Last night, December 24th at midnight, we sang Christmas Lieders in German. That was in Long Island, New York, in a tree-lined brownstone neighborhood inhabited by Halb Jüden; half Jews or half Germans, I don’t recall exactly how they defined themselves. But being all survivors of Hitler’s personal madness, the Nazis themselves called them half-breeds, Mischlings, with a full measure of contempt.
It was last night, a long time ago. I stood there like a child forgotten by his teachers inside a Science Museum, anxious to understand who these stuffy Dinosaurs were. For the life of me, I could not comprehend why these half-persons, nearly eradicated by innumerable historical betrayals, insisted on remaining faithful to their torturers, their other halves, like abused wives to their husbands? If I ran back to my school bus to tell the story of these fossilized, self-proclaimed carriers of the most advanced culture of Western Civilization, who would understand, who would believe me?
City College of New York
I was then a student of Cinema at the City College of the City of New York. The incoherence of the curriculum and instructors was only matched by my own incompetence facing the year-end exams. I fled by accepting Uta Polacsek’s invitation to spend Christmas at her Aunt Greta’s. Uta, a new friend at the time, had described her with great enthusiasm as a half-Jew, to display at once the intrinsic innocence of her German aunt, and thanks to the fringe benefits of an exogamous alliance, to the innocence of the Polacsek family in the Nazi destruction of Jews.
We were both twenty and Uta was anxious to retrofit her Young Nazi past. In truth, at the innocent age of six, Uta had spent little more than a year as a cub scout in the Hitler Jugend, the Nazi Youth Movement. She emphasized the fact that Aunt Greta was married to Arnold, a complete, full, one hundred percent Jew.
While we sang Weihnachten hymns a capella in a chorus of several voices at the foot of the foot high plastic Tannenbaum from Macy’s, proposed countless toasts of nauseating Kimmel liquor, unveiled frugal gifts, I kept wondering why the singing Halb Jüden looked and sounded so gloomy; were they mourning a full birth the gift of which they were never granted? Unlike his half-neighbours, Arnold sang with no sadness on this stille nacht. As a totally assimilated Jew and a totally offended German person, he seemed to be obsessed on this solemn night with a different question; why oh why, had his German countrymen meted this betrayal on his patriotic person, on him precisely, with all his displayed war medals, his badges of German courage forlorn under a glass bell in the living room?
Nations don’t kill foreigners. Empires don’t kill strangers. They just kill themselves as a way of disappearing from History.
Neighbours and friends gone home, Uta sound asleep, I found myself standing alone, restless, that morning of December 25th, in front of a kitchen sink overflowing with the claims of last night’s revelry. Through the window, I could see that Arnold, Aunt Greta’s husband, the concentration camp survivor, was burning a pile of dead leaves. This inspired me a strange idea I still struggle with today: Nations don’t kill foreigners. Empires don’t kill strangers. They just kill themselves as a way of disappearing from History. By killing Jews, Germans and other Europeans just killed themselves. They committed suicide like people do today in Iran, Irak, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Mali or Soudan. By killing the old, the sick, Jews and Gypsies, the Nazis just committed suicide. We Jews, the most destroyed people in the world, are the oldest surviving witnesses of History.
I crossed over to the end of the garden to join myself to this full Jew, one I imagined completely fractured by History. I could see from his expression, as he was stoking the fire, that Arnold was departing soon for a voyage from which there would be no return.
When our eyes met, we both knew that it was the last time he would create and smell this particular autumnal scent. Big star-shaped sycamore leaves were smouldering; some coloured green splashed with gold, some deep red, some terra cotta dipped in yellow, all going straight to heaven in a thin column of smoke. Crouched on a frail folding chair, mouth gaping, noisily out of breath, Arnold was poking at the blaze with a gap-toothed rake.
I imagined what he saw in the flames as a survivor of the factories for the annihilation of humans, but I dared not translate these dying images into living words. I questioned him however on a subject more distressing to me at that time than the industrialisation of death. I asked about his wife:
- Arnold, aren’t you scared for Greta?
- You mean am I jealous? Not a bit.
He was not scared, he was not jealous. Greta, his wife, thirty years younger than he, was Jewish on her father’s side, while Arnold was on both sides. Greta had helped him escape from Bergen-Belsen, accompanied him in his flight in 1942 through Nazi occupied and Vichy France, crossed the Pyrenees to Franco’s Spain, and finally settled with him in New York. We were in 1960, before the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Arnold’s peaceful expression was surely masking an abscess of unspoken truths that needed lancing.
This Christmas morning, Arnold felt reassured that Greta went out for a movie matinee with John Dow (really his name) married, a father of four kids, of the same age and profession as Greta. John was a nondescript, balding, part alcoholic real estate agent. I wasn’t reassured; a half-Jewess, a German Mischling, plus a half-alcoholic man made up a sum that my adolescent certitudes could not add up! Arnold’s peaceful expression was surely masking an abscess of unspoken truths that needed lancing.
- No, Pierre. I am not afraid, I trust her. I am happy that Gretchen goes out a little, that someone is keeping her company. This neighborhood is not safe, even in daytime when you drive a car.
- It does not affect you, not even a little?
Well, he could see my anxiety. How could he not react? I was barely twenty and Uta, my German Lutheran girlfriend put my Mediterranean jealousy to a daily test. She was breathtakingly beautiful with a rare, Scandinavian, aggressive form of beauty that made all the men turn around and leer after her in the streets of New York.
- You see, Pierre, it was the same way in the camps. Everywhere people were starving to death, dropping like flies. But I never suffered there, not like other people. Those who suffered most were the ones deprived when they were young. I had a golden childhood. I was a privileged child. I never lacked in anything, so I did not suffer in camps.
- You did not suffer?
I too had been spoiled as a child, and even the war deprivations at their worst had taken no toll on my childhood’s integrity. But I could not see, how having been spoiled as a child would have alleviated my suffering, or even allayed my present- day jealousy; how the spectacle of assembly-line death around me would not have turned me into a human wreck, a permanent victim, or worse, into an insatiably vengeful executioner?
While struggling with the odd concept of a two-tier distribution of suffering in extermination camps, I was interrupted by Greta’s arrival. With a decisive glance she saw that the wind blew smoke in the right direction. Wrapping Arnold with an adoring look, she tucked in a little the plaid tartan blanket that covered up his skeletal legs and deposited a maternal peck on his forehead.
John Dow, waiting at the end of the garden near the exit portico, was pulling at his smoke with a frozen smile. He saluted in our direction, briefly taking to his forehead the real estate section of the New York Times rolled up in his left hand like a poor alibi. Greta was tender but in a hurry:
- Vieder sehen, chatzi! I won’t be long. We’re going to the matinee and I am taking my car. John’s Chevy has an air filter problem but is still working okay. Keys are under the driver seat in case you need to get somewhere in a hurry.
Einstein Princeton Wikipedia
Arnold smiled, half closing his tired German eyes, these same Swabian eyes from that celebrated poster of Albert Einstein in Princeton. His bony knees were traversed by a spasm of tenderness muffled by the blanket:
- I am not going anywhere…
Which meant literally: Now, where would I run other than into the arms of the Great Reaper? He was giving Greta back the change from her gift of tenderness with a more adoring look. Fine silver exchanged for fine gold, in greater quantity from him, it seemed. Greta took leave, looking me straight in the eyes:
- Pierre! Be nice to Uta, she is crazy about you, you know!
As for me, I was taking nothing for granted, certainly not from Uta. The feelings my German girlfriend manifested towards me, I perceived as a perverse effect of this wieder gutmachung, this desire of penitence manifest in a whole post-war generation of Germans. At the time, I could not imagine a woman as beautiful as Uta could love me without some ulterior motive.
Moreover, Uta was Veit Harlan’s niece, the author of a classic of Nazi cinema, The Jew Süss. She never missed an occasion of turning her famous uncle, who lived a golden retirement in Capri, into an innocent victim of Goebbels, the malignant Third Reich head of Propaganda. The tenuous link between Uta and Jud Süss was putting my fragile identity to a test and severely mortgaged my choice of Cinema as a personal avenue of artistic expression.
As for these manifestations of Germanic tenderness between a dying cuckold and his adulterous wife, I found them rather decadent. As a young man, I was convinced their strange mores were directly responsible for the fall of the Weimar Republic and the emergence of the Third Reich. Today, I think they are the proof of a love that has withstood the vicissitudes of time by adapting itself to the caprices of History.
March 8, 2020