Jewish.

Yet, eventually I realize the enormity of this single joke, for the theme of the book concerns the identity of Auster’s hero, grandson of Ichabad, that will unfold into four chronological parallel tellings , each similar but different, meaning four boys all named Archie with the same parents, dreams, aspirations and predilections, but each living in a different house in differing economical circumstances in Manhattan, Montclair, Millburn, and Maplewood. In the voice of Archie, Auster writes,

One of the odd things about being himself..that there seemed to be several of him…a collection of contradictory selves. And each time he was a different person, he himself was different as well.

Jewishness aside, if you were a baby boomer as Archie is, born March 1947, 4321 will recreate for you the terrible sixties which you may have mythologized as a Woodstock love fest complete with love beads. Rather, this socialist- realist novel reminds us of the Viet Nam war, the anti war protests, Rosenberg Trials, Kent State, Columbia sit- ins, Chicago brutality, murder of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, all in precise, factual riveting detail. Archie’s involvement varies as reporter or witness, certainly aware of the trajectory , but except for a stance associated perhaps with a Jewish concern, philanthropy and belief in the democratic process, he is not in the trenches of these world altering events. Even Philip Roth in American Pastoral situates the daughter, Merry Levov, of his main protagonist, “ Swede” in the Newark riots, yet Auster’s protagonist although swept up in the tide of politics, repercussions and fallout, is not an instigator, more bystander to the history in the 60’s.

The stories of the four Archies resemble Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, although her protagonist Ursula seems to skirt around from country to country, her personality changing as she plays central roles in say, an attempt on Hitler’s life, etc. Our likeable Archie is less a risk taker, adoring his photographer mother, the beautiful Rose Adler, as Auster did. All Archies are fascinated by Amy Schneiderman, alternately love interest, step- sister or cousin. Archie immediately mesmerized states,”…there it was, a feeling, an intuition, a certainty that something important was happening and that he and Amy Schneiderman were about to set off on a long journey together.” In all four stories, he exudes deep love and affection for the politically- committed girl he first encounters as a toddler so they both grow up together, stories entwined, no matter which university each attends: Princeton, Columbia, Bryn Mawr or Brooklyn College.

Coming of age accompanied by a search for life’s meaning is a constant feature in 4321. From disabling car crashes, insurance fraud, involvement in sports, a father who is burnt alive in one section while simultaneously growing an empire of appliance stores in another to diverse sexual partners, an ongoing love for New York, a sojourn in Paris, the novel amplifies the twists and turns, the happenstance that results in paths and journeys to unanticipated destinations for the main character.

Other reviewers have commented on the initial confusion in sorting out which Archie is which, evoking Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”, roads that are pursued, those ignored, this novel certainly providing multiple pathways. But again, nothing suggests anything particularly Jewish in the routes Archie explores. We do not conceive of him growing up as a Jew, for Jews alone do not hold a monopoly in developing moral consciousness as a liberal minded Archie does, his positive attitudes exemplified towards race and gender, for example when he is colourblind to a young prostitute, insulted when questioned if he would like another black girl for his teenage trysts.

There is much sweetness in Rose and Archie’s escape to the movies when his father dies, and his mother’s attempts to put their life back together, his raucous joy at watching the antics of Laurel and Hardy that wind up underpinning a first book. There is a charming first endeavour at writing a novella about the inseparable shoes “Hank and Frank” when Archie is only 14. There is a palpably intense scene as the older Archie awaits the Vietnam Nam draft lottery determined by birthdates, the sudden death of his doppelgänger friend Artie Federman and camp relationships that catalyze into lifelong friendships.

All of this is intriguing, recognizable and written in a way that in spite of 800 pages or more never bores. As Archie himself refers to his delight in studying a plethora of new authors and thinkers and translating French poetry to make it his own, we think of Jonathan Franzen, Borges, Dickens and Salinger, so many authors who have followed their heroes through the spirals, curves and initiations into adulthood.The following line,

The sun was stuck in the sky, a page had gone missing from a book and it would always be summer as long as they did not breath too hard or ask for too much, always the summer when they were 19, finally almost finally perhaps almost on the brink of saying goodbye to the moment when everything was still in front of them.

Conjuring F. Scott Fitzgerald as the great Gatsby gazes at the green light at the end of the pier, these nostalgic thoughts suggest an overlay of longing in this Bildungsroman that prepares us for the quests and follies our own lives will follow.Or ironically, we as Archie’s peers, have ourselves all ready experienced.

Perhaps Archie is a modern Jew, raised in a loving home with Jewish values of respect and responsibility post World War II, primed to be educated and fully assimilated in America, the home of freed immigrants and refugees like his grandfather, people who did not want to be differentiated by faith or religion at all, desirous to fit in, work hard and achieve the American Dream. I want to claim Archie as Jewish because in all of his manifestations, I really do like him. I can identify with his passions and pursuits, his fallibility and his attitudes towards life.

Yet unlike Jonathon Safan Foer in Here I Am, the very title from Abraham’s biblical response to G-d in the wild, triggering the novel of modern Jewish angst, his character, Jacob Bloch’s contemplation, strong connection to Israel, daily Jewish observances, the holocaust, all fictionally realistic, perplex and make me want to distance myself as his Canadian cousin, so I pine for something Jewish to connect me to Archie, but sadly , Archie’s thoughts about anything Jewish never figure in 4321, except as a structural stylistic note to bring the novel full circle, a tool, a device manipulated by a clever writer.

And although I too have assimilated, I carry with me Jewish connections- to family holiday celebrations, beyond Kafka to Jewish literature, an understanding of basic Jewish practices, a respect for the travel of my ancestors who brought us here, a link to Jewish worlds of repression and oppression, Jewish humour, even anxieties and neuroses because I am Jewish although many would scoff that I have created a stereotypical image rather than one that penetrates a Jewish sensibility. 4321 severs the ties with all of that, only leaving the names of his friends and some family as indicative of our origins, wisps of torn paper to be carried off in the wind.

In the end, we are left with the cumulative incident, the joke- Archie’s name “ Ferguson” or ” Ikh hob fargessen” which isn’t a joke because without your name, your identity has been banished and young Archie moves among his four identities, none that tackles, unriddles or comes to grips with his birthright. I cannot help but recall Eva Hoffman’s memoir, Lost in Translation, in which she searches to resurrect her past lived in her first language Polish. It is true that Archie grew up in English, however, the vestiges of a communal past have the power to reach out and shape who we become, an epilogical ghost from the past perhaps. So like the Jews of old, our Archie wanders among four deserts, searching. Without a past, we exist only in the present, no matter how charitable, how charming or charismatic we may be, twisting in that cold and bitter wind.

Maybe that is why I yearned for a speck of Jewish connection in a tale that is predicated on a Jewish joke so that Archie might come to know his roots and travel on to a secure future where he might confront and acknowledge his past, muttering, I did NOT forget.

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