Food for Thought

In the alchemy of man’s soul, almost all noble attributes — courage, love, hope, faith, beauty, loyalty — can be transmuted into ruthlessness.  Compassion alone stands apart from the continuous traffic between good and evil proceeding within us.  Compassion is the antitoxin of the soul.  Where there is compassion, even the poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless.

~Eric Hoffer

A Peephole into Two Sides of History

Digging deep into STUFF as part of the packing process, I got into an archive of letters and photos we brought home from J’s mother’s house after she died in 1982.  I found two letters which I have translated from the German, the first in part, the second in full.

* * * *

To get the context of the first letter, you need to understand that Jacques’ family, despite some intermarriage (and despite his nom de plume, or guerre) was predominantly Transylvanian Saxon.  These were people who moved to the foot of the Carpathian Mountains in the 13th and 14th centuries at the invitation of a Hungarian king, and there, despite building hilltop fortresses where the whole town would retreat during invasions from the East (which is why the German name for Transylvania is Siebenbürgen, seven fortresses), they acquired a wide swath of Mongol genes, probably the hard way, but to their long-term advantage.  They were part of Austro-Hungary till 1918, when Transylvania was awarded to Romania.  The educated class, to which J’s family belonged, spoke 4 languages:  high German, Saxon dialect (which resembles Old English more than it does German), Hungarian, and Romanian.

In the lead-up to WWII, a number of these Transylvanian Saxons were enamored of Hitler; others, more working-class, were enamored of Stalin.  The story I got about J’s family is that they were enamored of neither; this is somewhat substantiated by my possession of an Ahnenpass, a booklet handed out to Germanic families in which they were supposed to fill out their ancestry to prove there weren’t any Jews in it.  The one I have is . . . blank.  But there were family friends who fell into the first category, and this is an excerpt from a letter from one of those, who was apparently in Vienna.  (Warning:  it’s a shocker.)

Trenyi [J’s mother’s nickname], imagine, I have seen the Führer quite close up and four times.  To be sure, we stood for four hours but as a result I got a fine view of Him [sic].  The police couldn’t hold us back anymore, we ran quite close to the car.  Then He went into the [Hotel] “Imperial” and we planted ourselves in front of the hotel and shouted that it was a joy, “We want to see our Führer,” and “Dear Führer, Ostmark’s son [the Nazi name for Austria after Anschluss], show yourself on the balcony” [“Balkon,” this rhymes in German, as does the following] and “Dear Führer, be so nice, seat yourself on the windowsill,” and lots more quickly invented things.  He did let himself be seen twice on the balcony, but we didn’t go home until He came out again and drove to the theater.  I can’t describe to you the feeling that I had when I saw Him.  I cried and screamed as never before in my life.  I believe really He is for us Germans the second Christ.  And because I believe in this his purpose, I know that only He will bring the world peace, and until then we have quite a lot to experience.  And the Jews can balk all they want, they must come together and unite themselves into one people in Palestine and then there will be peace in Europe.  I can’t feel too sorry for them.  Their fate must fulfill itself.  And they have enough infamous actions on their conscience.  All these laws that the Führer gives out against the Jews today because of the racial defilement and the blood libel they already have [deserved?] for thousands of years, and it doesn’t occur to anyone to get further excited about them.

* * * * * * * *

The second letter is one of two, written in haste in pencil on brown paper, that got through from J in the Donbas slave labor camp to his parents.

21 July 1946

Dear Tata and Dear Mama!

With an opportunity I send you a couple of lines, I’m doing fine am healthy and cheerful and waiting only to come home.  I don’t understand why I haven’t gotten a letter from you like many others here?  Well, doesn’t matter, hopefully it won’t be much longer.  Of my work here and my daily life you will learn when I am with you.  I’ll just say so much: that I have a gigantic appetite.  Dear Mama, see that in the cabinet the rows of jam jars are standing just so, for I have forgotten what jam tastes like.  Enough of that.  Hopefully Edith* is at home and healthy.  My things are taken care of, right?  I’ll conclude.  Hermann [his birth name] kisses you.

Greet all of the family, I mean all, all.  Tata, forgive my handwriting, for the letter was and had to be written in one minute.

*[J’s sister, who he did not know had been arrested a few days after him, incarcerated 50 kilometers away from him, and had by the time of this letter been dead for more than a year.]

* * * * * * *

As I look at these two letters juxtaposed, it strikes me that the second is a direct consequence of the first.

At the Edge of Russia: a diary/review

Copying this from my personal journal, where I feel more inclined to write, but still to share.

Erin [my young colleague from Natural History, herself a filmmaker] had given me a choice of two documentary films at this festival, and I picked At the Edge of Russia.  Despite my obvious reasons for picking it, I was slow to feel how very much it reminded me of J and to be flooded by vivid imaginings of how he’d react to it.  He’d have loved and hated it.  TBC in the AM:  I’m dead.

*     *     *

3:50 AM:  The robins have started to sing, and my ears are ringing with exhaustion.  Still I’m having a glass of wine to wash the work out.

*      *      *

7:30 AM  Too early to be up, but the cats weren’t in bed with me and that was enough to wake me.  I don’t know what their problem was. . . . I have no sense of continuity.  I was just in Florida twice, but it feels long ago and far away.  I crashed and slept yesterday between 7:30 and 8:30 PM and woke feeling sad, lonely, and displaced.  Having the place such a mess, and Bob and his girlfriend here yesterday measuring things, may have put a kind of period to “our” life here, which I’m now bringing to an end.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  J was my anchor, and now I don’t have one.  I had kept returning here the way Lucky [cat alert] kept looking in Chili’s carrier — his playmate, his child — for a while after Chili died [age 3 months, 1992] and finally discerned that Chili was gone.

So it’s time to dismantle this staging area, but it’s another layer of goodbye.

I certainly can’t complain of feeling alone in the world — it’s more a matter of belonging everywhere and nowhere.

The Russian movie:  I wasn’t entirely clear that it was a documentary because the men in it had such actor-like expressiveness, but on the other hand some had genuinely missing fingers and teeth, and dirty fingernails not created by a makeup man.  This sweet-natured boy soldier is assigned to this snowy, godforsaken outpost where he joins this crew of sad, scruffy men of various ages, who put him through a sort of halfhearted hazing which he passes.  The men talk about women, with great wounded mistrust, they talk reverently about their mothers, they horse around, play guitar and sing (very well — very melancholy), raise the flag and obviously have feelings as deep about their motherland as their mother.  The camera shows us their expressions of pensiveness and pain that lead us deep into the mystery of wounds that are never explained.  At the end one of them gets drunk and emotional and resumes smoking because he’s about to go home to a wife he fears has been unfaithful.  He’s been out there to pay off a debt.  And that’s it.  At the end we learn that Russia has never been invaded from that border and their being out there at all is sort of quixotic and symbolic — and almost a monasticism of patriotism, a way of being more Russian, of exiling oneself in a sort of all-male sanatorium to recover from heartbreak and to love country/mother/woman from afar.  They speak quite consciously of the Russian soul.  They recite poetry, walk on their hands, chop a hole in the ice and swim nude; they talk about psychic forces and sixth senses — they’re quite mystical in a psi, Kirlian kind of way.  Nobody prays.  You hear “cunt” but not “God” (maybe that shows you who their true Goddess is).

As I remembered to imagine J’s reaction and that flooded in in a delayed way (which scared me — I’m afraid of not keeping him close and his perspective, so beyond reach but so bracing to have close, alive in me), I knew he’d have loved and hated the film, the snow and cold, the contemptible and enviable luxury of new footrags, the useless, competent, pointless Russianness.  These guys had done a lot and were good and inventive at what they did, but they were doing to be, not being to do.  They were all about being and feeling, not doing.  And I realized J had acquired a Russian soul but never gave in to it.  He kept it contained within the walls of his Germanness.  He allowed it to flavor life with its plangency and fatalism, but never to swamp it.  It made him such a unique combination — and then I realized that I resonated with it because I am the same combination — half German half Russian!

[At the Edge of Russia, actually a Polish production, but in Russian, had its North American premiere at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham.  (No, that’s not true, it’s been shown and reviewed at another festival.) One reviewer describes it as “like a Siberian Waiting for Godot.” Where and when it will next surface is unknown, but keep an eye out for it.  It is very much worth seeing.  Oh — here’s the trailer.  Have a taste.]