When Memory Comes
By Saul Friedlander, Helen R. Lane
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 1991 Saul Friedlander
All rights reserved.
When Memory ComesPart I1
I was born in Prague at the worst possible moment, four months before Hitler came to power. My father was also born in Prague, while my mother came from the Sudetenland, from Rochlitz, a little textile town near Gablonz celebrated for its glassware. My maternal grandfather, Gustav Glaser, had set up a factory in Rochlitz that soon became unusually successful, thanks to a simple idea.He had behind him a career as a schoolteacher--a very rare attainment for a Jew from the Sudetenland--that was to lead indirectly to his making a fortune. He had witnessed the miserable lot of sewing teachers in Austro-Hungarian elementary schools, who were obliged to furnish all the cloth needed in their classes themselves. Once his factory had been set up, my grandfather went to see some of them, in Rochlitz, Gablonz, and other neighboring towns, with a proposal: in exchange for remnants that would be useful in their sewing classes, they would act as unofficial representatives of the new firm. Success soon followed. In a few years'time, most sewing teachers in the Austro-Hungarian Empire had become representatives of Gustav Glaser textiles: tablecloths and napkins with the initials GG woven into the cloth could be found from the Carpathians to the Adige.This story serves to illustrate a certain Jewish ingenuity that, as everyone knows, aroused formidable hatred. Some Jews, it is true, were less honest, and others less ingenious than my grandfather, yet he is fairly representative of a certain type of minor Jewish industrialist at the beginning of the century. One may well wonder, however, whether it might not have been for his good and that of all his people if they had had less imagination.Jewish ingenuity did nothing to change the fact that everyone in our house felt German. Shall I cite an example of this "Germanness"? Like all the children of our class, I was unable to escape piano lessons, though they were given to me by members of the family. The first song I was taught to play--and the only one I remember--was Ich hatt' einen Kameraden:
a funeral march, the one most often played in the German army and one performed at great ceremonial occasions during the Third Reich.I have often thought about this recently, and perhaps understand the attachment of my family to things German. Both my father and my maternal uncle had served during the First World War as artillery officers in the Austro-Hungarian army; that was how they met each other and how my father came to know Elli Glaser, my mother. It may well be that for my father, as for my uncle and for tens of thousands of other Jewish veterans of the German and Austrian armies, Ich hatt' einen Kameraden
expressed first and foremost the feelingof a certain brotherhood in arms that they had (as yet) been unable to overcome. And also--strange as it may seem--the marvelous kitsch of German military melodies has an almost spellbinding quality: the product of a nation's love for music, they have an effect on behavior that has yet to be studied in depth.For these first years of my life, my mother remains less vivid in my memory than my father, who from the beginning appeared to me to be an extraordinary person, doubtless because I saw him through a child's eyes, but also because he kept his distance from all of us. The total upheaval that was soon to come did not change my original image of him at all, and when I think of him I quite naturally see in my mind's eye the reserved figure of this early period in my life.Although he was born in Prague, my father spent several years with an uncle in Lemberg, in Galicia; it was there that he completed his secondary studies. I deduce from this that he was familiar, for a time at least, with a Jewish milieu that was still Orthodox for the most part; yet he bore no apparent traces of such a background.On returning to Prague, he hesitated between law school and the conservatory, for he was a very good pianist. I can still see him leaning over the grand piano playing some transcription of Wagner, some piece by Chopin--the latter was the name engraved on the personal book plates in his library. My father seems to have had two passions: music and books. He chose law and insurance, however, and later became vice president of a large German insurance company in Czechoslovakia. A bourgeois aesthete perched on the edge of a volcano, he foresaw nothing of what the future would bring.My father's reserve no doubt concealed extreme timidity. In any case, he did not have the slightest idea of how to approach me. I have been told that for my fifth birthday he went into a toy store and ordered ten kilos of toys suitable for a five-year-old child. He showed me no signs of tenderness that I can remember during our life in Prague. In the years that followed, a different tie was created between us, but I will always regret not having had enough naturalness and spontaneity as a child to take the initiative, leap up onto my father's lap, and throw my arms around his neck.I sometimes wonder, above all, how my father experienced his Jewish identity. There were certain signs that betrayed the fact that he was not entirely indifferent to his origins. I have already mentioned the personal ex libris
pasted in his books. It depicted a piano, a score by Chopin, and a carpenter's square, all standing out against the Star of David, which served as the background, the foundation of all the rest. This is as clearly symbolic as anything can be, and yet in our family, if memory serves me correctly, Judaism as a religion had completely disappeared.We observed none of the rules of life that Orthodoxy laid down, celebrated none of the holidays, respected none of the customs. I remember visiting a good many of the churches of Prague with Vlasta, my Czech governess, yet I have no memory at all of the Altneuschul, the famous synagogue, said to be the oldest in Europe, though it was very close to where we lived. Nor do I have any memory of the Jewish town hall with its clock marked with Hebrew letters and hands that turned counterclockwise (I read about all that much later), or of the Jewish cemetery, as old and as famous as the synagogue. In a word, of all this heritage I remembernothing. Or almost nothing, for at home we used a few Yiddish words, in particular meshugge,
crazy, and nebach
, down and out. In short, we were typical representatives of the assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie of Central Europe.In Israel I found--and still find today--almost nothing of this very special Judaism that I had thus come to be familiar with. I say "almost," because on my arrival in Israel I was taken in by my uncle and lived with him in Nira, a village on the Plain of Sharon where certain traces of this atmosphere still remained. (I will speak later of my arrival, at the age of fifteen, a few weeks after the creation of the State of Israel.) I discovered there a milieu that even then struck me as being very odd.The inhabitants of Nira, Beit Itzhak, and other villages round about had come, for the most part, from Prague, and some from a few large German cities, shortly before the Second World War. Out of thirty heads of households in Nira, at least half were "Herr Doktors." During the day they were all transformed: one might well have mistaken who they were, had it not been for the fact that they were just a bit too
unbuttoned. And there was also the language problem: their guttural accents, incomprehensible in any other context, represented, not a flight of recently acquired Biblical eloquence, but some typical Berlin speech patterns. Their German was punctuated, however, by a number of Hebrew words, the ones for chicken yard, sprinkler, tractor, or orange grove. What is more, only those practiced in Hebrew possessed this vocabulary: the majority of the inhabitants of Nira and Beit Itzhak were like good Herr Nehap, our grocer.Herr Nehap from Hanover ... An obese man, hemoved slowly behind his counter, an eternal dead cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth, a majestic figure against a background of canned goods and jars of dill pickles. "Shalom,
Friedländer!" he would say good-naturedly, the moment I crossed the gleaming threshold of his perfectly polished shop. And we both felt that by some miracle the shalom
pronounced so naturally would this time be followed by a flood of Hebrew words, mysteriously stored in Herr Nehap's cerebral lobes for nearly fifteen years. But the shalom
remained suspended for a few seconds in an expectant silence, and then, as though he had come up against some invisible inner barrier, Herr Nehap's enthusiasm would wane: his triumphant smile would grow vaguely apprehensive once more, and after the pause that had signaled linguistic conquests to come, and inevitably ended in defeat, he would continue, in a discouraged tone: "Also, wie geht's
?"It was in the evening, after long workdays in the sun, that the world of "yesterday" came to occupy its true place once again. Over their bridge game, surrounded by the few pieces of furniture and books that still belonged to "back home," our peasants took on their real nature once more and dropped their masks, so to speak. Heller, Fleishman, Prager, or Glaser seemed to forget the mosquito bites, the drone of the sprinklers, or the smell of orange blossom, and they must all have had the impression that they were back once again in those large, rather dark apartments that I had known for such a short time, but whose scent, that discreet charm made up of old things, wax-polished wood, and well-worn leather, I could still describe today. Heller and Fleishman represented a disappearing species: it scarcely survives in Israel nowadays. Nira and BeitItzhak are still there, but things aren't the same any more.The way of life of the Jews in the Prague of my childhood was perhaps futile and "rootless," seen from a historical viewpoint. Yet this way of life was ours, the one we treasured, and there is no point in pretending otherwise. Its collapse was unexpected--however strange that may seem--and spectacular; but that is another episode.June 5, 1977
Tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Six-Day War. Period of tension, anxiety, and enthusiasm. Since the war, everything is different. A powerful forward impetus is being maintained, despite obstacles; at the same time, on another level, forces of disintegration are undermining our efforts. Israel: country of every possible contradiction and every possible paradox.I lived through these events with fervor, and when I began teaching in Jerusalem, in the fall of 1967, everything seemed new and wondrous to me, as it had when I arrived in Israel for the first time almost twenty years before. What was my strongest impression during this decisive year? Perhaps the one made on me by a certain category of students: the "soldier-intellectuals." Bearers of the nation's destiny, hallowed, and thereby glorified, by their permanent contact with death, young people thirsting for knowledge--that was how they struck me, and, in a way, that is what they were. Other places and other times have borne the imprint of young people of this sort: those back from a battlefront, and soon to return to it, sitting leaning against a tank toread a poem or a page of philosophy. It is one of the most moving images of our time, created by a reality that no longer exists--except, of course, right here, in Israel.
How can I describe my enthusiasm when I first arrived in Israel during the War of Independence? Everything seemed a miracle to me: the local chocolate quite as much as the Jewish state itself.I began by talking about the people in Nira, but I should also describe the village. The bus from Natanya deposited you in front of a little textile factory with ocher walls, which, before my arrival, produced cotton goods, and afterward was converted for the production of camouflage nets for our nascent army.The houses of Nira were all alike, and had been built, I believe, shortly before the Second World War: little square houses with white walls, topped by red tile roofs, which stood out against the dark green background of the orange groves. Climbing plants on the walls added brighter, ever-changing colors according to the season: wisteria, honeysuckle, and sometimes, at the entrance to a garden, beds of rhododendrons.I almost forgot the hen yards. They constituted an essential feature of the meshek,
a word that could be translated as farm,
but meaning a modern model farm. When I say hen yard, you probably think of a poultry yard where the hens move about freely, pecking leisurely at grain. This was not at all the case in Nira. The hens were housed in cages alongside each other, forming geometric shapes, illuminated around the clock by electric lights to encourage egg laying. It wasthis that was responsible for the monotonous, incessant cackling which went on around us night and day.Pleasures in Nira, in Beit Itzhak and the villages of the plain were simple ones. Apart from the evenings playing bridge, the most enjoyable thing at the end of a long day in the sun was to meet in the cafe that overlooked all the surrounding countryside, beneath the water tower of Beit Itzhak, summon "Herr Ober," order a beer, and watch the slow approach of darkness, as the lights of Natanya went on one by one along the line of dunes.On Friday evenings we went to the movies at Shaar Hefer, a neighborhood village. The benches were set out in rows beneath two eucalyptus trees in front of the door of the grocery store. The screen was put in place, Herr Cohen set up the projector, and the show would begin, punctuated by breakdowns and interruptions that bothered no one; in the heat of those nights, there was at least as much hugging and kissing on the benches in front of Shaar Hefer's grocery store, as in the heart-throbbing melodramas that reached us at the end of their run.After several months in Nira, I became a boarder at an agricultural center for the education of newcomers which hugged the sea near Natanya. There I learned Hebrew and discovered the rudiments of a Jewish culture entirely new to me.That year, most of the boarders at Ben Shemen came from Bulgaria, bringing with them all the charm of a prosperous Sephardic community that on the whole had been spared the lot of the Jewish communities in North Africa and the Middle East. Our daily life unfolded amid general gaiety, which reached its climax in the interminable horas
we danced every night, and in theBulgarian songs celebrating the valley of Maritza--all this a few hundred meters from a very gentle sea, beneath a sky sparkling with stars.Learning Hebrew meant, above all, discovering the Bible. The Bible soon fascinated me, and the simplest passages we read were perhaps those that bore the most powerful message, that were infused with the most intense poetry. For me, for example, who had changed my name from Paul to Shaul (Saul) upon arriving in the country, the story of this first king of Israel, told in the Book of Samuel with so much controlled force, became the very image of the tragic: called against his will, and then abandoned by all, even by God, who refuses to answer, Shaul on the eve of his greatest trial is reduced to resorting to necromancy, learning his destiny from the witch of Endor.Along with the Bible, we also discovered Jewish life at the beginning of the century, the life that had flowered in Eastern Europe. The typical tiny Jewish village in Russia came alive for us through the stories of I. L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem. They may not be great literature, but they have all the warmth and flavor of an authentic tradition.Should I confess that since the beginning I had nonetheless had vague, confused, intermittent feelings that something was missing? From time to time I would go sit on the beach behind a sandy rock, and open a book that was merely a symbol--Fromentin's Dominique
, in one instance that occurs to me. I thought that I was thus affirming, for myself alone, the permanence of a culture that remained the only one that mattered in my eyes. This was a slight premonition of future dilemmas, though entirely eclipsed by another habit of mine, equally harmless but much more indicative of my state of mind at this time. At midday we students had atwo- or three-hour recess on account of the heat. Every day, after the noon meal, I would start out for Natanya along the beach (the shortest route, but also the one least sheltered from the sun), all alone and almost running, to buy the daily paper--which I could barely understand--and take pleasure in the announcement in it of some feat of valor, some new victory, or simply in its accounts of the everyday life of the country. Yes, I was insatiable, and the most trivial news story filled me with joy: a stretch of road had just been inaugurated here or there; this or that many kilometers of irrigation pipe had been laid; in short, Israel lived (as a Hasidic song has it), and I could see the miracle taking place before my very eyes, on pages I had deciphered slowly, but with that much more pleasure for so doing.
When did I feel the first tremors of what was going on around me--when did I feel the stable and peaceful world of my earliest years begin to shift? I could not say exactly, for I think the inner upheavals that preceded the events that made history were later integrated with these latter to form an indissoluble whole. Inner upheavals: the fear of being abandoned, and successive encounters with death.The fear of being abandoned: I am unable to account for its deepest origins, but a "screen image" will suffice to demonstrate its intensity. A scene, always the same one, that in some way sums up for me the essence of this period: I see my father once again, in the living room, reading beneath the light of a tall standing lamp, the library in the background. This was how I saw him almost every night when there were no guests for dinner, when I therefore heard no sounds and hence,moved by an absolutely uncontrollable anxiety, I would get up out of bed, tiptoe along the hall, and assure myself by glueing my eye to the keyhole that he was there, in his usual place.A child of five who starts across the Charles Bridge with Vlasta, and suddenly hears crashing metal, screeching sounds, and screams, and sees, before Vlasta has time to put her hands over his eyes, a body cut in half by the wheels of a streetcar, understands the meaning of death. Moreover, a strange memory of this event haunts me. After the accident we crossed the bridge and took the path through Hrad
any Park, as we did every day. We took the same route on our way home, but by then it was at least two or three hours later. I am unable to explain how or why, but at the end of this same bridge a small crowd had gathered. This nonetheless did not prevent me from seeing something shapeless, covered with a piece of canvas, near the parapet. Vlasta told me that it was the dead body of the victim of the accident, and that is also what I gathered from the remarks of the throng of morbid bystanders ... This is impossible, isn't it? An obvious fantasy that shows how forcibly the accident had affected my imagination.But it was about a year later that death made an even more lasting impression on me, a more massive one, so to speak. I had just started school when the director, whom I had seen on the first day of classes, died suddenly. We attended the funeral, and from the beginning everything impressed me deeply: the dark clothes, the serious faces, the whispers. We entered an immense cemetery, walked alongside a wall covered with marble plaques, and went into a vast room that in my memory seems like a theater. There were chairs, and in front of us a sort of stage, where the coffin stood, surrounded by funeral wreaths of various sizes. ThingsI barely understood were said, and then something happened, insignificant for others present, but which remained deeply engraved on my memory: the coffin slid behind the stage on invisible rails, the lights on stage dimmed, the curtain slowly fell, and funeral music filled the room.This strange ceremony alone would have filled me with an icy terror, but, what is more, either in answer to a question from me or in an effort to keep me from imagining things, my mother or Vlasta explained to me that the director's body was going to be cremated. They told me that the metal coffin would be put in an oven where it would be heated white-hot, and this would reduce the dead body to ashes. Whether this explanation was true or not, it was the first time I had ever heard of an oven for cremating people, and I was deeply upset by it.For a long time the director's cremation haunted my nightmares. The mind of a child interprets the world in its own way, especially when that child is aware of a growing anxiety round about him which is still, however, difficult for him to identify.
By now I should be able to speak quite naturally of the first real changes in our existence, and yet I hang back, somehow hesitating to leave this calm and, when all is said and done, happy period of my life, despite a few ominous shadows. Everyday images come back to my mind: Rochlitz again, with frost flowers in the early morning; the squeak of snow under the soles of my shoes; two dogs, the boxer Ali and Rolf the German shepherd; a pedal car; raspberry bushes--the whole dominated by a large building with windows that arenarrow and higher, it seems to me, than those of the other houses. Rochlitz again: mountains with gentle slopes covered in pine forests, and--another winter image--my mother turns around, a pair of skis on her shoulder, slender and beautiful, with a radiant smile and a face glistening in the cold.But it is Vlasta whom I find everywhere. I am evoking images; I should also speak of the sounds. On Sunday mornings Vlasta would take me to hear the military band at the entrance to the castle. After that we would often enter a church to hear mass, and whether it was a holiday or not, Vlasta would teach me prayers and songs ... I can still recite two things in Czech, no more: a prayer to the Guardian Angel and the words of a song, Po starýsh Zameckýsh Schodech
:On the ancient stairs of the castle, On the stairs climbing upward, A girl walks each evening. She holds a boy's hand, Her heart is of marble ...The influence of the Vlastas of all nationalities on the rapid assimilation of the Jewish bourgeoisie of Europe merits study. The Vlastas formed, quite naturally, the essential link between the Jewish child and the world around him.Though prayers and churches might pose a problem, what could be simpler than to sympathize with the sufferings of the boy whose friend had a heart of marble, to hear the military band, or to spend long moments in one of the food shops in the old city? I never learned to distinguish the different animal parts on sale there, but I never tired of looking at a painting which hung above the counter, representing a furious battle--that of the White Mountain, I imagine. Dayafter day I followed, with the same anxiety, the motionless efforts of one of the knights, trapped under his horse, a broken sword at his side, his dying eyes open wide, his mouth contorted, as though in a last supreme cry he were endeavoring to communicate some fateful message to the customers who had come into the shop to buy a portion of sauerkraut with pork, some raw ham, and some little grilled sausages. That--and the rest--was Prague.Whether I consciously remember it or not, I caught all the signs of this city: the most insignificant baroque town still immediately arouses in me a powerful echo that can only come from these childhood impressions. Isolated images, but precious ones, nonetheless: of streets and shop windows lighted up for the year-end festivities, the feast of Saint Nicholas, Christmas of course, and New Year's. Everyone is familiar with the "crystal" ornaments and the aluminum tinsel that shine so brightly when the shop windows light up at nightfall; well, in Prague, at the time I am speaking of, the ornaments, the tinsel, and the stars were brighter than anywhere else, the Christmas tree put up every year in front of the Church of Saint Nicholas was the most imposing of all those decorating the squares of Europe, and the wool stockings (for at our house it was wool stockings and not shoes or wooden clogs) hung up waiting for presents (on the feast of Saint Nicholas, not Christmas) turned out to be filled to the very top like nowhere else in the world.Before the war, Prague was perhaps not the liveliest city in Europe, nor, doubtless, the most "intellectual," but it was surely the most civilized and pleasant. And it was certainly the most mysterious. Legends lived on there in their natural setting, made up of history, baroque architecture, little back streets of the old city,and fog, the fog from the Vltava. Thus scraps of the legend of the Golem, a Prague legend, a Jewish one this time, nourished my imagination as a child.The Golem was the robot of clay, endowed with a semblance of life, that the grand rabbi Loew, the great Maharal, created to serve the Jewish community: the robot wandered through the city dressed as a street porter, or made invisible by a magic amulet so as to sniff out the plots woven against the Jews by the Capuchin friar Thaddeus and his acolytes ... There are countless tales surrounding the miraculous rabbi and his fantastic servant. Legend has it that the Emperor Rudolph himself, fascinated by magic and the supernatural, summoned the great Kabbalist to his castle in Hrad
any to converse with him of hidden things, though none of the details of this conversation ever leaked out.The Golem's end has often been recounted, in widely varying versions. According to one of them, the robot suddenly escaped from his master's control and began raging through the ghetto in a fit of violent madness, destroying everything in his path. To breathe life into him, the Hebrew word emeth,
"truth," written on a scrap of parchment, had been stuck to his forehead. To destroy the robot, it was necessary to efface the first letter, which left meth,
"dead." Some variations of the legend have it that when the rabbi at last succeeded in erasing this first letter from the forehead of his mad robot, the immense mass of clay came crashing down and crushed the rabbi beneath its weight.My own favorite version, whose symbolism is quite different, goes like this: Since the dangers threatening the Jews of Prague were no longer imminent, Rabbi Loew decided to destroy the robot. On the evening of the feast of Lag B'omer--the one that in our day iscelebrated in Israel by lighting fires signaling to each other from hill to hill--he ordered the Golem to go sleep upstairs in the attic of the old synagogue. When the clock towers of the city struck two, the rabbi, preceded by a servant bearing two candles and accompanied by his son-in-law Isaac and his disciple Jacob, climbed up to the attic, where the Golem lay in a deep slumber. At the time of the creation of the robot, the rabbi and his aides had placed themselves at the feet of the clay statue stretched out on the ground and recited the magic formulas of the Sefer Yetzirah, the Kabbalist Book of Creation; this time they posted themselves behind the Golem's head and the phrases of the Sefer Yetzirah were read backward. When the last word died away, the Golem had become a mere heap of clay once more. After burning his garments in secret, they covered him with old prayer books lying about in the attic of the synagogue and Rabbi Loew forbade all access to the place forever.The Golem has not altogether disappeared, however: on winter nights he continues to roam the site of the ghetto and many are those who, in the course of the centuries, have thought they caught a glimpse of his hairless face with its prominent cheekbones and slightly slanted eyes, as he hastens along with his strange stumbling gait, as though he were about to fall on his face at any moment.Everyone interprets symbols in his own way: to me the first variation of the legend announces the fate of the Jews, sorcerer's apprentices who set in motion forces they could no longer control, and the second prefigures the essential feature of Jewish life in our time: a perpetual restlessness, an anxiety in perpetual motion.As a child I was familiar with yet another version of the story of the Golem. My father was less interested,I think, in its Jewish content than in its esoteric meaning, the one provided him by Gustav Meyrink's strange retelling of the legend, of which he possessed a magnificent copy, illustrated by the engraver Hugo Steiner. Moreover, it was one of the rare books that he took out of Czechoslovakia with him; we often used to leaf through the rather rough-textured pages together. How many daydreams of mine are linked with this haunting, spellbinding book!Later I read this sentence in it: "When knowledge comes, memory comes too, little by little. Knowledge and memory are one and the same thing."Translation copyright © 1979 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc. Originally published in French, Quand vient le souvenir ... ,
copyright © 1978 by Editions du Seuil, Paris, France (Continues...)
Excerpted from When Memory Comes by Saul Friedlander, Helen R. Lane. Copyright © 1991 Saul Friedlander. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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