The Use of Talking

There is no end of things in the heart.

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.

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Written by hans castorp

December 13, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Posted in Autobiography, Faith

Tagged with , ,

3 Responses

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  1. You’re right that the paintings and poems of Terazin do not offer comfort of substance. Neither, frankly, does the book of Job, but Holy Scripture would be incomplete without it. Why?

    I think part of the answer lies in considering what you will be telling Albert Weisskopf, real or acted, implicitly or explicitly, if you do not to show up to see his work.

    Just wondering

    December 14, 2011 at 7:10 am

    • You’re right about the play. I’ll be there.

      As to Job, no, I don’t think it offers comfort; that’s not why it’s in the Bible. Why does God say, “my servant Job hath spoken rightly”? And why does he rebuke Job’s comforters?

      hans castorp

      December 14, 2011 at 9:46 am

  2. Living conditions were poor; food was scarce, and shelter was wherever people could find it. Transports came and went until 1944 when only 100 of the 15,000 children that passed through Terezín had survived, none under the age of fourteen.

    Ward I. Warner

    August 6, 2013 at 6:20 am


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