Holocaust, Storytelling, Memory, Identity: David Grossman in California; See Under: LOVE: A Personal View
Grossman, David, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Keynote Address for the San Francisco Symposium "The Future o the Holocaust; Story-Telling, Memory, Identity," Sunday, February 25, 2001, and 'Reading Holocaust Literature: David Grossman and Contemporary Writing, "Friday, February 23,2001, Kresge College, University of California, Santa Cruz
TO BEGIN WITH, LET ME TELL YOU WHAT WILL NOT BE
in my lecture: it will not contain an analysis of Shoah literature, nor literature, written in Israel after the Shoah, nor a discussion of questions concerning the problem of evil in literature. Rather, it will contain personal remarks about this book, See Under: LOVE.
And I need to say this: You have at least one advantage over me-you, apparently, have read the book recently, for this symposium, while I haven't read it at all since I wrote it fifteen years ago.
Every few years I occasionally leaf through it; there are also a few pages in the book that I read aloud at public events. But to read the entire book, cover to cover, is still hard for me (and, by the way, it turns out that this is also difficult for most readers, but perhaps for different reasons).
That's not to say that the book no longer lives in me, but it lives more as a memory of its writing, and as a memory of what brought me to write it. More than anything, it lives in me by virtue of what it crystallized within me, by things that it named within me, which are still part of my life today.
As I prepared for this conference, I decided that I would not even try to re-read the book but instead that I would make a brief list of some of the most important things that occur to me when I think about it. This is a strange list, held together by association. I will give you pieces of a puzzle--but even if you assemble them, you won't get the full picture. Perhaps the truest picture would consist of the empty spaces, the gaps between the parts.
How Did the Book Get its Start?
See Under: LOVE began with Bruno Schulz. Let me tell you howl came to read the stories of Schulz. This happened after I published my first novel, The Smile of the Lamb.
You know what it's like when a new writer arrives in town: it's as if a new child was born into a family. He comes from the unknown, and the family has a great need to possess him, to transform that situation, to define, catalog, and decipher him. And then, looking at him, they say: his nose is like David Yankel's, the mouth is exactly like Aunt Bluma's!
So too with a newborn book. Everyone tells you what influenced you, who you learned from, or just stole from. And let me add, parenthetically, that more than once the learned critics pronounced what had influenced me, and what I had borrowed. When, for the first time, I went and read those books and writers, I discovered that in fact they were right.
And then one day a man named Daniel Shilit, a "new immigrant" from Poland who'd been in Israel many years, phoned me. He had read my book and said to me, "you have obviously been very influenced by Bruno Schulz."
I was a young, polite writer, and I didn't want to argue with him. But until that moment, I had not even heard the name Bruno Schulz. Nevertheless, modestly and politely, I told him that apparently he was right, and thought to myself that I should try to get his book. And that same evening at a friend's house I found a copy of the book, borrowed it, and read it. I read the whole book, without knowing anything about its writer. I read it as one reads a letter from a lost brother. I read it with the rapt attention known to every lover-that these words were for me alone, and that only I could truly understand them.
And then I got to the end of the book and read the epilogue written by Yoram Bronowski, and there I learned, for the first time, the story of the death of Schulz. You probably know the story. Perhaps it's only a legend-in past years I've heard at least three different versions of the story of the death of Schulz-but even if it's only a legend, it touches us in a deep and authentic place. That being the case, I'll tell it again, as though I were reading it for the first time.
An SS officer in the Drohobycz ghetto made Schulz his house-Jew, and used him to draw murals in his house. That officer quarreled with another officer over cards. By chance, the second officer met Schulz on the street and shot him to injure Schulz's owner. Rumor says that afterwards the murderer announced to Schulz's owner: "I killed your Jew." "Fine," the officer answered, "Soon I'll kill your Jew."
I remember that I closed the book, left the house, and wandered for several hours as though in a fog. I was in a state in which I no longer wanted to live. I didn't want to live in a world where such things are possible and such people exist I didn't want to live in a world where such a language can exist and allow such monstrous events to take place, like that sentence.
I wrote See Under: LOVE, among other reasons, to avenge the murder of Bruno Schulz. I took action against his death, and also-of course-against the insulting description of his murder, this so-Nazi description: as if human beings are interchangeable one for another. As if they really are gears, part of an apparatus with replaceable parts. I was shaken by the contradiction between the richness of Schulz's marvelous idiom, that bestowed words and names on the subtlest feelings and the most evanescent moments, and the so-narrow and barren description of his death--and of course of his life.
I remember at that time that I commented to a friend that I wanted to write a book that would shiver on the bookshelf. That the vitality in it would be equivalent to an instant in the life of an individual. Not "life" in quotation marks, life that's nothing more than marking time--not "life" whose meaning is that you are not murdering the other-but life in which you resurrect him, or her, and the moment that has passed, and this is a view that I've now had hundreds of times, and a word that I've already spoken thousands of times.
For in Bruno Shultz's stories, in every page, in every paragraph, life explodes, and becomes worthy of its name--a great drama that takes place simultaneously in all the levels of consciousness and the unconscious-illusion, dream, and nightmare--in all their nuances, in all the tools of language, feeling, and the senses. And in every line Schulz protests and confronts the wasteland, the banality, the routine, the stereotyping, the tyranny of what is revealed to the eye, of the mass of the concrete....
And in See Under: LOVE I rescued Bruno Schulz from under the noses of the literary critics and the historians, and brought him to the beach in Danzig, and there he jumped into the water, and joined a school of salmon.
Here I must give a brief lecture about the life of salmon.
As you know, salmon are born in freshwater rivers. After several weeks, they swim to the sea, to the saltwater. They gather in large schools of millions. And then one day, as if they received some hidden message, all of them turn, and begin to swim back. They swim for long months. They leap over waterfalls of four or five meters. They reach the place where they were spawned, and there they lay their eggs, and die. Only two or three of the school will merit a further journey.
From my childhood I was entranced by this cycle of life. I don't know why. Perhaps I felt a sympathy with their leaping over waterfalls. Perhaps there was something in them that seemed to me very Jewish, in the spark that suddenly ignites in their brains and brings them back to the place where they were born, against all odds.
And perhaps I was drawn to salmon because I felt that there is nothing in their lives except this journey. Their lives are in fact like a journey dressed in flesh--as if they reveal in the surge of the waves the life urge itself in all its nakedness. And perhaps here is the bidden connection that I unconsciously made with Schulz's stories. I'm not certain of this, I'm only trying to suggest an interpretation). Because reading Schulz's stories gave me the feeling that in general we experience our lives mainly as they disappear from us--when we are old, when we lose our bodily force, when we lose family members and close friends. And then we say to ourselves, well, there was something here once and now it's gone. And the heart stops for a moment, alas. We've captured this just when it's lost to us.
And when I wrote the book, and especially the chapter on Bruno when he swims with the salmon, I was able for a few moments to touch the source of life itself, in its original impulse, as if the salmon were creating it in their journey through the waves. Suddenly I knew in a very direct bodily way that I can ask for more and that life is greater than we know. So in my eyes even See Under: LOVE, which is a story about the Shoah, is absolutely not a story in any sense about death, but rather, in fact, an attempt to understand life itself. And the thing that disturbs us so much is that the Shoah was able to take place the way it occurred. Because perhaps--so it seems to me--that massive and anonymous murder was able to take place so efficiently only in a world in which life itself, the idea of life and humanity, had turned into something anonymous, without meaning, empty.
When the book was published in Israel I remember how surprised I was when it was attacked by Shoah survivors as well as literary figures, who claimed that someone who had not been there did not have the right to write about the Shoah. I did not respond to them then, but today I can say that I was simply obliged to write this book. I felt that I could not understand my life as a Jew, as an Israeli, as a human being, as a father, as a man if I did not understand the life that was no longer there.
I wrote this book because no other book that I had read on the Shoah gave me the answer to the question: What would have happened to me had I been there? And the books that I read were the very best and most moving, whether they were fiction or documentaries. They contained all the answers to the questions that were most difficult. But the real question that is connected to the Shoah is apparently the question that every one must put to himself or herself in his or her own language, in the most intimate grammar. And that question is: What would I have done had I been there? As a victim, but also as one of the murderers. What would I have done to maintain my individuality in the face of this total obliteration of me as a human being? What process would I have had to undergo to be transformed into part of the engine of destruction?
And perhaps because I was not there, I was required to write about it in this fashion, connecting facts and imagination and surrealism. I knew all along that I was not writing a documentary book (even though there are not a few facts in it). Nor a historical book (even though it deals with historical documents and historical events). I wrote a book about the reflection of the Shoah in the soul of a man who was born after it. All the facts that are in the book are translated into the inner soul-speech of one man, Momik, the narrator himself, and turns into part of his life, his fears, his everyday behavior as a man, as a teacher, even as a lover.
And in this sense the story of "what would have happened to me had I been there--as a victim or even as one of the murderers," is a story that every person has to tell to himself or herself again and again. Just as Wasserman says in the book, "That was the essence of his story, Shloma, you forget it and you have to recall it afresh every time." And Momik asks, "Is it possible that someone who does not recognize it, has not heard it ever before, can remember it, can recall it?" Wasserman answers, "Exactly. Just as a man remembers his name, his identity in his heart" (See Under: Love, translated by Betsy Rosenberg, 181). Perhaps this is the answer to the central question of this conference on the future of writing about the Shoah.
For me the most depressing thing when I think about the Shoah is the thought of the complete erasure of everything personal and individual. The Nazi perspective negated every person's uniqueness, their memories, their secrets, their anecdotes, their chosenness, the small privileges of being this particular individual. All of them were degraded to the level merely of flesh and blood. Of "race." Human beings lost their names and became numbers.
It was Lenin who said that the death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of a million is a statistic. I thought about this sentence when Tread the account of the trial of Rudolph Hess. In November 1946, the prosecuting attorney said to the accused, "There is no possibility of reading the charges against you because of their length. It includes more than 10,000 pages; therefore, we will begin the trial with a simple question. You are charged with the murder of four million human beings. Do you admit this?" The accused thought for a moment and then said, "I admit it. However, according to my reckoning, I only killed two and a half million."
When I read this I thought that I wanted to write a book that would succeed in redeeming the tragedy of the life and death of even one human being from this statistic. I hoped that whoever would read this book would understand--and especially would feel--that everyone who was killed in the Shoah--man, woman, child, six million Jews and tens of millions of other human beings--that every one of them was a unique artistic creation of its own kind, that can never recur.
And therefore from my perspective this is not a book about death, not about what the Nazis were interested in doing, and not about the engine of destruction, but about life, and what meaning there is to life after the Shoah.
After all that we now know about the human being, how is it possible to raise a child after the Shoah? And how is it possible to write poetry or prose? And how is it possible to love someone? Because I recognize for myself and also from other people the seductiveness of despair. To abandon the desire to live in a world where such things are possible. Momik, when he lies in bed with his wife, speaks to her about this. He says to her:
Listen. Don't smile. I can hear you smiling in the dark. I want to be ready the next time that it happens. Not just so I'll be able to break away with a minimum ofpain from others, but so I'll be able to break away from myself. I'd like to be able to erase everything inside that could bring me excruciating pain if it were obliterated or degraded. It's impossible, I know that, but sometimes I plan it step by step. I'll cancel out all my traits, desires and passions, and my talents too--just think what a superhuman feat that would be: I'll get the Nobel Prize for human physics, huh?" "How horrifying." "No, seriously: I'll simply sink into death without suffering. Without pain or humiliation. And without disappointment. I'll--" "Then you might as well have been dead to begin with. With so many defenses up against people you'll never be able to enjoy them. You'll never know a moment's relief from hatred and suspicion. You'll live by the sword. And the more you continue, the more convinced you'll be that everyone else is like you are, because that's all you'll know. And people who think like you will kill each other without remorse, because there won't be any value left to life or to death. Like the land of the dead, Momik." (154)
This was the conversation of Momik with his wife before they made love. This was their "foreplay." In a certain sense this "foreplay" prohibits them from making real love. To truly be in the stream of life.
And perhaps that is the essence of Momik's distortion, and the essence of the danger that those born after the Shoah are aware of. This inclination to relate to life like latent death. The unbearable lightness of death, and the sensation in the depth of the heart that death is the right thing.
And because of this sensation Momik is sometimes confused between his desire to survive and his desire to live. And in the end he is confused between "living" and merely surviving. When living suggests to him that there is something more than merely surviving, like the love of Ayala, like the love of his son, like the pleasure of life itself, in all its layers--Momik is unable to respond to this invitation.
Momik is trapped here in the terrible paradox of survival. He survives in order to live, and ultimately he lives in order to survive.
If you like, there is also a clear political aspect to this paradox. It occasionally seems that not only private men and women but also peoples like the Jewish people--and certainly the Jewish people who live in Israel--live this paradox: throughout all our history we survived in order to live, and now we are living in order to survive. And when history suggests to us the rare opportunity to stop merely surviving, and to begin to live our life by making use of the enormous military power that we have gathered, and to use it to create a political solution that is strong and generous--we are unable to do this with the initiative and courage required. We prefer vacillation, which ultimately brings us back to the life that isn't life, but just surviving from catastrophe to catastrophe. Surviving, in its paradoxical way, is likely to expose us, in fact, to the danger of death.
And I recall another scene from the book: "the children of the heart"-- the wild partisans who fight the Germans. And there is Elia Ginsberg, a crazy person who wanders through the streets of Warsaw and asks everyone, "Who am I?" Ginsberg hears that the Nazis have methods to drag the truth from anyone, even if he doesn't know the truth. And therefore one day he enters the Pawiak, the prison in Warsaw, approaches the interrogation room, and demands that the Nazi official who sits there, Orf, should begin to interrogate him.
Orf asks him, "Who are you?" And Ginsberg smiles in joy because truly he has found someone here who is interested exactly in what interests him as well. The Nazi begins to torture him, and to the extent that the interrogation becomes more terrible, Ginsberg is even happier. And his joy only increases when the Nazi tries to extract important additional information from him: "Where did you come from? Who sent you? What is your mission?"
And slowly, slowly the Nazi comes to realize that now he is working to serve the crazy Jew. Before our eyes a new situation is created. The critic Gabriel Zoran (who wrote a review of the book that taught and enriched me), defined and elaborated it this way: Despite all the external circumstances every human being can choose whether or not to be a victim. Freedom to define yourself and the circumstances in which you are located cannot be negated under any conditions.
This book was for me--among other things--an attempt to discover how I will no longer be a victim. Under any circumstances. And because of this perhaps you've guessed that almost all of the figures in the book merit a second chance. An additional chance for redemption. For the chance to escape from being a victim-and even from being the victim of their own fears and illusions. The children of the heart get a second chance, and Bruno Schulz leaves for the journey with the salmon after he is murdered, and Anshel Wasserman and the crazy people who lived on Momik's street, and even the lost story of "The Messiah" by Bruno Schulz receives a second chance, a friendly speculation on what was surely in the original book. And even the commander of the death camp, Nigel, here gets a second chance. (My thanks for this insight to the critic Rivka Kashtan.)
For me as a Jew, as an Israeli, "the second chance," the chance for redemption despite everything, means that I will never be sentenced to be a victim. That the road to redeem myself is always open-and not only through reformulating the existing situation by means of giving it new names, my own personal names, for a situation that responds to me, and in this way to diminish its ability to silence me.
When Momik meets the baby Kazik--a man who lives his whole life in 24 hours like a microcosm of a concentrated life--he is overwhelmed by the strength of life concentrated in Kazik. He tries to overcome this volcanic flow of life that streams from Kazik by means of editing The Encyclopedia of The Life of Kazik. But then we see that in spite of the arbitrary and artificial apportionment of life according to the alphabet, the vitality and flow of the story itself is preserved, and overcomes Momik's foolish and cowardly divisions, and that under the hard definitions of the encyclopedia many stories pulse, and they are full of life and desire and color and imagination--at least that's how I tried to write them.
Ultimately Momik is betrayed from within himself by the forces of life, creativity, and love. To his good luck. To my good luck. And at the end of the book he is even able to hear the words of Ayala, in the next to the last section when she says to him, "Not See Under: LOVE, Shlomik! Go love! Love!" (450).
I chose to conclude the book with the entry for "Prayer." When the reader comes to it, he already knows that Kazik is dead, He isn't only dead, he committed suicide because he could not withstand the torments of living, even if they were so brief, and thus he killed himself about two hours before he was destined to die a natural death. But when the entry "Prayer" takes place, Kazik was then the equivalent of three years old, and still full of life and hope and faith.
As you perhaps remember, we were then in Warsaw on the night when the Nazis were putting down the revolt of the Warsaw ghetto, the air is full of the smell of fire, and burning flesh, but in the midst of this terrible night, "the children of the heart," now old and sober, gather around Kazik who has fallen asleep for a moment and pray on his behalf. "Fried: 'Do you understand, Herr Neigel? We asked for so little: for a man to live in this world his whole life from birth to death and know nothing of war"' (452).
Translated by Murray Baumgarten and Ron H. Feldman
DAVID GROSSMAN has written five novels--The Smile of the Lamb, See Under: LOVE, The Book of Intimate Grammar, The Zigzag Kid, and Be My Knife-and several works of nonfiction, and been honored with Israeli and international prizes. These include the Prime Minister's Hebrew Literature prize (1984), the Israeli Publisher's Association Prize for Best Novel (7985), the Vallombrosa Prize (1989), and the Nelly Sachs Prize (1992). Several of his novels have been made into films. See Under: LOVE was published in Isreal in 1986, traslated from the Hebrew into English in 1989, and subsequently into 18 other languages.…
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Publication information: Article title: Holocaust, Storytelling, Memory, Identity: David Grossman in California; See Under: LOVE: A Personal View. Contributors: Grossman, David - Author. Magazine title: Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought. Volume: 51. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 2002. Page number: 42+. © American Jewish Congress Fall 1996. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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