The woman with the sharpest insight into the philosopher’s love for Heidegger had a parallel history
Ettinger wanted to present the story of this complicated relationship because she felt it “provided a key to understanding their lives.” Perhaps it would give some clues to Heidegger’s embrace of National Socialism, his behavior toward Edmund Husserl, toward Professor Hermann Staudinger, as well as toward two students, Eduard Baumgarten and Max Mueller. She wanted to describe the circumstances that led to the moral decisions made by both Arendt and Heidegger—including the former’s apologies for the latter.
But the letters also called to mind her own love affair with Manfred Lachs, the man who was, as she put it, “the father of my daughter.” Ettinger had met Lachs after the war when she was a university student and he was a married professor. Lachs was a Galician Jew whose family had been entirely wiped out by the Holocaust. He was also a brilliant jurist, representing Poland at the Paris Peace Conference in 1946 and at the Nuremberg War Trials. He served on the World International Court from 1967 (the year Ettinger left Poland) until his death in 1993. The humiliation she experienced in her illicit relationship with Lachs and its obstacles to intimacy must have been toxic on top of the degradations she had experienced during the war. Ettinger went over details in her mind, and eventually the two love affairs blurred together. It was almost impossible not to speculate about Arendt’s motivations based upon the memories of her own life.
When the book was finally published, it was met by a hubbub of criticism, with many people—including Alan Ryan, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, and Wendy Steiner—attributing spurious motives. Ettinger had of course been hampered because she wasn’t allowed to publish Heidegger’s letters in full. For those people who don’t want their philosophy or political thinking diluted, it is understandably not their cup of tea. While Arendt comes across as flawed, there’s a great danger in erasing flaws or pretending they don’t exist. In the end, I think Ettinger managed to stay on message. That is, she wrote a book that was descriptive of a love affair.
Interestingly, the book barely mentions Eichmann in Jerusalem, though its publication stirred up the old controversies. Had she lived to write the larger biography, I know that Ettinger would have dealt with this text. Much as she respected Arendt’s intellectual accomplishments, she was offended by the flippancy of her tone, especially in addressing Eastern European Jewish survivors “each of them convinced of his right to his day in court.” Alfred Kazin called it “heartless.” I think Ettinger felt it as a failure of empathy.
When Ettinger was beginning the project, I asked about Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann as “normal” or the “irregularities” and “abnormalities” of the trial. Ettinger had little to say about these perceptions. Rather, she was interested in the things she knew from the inside. The role of the Jewish Councils, the Jewish police, the issue of Jewish compliance, and Arendt’s attitude toward the Jews from Eastern Europe. Ettinger knew only too well that members of her family survived because they disregarded the Jewish leadership. Her mother, who had Aryan features, lived as a Christian for the entire war outside the ghetto. She arranged, bargained, and did business—as she put it, “outsmarting the bureaucracy of war,” to save her family, understanding that some people helped because of religious teachings, some because of conscience, and others because of the bribes. I remember exactly what Ettinger said about the Jewish police—the ghastly and unnatural situation of Jews brutalizing other Jews: “We despised them.” Her cousin Daniel died violently at Warsaw’s Umschlagplatz during the liquidation, when the Jewish police who surrounded him had become the most savage.
Two small passages in her book Kindergarten render the remembered heartbreak Ettinger experienced from inside the ghetto and inside the child in herself:
November 15, 1940
The ghetto was sealed off today. It was the last day Mama could come here. Heavy guards—German, Polish, Jewish policemen—are watching the ghetto outlets. Along the walls—on both sides—patrols. Day and night.
November 21, 1940
Through the loose bricks in the wall Mama whispered to me that she loves us, and then I saw her go. My world came to an end.
For more of Frances Brent’s Tablet magazine profiles of Jewish intellectuals and artists, click here.
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