The Invisible Voice: Meditations on Jewish Themesby George Konrad, Peter Reich (Translator), Gyorgy Konrad
Written over the last two decades, the essays in this collection speak to what it means to be Jewish-historically, theologically, ideologically, philosophically-within the context of the Holocaust and the disintegration of Communism. George Konrád, a Diaspora Jew, espouses Zionism, he tells us, as one who might, if he chooses, move to Jerusalem, just as he
Written over the last two decades, the essays in this collection speak to what it means to be Jewish-historically, theologically, ideologically, philosophically-within the context of the Holocaust and the disintegration of Communism. George Konrád, a Diaspora Jew, espouses Zionism, he tells us, as one who might, if he chooses, move to Jerusalem, just as he might, if he chooses, move to Paris. Konrád, one of Europe's preeminent essayists and novelists, covers much ground in The Invisible Voice, from German collective guilt to assimilation, from the Diaspora Jew to Israel and Palestine. He discusses the participation of Jews in the "nationalist and Communist experiments," and the issue of forcing collective guilt on the Germans. He looks at European integration and how the Jews fit into it, and what their conduct should be. Should they work toward assimilation or separation in order to survive? These are thoughtful and provocative essays.
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1. The ruling ideals of the twentieth century were without exception murderous ideals, though none set out to murder. Reason enough for communities and civilizations proud of their ideals to be disconcerted, to look inward and try to discover what went wrong at home, first of all. In our century how many mass graves originated from the mixed metaphors of lettered men!
The events of history generally signify the violent death of many people. The right murdered, and the left murdered. They murdered nearby, and they murdered far away. All nationalities murdered, some with extraordinary diligence. The wealthy murdered, and the poor murdered; the elderly murdered, and the young murdered. Women and children murdered relatively little.
No form of the first person plural is harmless. Even the community of writers can reflect on a rather ugly past; able wielders of the pen justified and gilded all manner of infamy, or at least supported it with their silence.
2. What is one person capable of doing for another? How trustworthy are we? When do you betray another? I am not gullible. I do not believe people are good by nature. I know the battle, the contest of passions is eternal; only the combatants change.
The one wants to overcome the other, either from fear or from envy. Whether one is rich or poor makes no difference. Those who have are just as keen to spend their fury as those who have not.
Evil is an independent force, not just misunderstanding and not just the absence of good. Knowing that the life of another person is frail only makes some more inclined to take it.
And the angel of bad faith gives murder a legal title. It says: the life of a particular person is not sacred. It makes abstract concepts sacred and acquits of guilt, so that a perplexed person without a guide can fall under the spell of crime.
3. How was it possible to kill four and a half million of us, four and a half million Jews? Why didn't the elderly and even children defend themselves, with knives at least? We should have killed that small group of people capable of accelerating nationalist socialist momentum into the paroxysm of mass murder. Few of us were as brave as the residents of the Warsaw ghetto.
Those who do not resist are merely objects. I approve the ethic of resistance, spiritual-intellectual resistance if the aggressors do not intend murder, armed resistance if they do.
The Jewish people bear some of the responsibility for becoming victims in such horrifying proportions. Our fathers were negligent; they weakened themselves with learned ideas. They came to have a naive spiritual dependence on the local authorities. Under the guise of patriotic loyalty, the fascist states expected Jews to give disciplined approval to their own destruction. To line up on the gangplank above the frozen Danube. After taking a bullet in the back of the head, Jews should tumble into the hole in the ice one after the other, into the cavity axed into the ice sheet. Mothers should quiet their weeping children. By carrying out orders in a disciplined manner in this difficult hour, our fellow countrymen of the Israelite faith can prove they are loyal subjects of our state.
4. Forty years later, I find that old Jewish men still cannot recover from the murder of their young wives and small children. They still do not understand why they should forget them. There are scars that cannot heal.
I want to believe that violent death does not destroy the meaning of the murdered person's life. I want to believe that our presence and exertions here were not in vain.
Nevertheless, I maintain that we erred gravely. The duty of the parent is to protect the life of the child. Even if the parent is killed for it. Those who obey the guard or the hangman commit the sin of cowardice.
5. If a person wants to get hold of an ideology easily, quickly, the most expedient way is to hate. Those who do not dare to declare everyone their enemy will find a smaller group, one hated with less risk. Hating a minority group is the most convenient option.
How can competitors be slandered? Among many methods, one is to say they are not patriotic enough. The word patriotic may be replaced by another, but this charge has proved quite effective in most countries. If the wheel begins to turn and patriotism begins to rumble, great patriots are replaced by even greater patriots at decreasing intervals.
The fusion of national hatred and majority hatred eases the path of those with a great capacity to hate, and helps them turn their hatred always in the appropriate direction. Being a passionate member of the majority is generally advantageous, a good career move. Explosive and extravagant hostility is most often an attribute of armed men who are sure the enemy cannot fight back.
To organize pogroms against the hated minority in the name of the hating majority is sweet, mad gratification. Pitching that infant against the wall, raping that virgin, and dragging that old man through the muck by his beard are deeds that can remain unpunished only in the carnival of the pogrom; only then can they be given moral approbation by the majority. The pogrom is a transnational holiday. Not a year passes on earth without one, but it can be said that Jews have historical experience of the similarity between pogroms and brushfires.
6. We cannot be too aggressive in the first person singular; we will be ostracized or branded criminals. If we express our aggression in the first person plural, however, we may even get a statue dedicated to us.
The interior of communal consciousness can be characterized by a certain greasy, sweaty desire to become part of a crowd. Moist-eyed people wanting to exchange confidences. It is their habit to embrace as well, like drunksÑwhich doesn't stop them from taking mortal offense a minute later. Sooner or later, in the most divergent of communities, I smelled the raw, intimate foot odor of a military tent, heavy-handed cheer, an imbecilic self-confidence: We are the special ones.
If I am in a room with someone suffering from some consciousness of minority, I anticipate the moment when sentimental brutality will emerge.
7. It would not be precise to assert that nations on the road to embourgoisementÑGermans in the vanguardÑliked themselves too much, and killed Jews in an excess of self-love. No, the problem was that they did not believe their own boasting. They would have got along better with us had they got along better with themselves.
But only the Germans had the capability to carry out the paranoid idea of annihilating the Jews with such perfect circumspection. No other people could have got so far in annihilating us, only one as methodical as they. Other peoples would have grown lax; halfway or a third of the way through, they would have grown bored with exterminating Jews.
All nations are on the road to humanity, but before they get there, every one gets caught up in some sort of anguished delusion of grandeur. At those times, they lose their reason and are capable of anything.
In their paroxysm of nationalism, the Germans avenged on us their having to step beyond German-only philistinism, for we were their predecessors on the way to Europe and to becoming citizens of the world.
8. Speaking with German friends in West Berlin, I am less confused about being Hungarian and Jewish than I am in Budapest. Neither Hungarian nor Jewish is German; they are both something else. Without assimilation, without dissimulation, I try to live in harmony with my environment. I am biased in favor of Hungarians and Jews, I feel solidarity with both. I am more fond of the community of fifteen million Hungarians and the community of fifteen million Jews than of other nations.
We do not search for the truth because we are rewarded for finding it. And we do not consider a community our own because it rewards us. We consider it our own because we choose it. And we choose it by working on its behalfÑin the manner in which we see fit.
9. Which value system holds the human personality to be an end in itself, and holds its complex particularity to be of higher value than its group characteristics? I don't believe that being similar is more productive than being different.
Anti-Semitism has made Jews smarter. Withholding material values from people makes them turn toward spiritual-intellectual values. This disciplined transcendence trains the mind.
One may esteem people for the variety of attributes they possess. One may promote relationships of harmonic coexistence. We may take account of the complexity of the human phenomenon. It is better to speak two languages than just one. While traveling sometimes, our spiritual reserve relaxes its grip, and in the dizziness of unanticipated sympathies we may actually find attractive the quality of being different.
In the company of composed, tactful, fair, trustworthy, and ironic people, I think of civilization with respect.
10. Unofficial impulses in Eastern European countries are tinted nationalist rather than liberal. If the practice of liberalism is not present, why should its spirit be? After withdrawing from the state-socialist ego, many are drawn to an ego that encourages us to view all issues from the standpoint of nation. Communal morale checks for the other person's group membership rather than for his personality. The exclusionary delimitation of national consciousness is structured much like that of class consciousness. A considerable portion of the literature in our century has been awash in national and class arrogance.
Since childhood, I have always had reservations about being present in a community. I shy away from people who cannot imagine better company than their own.
We are both rational and aggressive; generally our intelligence serves our aggressiveness. Every ideology of community is the system of argumentation for a type of group aggression.
Nationalism's demandÑDecide what you are, and be nothing elseÑis based on abstract speculation. It is an impossible wish, it denies the multifaceted nature of human reality. Human reality is plural; why would we want it to be monolithic?
The nationalist wish is for me to be the mirror of the nation-state. I am not. In no community have I been the man of the majority, disturbed by a minority that is different, urging the difference be smoothed away. I find this boorish majority mentality the classic form of societal stupidity.
I have found that little men feel bigger in consequence of their country's statistical bigness. I have spoken with citizens of nations with large populations; they were filled with the self-satisfaction of being many.
I find Icelanders the most likable of the peoples I have met thus far. I believe there are only two hundred thousand of them. They have been literate for eight hundred years, and they live in democracy.
11. Without democracy, there is discrimination, and as a reaction to negative discrimination, the consciousness of being chosen appears among those discriminated against.
In a democracy, the Jewish consciousness of being chosen is a laughable enough tick alongside the many hundred other kinds of aristocratic minority pride. I find comical the Jew proud of the Torah, Talmud, and Cabala though he doesn't know them. The same goes for the Frenchman who feels exceptional among Europeans on account of Racine and Baudelaire, whom he hasn't read.
In New York, Jewish differentness is perceived with humor, like Italian or Chinese differentness. If they smile or laugh at us, they won't kill us.
12. I've spent half a century in Hungary; if I were to weigh the proportion of Hungarian to Jewish culture in myself, the Hungarian part would be greater. Perhaps a third type is born of the two, a metaphor.
I'm inclined to let myself be characterized by my think- ing rather than by an attribute of birth. Why should I be proud of my personal data? Everyone has personal data; it is no accomplishment.
From the nationalist viewpoint, my being Hungarian is dubious, though even my great-great-grandfather was born in a certain village in Bihar. My being Jewish, however, has never been called into question.
The intellectual force of Diaspora Jews originated from their complex mix of attributes. They lived at the intersections of cultures; they had sharper insight into the relativity of human affairs.
As a Jew of the Diaspora, I remain a question until my death, one I will never be able to answer satisfactorily. I will live with my paradoxes. Even though life's most important dilemmas cannot be resolved, one can live with them.
In every cityÑmine tooÑI find a few people who are happy to be my friends. Most likely, there are some who think of me with antipathy, as a Jew; those people do not call on me. I'm more interested in whom I like than in who likes me.
Since World War II, anti-Semitism has not been an official and majority sentiment in Hungary; were it to threaten, I would emigrate.
13. Transnational processes are going forward in the world. In Europe, too, our continent's common, supernational consciousness has started to come alive. The adjective European has started to gain a sympathetic and real meaning. Such cultural reorganization is not foreign to Jews. Earlier on and in outstanding proportions, they tried to feel European.
In the decades since World War II, scattered folk anti-Semitism has not been elevated to the rank of national anti-Semitism in any country in Europe. If your instincts are alert, however, you can sense that the many kinds of aversions to Jews are connected somewhere in the atmosphere or underground.
The Jew who survived World War II cannot forget that they wanted to kill him. Jewish history consists of nothing but repeated epidemics of killing Jews. None was more justified or rational than any other.
There's more and more talk of the Jews themselves not being angels. The energy of Jewish organizations is periodically mentioned as a danger of catastrophic proportions. Why are they always bringing up Auschwitz? Others had their problems too; others, too, suffered a great deal.
The requisite for an ethnically pure nation has reappeared in Stalinist and extreme-right formulations. It is grand to be pure, unmixed, and homogeneous, having no more problems with minorities, having one language, one blood, one sacrifice, and of course one leader, the savior. If he's not here yet, he will come along and shout.
Increasing numbers of people think and say: We are no longer willing to feel guilty on account of the Jews. The atmosphere in the eastern half of Europe is a little murky. Many people do quite well under feudal socialism, even if they grumble, and they do not long for formal freedoms.
Those who prepared the public mood for the perhaps overly radical diminution of the Jewish population in their country are being given increasingly eminent positions in their national pantheons. They were obsessed by their desire to solve the Jewish question, because they nurtured in themselves and in their environments the conviction that the Jews were the main cause and carriers of societal problems.
From there it is an easy intellectual leap to rehabilitate compassionately the radical anti-Semites; they always took their stand against subversive liberal individualism. On this not very spiritual road, it is difficult to stop before reaching the logical conclusion: the final solution.
The thirties have become the good old days, accordingly; the ideological fashions of that era have been ennobled.
Copyright (c) 1999 by George Konrad, published by Harcourt, Inc. and reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.
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There is something admirable about the author's return to Jewishness, his meditation on Jewish themes. But sadly his knowledge of the Jewish religion, and one would dare say of Jewish tradition as a whole is very slim. Therefore what we have really are the meditations of a lone individual based on his own experience primarily. And they cannot possibly make much sense for the Jewish people as a whole. Any real consideration of Jewish life and destiny must relate to the fact that the great majority of Jews since the time of the Exile were kept alive as Jews through living a life of Halakhah. Philosophical meditation upon that Halakhah is also part of the tradition. But philosophical meditation without any knowledge of it makes no real sense in Jewish terms.