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World War II, Part II Continued
June 14, 2011
Here at last in these true stories was my crash course in World War II and its consequences. I listened and learned. Saw, not as in a fiction or a dream, not in a textbook, but firsthand, indelible damage reverberating through surviving generations. Lack of empathy; guilt (o full of scorpions is my mind); paranoia (these things must not be thought after these ways; so, it will make us mad); heart trouble (literal and figurative); depression (full-on or dispersed in bouts as in Ernst’s case); cynicism, deracination, alienation, withdrawal, silence, and despair. It was not that Ernst’s most immediate relatives had experienced the worst. They were alive in Los Angeles after all. In America they had prospered and multiplied, making my family look poor and stunted. It was the kiss, the camera coming in for a close up, the casual intimacy of the horror intruding itself at a bris, Bar Mitzvah, or wedding – the bride and groom, giggling, fearful and embarrassed, suddenly fragile, swaying on chairs above the hooting crowd. At Purim or Passover, those bloodthirsty glad occasions where I, subversive, found myself thinking with pity of Haman’s ten sons hanged upon the gallows, or those innocent Egyptian infants not passed over by the angel of death. I was the enemy with my German looks. Fraulein, Fraulein, they called down to me, young men on a telephone pole on the Boul’Mich in Paris. In one European city after another, I was taken for Dutch or German. Rotwein oder weiswein? the shopkeeper asked me in Trieste. Rotwein, I answered, enjoying the masquerade, escaping quickly to avoid detection.
My otherness stood out in all directions: no money, no jewelry, no make-up or nail-polish, not coiffed by a hairdresser, no Hebrew, no Hungarian, no Yiddish. No. Not by any stretch. I woke up on trial in The Merchant of Venice: eyes, nose, internal organs, height, weight. I was hung in the balance and found wanting. People who looked like me had caused Ernst’s family untold pain; my presence in their midst exacerbated it. Rumors that we were getting a divorce circulated; Ernst took the calls from various cousins at his office. His mother, he thought, was behind them. Fifteen, twenty years later, she called him herself. A gorgeous rich widow she’d found him, he should get a divorce. I and my no account adopted children could be paid off. We laughed and laughed, my heart in the grip of a fist. I remembered a plunge I made once from a sun-heated rock into Lake Superior, forgetting how cold the water would be.
Spit on the name of Jesus, Ernst was taught. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, who became a little child. Did they really do this, I wondered. Had he? Out the window at a bumper sticker? On passing a church, in the midst of conversation? Spit on the Inquisition, on the Crusades, on the Infallibility of the Pope. Spit on Hitler and his henchmen. Though not a believer then or now, I draw a line at Jesus. And I pick a quarrel with the book ofJob. Among the blessings which the Lord bestows upon Job’s latter end are seven sons and seven daughters. But these, as I read the King James Version, are not the same sons and daughters he destroyed, while they were eating and drinking at their eldest brother’s house, in the first chapter. A goldfish, even one with character, can be replaced. A turtle brought home from the circus, dislodged by the cat from the white enamel dish where he has been living happily for weeks, eating torn lettuce bits, crossing laboriously over his very own bridge, can, when found dead in the dust balls under the bed, be replaced. Even that naughty cat, Velvet Gown Sugar Plum Sugar Pie Shaw, can be replaced. But no person, living or dead, can be. I was always careful on my way home from school.Step on a line, you break your mother’s spine.
A childish impulse, and wicked, but it was wormwood, wormwood. An inauspicious beginning for a newly married couple. Thank God, I thought then, Ernst wasn’t really one of them. He didn’t believe, he didn’t practice. Indeed, he was not a frog. Not even really a Jew. Did I go so far? I would not say so now. Now that my own dead are mounting: grandparents, parents, husband, a lover, boyfriend G, seven members of my high school class of 49 girls according to my count so far, friends and friends of friends, two of my closest, both born in 1940. Ernst was a mensch, concerned with a Jew’s highest calling which is Tikkun Olam, an obligation to repair the world. Sometimes he found it necessary to turn a garment inside out. Never forget might become Always remember. Always remember that Moorpark spelled backwards is Kraproom. I quote him out of context, catch him in a jesting moment, in a characteristic lightning-quick response to a freeway sign, but spoken with such seriousness that I still plumb it for meaning. I believe it was, among other things, Ernst’s answer to religious rigidity, to rigidity in any form, orthographic included. In eating trayf, in sprees of drinking and spending, in earsplitting renditions of Jezebel, in his work as a sole practitioner taking on law suits no one else would touch, and in marrying me (he could have had a nose job or a trip around the world, two bribes proffered by his parents), there was something of Sir Toby Belch, who spurns Puritan virtue in favor of cakes and ale in Shakespeare’sTwelfth Night, who declares, I’ll confine myself no finer than I am. And even more of Falstaff. Not the cowardly Falstaff, but Falstaff the shape shifter and cheater of death.
No one dies in the Merchant of Venice which ends in the manner of Shakespeare’s comedies with three weddings. Yet there is no let up, no true meeting of hearts and minds. Bitterness and betrayal linger in Antonio’s loneliness as his friends pair off; in the mockery Shakespeare makes of courtship, more vanity and lusting after wealth than love; of marriage, as three intelligent women marry feckless men, as he subtly foreshadows trouble between Shylock’s daughter Jessica (who has eloped with her father’s money) and her Christian husband Lorenzo, although they might seem to bring opposing worlds together; of the law which permits the grotesque bond of flesh and bends to clever tricks of language; of the very quality of mercy, so eloquently invoked by Portia, only to be all but negated when she vengefully agrees to Antonio’s ruling that Shylock must convert to Christianity, thus supporting Shylock’s earlier claim that Christians, so like him in being made of blood, flesh, and bone, have taught him to revenge. The play exposes a chasm between a religious Jew and some nominal Christians which cannot be bridged, and beneath the fairy tale, as in a mirror, lie faults in friendship and kinship, in business and marital partnership, in relations between servant and master. This society, civil on the surface, is cruel and treacherous. Unjust. Uncivilized.
I longed, and still long, for some of Ernst’s chutzpah, for the force and radiance of personality, the access of compassion and generosity which would catapult me beyond resentment, denial, and the deep hurt I continue to feel on Ernst’s behalf. Which would allow me to see and know – Ernst’s father before the war, dark and dapper, sporting a mustache; his mother, spoiled and sexy, negotiating the muddy streets of Deutchkreutz in expensive high heels – as well as to be seen and known, as Saint Paul says we one day will and will be. I think Ernst longed for this too. Talk to them, ask questions, he urged, but this was beyond my imagining, and in time his parents, his brother and sisters, their wives, husbands and children, his many aunts, uncles, and cousins disappeared from our lives for months, even years at a time. Both we and they blew hot, blew cold; we met again, again, and again as though for the first time. His brother never looked me in the eye or spoke to me. Not once in twenty-eight years, though we sometimes found ourselves in the same room.
I never called Ernst a dirty Jew, as his mother said I would. He said a story I wrote was anti-Semitic. I said I didn’t think it was. Nothing came of this unless it was survivorship, a piece of gobbledygook foisted upon me by the Disney Cancer Center. It’s mine now; my name has been inscribed; I’ve been sent on my way with a list of club rules and required behaviors. To insure the best outcome. Nothing so raw as theMerchant; at Disney, an atmosphere of muted cheer prevails. I stick to facts on the ground. On October 16, 1967, with an insouciance I can no longer summon, I married Ernst Lipschutz, a second generation Holocaust survivor. For better and worse. The wonder is that Ernst’s break with his family did not poison our lives. In fact, we were happy. On balance. In the main. Our life was full of friends and furniture and rugs and paintings and children and movies and books and plays and work and travel and dinners in and out, full of noise and music and the neighbors complained. It wasn’t survival, it was fun. Another suspect word, but it is the right one, not too heavy, though perhaps too light.
I have written about World War II and the Holocaust to show how events from which I was almost entirely disconnected, thought over and done with, seized me, made me complicit, though I was but a child and can remember almost nothing of that time. I’m surprised to discover that for this I am grateful. Amazed in the knowledge that the twentieth century is behind us, that my generation is wasting, yet in this small act of witness and remembrance, I am born again.
I began with Thomas Hardy, but will end with E. M. Forster who pooh-poohs doom and gloom. In Forster’s novels, death may be violent or sudden, but it does not stalk; coincidence is ordinary, not ominous. A chance meeting at the National Gallery in London between lovesick George and Lucy (now engaged to someone else), both recently returned from Italy where they met, is explained in the following way in A Room With A View: Looking at Italian art, there you are, and yet you talk of coincidence and Fate. You naturally seek out things Italian, and so do we and our friends. This narrows the field immeasurably we meet again in it.
Ernst met Dewitt Peters in 1971, on his first trip to Haiti. Peters, who founded the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince in 1944, and is generally credited with bringing Haitian artists to the attention of the world, was gone by then of course. But here were two young men, though separated in time, connected in their love of Haitian art and in determination to make it better known. And here in the background once again was World War II, for Peters was a conscientious objector, one of a group of English teachers sent by the U. S. Department of Education to bolster Haiti at a time of isolation brought on by the Nazi submarine blockade.
On that same trip, Ernst and I visited Erich Meinberg’s mahogany factory looking for souvenirs to take home to our friends. We stepped in out of the glare, and the two men shook hands. You are a lantzman, Mr. Meinberg said. Like an electric shock, dazzling as sunshine, the word ran through me. My links to Mr. Meinberg fell away. He was a foreigner in Haiti, in business for himself like my father; my mother admired his wife with whom she drank tea and exchanged books and gossip at the Colony Club on Friday afternoons; his daughter was one of those children on the playground at Union School, known for her brains, a couple of grades below me, a friend. All negligible. I think I was jealous. Hardly betrayed, but certainly left out. Call me cousin, countryman, tribesman, fellow wanderer, secret sharer of suffering. Mon semblable, mon frère. It was as though Anne Frank had materialized and stood among us. It was cool in here, our noses full of sawdust; the orderly factory hummed and buzzed. Soon we had made our purchases and were back outside. In the broiling heat. In the blazing sun.