Monday, September 19, 2016

Hope and optimism in extreme adversity

BABA SCHWARTZ- 'The May Beetles'.

THE first memoir about the Jewish Holocaust I encountered was Elie Wiesel’s book ‘Night’. Although it was often gripping and shocking, and reasonably lyrical or poetic, I found it too overwhelming and cloying. By the end the experiences that he and his father encountered were exhausting to read, although I did appreciate the incredible strength and fortitude the pair shared in surviving, together, for so long. Of course it feels almost shameful to say that reading these experiences of the terrible and degrading encounters at Auschwitz were ‘exhausting’ in some way. Victims might retaliate with ‘well, you should have tried to live it.’ But somewhere in the deepest corners or avenues of my mind there was something that repelled me in my experience of reading ‘Night’. Perhaps I reacted to the didactic, heavy-handed, moralising style. It may have become connected in some way in my mind with the subsequent publicity about Elie Wiesel’s life, and his return journey to his horrors and his association with the mawkish Oprah Winfrey.

The next book I read, also set at Auschwitz, was written from a woman’s perspective. Elli L Friedmann (Livia Bitton Jackson) was 13 years old when she was taken to Auschwitz with members of her family. I still remember the incredible detail of when she arrived on the cattle train. Sometimes kids her age would be sent to the gas chambers, however, she apparently survived because Mengele was curious about her long blond braids, incredulous about the perceived disconnect between her blondness and Jewish background. Elli was such a brave kid who told her story without too many melodramatic flourishes. I wish I remembered more about it.

Just this past week I finished my third memoir, this time by a survivor of Auschwitz from the easternmost province of Hungary, a small nondescript town then of 12,000, called Nyirbator. It was compelling reading from the get go, and a week after I read it, it still weighs heavily on my mind. It is a lovely Black Inc publication with beautiful photographs from long ago.

Baba Schwartz’s book ‘The May Beetles- My First Twenty Years’ offers just what its title suggests. Its lovely first hundred pages or so are without conflict and detail the ordinary life of growing up within a close family in a small eastern Hungarian town. Baba is the middle girl of three, born in December, 1927. Her memoir details the romantic background of her parents’ shy introduction and their romantic beginnings. Baba’s attraction to her future husband was, apparently, ‘the grace of her walk’ and ‘the pleasing shape of her legs.’ By the time Baba is born the reader is already intrigued by their history and all their Jewish customs.
Then we come across many marvellous details about Baba and her sisters growing up in the thirties. All innocence. Tragedies await but they are oblivious to it all. Like many Jews, the Hungarian ones do not know what awaits them. Or, if they do- and sometimes there were warning signs of abuse and conflict in the big cities- they can scarcely believe it and don’t take any action.

Growing up, Baba is receptive to nature and all the wonderful things going on around her, like sunsets, or the flight of birds, or the ‘heavy, sweet fragrance’ of acacia trees. Baba is sensitive as a child, and very intelligent. For her ‘the world (was) an inexhaustible source of the strange, the wonderful and the downright puzzling.’ A beautiful anecdote is her memory of suddenly realising she was bright. It occurred when she was just a year into school. She had a book of poems and was reciting poetry to her younger sister- except she was making up the verse as she went along, producing an extemporaneous language that was still somehow filled with ‘fluency, meaning, rhyme and rhythm.’ Tears fall down her cheek as she is ‘overwhelmed’ by her talent. This linguistic talent and imagination is shown in bucket loads in this book.

Baba recounts her lovely Jewish family traditions and the idiosyncrasies of life in Nyirbator and Its people. The thirties were a lovely time for the family of five and the Keimovitz family (Baba’s maiden name) played with Jews and non-Jews alike. The only sour and mildly troubling note from this decade comes in the form of the phrase ‘Stinking Jews’, spoken by a boy from the neighbourhood. This occurs in 1938.

Baba recalls the ‘warm winds’, and the ‘fragrance of blossoms’, and ‘flirting with boys with intense delight’ in the summer of ’42.  She has turned fifteen. There is a beautiful photograph of her at this age, her right hand resting under her chin, the top row of white teeth gleaming, her right shoulder dipped and her dreamy, powerful eyes fixed on some object to her right. Her hair is soft and long and she looks radiant and mature.

Finally, by early 1944, word comes that the Germans have entered Hungary, and all their lives change. She is called a ‘Stinking Jewess’ by a ticket conductor on a tram. There is malicious gossip about her Jewish origins on a train. And then not long after her sixteenth birthday, all Jews are suddenly handing over their radios and jewellery. The yellow star. Baba’s father is weeping, and her own heart aches. Families are burying precious goods in their backyards, and there is the first journey- to a local synagogue, afterwards a ghetto.

A number of journeys take place after this, until the dreaded Auschwitz looms. Baba recalls the train journey and that ‘on each face one could see a recognition that our lives meant nothing to those who had brought us here.’ There is inhuman cramping of bodies, and buckets for toileting, the problem of privacy and the initial shielding with coats, until ‘modesty’ is eventually ‘dispensed with’. Baba calls the entry to Auschwitz ‘the gates of hell.’

Much of what occurs here- the selection, the shaving of heads, the nakedness and ill-fitting clothes, has all been documented countless times. Baba and her family- and all of them, besides their father, somehow survive. It is another amazing story of courage and perseverance and the will to live. What makes this memoir different, it seems to me, is the incredible optimism. Baba does not spend much time reflecting on the brutality of the SS or the outrageous unfairness of this new barbaric world they have entered. Even well before the Russians arrive there is much that is uplifting or life-affirming. It is indicative of her generous and beautiful nature. And her humanity.

And that of her mother. A Lithuanian girl dies during the night when Baba is in a hospital post-Auschwitz in a place called Fridendorf. It is the middle of winter and the ground is frozen. Baba’s mother thaws the hard ground with buckets of hot water. She gives the poor girl a decent burial, in a brutal world where decency barely exists. The girl weighed ‘no more than a cat.’ This is the world that Baba lives in now, at the age of seventeen.

By the beginning of 1945 the Russians are advancing and there is a constant movement and marching. Many people are perishing, often executed by the SS because they are lame or are stumbling. It is Baba’s mother who is again the strength of the family. It is her ingenious plan that enables their escape, hiding in a cellar, somehow avoiding the early morning march that would probably have killed her sister, barely able to walk.

Although liberation is drawing nearer, there are still many trials ahead, both with German and Russian soldiers, and constant subterfuge. A few months later and the war is over, and the world for Baba and her family changes colour and becomes warmer and filled with hope again. There is even enough time in her memoir to deal with a return home, and at the start of 1947, marriage to the man of her dreams. It is a memoir that filled me with enormous interest and pleasure. It is not what you might expect from a memoir about Auschwitz and WW2. But this is a story about much more than that. The grace and the optimism and the courage and the love of life all miraculously outweigh the deadening horrors of Josef Mengele and his concentration camp.

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