Young Albert Weiss was spared the horrors of Auschwitz when his parents threw him and his brother from the transport train. Years later, with the help of other survivors of the holocaust, he explores the myriad ways of confronting not just the evil that robbed him of his childhood, but the guilt he feels for having lost his brother on that wintry night.Mosaic, non-linear and semi-autobiographical, this book is reminiscent in style of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and in theme of the works of Primo Levi. In documenting the stories of child survivors, it is a moving and necessary addition to the literature of the Holocaust.
About the Author
Filip David is one of Serbia’s most prolific writers. Born to a Jewish family during the Holocaust, his work often critically explores the nature of evil. Christina Pribicevic-Zoric's notable translations include Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars and Zlata Filipovic's Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Wartime Sarajevo.
Read an Excerpt
From the Diary of Albert Weisz
Which is devoted to thoughts about the limits of the permissible and attempts to exceed them
I filled pages and pages in my diary; there were periods when I wrote night after night, driven by what I can only call a mad kind of energy. I put down the wildest thoughts, the strangest testimonies and experiences, which, I felt, brought me closer to explaining the meaning of everything we had been through. And just when I thought that I was emerging from that dark, complicated labyrinth, that I was getting closer to understanding the secret mechanism of its tangled paths, all the passageways suddenly started closing themselves off, my hand failed me, my thoughts turned into chaotic non-sequiturs. I stopped writing, recording, witnessing; I was no longer able to formulate a single coherent thought. What I penned on the white paper during the day erased itself, disappeared at night, as if it had never been there. At times, in moments of inspiration, I would imagine that I was writing 'black fire on white fire', the way the mystical Torah was written. God forbid that I should compare myself to the mysterious writer of a text that is so much more than just a text, that is life itself, existence for and of itself, a living organism that contains the reason for its own being. Sometimes I felt that the words I was writing were leaving a fiery mark, painful burns on my hands, which, the ancient manuscripts tell us, sometimes happened to the inquisitive who, insufficiently prepared, tried to discover the learning and secrets of higher powers.
Afraid that I had crossed the line of the permissible, I would leave parts of the manuscript unfinished and scattered. I would stop writing, put what I had penned in the pantry, which was already full of similar piles of paper. I would keep these pages there for days, sometimes longer, keep them from whom? From myself? I don't know. All I know is that when I looked through them again what I found were mostly illegible, confused texts. Something had happened in the interim. I swear, I discovered comments written in a handwriting like mine, which, I guess, was meant to confuse me and make me think that I was losing my mind and going mad. The message, I'm sure, was supposed to be that there are areas one is not permitted to enter, areas overseen by powers greater than those of humans.
There were moments when my hand stopped of its own accord and my mind became muddled. I would feel listless and could barely stand up without holding on to something for support; the ground would sway under my feet; I would feel faint. The strange illness would dispatch me to my bed, my head a mess. I tried to seize control of my own devastated mind, not understanding what was happening to me or why.
The doctors were unable to diagnose my illness. The symptoms: fainting spells, high fever, aches and pains in every part of my body, cautionary, troubled, bad dreams, a voice that only I could hear, menacing, warning, telling me to stop writing.
I am trying to discover why humankind has experienced such misery, how it is that one can move from a quiet, orderly life to troubled, disturbed times, where life loses all value. Where does this evil come from, where does it hide before it sends everything to rack and ruin and then retreats, leaving devastation in its wake and in people's hearts?
I fight this feeling of desperate helplessness and inner panic by trying to relax and by closing my eyes. I inhale through both nostrils, imagining the air coursing through my body, filling it with fresh energy. I apply what are called 'simple breathing exercises' from a point far off in the distance, from the edge of the universe. And then I feel relief, not for long, but relief all the same.
Some things, it seems, and I increasingly believe, must not and cannot be put in writing. Not because nobody wants to, but because it is not permitted. It is not human will-power that does not permit it, but rather a will-power capable of stopping the hand that writes, the head that thinks, a power that is stronger than all that we are, ever were or shall be.
Dedicated to the memory of my father and his prophetic vision
My earliest memories stretch far back into the past. Etched in my mind is the stern but honest face of my grandfather, a Polish rabbi from what was then called Lemberg and is today Lviv. My father did not follow in his footsteps; he was one of those enlightened Jews who renounced tradition, spoke Polish, Russian and German and were ashamed of Yiddish as the language of Central Europe's Jewish poor. He met my mother quite by chance while travelling through Siberia. Her family was Sephardi. They were the Jews expelled from Spain who spoke Ladino, a mixture of Old Spanish and Slavic words. Her father had a shop in K. It was a big family, with nine children. Holding place of honour in the glass-door cabinet, among the porcelain plates, next to the menorah with its mother-of-pearl base, was a big, heavy key, an ancient family relic passed on from generation to generation. It was the key to the gate of the house in Seville, which the Berahis, our maternal ancestors, had been forced to leave under threat of the Inquisition established by Queen Isabella. The key represented a by-now dimmed yearning for Spain and had been kept in memory of the story of young Simon Berahi. Shipwrecked, Simon stepped foot on Mediterranean soil and joined a group of pilgrims. He travelled with them from one holy place to another, had all sorts of adventures and listened to wonderful tales that were retold down the generations as legends that combined real events and Kabbalistic allegories. They told of long years of wandering, of exile, of having no home to call your own, of a life that keeps reminding us that we are merely guests in a foreign world.
My parents met in the 1920s, and, as fate would have it, their chance encounter at a family gathering was to determine the rest of their lives. Marriages between the Ashkenazim and Sephar dim were rare. The Ashkenazim represented, as in the case of my father, the Jewish aristocracy, whereas the Sephardim, once a proud part of Spanish culture, had over time come to typify the Balkan and Jewish poor.
My father was distantly related to the famous Houdini, whose real name was Erik Weisz. He was one of Rabbi Mayer Weisz's six children. The great illusionist became famous for his escape acts from locked spaces and chains, displaying skills that verged on the impossible. My father often joked, although later said quite seriously, that this was a legacy shared by all the Weiszes.
One of my father's close relatives was named Erik after the celebrated escapologist. He was one of the few members of the Weisz family to have survived the Holocaust, although later he disappeared without a trace. According to unconfirmed rumours, he finished up in a mental asylum.
In 1937 my father went on a business trip to Austria and Germany. He returned a very worried man. Hitler had already taken power, and the Nazis had passed their race laws. The events that followed were unstoppable.
My father said that the world around us was closing in on itself, that it was becoming dangerous and that he, as head of the family, had to find a way to save and protect us. His picture of an orderly world fell apart. None of what happened could have occurred in a world based on natural and social laws. He had a clear vision of the evil hurtling our way. A world believed to be orderly, with certain inviolable values, found itself on the brink of collapse, of extinction. The evil spread rapidly; there was hardly any time to do anything. Suddenly everything had changed. Many people did not understand how or why.
Our lives are all interconnected, even when we do not wish it. The whole world is just one big book, composed of a multitude of words, and those words had become jumbled. Anyone able to discover and read their real, true meaning could see the full horror of what was to come. Dr Freud called it 'the frightening normality of evil'. It is no accident that I mention the good doctor. My paternal grandmother's last name was Freud, and she was a favourite of the famous Viennese therapist.
My father started having second thoughts. Had he placed too much faith in a rational world? Had he been too quick to renounce the teachings of his ancestors? It was becoming increasingly clear that the world was being governed not by rational but by irrational powers. It was plunging irrevocably towards catastrophe, towards what people endowed with a 'third eye' could already see – execution sites, mass killings, whole families separated on their way to the death camps. Yes, I swear to all that I hold sacred that my father's prophetic visions included all these things. His extraordinary gift of being able to see into the future enabled him to reveal, layer by layer, the meaning of what was happening, to reveal the future hidden in the present. Speaking sometimes with conviction, at other times in despair or hope, he told us, my mother and me, that there were other, secret worlds apart from our own, that lives were lived not only in this life but in other, parallel dimensions as well.
Elijah was only two at the time. He did not yet realize the kind of world he was entering. Neither did I, not fully anyway. By the age of six I was convinced that I was already like an adult. My father would proudly say that he knew he could rely on me, and that was very important in such dark and dangerous times. I took it as a great compliment.
My brother Elijah was entrusted to my care. I loved him very much. They taught us that the two of us were one, that I was the elder and must never leave his side, that I must always help him and teach him the important things in life. I took it all very seriously. 'My little big brother,' I whispered, leaning over his bed as I put him to sleep. Elijah was delicate, translucent almost; he was just learning to talk. They say that children who start talking later are smarter, cleverer than other children, that they weigh and assess everything and that when they do start talking they are articulate and speak intelligently.
All the same, I saw the world through the eyes of a child, naïvely believing that everything around me was there to make me feel safe: my parents, relatives and friends, my brother Elijah, things I could touch, the passing of day into night, the changing seasons.
My father's increasingly obvious concern, his moodiness and disjointed sentences signalled a man who was gradually losing touch with his surroundings, dragging us into a dark adventure, separating us from the things we knew and understood, from the world that we belonged to and that belonged to us. Indeed, his behaviour after his trips to Vienna and Berlin poisoned my soul with fear, fear of the unknown. Even today the memory of those days can cause me unbearable distress: had my adored father, whom I unquestioningly believed, suddenly succumbed to some sort of madness while I lived in the dangerous illusion that the visible world I inhabited was stable and unchanging?
I was too young, too inexperienced to understand what lay at the root of these changes in my father, changes that were visible not just to my mother and me but to everyone around us as well.
They stemmed from his concern for our survival. Having understood before many others that a crack had appeared in our world and that it was opening into a yawning abyss, disgorging a darkness of apocalyptic proportions, my father saw himself as our protector, his duty being to find a safe place for us, far removed from any threat. He clearly saw even then what many people were to realize a few years later: the collapse of all that was human. Certainly, it was not just anxiety or worry that plagued him but an inner horror, an inner panic that he could neither suppress nor stop. If madness is to be at odds with 'the experience of collective common sense', then he was indeed mad. But what was this 'collective common sense'? Nothing other than a dangerous illusion. My father's only obsession – let us even call it a mad obsession – was to save us, to rescue us from what was inexorably awaiting us.
What could, what did the few people who saw the impending Armageddon do? Well, there is the true story of a father who, sick with worry, started poisoning his children, first with small doses of Zyklon B then gradually increasing the amount with a view to making the children resistant to the lethal gas. How did the poor man know, several years before the toxic gas was put into use, that it would become an indispensable means of mass destruction? Well, he knew because he had a vision. He was inspired. Some people are able to see events that are yet to occur with such clarity and conviction that they seem to relate to the present, not the future.
There was not much choice. He had to find a safe but sure way for us to disappear, to disappear out of the reach of danger. My mother and I, I must admit, did not believe, but nevertheless accepted, my father's ideas about the various ways one could become invisible or at least so minute as to be imperceptible. My mother half joked that even if we could find a way to effect such a transformation it would still be a dangerous business. It would expose us to a new threat, to the risk of being stepped on, either accidentally or deliberately. In other words, there was still a danger. This angered my father because he detected not only scepticism in my mother's words but also common sense, and he considered that to be absurd and stupid at a time when there was no common sense any more.
Much later I came to see that anything is possible in life and that the most complicated things are often also the simplest.
There are various ways to disappear. One way is to become somebody else. Until yesterday you were Albert Weisz; as of today there is no Albert Weisz, there is somebody else, somebody with a different name who fits neatly into this topsy-turvy world. Once you existed, now you do not. Being a child, I found it a horrifying, frightening thought. It meant losing everything you cared about: parents, friends, yourself.
Later, although not much later, many people achieved a kind of disappearance. On the road of no return to the red-hot ovens of Auschwitz. That was the final destination of a world brought to total collapse.
But my father meant something else by disappearance. He meant absence, non-presence, invisibility. He believed in the power of the mind and the power of the word. Today we can safely say that ours is not a material world. This has been proven by scientists and by the evermore complex laws of physics that delve into the very essence of so-called reality. Today, even celebrated physicists admit that, although they have little to say to one another, they do talk to well-known mystics. Physics has gone beyond the comprehensible and into the field of metaphysics. What we prove today by means of the most advanced instruments, mystics knew and proved by means of intuition. There is scientific evidence that various theoretically verifiable forms of disappearance do exist, and my father tried to apply them in practice. The tragic truth is that he was considerably ahead of his time.
While panic spread and racial laws were promulgated in many countries, we sat in a darkened room like helpless victims waiting for their executioners. At least so it may have seemed to somebody looking in from the outside. One of the first lessons we learned was self-control. We worked on changing ourselves and the reality in which we were living. In truth, my father's goal was to achieve a higher level of consciousness.
'By controlling your mind,' my father said, 'you can control what your inner eye sees. And that means moving to other dimensions of reality where you can find refuge, where you can be safe, hidden, invisible, away from the world where there is no room for us any more, a world where we are at the mercy of all sorts of scum.'
My father lit a candle in the pitch-dark room. Gazing at the flame, we recited the lines of the poem 'When Fear is Like a Rock', by the ancient Spanish poet Shem-Tov ben Joseph ibn Falaquera. If my memory serves me, it went like this:
When fear is like a rock I become a hammer When sorrow becomes a flame I turn myself into the sea And it is then that My heart grows strong Like the moon shining more brightly When all is cloaked in the blackness of night.
With time we became adept at looking for ways to move from one reality to another. And had there been more time we might have actually done it. But we always had to remember that we could disappear into one of those unknown, unexplored worlds and be swallowed up for ever. And so we learned how to use certain symbols, letters and signs as a way of staying connected to the reality from which we now sought temporary refuge.
Excerpted from "The House of Remembering and Forgetting"
Copyright © 2014 Filip David and Laguna.
Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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