Hazel McHaffie

Jewish Ghettos

Keeping the memories alive

As I’m sure you’re aware, it was Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday this week; 75 years since the liberation of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. And as ever I was profoundly moved by the first-hand accounts from survivors, their insistence that the horror must never be forgotten. It seems appropriate then to dwell on some aspect of it in my reading, so I chose a book that delves into the ongoing struggle for survivors of juggling memory with moving on.

There’s a Hebrew saying: Hold a book in your hand and you’re a pilgrim at the gates of a new city. That seems more than usually apposite for the novel I want to share with you today: Fugitive Pieces  (the book that gave me the quote).

Fugitive Pieces comes wreathed in superlatives: ‘lightness in gravity’… ‘exemplary and inspiring humanity’ … ‘exceptional literary craft’ … ‘exquisite care’ … ‘heart-shaking intensity’ … ‘extraordinarily taut and elegant’ ... promising much. Clearly a literary work, then. Yep. It won international acclaim and … big breath …  the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, the Trillium Book Award, the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the City of Toronto Book Award, the Heritage Toronto Award of Merit, the Martin and Beatrice Fischer Award, the Harold Ribalow Award, the Giuseppe Acerbi Literary Award and the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. Phew.

The  star-studded author is, however, new to me. Anne Michaels lives in Toronto where she composes music for theatre and writes poignant poetry. Her father’s family emigrated to Canada from Poland in the 1930s. After huge success with her poetry, Fugitive Pieces was her first novel, allowing her to move into a more expansive medium in her ongoing exploration of the relationship between history and memory, and how we, as a people, remember. She spent almost a decade honing it.

The principal protagonist in the book is also a poet, Jakob Beer, born in Poland in 1933. His first-person voice tells two thirds of the story. Everybody Jakob knew as a child has disappeared. They were Jews. Aged seven, he is forced to listen to the cries of his parents being murdered while he hides in a closet. When he emerges, his sister Bella has vanished, never to be found again, almost certainly brutalised.

Jakob escapes and hides before being discovered by a Greek archaeologist and paleobotanist, Athanasios Roussos, aka Athos. ‘Scientist, scholar, middling master of languages’ as Jakob describes him. Athos takes the lad home and hides him for four years, and Jakob clings to his saviour as the one person he can trust; their mutual devotion and affection are deep and real. But Jakob remains ‘perpetually afraid, as one who has only one person to trust must be afraid.’

After the war Athos is offered a job in Canada and takes Jakob with him. But, try as they might to start a new life with a new language and new customs and new responsibilities, both Jakob and Athos remain haunted by the past.  Athos spends long hours into the night recording the experiences; Jakob’s dreams are coloured by the associated terrors, both known and unknown. After Athos’ death, Jakob marries a young woman called Alex, but that relationship flounders as her sheer vitality and energy threaten to obliterate the precious memories Jakob is agonisingly seeking to resurrect and analyse.
The memory of his sister – a benign and constant presence, only a gossamer wall away, separated from him only by a fragile vibrating membrane …
The memory of the barbarity of the Nazis who decimated his family …
The memory of the Italians surrendering to the SS on the island of Zakynthos, the horrors that followed …
To lose those memories is to risk losing his very self. ‘… each time a memory or a story slinks away, it takes more of me with it.’

He hears the cries from the past, at first dimly, but if he lets them, they grow louder, more insistent, filling his head. He feels compelled to move closer to them, deeper inside himself, not to turn away. And to fathom the why of what was done to his people. He concludes:  ‘Nazi policy was beyond racism, it was anti-matter, for Jews were not considered human.’  Animals, rags, refuse – these were fit only for the rubbish heap. Ethical principles were not, then, being violated in their minds. But Jakob struggles to include his beloved sister in that pile of inanimate rags. Or the infants born even while their mothers were dying in the extermination chambers. ‘Forgive me, you who were born and died without being given names. Forgive this blasphemy of choosing philosophy over the brutalism of fact.’

Athos had been a perfect companion. He helped replace essential parts of Jakob slowly as if he were preserving something precious and enduring. By contrast Alex is wanting to set fire to everything in his past and begin again on a healthier, more positive path. The bigger the pressure, the more Jakob shrinks away from her. She increasingly lives a life of her own until she can’t take any more, and walks away from his unfathomable lost-ness.

Once Jakob has plumbed the depths of what happened to his people, his family, and provided his own answers, he arrives at a milestone. He realises that his ghosts are not trying to keep him in their past, but to push him into the real world.

He eventually finds love with a poet Michaela – a ‘voluptuous scholar’ with a ‘mind like a palace‘. She’s twenty-five years younger than him. ‘Looking at her I feel such pure regret, such clean sadness, it’s almost like joy.’  Understanding his past, attuned to his needs, accepting him just as he is, she helps him find true peace. And rest. And – half a century after his sister’s death – understanding. His sense of desolation finally eases away.

The language is unashamedly poetic and conveys the music within Jakob’s soul, so eloquent in his writing. So, to me, it feels somehow to stretch credulity somewhat when, in Part II, the same … dare I say it … ‘overwrought’ style is used for a new voice, that of Ben, one of Jakob’s students, who goes to Idhra on the Greek island of Hydra in search of the poet’s notebooks. He lives in Jakob’s house, searches for Jakob’s life in his notebooks, follows in Jakob’s footsteps over the island.

The Beer’s house is just as it was left, as if the owners will walk in and resume their lives at any moment. But tragically, they won’t. After only a few months of happiness together, Jakob and Michaela have both been killed in a car accident during a trip to Athens. Jakob, by this time sixty years old, has nevertheless been dreaming of a child of his own with his beloved: a new Bella or Bela to remember them through the years to come. Paradoxically the night of their death was the very moment when he was to discover the note revealing the magical news that Michaela was indeed pregnant.

Shutterstock image

Ben carries his own scars. His parents had been liberated from the ghettos four years before he was born, but they had steadfastly refused to talk about the horrors, which hung instead like dark shadows, silently, malevolently, pervading everything. ‘There was no energy of a narrative in my family, not even the fervour of an elegy … My parents and I waded through damp silence, of not hearing and not speaking.’ Their past comes through in their strange behaviours, colouring his experience of ordinary everyday life, only dimly comprehended. His childhood dreams are haunted by doors being axed open, by the jagged yawning mouths of dogs. His parents delight in small things, setting him bizarre standards for appreciating music, food, nature, clothes. For them, ‘pleasure was always serious’ – the aroma of a jar of coffee, the fragrance of freshly laundered linens, a new pair of stockings. They are adamantly opposed to taking even legitimate handouts from any authorities. They spend their every day fearing: ‘When my father and I left the apartment in the morning, my mother never felt sure we’d return at all.’  ‘Who dares to believe he will be saved twice?’ his mother whispers.

It’s through Jakob’s poetry that Ben finally understands, because it encouraged him to ‘enter the darkness and find his own way back’.

A meld of poetry and prose, Fugitive Pieces is a tale of memories, and finding peace and understanding even in the face of the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. Just one dimension in this unfathomable tragedy.

Hatred consumes you; forgiveness sets you free.

 

 

In memory of the victims of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides.

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The Midwife of Venice

‘At midnight, the dogs, cats and rats rule Venice. The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin … It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah.’

How about that for an opening hook?

And this for a delightfully evocative spooky cover …

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich is an ambitious debut novel set in the sixteenth century. (Echoes of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice are, I presume, deliberate.) Hannah Levi is a Jewish midwife famed throughout Venice for her exceptional skills. However, the law forbids her to attend a Christian woman, the penalties being severe, endangering not only Hannah personally, but the entire Jewish ghetto. It’s a time when anti-Semitism is rife: ‘if a sparrow falls from the sky in Venice, it is considered the fault of the Jews.’ So when a Christian nobleman, Conte di Padovani, appears at the door of her hovel in the Jewish ghetto in the dead of night, demanding her services for his wife, she is torn between a natural compassion and a fear of retribution. He offers her a handsome reward – sufficient money indeed to ransom back her husband, Isaac, who has been captured and held as a slave by the Knights in Malta.

Both the Contessa Lucia and her unborn son are near death by the time Hannah is summoned. If she were to fail to save them she would be in terrible jeopardy. But by some miracle and the application of her special instruments, the child is delivered. Alive. Just. Thwarting the machinations of the Conte’s greedy and feckless brothers who are poised to inherit everything if the child dies; leaving several people bent on revenge.

Hannah’s story in Venice is interspersed with Isaac’s experiences trying to escape his captors in Malta. Having been to both places, I found the scenes evocative, mesmerising and convincing. For me, the suspense in Venice feels more compelling than that in Malta, but there is the added tension of wondering whether this couple will ever see each other again. Hannah and Isaac parted after an argument. Desperately seeking to be reunited, to make reparation, they are thwarted at every turn. Will their joint disappointments and sadnesses ever end? As they both set sail towards each other on broiling seas we are held in suspense … even now will their paths cross cruelly as their respective ships plough on through turbulent waters?

Love, blackmail, murder, plague, intercultural tension, rescue … it’s a tale which rollocks along, weaving a tapestry of pictures of Renaissance Italy, and religious and cultural bigotry, and family rivalries.

The rigid discipline of ancient laws and entrenched customs forms an immovable spine for this book. Even when lives and happiness are a stake, the Jews fear disobeying their ancient codes and commandments. The Rabbi has been urging Isaac for years to divorce Hannah  because of her barrenness; now the Society for the Release of Captives is ready to release private funds to pay his ransom … if, and only if, he signs the divorce papers. Such inflexibility is a complete mystery to gentiles – as a Maltese man says to Isaac:  ‘Your laws are designed to create unhappiness.’ But they too have their own strong prejudices and suspicions.

For the most part the pace, the language, the style of writing, is entirely apposite for the period, and the glossary and biography at the back are testament to the care Rich has taken to ensure authenticity. However, I must confess I harboured a sneaky feeling that a few of the more modern expression or pithy insults might have been doctored for our more twenty-first century ears. But I might be entirely wrong.

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