When our daughter was 9 and our son was 4, we packed up our lives in New York and moved for a year to Patzcuaro, a moody, colonial town in the south-central mountains of Mexico. My husband had a fellowship to study beliefs among the indigenous Purépecha people, and I had a grant to work on a book. Our family culture was one of moving around, exploring different countries and languages; the ongoing series of displacements was, I suppose, in itself a sense of belonging—to a movable, outsider kind of life, an external, exploratory roaming. The day I became a U.S. citizen, after 27 years in the country, I realized it was the third citizenship I’d held, spanning three continents—Africa, Australia, America.
I fell in love with Patzcuaro at first sight. It was a long trek from New York: plane to Mexico City, taxi ride across the sprawling metropolis to the central bus station, then a four-hour ride to Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, and another hour in a rickety local bus to our final destination. This was a ride through the exquisitely shaggy countryside, passing roadside food stands with bright blue tarpaulins stretched above the tables as shelter, and family clusters with mothers tending babies, the men smoking and talking; lean-tos and the ever-present half-built dwellings; donkeys and horses and goats; and American trucks from the ’50s and ’60s in various states of disrepair, everything functioning into an impossible old age.
When the bus lumbered around the corner and I caught my first sight of the town’s main square, Plaza Grande, the splendor knocked the breath from me. Massive trees towered crookedly above tailored lawns and stone walkways, all surrounded by impressive colonial-era buildings, scuffed at the edges. Rising from the large pool of water in the center of the square was an elaborate pedestal bearing a bronze statue of Vasco de Quiroga, the benevolent Spanish benefactor of the region. In 1538, he swooped in to remove his vicious predecessor, who had tortured and murdered the last Tarascan emperor, and whose brutality had caused the local population to flee. De Quiroga encouraged the indigenous peoples to return to the area.
The colonial invasion felt raw to me from the start, alive in the faces of the people. The mood of the place struck me: serenity and lack of angst, so at odds with the edgy ambiance of New York City where I’d spent the previous 20 years of my life, with its blaring ambition and clawing struggle. As a newcomer, I felt an odd disjunction between the serene daily life, the calm wisdom that shone from people’s eyes, and the layers of displacement, of conquering and enforced subjugation. But in the sense of rootedness and connection—families cleaving together, involved in shared, ongoing endeavors—I also intuited a strange, peaceful truce with awful historical truths.
My own history involved being culturally and geographically displaced in more ways than I could clock, the generational expulsions and wanderings coursing through my veins. Born in South Africa, to parents who were the children of Lithuanian and Latvian refugees, I had grown up in a close-knit Jewish community in Australia, lived for a time in Israel, and then moved to the United States, where I married a man whose mother was Icelandic and whose father had been raised in the Protestant Midwest.
In Mexico, we enrolled our children in a local school, a cabin on stilts in the middle of a little wooded area, built of planks cobbled together. When someone asked my daughter how her New York school was different from this one she replied: “In Brooklyn, the light doesn’t come through the walls. I guess they’re made of brick.”
Here were our kids, of mixed heritage and being raised a kind of default no-religion, since we’d never figured out what we were going to do on that front, beginning the school year in Spanish, among children from an entirely foreign world. Since our children’s Spanish was still rudimentary, they struggled. Our 4-year-old son’s teacher told us our son spent much of the day sitting under his desk. She tried to coax him out with kindness, even treats. “The only time he’s happy,” his teacher said sadly, “Is when he sees his sister in the schoolyard.” Our daughter, shy at the best of times, withdrew even further. “We’re doing what we can,” her teacher told me. “I’m sure she’ll be fine, once she picks up the language. Children are sponges—just give her a few weeks.” Change had never been easy for our daughter; all this newness was perhaps too much.
“You can sit in the schoolyard,” my daughter proposed. “It will help. I can look out the window and see you.”
OK, I thought, whatever it takes. I was reading an extraordinary book by Amos Elon about the intellectual history of German Jews from the mid-1700s until the beginning of World War II; I was happy to sit reading on the bench in the clearing that served as the playground, under a sprawling jacaranda tree. My focus was half tuned to my daughter, who I knew was struggling in her stilt-borne classroom, the language still unfamiliar and sticking like barbs in her throat and ears. The other half of my attention flowed to what I was reading. The book begins with the image of a thin Jewish youth standing in line to enter the city of Berlin. It is 1743 and the boy is the brilliant Moses Mendelssohn, who would go on to become one of Germany’s greatest thinkers, but because he is a Jew, he must enter the city at the gate reserved for cattle; considered subhuman, he is also subject to the same entry tax imposed on the cows. Day after day, sitting under the jacaranda tree in this quiet Mexican town, the bright sun shining down, I turned the pages, on through two centuries of both persecution and intellectual flourishing, until, toward the end, I encountered an extraordinary detail.
During the Great War, Jews could, for the first time, serve as officers in the German army; it was the dawn of the 20th century, and Jews were finally integrated in society and accorded equal treatment. One of these Jewish officers, Hugo Gutmann, unwittingly influenced history. Casualties were high among regimental dispatch runners, whose task it was to get messages where they needed to go, often in the face of extreme danger. Ahead of a particularly dangerous mission, Gutmann promised his runners that if they got the message through and returned home alive, he would petition for them to get the Iron Cross for bravery. Two runners indeed succeeded, but when Gutmann appealed to his commander to award them the Iron Cross, his request was denied; the commander did not see the runners’ feat as particularly exceptional. Gutmann spent hours arguing his case and in the end, prevailed; he pinned the Iron Cross himself to the soldiers’ chests. One of those soldiers was Adolf Hitler.
Some 20 years later, the German government was in violent disarray when Hindenburg, then president of the German Reich, well into his 80s and likely suffering from dementia, was pressured into appointing a new chancellor: the fanatical head of the minority Nazi party—just for a short time, just to establish order. According to one account, the matter of the Iron Cross came up: Surely Hitler couldn’t be the dangerous clown he appeared to be—after all, he was a war hero, he’d been awarded this highest medal of bravery. Since the fanatical clown declared martial law the day after he took office, it was not, of course, to be only a short time that he’d be in power.
Moses Mendelssohn, marked as a cow, and 6 million Jews, slaughtered as cattle, whose deaths had been orchestrated by the man who’d had the Iron Cross pinned to his chest by his commanding officer, a Jew: bookends to two centuries of German Jewish life.
I thought about my own parents, children of Eastern European Jews, who had never felt at home in the Nazi-sympathizing Afrikaner territory of their South African childhoods. After a long and difficult journey for my mother, traveling alone with three young children (our father had gone ahead to find employment), I landed in sunburned Australia, my own parents carrying the sound of immigration in their accented speech. Then, as a newly minted adult, I sent myself across the oceans to live in America where to this day, because of my Australian accent, people ask me where I’m from.
And yet, sitting in the schoolyard in that remote Mexican town, the people Amos Elon brought to life felt somehow familiar, and as I followed their tales, I found myself feeling like I was winding my way home. It was gloriously mild and sunny, and I would frequently look up from the book to observe the play of light falling through the leaves onto the dry dirt. At recess, my daughter would bound down the stairs for a hug, and sit nearby to eat her lunch, stealing glances my way. Then, a quick goodbye before steeling herself to return to the classroom.
At the end of the second week, however, the principal emerged from his office and crossed the yard wearing an unyielding expression.
“I’m sorry,” he said in Spanish. “This is a place for children, not adults. You are going to have to leave.”
In my own broken Spanish, I tried to explain my daughter’s difficulty—that she was shy, and everything was new: the language, the town, the culture, the kids.
“No.” He shook his head firmly. “I’m sorry. You need to leave.”
I gathered my things, my heart in my throat. At that moment, the recess bell rang, and kids spilled from their classrooms, first among them my daughter, who caught sight of me walking dejectedly toward the exit at the far side of the yard.
From the landing of the rickety wooden staircase she called out: “What are you doing? Where are you going?”
Normally reserved and well behaved, she was suddenly oblivious to decorum, impervious to the curious eyes that turned her way.
“Darling, I need to go now,” I called up to where she stood on the landing, looking tiny and defenseless. “I’ll be back later to pick you up.”
“No!” she cried, sending a knife through my heart. “You can’t leave!!”
Her teacher’s face was kind; she nodded in encouragement and placed a protective arm around my daughter, signaling that I should leave.
“Bye darling, I love you!” I called out in as calm and supportive a voice as I could manage, given that my heart was anxiously leaping about. “You’ll be OK, I promise!”
All of me wanted to rush up the stairs and whisk my little girl away. But I knew that would not be the right thing to do—the easy thing in the moment, certainly, but not a good strategy for inculcating resilience in a sensitive child, for teaching her to feel strong in the face of a challenging world. I knew that first and foremost, I needed to convey to her that she really would be okay. We had come to live here so that our children could experience this new culture, learn the language, be the kinds of people who could take on worthy challenges and then rise to them.
“Don’t go!” she cried, the decibels rising.
I put one foot in front of the other, pausing at the gate to give a final weak little wave. All the way down the long dirt alley, my ears echoed with her cry.
She’s courageous, however, and my daughter went back the next day and the day after that, her face determined, if gloomy. As she tried to find her place in this foreign culture we’d thrown her into, I found a new sense of home in the pages of Amos Elon’s book. His wild collection of thinkers, scientists, and activists seized my attention, their work and reflections jostling in my imagination like so many spinning lassoes. Very often, these figures were assimilated Jews; many themselves felt more German than Jewish, some having converted to Christianity, like August Mendelssohn, the son of Moses, whose famous composer son Felix, by that time a second-generation Christian, penned some of the greatest church music ever written. And yet there was, for many of these people, some tug deep within, no matter how far they had removed themselves from their Jewish origins—dark urgings of the blood, as Martin Buber put it—that was inevitable and primal. Buber’s was one of many sentiments that wrangled my own errant spirit, bringing me almost to my knees.
Amos Elon was my guide. I learned from him that the German Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt used to say that her own best friend was a woman named Rahel Varnhagen, a Jewish writer who’d run a famous literary salon more than a century before Hannah Arendt was born. I thought about that friendship, traversing the life-death boundary, between two strong, iconoclastic, intellectual pioneers in those eras of soul-crushing constraint for women, and the repression and persecution of Jews. I thought about Hannah Arendt in 1933, whizzing through the darkness on the night train to Prague, having been tipped off by a friend that the Gestapo was waiting at her apartment to arrest her. She left everything behind: family, community, home, turning within to her long-dead, never-met best friend Rahel Varnhagen, for solace, inspiration, and advice.
I once set out to write a story of my own that took this moment as its source, giving it the title: On the Night Train to Prague. But I could only take it so far. I would see Arendt sitting on the train as it sped through the night, her entire life slammed shut, the world undone in ways she could scarcely comprehend. I wanted to know her better, more deeply, yearned to commit her thoughts and feelings to the page, and to paint the surrounds of her circumstances (the word commit, here, rings with the sense of a crime): I could see violent flames, suffocating smoke, brick buildings exploding under the impact of Allied bombs, body parts flung every which way amid the swarming of brown uniforms, the thud thud of army boots on cobblestones, and children arrested, their arms raised high, and—
Stop! something screeched. No!
For some reason I felt acutely that here, I had no right to tread. With a billowing sense of loss, I put away the pages I had written, leaving Hannah Arendt to her privacy as she sped away those many years ago (no, it’s all happening, it’s happening still) on the night train to Prague.
Since then, there have been other stories I fell into that felt like mine, but that I walked away from because I felt I had no right to them. The unfinished story that incurred the greatest sense of loss involved my dearest literary friend, Joseph Roth, a Galician Austrian writer born in 1882, best known for his magnum opus, The Radetzky March. This never-completed novella of mine, My Friend Ernst Toller Has Hanged Himself, written while we were living in Mexico, chronicles Joseph Roth’s last night alive, the evening of May 27, 1939.
An assimilated Jew, Roth served in the Imperial Hapsburg Army during World War I. By the end of his life, he considered himself a Catholic. Once the highest-paid German-language journalist, he left Berlin when Hitler rose to power in 1933 and spent the last six years of his life mostly in Paris. As a Jew—who only 15 years earlier had served in the German army—he was banned from writing for German publications and was therefore deprived of his livelihood, reduced to living on the pittance he could make churning out novels for expatriate Germans.
Roth lived almost his entire adult life in hotels. On his last sentient day, Roth received a letter in his Paris hotel, telling him that his friend, the playwright Ernst Toller, had killed himself. Toller, also a Jew, had fled Germany through literary connections and was living in New York. The night Roth got the letter about Toller, he spent the evening drinking heavily; he collapsed and, four days later, was dead. Literary scholars speculate that Roth deliberately drank himself to death, no longer able to tolerate what was happening in the world. In private letters, Roth prophesied Nazi horrors he would not live to fully know about, though he knew enough; Kristallnacht had taken place six months earlier.
I imagined Joseph Roth’s despair, imagined that words had finally failed him—that there was no longer any still point from which he could describe, assess, interpret; no place from which the vantage of voice meant anything at all. As I reached for the story, my own vantage point was swallowed in the vortex; and while the story I had in mind was vividly alive, it turned to ash the moment I tried to bind it to the page.
The Roth story I crafted in my mind was something like this: After a day walking around Paris, struggling to come up with a new novel he might serialize for the few francs, which were all he could now command, Roth heads back to his hotel, despondent and worn out. He can no longer write with his former wit and ease: The world has taken that away from him, along with everything else. Paris has yet to be occupied, but he knows that the end of the world is fast approaching, as he had written to his friend, the playwright Stefan Zweig, six years earlier, in 1933:
You will have realized by now that we are drifting towards great catastrophes. Apart from the private — our literary and financial existence is destroyed — it all leads to a new war. I won’t bet a penny on our lives. They [the Nazis] have succeeded in establishing a reign of barbarity. Do not fool yourself. Hell reigns.
On his way back to the hotel, Roth stops at the liquor store to spend the last of his money on two quarts of whiskey. The bottles are heavy; he pauses to look through the windows of the café bar on the ground floor. Sometimes he sits at the bar late into the night, but tonight, he wants solitude.
He pauses at the desk to pick up his mail; the clerk hands him the usual small bundle, tied with twine. The top letter shows the handwriting of an old friend he’s not heard from in a long time. His stomach lurches; so much bad news, it comes in every batch.
Upstairs, Roth pours himself a drink and then opens the letter. His eyes hover over the first line, seeing the words about Ernst Toller, yet failing to take them in.
Toller, a well-known German playwright, had in 1919 been a key player in a serious, if somewhat absurdist political coup; for six days, he was president of the socialist “Bavarian Soviet Republic,” a political circus that left many people dead, including 10 innocent hostages executed in cold blood (Toller supposedly tried to prevent these executions), and hundreds of citizens caught in the crossfire of hastily assembled armies populated by workers. The Soviet-backed communists overcame the smaller, inadequately trained forces of the socialists, establishing a feuding rivalry between the two sides that some historians argue were associated with Hitler’s rise to power; had they united, they might perhaps have managed to secure a dominance in parliament (though as always, there were other factors in play, such as the easy exploitation of Hindenburg’s continuing toothless authority). The republic was quickly routed; many of its leaders, and over a thousand communists and socialists were executed, with scores more imprisoned. Toller spent five years in jail. To some, he was an inspiring hero in the ongoing fight against fascism, though a vast swath of the populace was left with an intense hatred of the left. During his imprisonment, Toller wrote many of his important works. But even for this rash, seemingly indomitable spirit, it had become too much to bear.
Roth struggles with the image of his beloved friend alone in a hotel room, fashioning a noose, finding a place to secure it, and then climbing up onto a chair and kicking it away. Still holding the letter, he hears a knock at the door. This is unusual; no one comes to his room. Were someone to venture a visit, the clerk would call up to announce. Highly untoward, but Joseph is in no state to think anything through. He simply takes three steps forward and opens the door.
I am standing there, in the hallway. He sees me, a young woman in my late 20s. Pale skin, dark hair and eyes, with the prominent features stereotypically associated with Jews, and the look of a foreigner—not European, he thinks, but from somewhere else.
After arriving in Vienna as a young man, Roth had dropped his first name—Moses—eager to dispel his Jewish, Eastern European origins. He’d worked to erase the Galician accent which marked him as a peasant Jew, and fabricated origin stories, such as that his father was an Austrian railway official or a Polish count. In fact, his father had been a grain buyer who had suffered a psychiatric breakdown, abandoning the family when Joseph was very young to live in Poland under the care of a “wonder rabbi.” I sense he has noticed my own uncommon accent, not British, but close. He sees distress in my eyes, but also, I hope, the warmth that I feel towards him, and something steady, though I sense he also tunes into the propensity I have for stormy emotions. (I recall that he once described himself in a letter to his friend Stefan Zweig in a similar way.)
“I don’t know why I’m here,” I say in my heavily accented French. “I only know I had to see you.”
“Where did you come from?” Joseph asks. Not the usual locution—where are you from?
“I’m from Australia.” I hesitate. “But that’s not exactly where I’ve come from.”
I can see that he is aware of something uncanny about the situation—about my presence, about me.
“May I come in?” I ask.
Joseph stands aside, and I enter.
“Drink?” he queries.
I nod, and he pours a shot of whiskey into a tumbler. We remain standing.
“I want you to know that I’ve read your books,” I say. “Pretty much all of them.”
He shows surprise, wondering if it is possible that I read German. He can have no idea that one day, many of his books will be translated into English. I note disappointment in his face.
“Fraulein,” he says. “I have no idea who you are. You haven’t introduced yourself.”
I give my name.
“I’ve not heard that name before,” he replies. “It sounds Hebrew. Is it biblical?”
“It is Hebrew,” I reply. I want to say modern Hebrew but stop myself, knowing this would only confuse things, aware that I am standing with Joseph Roth in his hotel room in May 1939; the State of Israel has yet to be founded, nine years ahead in the future, not an event Joseph Roth will live to see. “But no, not biblical.”
“So,” he says, gesturing that I take a seat.
There are two chairs in the room, and a tiny café table like those downstairs in the bar, along with a single bed, a small desk, and a short, square bureau. Joseph tracks my eyes as they come to rest on the two bottles of liquor removed moments earlier from the string shopping bag that now lies shrunken on the table.
“I’ve been wanting to come for a very long time,” I say. “I wanted to ask you something.”
He looks at me kindly, raises his hand and nods, in a gesture of invitation.
“How did you do it?” I ask. “Write about everything that was happening, and yet manage to go on?”
I see in his face that the question at once surprises him but also feels expected, as if it is exactly the right question—obvious, but not unwelcome.
“I saw it as my duty,” he says. “What else might I have done?”
I remember Joseph’s wife, the woman he married when young who ended up in a mental asylum, recalled the tremendous financial pressure this imposed on Joseph, who maintained the exorbitant payments for her care right up until his own end. Mercifully, he did not live to know that after his death, she was exterminated by the Nazis as part of their eugenics program.
“Besides, I had responsibilities. Writing has always been my livelihood.”
“Now, with things as they are in the world …” I find myself saying. “It was different, when you were in Poland,” I begin, thinking of the books he wrote about the Jews of the Polish shtetls, who lived in the dire pits of poverty: one a blazing, agonizing novel, another a nonfiction account of his extensive travels in the region. Both shone a light on an ignored, unknown, forgotten people.
“There was still hope,” he said, grief in his face. “The words had a purpose.”
“You know the answer to that as well as I do,” he says, his eyes deep with mourning.
He drains his glass and pours another, noting the lowered level in the bottle.
“I understood quite early in life, that we writers have little choice about what we see. And that means seeing it all. Not both sides, but many variants. You know what I mean.”
I nod, since I do know what he means.
“How charged I felt, when I read Keats’ journals. He ached to the tips of his fingers to get it all down. How mortified he felt, to think he might not get to describe everything before he died. A premonition, since he was to die so young.
“He was not to know that there was a gift in this. That he would only ever know and understand the experience and visions of the very young. The beautiful hot sun, giving life to all the beauty on this earth. Ahh, the nightingale’s song …”
He stares across the room, his eyes resting on the window, which shows the waning light.
“He tasted his approaching end—how melancholy he was. Yes, he understood something of mortality. But he was never forced to encounter the devil.”
He appears to have forgotten I am here in the room with him, in conversation, rather, with himself.
“When I was young, when I’d already encountered those ecstatic fits of artistic creation, I remember wondering—What do you do, once you have seen God? All artists must wonder this, when they first taste their own creative power. It’s in every word of Keats, since he never lived to have it taken away. How little I knew, then, thinking that the greatest grief would be not knowing how to live in ordinary reality. As if flatness were the worst possible curse …”
He turns to me and I see he is, in fact, keenly aware of my presence. Could it be that in this moment, he is feeling some kind of duty toward me? I can hardly grasp this—but yes, I see he feels charged to convey something.
“What I never thought to ask myself,” he continues, “is what do you do once you have seen hell? Once you fully grasp that man is both God and devil, which means in some sense that they must be one and the same.”
“You mean—that there is no God?”
Now I recall that Joseph was thought to have converted from Judaism to Catholicism, late in his life.
“Do you see the Jewish God and the Catholic God as one and the same?” I ask.
“Well of course, that is the point, isn’t it,” he says. “Jews do not really have a concept of the devil. That’s where they get it wrong.”
“Is that why you converted?” I ask, my voice a whisper.
I know I am treading on intrusive ground, but he does not seem to mind. I realize that Joseph is open to anything I may ask—that I have license to go wherever I please. This makes me feel a little giddy, though I am also aware of the dread, knowing the strange reality I am in, knowing that while I may have been granted this privileged license with a man I admire beyond reckoning, I am actually powerless to intervene in any meaningful way. All I can do is have the conversation—perhaps not nothing, but in the scheme of things, not so very much.
“Well, yes,” he says, looking a bit startled, as if perhaps he’d never thought of it quite that way.
“It was not such a conscious intent,” he continues. “There was a contradiction, for me, in the fact that though there is no conception of the devil in the Jewish faith—God has no adversary besides the human beings he supposedly created—the Jewish God is ferocious and unforgiving. Look at what God makes of family: Cain and Abel, for a start. Abraham and Isaac. We’re supposed to think well of Abraham for being willing to murder his son—and to see God’s sparing of Isaac as an act of mercy.
“Catholicism recognizes our barbarity—takes it out of God’s hands, puts it where it belongs. Within human beings. We slaughter not because God has commanded us to, but because we are vile. The devil is within us; there is no godliness without the shadowy presence of the devil. And yet, there is ever the chance of redemption.”
I could hear what Joseph was saying in words, but something else was going on; he was not speaking to convince me, that seemed perfectly clear. Who, then, was he trying to sway?
“And yet—” I prompt.
He smiles. “Yes,” he says, his eyes piercing, but also warm. “And yet—”
“Do you believe, then, in the sacrament?”
He shakes his head, as an old man might shake his head, wisely and with indulgence, knowing I am too young to have any inkling of what he actually means.
“No, I do not. But it is a lovely idea, no? The idea that grace is possible, and through the hallowed life of a spiritual being far wiser, more compassionate, than any of us might have any hope of being. In this way, we can help each other. Each of us in his or her own way. We see what we see, we do our best to give it voice, do our best to—I don’t know, get through.”
Joseph takes quick, short sips from his glass, but then remembers the letter he has just opened. For a brief moment, my sudden appearance had made the news of his friend’s death unreal, as if it might have been merely one of his own fictions. My gaze falls on the letter, and he sees my eyes fill with sorrow.
“Is that why you’ve come?” he asks, suddenly cognizant of the impossible fact that I know what the letter contains.
I nod, but when I next speak, it has nothing to do with the letter. “But I also wanted to talk with you about Heinrich Heine.”
“You’ve come to talk with me about Heinrich Heine,” he says with confusion, perhaps having given up trying to make sense of any of this.
I know Roth had a lifelong literary relationship with Heine, who died long before Roth was born. Both were Jews who considered themselves Christians: Both had written about the oppressed Jews of their age, illuminating their dignity and heroic qualities, despite degraded conditions; both had understood something terrifying in “the German character” that would, they prophesied, wreak havoc not only on the Jews, but on the world.
I nod, though I had no idea this was the reason I’d come until I hear Joseph echoing back my words. “He died 38 years before you were born, but I sometimes get you mixed up. He saw things before they happened, the way you have. One day, people will wish they’d listened to you both.”
Joseph wonders who I mean by people.
“May I ask what exactly you are referring to?”
“Something Heine said—Where they burn books, they will, too, in the end burn people.” My eyes well with tears.
Joseph sets down his drink, really listening now.
“He also said this.” I pause for a moment, wanting to make sure I accurately recall the words.
True, the German thunder is German, is rather awkward, and comes rolling along rather tardily; but come it surely will, and when ye once hear a crash the like of which in the world’s history was never heard before, then know that the German thunderbolt has reached its mark. At this crash the eagles will fall dead in mid-air, and the lions in Africa’s most distant deserts will cower and sneak into their most royal dens. A drama will be enacted in Germany in comparison with which the French Revolution will appear a harmless idyll.
“I know. You said much the same thing yourself.”
I find it suddenly too hard to look into his face, recalling a rare photograph I once saw of him that seared into my imagination. He is on a train platform, wearing a trench coat and weathered fedora, seated on his suitcase and writing in a notepad. There is no indication he knows he is being photographed. I imagine the picture was taken by his lover of two years, the writer Irmgard Kern, with whom he traveled around Europe. Perhaps they were in Poland, where he visited an endless string of villages filled with desperately poor Jews, fervent in their religious devotion, almost delirious with hunger, people he brings to vivid life in his book Shtetl. In the book, he describes entire villages of redheads, a strain likely descended from some intercession of Celts, or Viking marauders. Hasids with frizzy orange beards and springy, tight side-coils requiring extra devotion to tame into prayer curls. Little red-headed girls helping their mothers cook what food there is to be had, root vegetables mostly, almost never the sound of a chicken being slaughtered: and reed-thin boys, young scholars who rock for hours over broadsheets of Talmud, sometimes sucking on the worn sleeves of their threadbare jackets, imagining the thin cloth is a bit of bread or dried beef. From within this milieu, Roth found his unforgettable novel Job, discovering on his journey through Poland that the biblical character was alive and flailing all over the unyielding countryside, crouched in villages surrounded by hostility, the stench of pogrom conflagrations fresh in their nostrils.
There he sits in that photograph, on his battered suitcase, for all eternity, gazing away from the camera into the literary space of his notepad, squinting to see what he was born to see—through the miasma of this reality into another. The sight of him there moves me unspeakably to a grief that involves love and loss, connection and beauty and trauma, and ultimately a kind of helplessness that is knowing and wise and bereft. Joseph Roth, sitting on that train platform, was embedded in his historical moment, one of particular brutality and horror.
My own historical moment is of course entirely different, bleak in its way, but with a level of personal safety and privilege that would have been impossible for Roth, or his friend Ernst Toller, to imagine. The photograph is reproduced in the frontispiece of one of Roth’s books; I have spent long moments gazing at it, trying to see through the page, into his experience. As I looked at that photograph, I was always gripped by a propulsive feeling that, from within my own inexplicable and undeserved context of peculiar safety and plenitude, it is my responsibility to keep the light shining on him, to connect with him in that moment on the train platform and then later—here, in this moment, as he sits in his hotel room in Paris, downing glass after glass of the alcohol that will poison him to death.
Opening almost any page written by Roth reveals he was a master of the lightning-fast picture, painted in words; here, chosen almost at random, are a few snippets:
On Sundays the world is as bright and empty as a balloon. Girls in white dresses wander about the streets like so many church bells, all smelling of jasmine, sex and starch.
I have never seen the mother except in a blue dressing gown. She is very quiet, I think she was born in slippers, and I’m sure she has a shuffling and embittered soul.
And, describing a disagreeable nobleman:
… small, ancient and pitiful, a little yellow oldster with a tiny wizened face in a huge yellow blanket … he drove through the brimming summer like a wretched bit of winter.
Roth could not have known, sitting on his suitcase, that one day a young woman would spend long moments gazing at the image of him on the platform, waiting for him to look up from the page, to look into the lens of the camera (perhaps, seeing Irmgard, his lover, he will smile—I’ve never seen a photograph of Joseph Roth smiling), to look directly at me.
In the hotel room, I turn to face him and see that Joseph does not read any of this in my face, though he does intuit that I am wondering: Why have I come? There is nothing I can do, nothing at all.
Joseph picks up his glass, downs its contents in one gulp, and pours yet another.
This is part of the story I have tried to write so many times. The story feels like mine, and yet I also know that it is his story, and not mine. It makes no sense, and yet it makes all the sense in the world. Sometimes I am able to purloin and sometimes not; I am not always this conflicted. I rise, give Joseph Roth one last, wistful look, then turn and leave the room. Leave it be, I say to myself, under my breath, though not without a deep sense of personal loss. Just let it alone.
Four years after our sojourn in Mexico, we again packed up our Brooklyn apartment, heading off for a year in Paris. Margot, the mother of one of the kids in my son’s class, asked if I would come to her book club, a group of expat women who met once a month. She’d recommended that they read a book I’d written, inspired by Amos Elon’s seminal work, about the psychological legacy of the Holocaust on the next generation. At the meeting, the women ended up discussing the theme of intergenerational secrets. What should parents tell, or not tell, their children about the traumas they have suffered? And what do adult children have the right to know about their parents’ pasts? How much of one’s own identity is determined by family histories, reaching back through generations? Margot, a Canadian economist who was living indefinitely in Paris with her family, was sitting next to me; an intelligent, forceful woman, she always had something interesting to say. Now, she was uncharacteristically quiet. I knew she was Jewish; I wondered if the Holocaust theme of the book cut close to home.
After dinner, Margot and I decided to go for a walk and headed to Montmartre. It was a beautiful fall evening. When we turned the corner and the Montmartre Cathedral appeared on high, it looked as if it were sitting right up in the sky. We curved around, up the steep path, our breath heavy with the effort. Finally, we reached the cathedral steps and paused to look at the city spread out below.
“Thanks for coming to the book club tonight,” she said. “It meant a lot to me, personally.”
I’d written the book for the kids I’d grown up with in Melbourne, whose parents had, against impossible odds, survived the Holocaust. I wondered if Margot was also the child of Holocaust survivors.
“Tell me about your own family history,” I said. “I know you grew up in Canada …”
“I grew up in a small town,” she said. “My family had lived there for generations.” So, her parents were not Holocaust survivors.
“I always felt different from my parents—going all the way back to, I don’t know, age 2 or 3. It was just a feeling I had—I never really thought about it much. Then one day, my younger sister said something that made me realize she felt the same way I did.”
“Did you feel like you were cut from a different cloth?”
“It was more specific than that,” she said, turning to face me, a steely look in her eyes. “From when I was very little, I had strange and frightening dreams. Even before I could talk. I would wake up screaming. It would take me hours to calm down. The same thing with my sister. My parents didn’t know what to do; they were calm people—they weren’t used to such strong emotions.”
It was beautiful up here, the Montmartre Cathedral behind us, the city of Paris spread out below. I silently picked out the landmarks—La Défense, the Eiffel Tower, the Panthéon, the trees of the Bois de Vincennes.
“We never actually talked about our nightmares. But we had an understanding. We shared a room, and if one of us woke up upset, we’d get into bed together and go back to sleep. But we did talk about how we’d leave our town as soon as we were old enough. We didn’t feel like we belonged there.”
Where was the Jewish background? I knew Margot lived a Jewish life; they were members of an old synagogue in Paris and celebrated the Jewish holidays.
“How did your family end up in Canada? I don’t know much of anything about Canadian Jews.”
“My parents weren’t Jewish,” she said. “My sister and I converted when we were teenagers. You see, when I was 9, I learned a bit about World War II in school—not much, and it was pretty sanitized. But they did mention concentration camps. When the teacher said the words gas chambers, a peculiar shiver went through my body. A feeling of—I don’t know, like I was being taken over by a ghost. That night, I asked my sister—she was only 7—what her scary dreams were about. Turns out we were dreaming about the exact same things.”
Her voice was gentle; her eyes held a query, as if she were asking permission to continue.
“Go on,” I said.
“There were a lot of dreams about being chased. Running fast, at night, in the dark. Cobblestone streets.”
Cobblestone streets. I, too, had had such dreams from as far back as I could remember.
“And the terrible pounding of boots in our ears—soldiers behind us, wearing brown uniforms.”
The pounding, of soldiers’ boots had also tormented me at night, as I lay sleeping, the sight of brown uniforms a constant terror.
“By the time we got to talking about the train, the details got more specific.”
The cattle car. The other people in the car—at that point, the dreams became identical. The same visual details, and sounds. And people—we both knew who all the people were, the people who were with us.”
“Who were they?” I asked.
“Our parents. Mother and father. And grandmother. And—”
She drew in a quick breath. Her eyes glistened with tears. It was clear that for Margot, this was all still raw.
“A little brother and sister. There were others, too—” she shook her head.
“That’s when we realized—these weren’t just scary dreams. In fact, they weren’t dreams at all.”
“No.” Margot said the word no but she nodded an affirmation, yes. “They were memories. Plain and simple. All of it had happened. It had happened to us. When we converted—we did the full Orthodox protocol—it didn’t feel like a conversion, since we both felt like we’d always been Jewish. It was more like we were just reclaiming our rightful home.”
“Reincarnation,” I said.
Margot nodded. “Exactly.” Her face was glowing with a lovely smile. “That was a very long time ago, you understand. Since then, we’ve found out we’re not alone.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are thousands like us, often born to families who are not Jewish, who believe they are the reincarnation of souls murdered during the Holocaust. Often children whose deaths were so much more premature—who didn’t have much chance at the lives they were supposed to live. There’s a rabbi—I can’t recall his name right now—who has collected hundreds of these stories. His belief is that righteous families were mystically chosen for these souls to be born into. My parents were certainly righteous—the finest people you could ever meet.”
Some months after our return from Paris, I dropped my daughter at a friend’s house in Brooklyn Heights and took a detour down Montague Street, the main shopping drag. Passing the used bookstore, my eyes strayed to the table outside, which held cardboard boxes filled with bargain books, a dollar apiece. My husband and I were always lamenting that we had too many books and had made a pact to try to buy none, at least for a while. I had no intent of examining the bargain piles; in fact I made a point of turning my head away as I passed on by. But just before I looked away, a book snagged my attention, its title flashing: Beyond the Ashes: Cases of Reincarnation from the Holocaust. The author was Rabbi Yanassan Gershom, surely the rabbi Margot recalled that evening at Montmartre, who had collected stories, not unlike her own. I stopped short, turned back, grabbed the book, went into the store, and laid down my single dollar bill.
I stopped in a café to read. Sure enough, there were dozens of stories, just like Margot’s, told by people from all over the world. People who talked about being haunted from earliest childhood by memories and dreams that had led them to believe they had died prematurely, murdered by the Nazis, their troubled souls finding their way back into living bodies through reincarnation.
I closed my eyes and reconjured the dreams that had haunted me as a child, going back in my memory to before the day as a 13-year-old when Alain Resnais’ 1956 documentary film about the Nazi horrors, Night and Fog, had burned into my soul. Margot had embraced the history she felt certain was rightfully hers, converting to Judaism and embracing a Jewish way of life. I, on the other hand, had pulled away from the Jewish world I’d been born into, fleeing not only my own past but also the history of my people, which often felt like one and the same. In that moment, something new occurred to me; that perhaps all my racing around the globe was not only about running away, but also something else. An attempt to find a new place to plant roots for the next generations. Is it foolish, I wondered, to think one can undo psycho-historical-cultural trauma? That one might silence a historical trajectory by attempting to start a new one from scratch? As if there was logic to any of it—as if one were master not only of one’s own fate, but of the fate of generations, of souls moving around in the outer reaches of the cosmos.
Shira Nayman is the author of four books of fiction: Awake in the Dark, The Listener, A Mind of Winter, and River. She is currently working on a memoir, from which this piece is adapted.