An internet friend sent me some thoughts last week about the writing of the 2014 Nobel winner Patrick Modiano and his preoccupation with the lost. At the same time I was steaming towards the end of ‘Kamchatka’, a novel of the Disappeared in Argentina. Modiano wrote of Rita Bruder, a young French Jewess who went missing from her safe haven in a convent during the German occupation of Paris. Modiano is driven to search out the child’s fate. He cannot let the past and the lost rest unpursued.
I found myself acutely vulnerable to my e-friend’s story of stories. Partly it was the menace quietly gathering in ‘Kamchatka’ of the inevitable disappearing of a loved one; but more, the Modiano quest brought home a long overdue quest of my own: my destined search for my mother’s lost cousins. My knowledge of the cousins in question is slight and fragmented. It shifts in memory’s half light, lacking solidity, its textures diaphanous with the partial attention I must have paid in early childhood to a story my Mum told me. Seventy years after their presumed deaths in Auschwitz I feel the weight of silence.
My mother’s parents died of natural causes in her early adolescence. Somehow the orphan never lost her faith in living or her relish in it. Failing her Year Ten examinations she left school, trained as a bookkeeper, went to work and saved. In 1939, at the age of twenty-one Mum travelled alone to France where she had good clean fun. She spoke of dining with the Captain and the young officers on the Dutch ship which took her to Europe. She spoke of the beauty of Bali, then a Dutch outpost, almost untouched. On my mother’s return to Australia her younger sister Doreen asked her: ‘Are you still a virgin, Yvonne?’ ‘Yes,’ came the reply, ‘But it wasn’t easy.’ Mum made friends with men wherever she went, two of whom would bob up in our Leeton home while I was still too young for school. The two men, to the best of my knowledge, never knew each other. Their visits were separate and apparently independent events. We’d form a threesome for picnics by the river, the respective Continental, Mum and Howard, her four-year old chaperon. The men’s mysterious names – ‘Syd Viberow’, ‘Romain Hudes’ – intrigue me to this day. Googling has not relieved my curiosity.
These matters I recall well. I recall the smooth Continental gentlemen basking with my young and attractive mother on the riverbank. On one of those picnics we ate kedgeree. On another was it curried hard-boiled eggs? Europe was – I am confident – earnestly wooing; Mum remained Mum, Plato on the riverbank. I mean platonic; Mum might well have enjoyed being admired, but assuredly she liked her good fun clean. My memories are scatterings. Atmospheres are clearer than some factual details. Mum’s prudent inclusion in the picnics of an attention-hogging four-year old was strategic.
More scatterings: In Paris Mum’s tight black curly hair excites the admiration of a German hairdresser who marshalled her best English to compliment her: ‘You have vonderful viskers, Mademoiselle’; Mum’s accounts of the anxious urgings of the family back in 1939, to ‘come home now! There’s going to be a war.’ Mum is in no hurry. She spends time in France with her young cousins. Eventually she sails for home: ‘We slept on deck that last week, half expecting every night to be sunk by a U-boat. We arrived in Fremantle on the day war was declared.’ More good fun.
Much less clearly come memories of Mum’s cousins. The names are feminine and French, that I recall. Or I believe I recall it. They must be the daughters of Mum’s mother’s cousin. In 1939 they are teenagers, while Mum is twenty-two.
Mum says nothing to us children touching her cousins’ fate. But she must have known. I know that from the international telegrams that sped across the world late in1944; from Melbourne to Paris, from New York to Paris, with mounting anxiety. From Paris silence. From Melbourne to New York, from New York to Melbourne, in tones of deepening dread, cousins ask for word. There is no word. “Oed’ und leer das Meer”, ‘empty and waste, the sea.’ I know Mum knew; I found these telegrams among her papers after she died.
Mum and Dad bring up their four children very Jewish in the Riverina. In Leeton we children never hear of the Holocaust. We are as far from Auschwitz as Jews can be. Only three hundred miles south of us, Melbourne, thronging with survivors, is as close to Auschwitz as Australia can be. At the age of nine and a half I am translated from the Riverina to Mount Scopus in Melbourne. There, in a classroom full of Jewish children I am one of very few with living grandparents. I experience myself as a Jew whose family was safe, intact.
I regret now that innocence. A child who sat at the side of his father every Ninth Day of the Month of Av, listening to Dad as he lamented the destruction of the Temple and the sack of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, knew nothing of Europe only a few years earlier. We sat on the thin, scratchy carpet of our dining room floor, the house lights turned off, a single candle our only light as Dad chanted the Book of Lamentations in its distinctive moaning and sighing melody. Dad translated and together we bewailed the ‘breach of my people’ at the hands of Rome. Sixty-plus years later I can feel that carpet itching my thighs. But the Third Reich never touched me.
Why was Mum silent? Assuredly she cared for ‘Sophie’ and ‘Josephine’ – names that lurk just beyond memory’s outer fringe, names that might even be true. Assuredly Mum knew. But she said nothing. No stranger to closer loss, Mum could and would speak of her beloved parents, tenderly but with a composure that unnerved this small child. Strangely disconnected from grief, Mum thrived as an orphan, much, much later as a widow, and even managed to live on in joy after losing her one lifelong companion, her sister Doreen; and after Doreen Mum lost her firstborn son. From her early years Mum knew loss but managed to keep sorrow a stranger.
At what cost, I wonder. I read Modiano and I understand the Nobel judges’ remark about ‘his art of memory.’ My mother practised her own arts of memory. Did she survive a life that was punctuated by loss by excision of sorrow? Perhaps what started as a young girl’s strategy led to atrophy and involution of the organs of sorrow. In that case my own memories of Mum’s account of Europe might be actually complete: do I in fact recall the entirety of the particles that Mum allowed herself?
I bless Mum for her faculty of joy. And now she is gone I must investigate my own faculty for grief. I want to find my cousins.