May 2009

Elizabeth Bachner


My Own Private Holocaust: Reading Lev Raphael’s My Germany

We each have our own relationship to the Holocaust, that is, each of us alive in the world today. A friend of mine, who I fell out of touch with years ago, was obsessed not with Auschwitz and Dachau and gas chambers, but with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the internment camps in American borders, because she’s a little bit Japanese, the way I’m a little bit Jewish. Another friend, “coloured” in her home country, a lover of good wine and fun, is obsessed with the Group Areas Act. We each have our own ideas about homelands, and security.

Some people see Auschwitz as an isolated abomination, a bad bubble of history when “Germany” got taken over by a Bad Man, and Evil triumphed in the world, and then Good won. Others see “Germany” as a poisonous place filled with Hitler’s willing executioners, and those gas chambers as the head of pus that mounted on the pimple of the deep-seated anti-Semitism in Germany, Poland, Hungary, through Europe. Then there are people, like me, who see Auschwitz as continuous with world history, with war and mass rape and slavery, with imperialism and genocide, with the sickening ways that people justify torturing and abusing each other, individually and in groups. People like me might be more obsessed with the ways that our own relatives were raped, incarcerated, bombed, tortured, or gassed (or, the way our own relatives went and did those things to other human beings) than with how it happened for other people’s relatives. For us there’s no special, isolated spot in geography, history, ethnicity, time and space, for atrocity and horror. It’s been pretty much the human story, if you look at it in a certain way. And I do.

I tried to live for a while thinking about the truths of the world every single day -- the thousands of people getting raped and beaten this second, and this second, and this second. The origins of the plastic container for my organic dish soap, the people starving everywhere and the “away” where our garbage goes. It’s not that I have a huge problem with the human fact of mortality -- in fact, the interplay between life, lust, and death is kind of exciting -- but the way most people live, and the way we’re willing to treat each other, is super-depressing. I tried to take up the challenge in Primo Levi’s poem, “Shema,” which asks those of us living safe in our warm houses to remember the Holocaust while we go around living and breathing:

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
May disease render you powerless,
May your children turn their faces from you.

Obviously, it’s hard to live a daily human life without a teeming pile of denial. If you carry the injustices of the past, present and future around in your chest, you end up sick with fury and furious with sickness. You want to kill or die, and doesn’t that twist you around into the same problem you were escaping? Lately, I have tried to find compromises -- to create a fun life, to seek beauty, to tell the truth even when it takes courage, to dabble in a bastardized New York version of a Tonglen practice, and, generally, to try not to be too much of an asshole. None of us deserves a seat on a high horse these days, especially not middle-class Americans, but drowning oneself in black angst doesn’t seem that conscientious, either.

Lev Raphael’s My Germany is the story of a boyhood filled with ghosts. As the son of two Holocaust survivors, Raphael learned to walk on eggshells. Germany and The Germans were a monstrous phantom presence in his safe family home in New York. In this memoir, he recounts his coming of age as a writer, as a Jew, as an openly gay man, and as the son of survivors. He travels to Germany on book tours, reading and lecturing, and finds it a place of fascination rather than horror. His Germany was never his parents’ Germany. His past is not exactly their past. 

I am new to Raphael as a writer. Apparently, he’s rather famous, and writes thrillers and detective stories and novels as well as memoirs. He was groundbreaking as a novelist who is both gay and Jewish, and he was one of the first chroniclers of the second-generation Holocaust experience. I read My Germany twice, and it’s gotten me thinking -- about tragedy, about Germany, about writing “after Auschwitz,” and, more inchoately, about how to live a human life. I’m worried that my comments about Lev Raphael will sound sarcastic or backhanded, especially in the context of Levi’s imperative, which has obsessed me for most of my reading life. But I don’t mean them that way. 

Lev Raphael is an enormously pleasant writer, at least in this memoir. Even when he’s writing about his pain and grief, about his parent’s pain and the indigestible things that happened to them, it is somehow soothing to read him. I can’t quite articulate why. Partly, it is because he seems like such a wonderful person. The kind of man who it would be really nice to share a bottle of wine with, surrounded by other good friends. It is really no wonder that the Germans like him, and audiences adore him. It is a pleasure to spend time with him (however virtually) by reading this book -- not a pleasure like having an orgasm with a gorgeous rockstar or eating the best brioche in Paris, but a quiet pleasure like waking up on a rainy Sunday morning with no plans, no plans ever, and nothing to dread in your future, just a pile of good books to read, a dinner later with a friend whose face you like to look at, months of safety and health. Should a book with the camps in it be so soothing? Should any book be soothing, in the world at this moment? And if so, why?

There’s a spurious claim floating around, usually in memoirist circles, that all art is naturally and intrinsically healing. For instance, there’s a quote from Richard Rhodes in Samara O’Shea’s tediously cutesy girl-book, Note to Self: On Keeping a Journal and Other Dangerous Pursuits. He writes, “The process of writing is always a healing process because the function of creation is always, always the alleviation of pain -- the writer’s first of all and then the pain of those who read what she has written. Imagination is compassionate.” I jotted this down in my own little journal, with the note, “Sometimes writing is to expose pain, to rip the scales from the eyes of the reader, from the eyes of the poor writer. Sometimes writing is to take you (the reader, the writer, the bystander) to a terrible edge, forcing you to transform, to live differently, to die differently -- it is compassionate, yes, but it isn’t healing. It doesn’t alleviate anything. It seduces, it exposes, it explodes, it kills. You hurt yourself on it, the way you show your pale body to a dangerous lover, the way you take a sickening look down the sheer side of a building or cliff, the way those things feel intense, destructive, creative, brutal, hopeful.”

I’m not sure I was right about the hopefulness or compassion. Some work -- some of the best work -- is surely to punish the reader and writer, to torment him for being complacent, to force a cruel, life-ruining reckoning, or may his home be destroyed, may he fall prey to a disease, may his own children disown him, may he suffer. There is hopeless work, writing that might push an unstable reader over the edge. There is certainly work that has exacerbated a writer’s pain. Usually, this work is compassionate, an offering made in (possibly unwitting) homage to Santayana’s controversial idea that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Sometimes, though, the work is simply created as a revelation of truth. Is truth always compassionate? Is it always healing? Does learning from history improve things? 

The ancient tragedies had the added dimension of actors. Last week, I saw the Classic Stage Company’s alluring, surreal, David Lynch-esque production of Anne Carson’s new volume of translations, An Oresteia, which combines plays about the blood-drenched House of Atreus by Aiskhylos, Sophokles, and Euripides. Before that, I didn’t properly understand one of Sylvia Plath’s best poems, “Electra on Azalea Path.” In the CSC production, Annika Boras plays Elektra as a hard-as-nails girl, transformed by grief into a lightning bolt of pure, bitter, rage. In the Sophokles section, she’s a California teen tromping around furiously in layers of black clothes and big boots and too much eye makeup, while her friends sprawl carelessly by the pool in bright-colored, vintage swimwear. She alone cares about her father’s murder. She alone wants reparations. Her bloodthirsty mother and murderous stepfather (in a white suit and cowboy hat) are fucking like happy bunnies in her dead father’s house. Her bimbette sister is as happily oblivious as the killers themselves. She believes her brother is dead. She is all alone to proclaim her grief.

“Sophokles,” writes Anne Carson, “is a playwright fascinated in general by people who say no, people who resist compromise, people who make stumbling blocks of themselves, like Antigone or Ajax. These characters usually express defiance in some heroic fashion… (but) Elektra) is deprived of action. There is only one thing she can do. Make noise. So Elektra talks, wails, argues, denounces, sings, chants, and screams from one end of the play to the other… Elektra’s horrific command to Orestes, ‘Hit her a second time, if you have the strength!,’ is a direct quotation from her father’s pitiful, ‘Again, I am hit a second time!’ It’s as if the whole family were there, knee-deep in blood, and Elektra is killing her mother with her father’s words. Why would Sophokles do this? To emphasize Elektra’s awful command of language as a weapon? To remind us of Klytaimestra’s crime and close the cycle of vengeance in this house? To reopen Agamemnon’s wounds and suggest that vengeance here will never end? To trump Aiskhylos? To pay homage to Aiskhylos? Perhaps all these at once. Sophokles is a complex poet working a complex tradition. His audience enjoys all kinds of plays with masks. All kinds of uses of urns. They do not come to the theater for comfort.”

Elektra uses language as a weapon, like the Celtic poets who mastered satire, like Primo Levi. Not because she is inhuman, uncompassionate, a monster, but because a grave injustice has been done and she wants people to know, to bear witness.  Some of her words in Carson’s translation are haunting, eternal, as true now as ever:

You say ignore the deed—is that right?
Who could approve this?
It defies human instinct!
Such ethics make no sense to me. 
And how could I nestle myself in a life of

 while my father lies out in the cold,
outside honor?
My cries are wings:
they pierce the cage.
For if a dead man is earth and nothing,
if a dead man is void and dead space lying,
if a dead man’s murderers
do not give
blood for blood
to pay for this,
then shame does not exist.
Human reverence
is gone.

A German audience member asks Lev Raphael, in a soft voice, whether forgiveness is possible. “’Forgiveness?’ I ask. ‘Of course it’s possible. If not, I wouldn’t be here.’ I think I mean it when I say it, but the idea has never occurred to me before. I am not in Germany to forgive anyone, but to explore what has always been taboo and terrifying to me. To face my demons.”

Raphael tells about giving a lecture titled “The German Question” at a prestigious Jewish center in 2006. “The taboo land was transformed into something different because I was there not just as a tourist but as a successful author. People treated me well for that as much as for anything else, giving me bottles of local liqueurs and gift books… If anything, it was a wonderful experience -- words I never thought I’d associate with that country. And it left me healed in a way I never thought possible. I’ve just finished a historical novel that has nothing to do with the Holocaust, and who knows what I’ll write next. Germany set me free.”

Speaking these words, he found, was like shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, or “disputing the facts of the Holocaust itself.” The crowd got angry and affronted. One woman suggested that perhaps Raphael was identifying with the Germans in the way abused children seek approval from their abusers.  

It’s easy to associate good writers with Cassandra, the kidnapped seer who was cursed by Apollo to have people ignore and disbelieve her grim prophesies. But then there are Elektra writers, like Sylvia Plath, or Elfriede Jelinek, or Primo Levi, writers whose work does not or did not heal them, writers who do not wish to (or cannot) show mercy. 

For modern-day Cassandras, one would think that the knowledge that you’d been cursed would alleviate some of the pain -- the worse thing is not knowing whether people will hear you or see you or believe you. Sometimes people will nod in agreement with you because of your greater force of will, your greater charisma. They will pretend to hear your point about Auschwitz, about the Trail of Tears, about pharmaceutical companies or immigration detention centers, about how many women are getting beaten up right this moment, about how the average age of entry into prostitution for girls in New York City circa 2008 was 13. These people who settle, who live as though life is not precious, will pretend to hear your point because you are forceful, or because you are interesting, or because other, more conscientious people, have decided you matter, or because you write well. But it won’t transform them, or change them, at all.

For writers in the tradition of Elektra, there’s less ambiguity. Elektra, after all, doesn’t mourn loudly and incessantly just because she’s stuck in the past. Her mother and her slick, smug stepfather are still happily gallivanting around the House of Atreus as if it is legitimately theirs, as if they have earned it, as if they aren’t murderers, as if the walls aren’t dripping with blood. There’s not some holocaust that’s over. There’s a world of holocausts -- things that are completely (holos) burnt (kaustos) -- too many to choose between. We are all sitting here, safe in our warm houses, letting people suffer, letting human violence and violation happen. We are deprived of action (aren’t we?), but shouldn’t we at least make noise?

Lev Raphael tells a disgruntled audience member that, if he wanted to speak about visiting Paraguay, he probably wouldn’t be invited to speak about it, since his parents weren’t persecuted by Paraguayans. As frustrating as he finds the crowd, and though he feels “battered by their hostility,” he is relieved to note “that I had let go of so much. I had moved on… Despite all the ‘heavy hits’ of the evening, I slept very well that night.” After years of contemplation, of writing, of visiting Germany and talking with German friends, though, Raphael’s response to that question about forgiveness would be “more nuanced”: “Forgiveness may well be possible, but it’s not for me to offer. Who would I forgive?... What I have been able to do, however, is to finally shake off the hatred and fear I learned and absorbed while growing up.”

Raphael mentions that he sees writing and speaking are part of a practice of tikkun olam, a practice of mending or perfecting a world of things broken and lost. This must be why reading My Germany, even with its difficult, challenging content, is such a pleasure. In the aftermath of any horror, there’s a fine line between healing and denial. “Why,” the chorus asks Elektra, “are you so in love with things unbearable?” Why can’t she just get over it, like her vapid sister Chrysothemis? Later, Elektra tells them, “Do not soothe me. This is a knot no one can untie. There will be no rest, there is no retrieval. No number exists for griefs like these.” The chorus warns her not to “breed violence out of violence,” but such ethics make no sense to her. They defy human instinct. It is not alright, in her book, to “nestle (her)self in a life of ease” in this situation.

I keep returning, in my mind, to Raphael’s remark that he is finally working on a historical novel that’s not at all about the Holocaust. I’ve noted, about the Elektra-like writer Imre Kertesz, that everything he writes is about the Holocaust, whether it’s a memoir, or a piece of fiction about an invented Latin American police state. But then, aren’t great books about everything true, at least in a way that the body itself is a single entity, the way that our uninterrupted envelope of skin and our brain and our zyphoid process and our genitals and eyes and feet are the same creature, though we separate them in our fragile consciousnesses? We lump things into separate categories, because the unity of beauty and horror, or the idea that everything is so connected that there can be no beauty or horror at all, is a bit much for us to handle. Maybe then we don’t write The Drowned and the Saved, we find a way not to throw ourselves down the stairs or gas ourselves with our young children in the next room. Maybe we read (or write), something that, in Richard Rhodes’s words, functions as an “alleviation of pain” -- a nice detective novel, maybe, where things get solved neatly at the end, and then the mystery is over. Maybe we get famous and go on book tours, we break bread and share food and wine with other people who enjoy food and wine. If we consider who is a human and who is not, if we consider that this has been, it is in the service of this pain-alleviation, of these gentle reparations.

“I’ve learned to side with the victors.” Says Elektra. But actually she hasn’t. Actually she’s plotting revenge.