Hold It All

Category: Khurbn

The Chasm between Them and Us

Kadya Molodovsky, A Jewish Refugee in New York: Rivke Zilberg’s Journal
Translated by Anita Norich

The accomplished Yiddish writer Molodovsky wrote this novel in serialized form in 1940-41, knowing obviously what was happening at the time to her friends and family in Europe. But it was impossible for her to imagine the eventual enactment of a “Final Solution.” We readers in 2019 know what was to happen in the years following Rivke’s arrival and year of adjustments in the U.S. This makes the author’s portrayal of American superficiality even more piercing and jarring. Yet this theme of clueless nonchalance also interrogates also our present: Besides the consistently awful headlines each day, what unimaginable catastrophe is looming around the corner?

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The women talked a lot about themselves and didn’t give me the slightest opportunity to tell them how I came to be a refugee. 2

When he dances [like Benny Goodman] all I can think about is that my mother was killed by a bomb, and I don’t know what’s happening with my brothers, although I’m sure they’re not dancing now. I have no idea what’s become of my father either. I’d go to the ends of the earth to avoid Marvin’s dancing, but where can I go? 8

I thought they were getting ready for a Purim ball, but they explained that they were planning an event for war victims. I couldn’t believe how happy they were. They joked and talked and ate [cake]. No matter what’s going on, there’s always cake. If they’re having a card party—cake; a birthday—cake; collection for those suffering in the war—more cake. 12

And on top of everything else, I was upset with Red. When he came, I told him about my father’s letter. “You’re here, not there,” he answered. I could see in his face that he wasn’t the least bit concerned. Red saw that it upset me, and so he added, “What can you do?” I don’t know if Americans are heartless or they just pretend to be. I have no idea. They’re probably pretending. 50

“What are relatives nowadays. Once upon a time an aunt was an aunt, I brought everyone of my nieces and nephews to America. So now they make an appearance only if they need something.” 53

I’ve learned at least one thing in America. Whether things are good or bad, the first thing you have to do is smile. 65 Read the rest of this entry »

“Born Only Yesterday, and Already She Speaks Like a Perfect Mensch”

12.14.17

Dear Dianne,

I think this is the 4th time I’m reading Meshugah. It was originally serialized in the Yiddish Daily Forward. Because I’m reading it with you, and because Hedy is on our minds, in our hearts, I am paying more attention to the voices, the dialogue this time around. I marked the following passages, see what you think. Imagine twenty-five-year-old Hedy amidst such characters in NYC in 1949!

MA= Max Aberdam
AG = Aaron Greidinger
IS – Irka Shmelkes
M = Miriam
P = Priva

“Don’t be frightened, I haven’t come back from the Great Beyond to strangle you!” MA

“I’m alive, I’m alive.” AG
“You call this living?” MA

“My friend, I may have lost everything, but a bit of sense I still have. Though I’m in debt over my head, I owe nothing to the Almighty: as long as He keeps sending us Hitlers and Stalins, He is their God, not mine.” MA

“Where have you been all during the war?” AG
“Where have I not been? In Bialystok, in Vilna, Kovno, Shanghai, later in San Francisco. I experienced the full range of Jewish woes.” MA

“In all America you cannot get a decent cup of coffee. Hey, waiter! I ordered coffee, not dishwater!” MA

“In New York I found I was home again—they are all here, our people from Lodz and Warsaw.” MA

“I live on pills and faith—but not in God but in my own crazy luck.” MA

“Most of my clients are women, refugees from Poland who haven’t learned to count in dollars. They were driven half-mad in the ghettos and concentration camps.” MA

“The world is turning meshugah. It had to happen.” MA Read the rest of this entry »

“If the Messiah Comes, He’ll Come to This Cafeteria in Miami”

Isaac Bashevis Singer, Shadows on the Hudson
Translated by Joseph Sherman

Like Meshugah, this is another novel translated from the Yiddish and published after Singer’s death. In Shadows I was gripped by the various characters with all their quarrels and struggles over what constitutes Jewish identity in the decades after the European catastrophe and the founding of the State of Israel…

“Well, now I can hate him with a whole heart.”

“What do those holy souls think when they look down from heaven and see Jews consumed by their businesses, as though there were nothing else, as if the greatest devastation in Jewish history had never taken place?”

“He was someone who could blacken the sun.”

“A Jew without God is a gentile, even if he speaks Hebrew.”

“Scum floats to the top.”

“You won’t believe it, but the only shred of Jewishness left here resolves around the cemetery.”
“May he be the last of his line.”

“What binds them together? Not a God, not a country, not even a language. Among ourselves we speak a little ungrammatical Yiddish, but our children can’t even do that. Many of them are Communists. My own son won’t hear a word against Stalin—for him, Stalin’s murderers are sacrosanct.”

“May you never know what I’ve suffered.”

“I’m certain that if Tolstoy had lived longer, he would have turned to Judaism—that is to the prayer shawl and phylacteries and fringed ritual undergarments and the dietary laws. There is not, and cannot be, any other kind of Jewishness.” Read the rest of this entry »

Minutes & Plans & Moons

I first came to the work of Charles Reznikoff in 2008 when I read his terse “poems” in Holocaust. He had read thousands of pages of war crimes trials transcripts to produce condensed, jarring, essential “scenes of disaster,” like something out of Goya. I returned to him in 2010, and read several volumes by and about him. Reading this Objectivist poet that summer prepared me for a breakthrough in writing the following spring.

I recommend By the Well of Living & Seeing: New & Selected Poems 1918-1973 for anyone who might be interested in exploring the vision and sensibility of this Jewish American poet. To whet your reading appetite, I offer for your consideration the following poems…

If you ask me about the plans that I made last night
Of steel and granite—
I think the sun must have melted them,
Or this gentle wind blown them away.

The Old Man
The fish has too many bones
And the watermelon too many seeds.

Beggar Woman
When I was four years old my mother led me to the park.
The spring sunshine was not too warm. The street was almost empty.
The witch in my fairy-book came walking along.
She stopped to fish some mouldy grapes out of the gutter. Read the rest of this entry »

Sara Roy speaks to Germans

Your sense of guilt, if that is the correct word, should not derive from criticizing Israel. It should reside in remaining silent in the face of injustice as so many of your forebears did before, during and after the Holocaust. —On Equating BDS With Anti-Semitism: a Letter to the Members of the German Government

The Political Economy of Memory

Alan S. Rosenbaum, ed., Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on Comparative Genocide

I read this book for my treatment of Wiesel and it gave me plenty of perspectives, arguments and insights. The question of the volume already reflects its Shoah-centric status and bias. For example, there is no debate about the uniqueness of the Armenian slaughter. I still think that this question, which is but one reflection of the cultural production of the American political economy of memory, has its roots in the 1967 June War: after this there have been both sincere and disingenuous reckoning with the Holocaust. And Wiesel is torn — quelle surprise –between these two.

But there have come to be challengers to the implied moral claim that the Holocaust was the worst catastrophe in history (see even Dussel’s footnotes in Invention of the Americas) — and this volume gives them a voice, from Ian Hancock’s meticulous, impassioned claim that there was no difference between the treatment accorded Jews and Gypsies to Dave Stannard’s critique of the uniqueness proponents, especially Katz, for engaging in denial of other people’s Holocausts in the attempt to gain the monopoly on the genocide label only for the Jewish people. Read the rest of this entry »

Remembering Is Not Enough

Hilene Flanzbaum, The Americanization of the Holocaust
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

The following  note is from summer 1999 when I was reworking my dissertation to what would become my first book, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership (Temple University Press, 2001).   Hedy Epstein’s Erinnern Ist Nicht Genug: Autobiographie appeared in Germany in 1999. Norman Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust  Industry came out in 2000. 

This collection of essays doesn’t have much in the way of political relevance to my project, but there are good cultural analyses, particularly the editor’s overview to the subject (e.g., Wiesel at the Mets’ game),  Steinweiss’s remarks on Wiesel in Nebraska, Greenspan’s  studies of the evolving reception and discourses of survivors (stigmatizing vs. celebratory), and Young’s remarks on the politics of identity.  

Indeed, it is easier to talk about cultural shifts and Americanization rather than take the more controversial  and critical view that  elites are happy to focus on the Nazi crimes rather than our own.   Those people speaking out — more than 50 years later! — against Nazism may think of themselves, proudly, as moral beacons, say,  Christian “Holocaust scholars.”  But this reminds me of what Chomsky said, “You can tell the truth about Ghengis Khan, but it doesn’t rank very high on the moral scale.”  People got agitated about the Reagan Bitburg scandal of 1985, but not about Reagan’s  aiding and abetting the bloodbaths in Central America at the same time.  

In the News: Aung San Suu Kyi Not Worthy of Elie Wiesel Award

There is more than one irony in this New York Times article.

A Feat of Reading and Writing

1.

[T]he sheer enormity of what took place between 1933 and 1945 beggars our powers of description and understanding. The more one studies this period and its excesses, the more one must conclude that for any decent human being the slaughter of so many millions of innocents must, and indeed should, weigh heavily on subsequent generations, Jewish and non-Jewish…. there is no reason at all, in my opinion, not to submit oneself in horror and awe to the special tragedy besetting the Jewish people. As an Arab in particular I find it important to comprehend this collective experience in as much of its terrible concrete detail as one is capable: this act of comprehension guarantees one’s humanity and resolve that such a catastrophe should never be forgotten and never recur.
—Edward W. Said, Al-Ahram Weekly, 1997

2.

Charles Reznikoff immersed himself in more than 20 volumes of transcripts from World War II war crimes trials and the Eichmann trial. Out of that intense reading of thousands of pages came Holocaust, a book of poetry in 12 sections comprising 88 pages published in 1975. Read the rest of this entry »

A Poem, a History, a Novel

This fall Dianne, Lynette and I are reading the following books:


Read the rest of this entry »