Understanding

WITH THE YEARS the inevitable happens: My extraliterary and academic activities become too demanding and take up too much of my time. How am I to maintain my normal schedule and devote four hours a day to writing, which, after all, remains my priority? I snatch every moment of freedom and impose on myself more and more rigorous discipline. The author of Ecclesiastes does not believe in books, but I cling to them. The day I stop writing, what shall I be? I still have so many stories to tell, so many subjects to explore, so many characters to invent or reveal. I am still tormented by the same anguish: Notwithstanding all the books I have written, I have not yet begun. But then I write them in order to understand as much as to make myself understood.

In the Haggadah, the admirable account that on Passover night relates the Exodus from Egypt and urges the children to ask questions of their elders, we read:

Blessed be the Lord, blessed be He

Behold the four sons of whom the Torah speaks;

One is wise, the other wicked,

The third incapable of understanding the question

while the fourth doesn’t even know there is a question.

In a new translation of the Passover Haggadah (illustrated by Mark Podwal) I recall the traditional commentaries on this passage. Then one evening I ask myself: Why does the text mention only four sons? I imagine a fifth, the one who has not returned. I open the doors of memory to him by making him into a character in my novel The Fifth Son.

It tells the story of a failed existence, of a vengeance gone awry, human and divine truth mutilated. It narrates the tragic destiny of the Tamiroff family. Reuven, the father, a survivor of the Davarowsk ghetto, struggles with the ghost of the “Angel,” the SS killer who tortured and exterminated Jews as if to prove that evil would triumph. The mother, who has sunk into a kind of benevolent madness, is elsewhere, a prisoner of oblivion. And Ariel, their only living son, tries to understand them, and above all to understand the reasons that led them to give him life.

They live in Brooklyn, among the Hasidim. Reuven is a librarian: “He chats with Homer and Saul, Jeremiah and Virgil,” but his favorite writer is Paritus the One-eyed, whose Oblique Meditations had a great impact on medieval philosophy. They are surrounded by a circle of illuminati. Bontchek, who remembers everything; Simha-the-Dark, who calls himself a merchant of shadows. They all come from Davarowsk and gather regularly to evoke their common past. And what about the son in all this? He slowly discovers and absorbs this past: the life before, in the ghetto, with its illusions and nights of waiting; the scenes of horror in which the Angel pulled on the mask of a bloodthirsty god, ally and servant of death.

I forbid myself to imagine what happened inside the gas chambers; my gaze follows the living people who enter them to die of suffocation only as far as the entrance, yet I force myself to see the massacres of Jews in Babi-Yar, Ponar, Romboli, and Kolomyya. Why? Where is the difference? I have no idea. But it is important for me to be there, if only in my imagination, to be there among those who say the Kaddish for the dead and for themselves. I often study the photographs taken by the Germans that show the processions of men and women moving toward the mass grave. What are they thinking? What is the child saying to his grandfather, whose face looks composed? Firsthand accounts and documents are practically unanimous regarding the passivity of the doomed. An SS officer, member of the Einsatzgruppen, confesses somewhere that it drove him crazy. He could not understand these people who let themselves be shot, by himself and his soldiers, without putting up the slightest resistance. A Jew lying down on the edge of the trench asked the Germans: “Is this how I should lie down?” Calel Perechodnik, a Jewish policeman in the ghetto of Otwock, not far from Warsaw, describes in his testimony that some men and women could have fled but chose to wait calmly—yes, he says “calmly”—the “liberating” bullets. I shall never forget the episode of a group of runaway Jews accidentally discovered hiding in a field by a Polish policeman. He begins to kill them one after another but is forced to stop when he runs out of bullets. He sends a boy to fetch more ammunition. And there he is, unarmed, facing Jews who could assault him and render him harmless. Instead they wait for the boy to return. And the massacre is resumed.

How are we to understand resignation on such a scale? It is possible that these unfortunate Jews, abandoned by everyone but Death, were tired of hiding, running, hoping, tired of living in this disgusting world where human beings murder innocent Jewish children without feeling the slightest remorse.

How many Jews were massacred in this way by the SS with the logistical support of the Wehrmacht? A million? More? The Einsatzgruppen had contests as to who could kill the largest number of Jews per week. Their statistical reports have been recovered.

In A Beggar in Jerusalem, I describe the disappearance of a community. It contains a “dialogue” between an SS officer and the last Talmudist, whom he fails to kill: “You think you’ll be able to testify? But no one will believe you; you think you know the truth? But it’s the truth of a madman.”

In The Fifth Son, I return to this theme. And Ariel listens to the confrontation between the Angel and Reuven Tamiroff, the sadism of the torturers, the suffering of the victims, their despair, the death, in the ghetto, of the first Ariel, the brother whose name he has inherited. And what about the soul in all this? And God? Memory is everything.

As in my other novels I try once again to examine more closely the relationship between father and son. But here the drama of the son is twice as great, for it is linked to a dead brother. If the first Ariel had not been murdered, the Tamiroffs’ second son might have been born, but he would surely have had a different name. And what about justice in all this? And vengeance?

Ariel ultimately will try to write a new page in his father’s book. He will go to Germany to confront the Angel—who is now Richard Lander, an important industrialist, respected and influential in the world of finance and politics—and to punish him. But he will not kill him.

The story includes many letters written by Reuven to his son. But when he says, “Do you know that I am looking at you, that I would like so much to hear you,” whom is he speaking to, the dead or the living son?

I think back to Job’s children, those he was given as a reward after the test God and Satan had made him endure. What did they think of the problems their parents had endured? And of their innocent brothers and sisters who had been sacrificed because, on high, there had been some doubt of Job’s piety? Did they try to find out who their elder siblings had been? It was with them that Job and his wife would have lived happily if Satan and God had not made their wager.

At the end of the account Ariel writes:

I have been waiting years, centuries. I’ve been waiting to find my father again. I’ve been waiting to meet my brother. I have tried to live their lives as my own. I’ve said “I” in their place. In turn, I have been one, and then the other. Yes, we’ve had our differences, our quarrels, our conflicts; but we have transformed them into renewed bonds. Now, more than ever, my love for my father is whole: as though he were my son; and as though I were his, the one he lost there, far away. The bottom line is disappointing: I have moved heaven and earth, risked failure and madness as I sifted through the memories of the survivors and the dreams of the dead in order to live the life of all these human beings, close and distant, who continue to haunt me. When—yes, when shall I begin, finally, to live my own life?

It is not surprising that so many children of survivors have recognized themselves in this story.

In my play The Trial of God, published in 1979, I have Job return so that we may hear his protest. Does faith in God always, invariably, do honor to God? In other words, is religious fanaticism also a path that leads to God, and is that what He desires?

The play was first produced in the Montansier Theater in Versailles, directed sensitively and imaginatively by Marie-Odile Grinwald. It was also done in San Miniato, a beautiful small town in northern Italy, then in Germany, Scandinavia, and in several university playhouses in the United States.

The action takes place on Purim eve 1649, in a tiny Central European village. Three minstrels arrive at the village inn; they have come, in accordance with custom, to entertain the Jewish community. But there are no longer any Jews in Shamgorod—they have recently been massacred during a pogrom. The sole survivors are the hotel-keeper, Berish, and his daughter. Nonetheless, the minstrels will perform a farce whose subject has been imposed on them by the innkeeper. It is to be a trial of God in which Berish means to play the prosecutor. But there is no defense attorney to be found. One of the actors bemoans the situation:

The misery of it all, the misery…. In this vast world, from east to west, from south to north, there is no one—no one—to take on the defense of the Lord!

His two partners chime in:

That’s how it is, brother. No one to testify to His justice…. No one to sing His grace, His glory….

The first continues:

In all of creation, from kingdom to kingdom, from nation to nation, is there no one to justify the ways of God? No one to explain His word? No one to love Him in spite of everything, to love Him enough to plead His cause? In this immense universe is there no one to stand beside Him? No one?

At that moment a mysterious stranger who has gone unnoticed until now speaks up:

There is. I shall take His defense.

And so a real trial takes place. Berish accuses God of hostility, cruelty, and indifference:

Either He doesn’t like His chosen people or He just doesn’t care…. It’s one or the other; either He knows what is happening to us or He doesn’t. Either way, He is guilty!

And to the defense attorney who is asking for evidence, he replies:

Look at us carefully: we are the last Jews to be seen in Shamgorod. The others are invisible. Absent. Dead. Look at us, I say, and you will remember the absent; look at us and you will be convinced.

The attorney:

I look at you and I see well-fed, fairly well dressed, not-too-unhappy living beings….

And once again he demands facts. Berish becomes angry:

How many times do I have to tell you? The first fact is right here, before you, around you. Shamgorod. Shamgorod had a Jewish community before … a Jewish life, Jewish warmth. A Jewish melody on every street, in every shack. Go look for them now. Shamgorod is silent. Its silence, that’s a fact, isn’t it?

The prosecutor is making his case with conviction, but the defender is refuting his arguments with talent and piety:

What do you know about God to speak of Him with such assurance and even arrogance? You turn your back to Him and then you describe Him. Why do you turn your back to Him? Because of a pogrom? How many times have our ancestors had to weep over the death of relatives or over homes in ruin, and yet they went on repeating, for centuries, that God is just. Are we more deserving than they? More intelligent? Wiser or more pious than the Rabbis of Mainz and York? More virtuous than the dreamers of Worms, the Just Men of Prague, the mystics of Saloniki? Could the massacre of Shamgorod be more important than the burning of the Holiest of the Holies? Could the looting of your homes be a more abject crime, a greater abomination, than the ransacking of the city of God? Who are you to wish to indict or even interrogate the Creator of the Universe?

The lawyer for the defense evidently knows his business. If his reasoning is cold, his passion for God is not. So much so that toward the end of the play the minstrels and the innkeeper are convinced that he is a saint or a Just Man in disguise, and that his voice is heard on high. They start to beg him to do something to save them from the next pogrom, of which there are already early warning signals: the hate-filled mob screaming, the church bells tolling…. But the lawyer is anything but a saint. The fact that he defends God and even faith in God does not make him a man of faith, a man of compassion; in fact, he is the enemy of God and man. His fanaticism reveals who he is: the devil.

I shall speak of fanaticism later. I have been fighting against it for years, wherever it appears. Be it religious or political, fanaticism is the real danger threatening the twenty-first century. Those who sow it today are provoking tomorrow’s catastrophes.

Meanwhile, I am working on a new novel. I feel lost when I don’t have a novel in the works. Is that habit or superstition? I never hand a novel in to my publisher before I have started a new one.

Novels take me longer than essays. Why am I, consciously or not, more careful with the imaginary? First of all, I must make sure that the novel I am working on does not tear away and rush back toward the shadows of the Holocaust. The temptation is always there. But I’ll say it again: Auschwitz and fiction are incompatible. And so it happens that I write a novel on another subject simply to avoid the theme I have forbidden myself.

When I write, I constantly “see” the Maharal of Prague and the Golem he has created for one purpose: to come to the aid of threatened Jews. Isn’t that what the novelist does when he turns words into “living” beings, even though the mission he entrusts to them may be different? At times I am afraid of my own characters. What would I do if they threw off their roles and repudiated me or lifted me to dizzying heights or, worse, pushed me into the abyss inhabited by ghosts?

Who were the writers who influenced me as I wrote my works of fiction? I couldn’t say. Surely the great classics I discovered in my youth remain with me—Stendhal and Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Mann, Munthe and Kazantzakis, Dickens and Conrad, Camus and Mauriac. Some taught me the art of liberating the word by pushing it to delirium; others showed me how to restrain language by imposing on it unalterable rules and limits. One can do anything to words except make them into slaves. For some, language is an instrument, for others a vehicle, for others yet it is a song rising to invisible skies. To mutilate language is to destroy man, for he uses it to understand the universe.

But a novel does not live only from words. It also exists thanks to the silence it contains. I have probably said it somewhere, but I repeat: The quality of a novel is measured not by the weight of its words but by that of its silence.

And silence, as well as madness, I sought—and found—in kabbalistic tales.

I am preparing Twilight, a novel about madness. Characters in it take themselves for Abraham and Isaac. And the Messiah.

I bring back Pedro from The Town Beyond the Wall. Someone is trying to denigrate him in the eyes of his friend whose name, here, is Raphael. The two look for each other, call each other, communicate beyond space, beyond reason. What will save them? What will save their friendship, if not memory? But there is a danger lying in wait. Where is it? In doubt, in madness? What must one do to determine madness? Where is it to be found as it relates to man, to God?

I tackle the disconcerting phenomenon of cults. What is there about them that attracts so many young people, ready to sacrifice everything to be admitted? Is it authority they crave? Is it the strangeness they find irresistible?

As in my earlier novels, I do everything to eliminate from The Forgotten all autobiographical reference. I do not recognize myself in any of its characters. Fehérfalu is not Sighet, and Elhanan Rosenbaum did not cross the threshold of the concentration camp universe.

As principal theme I choose the terrifying Alzheimer’s disease. Malkiel, whose mother has died, witnesses the mental decline of his father, Elhanan, a retired therapist and melancholic survivor of the ghettos.

Is there a disease worse than Alzheimer’s? It is a cancer of identity, of memory. In the novel I compare it to a book whose pages are torn out one by one, until all that remains is the cover.

Elhanan, who has so much to communicate, realizes one morning that he remembers less and less. His native village in the shadow of the Carpathian mountains, his Hasidic childhood, the secret mission, the “Jewish work brigades” that were part of the Hungarian army, the partisans in the woods, the return to the deserted ghetto, the displaced persons camps in Germany, his encounter with beautiful and wondrous Talia, the clandestine emigration to Palestine, the battle for the Old City of Jerusalem—these events, which he alone went through and for which he alone possesses the key, will they all disappear with him, into the darkness of the soul? Tormented and in the grip of a hitherto unknown anguish, he composes this prayer:

God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, do not forget their son who calls upon You now.

You who are source of all memory, well know that to forget is to abandon, to forget is to repudiate. Do not abandon me, God of my fathers, for I have never repudiated You.

God of Israel, do not cast out a son of Israel who yearns with all his heart and soul to remain bound to the history of Israel.

God and King of the universe, exile me not from that universe.

As a child I learned to revere You, to love You, to obey You; keep me from forgetting the child that I was.

As an adolescent I chanted the litanies of the martyrs of Mainz and York; erase them not from my memory, You who erase nothing from Your own.

As a man I learned to respect the will of our dead; keep me from forgetting what I learned.

God of my ancestors, let the bond between them and me remain whole, unbroken.

You who have chosen to dwell in Jerusalem, let me not forget Jerusalem. You who wander with Your people in exile, let me remember them.

God of Auschwitz, know that I must remember Auschwitz. And that I must remind You of it. God of Treblinka, let the sound of that name make me, and You, tremble now and always. God of Belzec, let me, and You, weep for the victims of Belzec.

You who share our suffering, You who share our wait, let me never be far from those who have invited You into their hearts.

You who foresee the future of man, let me not cut myself off from my past.

God of justice, be just to me. God of charity, be kind to me. God of mercy, plunge me not into the kaf-ha-kallah, the chasm where all life, hope and light are extinguished by oblivion. God of truth, remember that without memory truth becomes only the mask of truth. Remember that only memory leads man back to the source of his longing for You. Remember, God of history, that You created man to remember, You put me into the world, You spared me in time of danger and death, that I might testify. What sort of witness would I be without my memory? Know, God, that I do not wish to forget You. I do not wish to forget anything. Not the living and not the dead. Not the voices and not the silences. I do not wish to forget the moments of abundance that enriched my life, nor the hours of anguish that drove me to despair. Even if You forget me, O Lord, I refuse to forget You.

And yet he will forget: There is no cure for his ailment. But thanks to his son, Malkiel, and to Tamar, the young woman his son loves, a solution is found. The three will proceed with a memory transfusion just as patients are treated with blood transfusions. In the end Malkiel will remember even an episode his father had repressed.

Sages and Dreamers is in its way a celebration of memory. Just as I do when I tell Hasidic tales, I smile as I write about the sages and their disciples of two thousand years ago. All of them fascinate me, and I consider myself their student. From old Shammai, I learn to apply rigor to myself; from Hillel the Elder, I learn moderation toward others. I love Rabbi Akiba’s romanticism and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s inflexibility. But what about Elisha ben Abouya, considered to be a renegade? Am I his pupil as well? I shall repeat Rabbi Meïr’s words: One can savor the juice of a fruit even as one throws away its peel.

Talmud means “study.” Studying Talmud means studying how to study. In other words, one never concludes the study of Talmud. Just as the Torah has no beginning, the Talmud has no end. For two thousand years it has been given to us to add a commentary here, an opening or a hypothesis there.

The Talmud or the beauty of dialogue—the entire Talmud is nothing but that, a series of dialogues between a sage and a disciple. Sometimes they are centuries apart, and yet, as one studies them, one has the impression that they are seated at the same table looking into each other’s eyes in order to better understand each other.

How many thinkers know that Talmud also signifies tolerance? The minority always has equal right to be heard; it demands and deserves the same respect as the majority. Both positions are recorded in the same way.

And then, is there another religious text where ancient Masters interrogate God on His actions in history? Of course they do it respectfully, but that makes their arguments neither less strong nor less daring.

To study Talmud is to celebrate it. It is also to be in touch with a memory in which death alone is silent.

And now? A new idea for a novel on judges is on my mind, taking shape, preoccupying me. I have many notes, pages filled with points of reference. Excitement and anguish run high.

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