The Use of Talking

There is no end of things in the heart.

Archive for December 2011

Mischling of the First Degree

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Last Saturday night I went to the local children’s theater to see my two youngest (10 and 7) in I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a musical about children in Terezin, the “model ghetto”/transit camp in Czechoslovakia used by the Germans to showcase their “humane” treatment of Jews. From Terezin prisoners were gradually sent to Auschwitz and the other death camps. More than 15,000 children passed through Terezin; fewer than 100 survived. The play draws on the writing and art of some of the camp’s children, hidden by their schoolteacher before her own journey further east.

At the beginning of the play, the children stand on stage and identify themselves. It took me a few seconds to recognize my seven-year-old, his hair slicked back, wearing a yellow star, stage fright giving an edge to the solemn look on his face. “Alfred Weisskopf,” he said. “Perished at Auschwitz, December 18, 1944.” My 10-year-old played an assistant teacher, distributing the contraband paper and pencils with which the children will create their drawings and poems. Looking at her face, I could see my mother’s. When at the end of the first act the children sang about what they’d do when they went home, I started to cry.

My mother was born in Brooklyn in 1909; her parents had come to America from the Pale of Settlement in what was then Russia in the 1880s. We had no first-hand knowledge of relatives in Europe; my mother remembered being told that one of her father’s brothers had gone to Belgium rather than America, and we assumed that we had cousins there who had been killed. My mother, I think, knew people who had survived the camps but rarely if ever spoke about it. In last 15 years I’ve had elderly neighbors (we live in “Frankfort on the Hudson”) who remembered: one tried never to get into the building elevator because it brought back the memory of being hidden in a closet to avoid capture; another had seen her father shot in front of her.

I was an anxious child, and thinking about violent death was something I avoided. But there were two things about the murder of the European Jews that I couldn’t get out of my mind. One was its bureaucratization. Here was no sudden spasm of violence, no pogrom that would burn itself out when the Cossacks ran out of vodka; here was the cold, deliberate marshaling of industry, transportation, officialdom, party, and military, planned at conferences of agency chiefs, carried out with properly filled-out requisitions for trucks and trains and carefully numbered lists and records, a collaboration of the demonic and the utterly prosaic, the rationalization (in Weber’s sense) of barbarity. And the second was its ineluctability. In a war, some survive; the purpose, in modern times at least, is to acquire territory or to break the enemy’s will to fight. In the Stalinist Terror, arbitrariness and unpredictability were vital to the whole enterprise. But the Holocaust was based, not on a tyrant’s whims or some real or imaginary behavior or one’s opinions or beliefs; it was solely a matter of who your parents or grandparents were. Whether you had become a Christian or a Buddhist, whether you had ever entered a synagogue, whether you were a boy or a baby who had never been circumcised, all that mattered nothing. Even if your parents had never professed Judaism nor identified with the Jewish community, if they thought of themselves as German or Polish or Russian or Dutch or French, if they had Jewish parents, you were Jewish. In the beginning, in the Reich, quarter-Jews (one Jewish grandparent) or half-Jews might be given different treatment (some might even be Aryanized) but in the end, in the east, they were all Jews. As was I. When I read about the Einsatzgruppen, about Terezin, Auschwitz, and Treblinka, in my mind’s eye I could see my mother—I could see myself. And now I can see my children.

I am a Christian, a Catholic. Raised in no religion beyond the deist American civil one, I was brought up among nonobservant Jews, proud of the Aaronic blood I shared through my mother and of the Baptist preachers and farmers whose memories of the War Between the States came down to me through my father. I grew up with a hunger for a God I could touch and who could touch me, and I found him in the sacraments. It was very hard for my mother when I was baptized. Conversions to Christianity are very painful for Jews, more than conversions to Hinduism or Buddhism, with which, historically, Jews have had very little to do. The list of Jewish grievances against the church is very long and very old.

To think about the Shoah is to live in Holy Saturday, in the dark of abandonment, in a place where, so far as we can see, God isn’t. The gates of the camps are where the glib theodicies, the easy calculus of rewards and punishments, the tired bromides of positive thinking, the banalities of the gospel according to Oprah splinter into six million shards. On Holy Saturday, there is no Easter. Nothing we can latch onto can redeem this emptiness, not the future of the Jews, the establishment of the Jewish state, the pious reciting the Shema in the gas chambers, the poems and pictures of the children of Terezin. Job would not be comforted, and he spoke rightly.

I cling to the barest hope, that somehow, even in the deepest and darkest places, there is a spark among the shells, some foretaste of the end of all things, when the future, in redeeming the past, will reverse it; when at last “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes,” when “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.” When, somehow, Alfred Weisskopf can finally go home.

There will be two more performances of I Never Saw Another Butterfly this weekend. I don’t know if I’ll be there.

Update, 12/17/2011: There was another performance this afternoon; I was there. I cried again at the end of Act I, and also at the end of the play. If you’d like to go, here’s the address: Holy Trinity Church, Inwood, 20 Cumming Street (one block north of Dyckman Street between Broadway and Seaman Avenue), New York City. The performance begins at 4:00. I’ll be there.


Written by hans castorp

December 13, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Posted in Autobiography, Faith

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Pro me

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"Martin Luther" by Lucas Cranach

Since I’ve been in a spiritual funk lately, my wife sent me a link to an article on spiritual perfectionism ( It’s a good article, and I’m sure it will be helpful to many. Just not to me.

Most of the scriptures cited are from Paul. I’m not Paul; I’ve never been knocked off a horse by God (in fact, I’ve hardly ever been on a horse, except on a merry-go-round), I haven’t talked to Peter, James, and John. nor have I founded any churches. My spiritual balance sheet is perpetually in the red.

Now, while I think the usual Protestant attacks on Catholicism as a “religion of works” miss the point, ignore the role of grace in Catholic theology and conflate the sacraments, which are the work of God through the ministry of men, with “good works” seen as the meritorious (or not) work of men, there is, on the popular level and in a lot of preaching, a practical Pelagianism (as in most American Christianity, alas). The idea that we can just suck in our guts and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, whether it’s the “just be nice to people and save the earth” pseudo-liberal approach or the “just man up and say the Rosary in Latin while kneeling in a tub of ice water” pseudo-Trad approach, is all too common. I know that’s the way I (or the “natural I”) look at things.

Sure, grace is there for the taking, but I’ve got to “respond” to it. And frankly, I’m not any good at that. This January (the 18th for those who would like to send me a present) I’ll celebrate the 42nd anniversary of my baptism—far from an infant one—and in May (Pentecost, for those etc.), the 30th anniversary of my reception into the Catholic Church. And when I look back over all those years, how much growth do I see? How many sins have I been absolved from (or worse, excused myself for) without true contrition or firm purpose of amendment? How many have I avoided only because of worldly cowardice or lack of opportunity? How many communions have I made thoughtlessly, by routine, or to avoid embarrassing myself?

And no, you don’t have to tell me I’m neurotic. I know that. I know all the things I’m doing wrong—being too concerned with feelings, giving in to sloth and worse, acedia, and on and on.

So Luther can help me to stop worrying about all this stuff, right? All I need is faith—not just assent to the facts (Jesus died on the cross and rose on the third day), but trust, knowing that all those facts were for me. And that’s where I get stuck: Even the days when I can convince myself of the facts, I can’t make it to the for me. For you, dear reader, of course, but for me?

And you don’t have to tell me this is all pride, either. I know that. That’s Hans (or at least hans), always putting himself in the center, terrified that someone else will touch the gramophone. Or better (for worse)  it’s Mynheer Peeperkorn in his Peeperkornocentric world. And you remember what happened to him.

Written by hans castorp

December 7, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Behind the Mask: The Confessions of a Viator Vagans 1

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I am a Catholic. I started my Christian life as an Anglo-Catholic; having come to believe all that the Catholic and Roman Church teaches, for nearly thirty years I have been an unhyphenated one. I came to faith late, from a rather smug and cynical atheism, and that is still my mind’s (or better, my imagination’s) default position. It was my reading in my late teens that pointed me in a different direction—Eliot and Auden, Dostoevsky and Dante, Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. At the same time I’d met a graduate student at the university I was attending, a learned, opinionated, witty, and extraordinarily generous young man. An observant Jew, he was “at home” every Friday night in his off-campus apartment to any of us who wanted conversation. From him I learned, inter alia, that it was still possible to be brilliant and a believer.

So I took to reading theology lite—in the Lewisian vein—and church history. There was a huge Episcopal cathedral down the street from my dorm, and I took to paying it Larkinesque visits and riffling through the Book of Common Prayer. I only attended a service there once, however, on Easter, when the ever-so-well-bred bishop knocked with his crozier on the great bronze doors while fanfares peeled from the state trumpet, reputed to be the most powerful organ stop in the world. I appreciated it as spectacle, but couldn’t connect to it as prayer.

Then one weekend my graduate student friend needed help with his exhibit table at a political youth conference at a midtown hotel. On Sunday morning, our friends wanted to go to church, and one of them suggested an Episcopal church a few crosstown blocks away. I had been intrigued by the church’s ads in the Saturday newspaper—”Catholic Worship, Liturgical Music, Gospel Preaching”—and even more by the fact that it was mentioned in a memoir about Eliot. The worship (High Mass, they called it) was unlike anything I had ever seen before: the large sanctuary area flooded with light; sacred ministers in beautifully embroidered silk vestments, attended by a flock of acolytes in cassock and cotta; chant and polyphony rendered by a professional choir; traditional hymns accompanied by a world-class organist (his improvisations were astonishing) on a wonderful instrument; the magnificent language of the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version; billows of incense nearly hiding the altar. And in the middle of all that beauty, there was a space where I found I could pray.

The Catholic churches in those first-fresh-winds-of-Vatican II times had nothing comparable to offer. Latin had vanished almost overnight, and the English, while not as Romper-Roomish as it was to become, was no match for Cranmer. Roman Rite church music had begun its slide into the morass of simpering cantors and pop banality. There, I couldn’t pray. Here, I could. So four months later I got up my courage to attend Sunday mass on my own; a few weeks after that, I summoned even more courage and spoke to the rector. By the time another four months had passed, I had been baptized and invited to serve at the altar. One year to the liturgical day after I first walked into high mass, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church by the ever-so-well-bred bishop.

This, of course, is a very superficial look at my Anglo-Catholic conversion. Or maybe it was just a very superficial conversion. At any rate, it’s the beginning of the meandering path that’s got me to where I am as I start this blog. For more of the story, stay tuned.

To be continued . . .

Written by hans castorp

December 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm

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