Solving an Ancient Problem

The grandson arrives and heads straight to the kitchen. He takes a pear and bites great chunks from it. Then he puts it down. It is not like him to stop in mid-pear.

Minutes later he slumps onto the couch, where he lies, squirming from time to time. He rises, approaches and says:Saba, my stomach feels awful.

Is it sore, darling?

No, just awful*. It feels like a washing machine.

He clutches his belly and groans: It feels like when you’ve been sent to the Headmaster’s office and you’re waiting there, expecting something bad… My stomach is in turmoil.

 

Nice word selection, thinks I, pretty good for a 14-year old.

 

He leaps to his feet and runs to the toilet.

 

Not long after, he returns. I did a monster poo* – all water. What’s wrong with me, Saba?

I examine his abdomen. I say he probably has a stomach bug.

 

He races away again, returns and repeats his earlier announcement. Shortly after he runs, returns and describes his work.

Do you feel better, after you’ve been to the toilet, darling?

 

There is no answer. I look over to the couch, where he sits, slouching, head bent towards his lap.

I turn to attend to kitchen tasks, when a strangled sound disturbs me. The boy’s voice crosses the room, indistinct: Saba

I turn, seeing nothing new.

More gargling, then: Saba, I vomited.

Between the boy’s feet, atop the Persian rug, a heap of hot vegetal matter lies steaming.

I’m sorry Saba. I’m… 

More gargling, and the heap is larger.

 

 

The boy looks stricken. I give him a bowl to catch any third helping, clean him and take him to bed. I lay a towel at his lap and the bowl before him. His face creases as he searches for words as strong as his feeling: Thank you Saba. I love you Saba. 

 

The Persian rug lies there and stares at me. What do you do when your Isfahan rug has suffered such a colourful assault?

 

 I lug it to the bathroom and give it a shower. The rug lies drenched on the floor and stares at me. What do you do when your rug has been for a swim?

 

I lug it to the wall-mounted heated towel rail and manage to fold and hang it in place. 

 

I look into the shower recess. A vegan’s banquet stares back at me. I wonder what my wife will say when she enters to take her shower in the morning.

 

 

How do you remove freshly laundered gastric contents from a shower recess? I squat and stare. Everything seems so rich in texture. My fingers recoil. Kleenex tissues are not squeamish. They do not suffer aesthetic stress. I mop and aggregate. Then I stop. What is that black lump? Has the boy eaten eggplant? Black olive?

 

I look closer. The black bit assumes a familiar shape. It looks like a cockroach.

 

I call the boy’s name: Come! Come quickly. Bring your phone.

Why Saba? I’m in bed. I feel terrible.

Please come. Bring your phone.

 

He comes. He sees and he turns away. I don’t want to see that, Saba.

I take his phone and photograph the black matter. 

The boy says, That’s gross Saba. You don’t photograph vomit.

I say, Look at the black thing.

The boy looks and turns quickly away.

I say, It’s a cockroach.

This is not a time for joking, Saba.

I show him the photo.

His face falls open: No! That didn’t come out of me, Saba!

I say, That vomit isn’t mine.

The boy gulps. He looks horrified. He says, is that the bug I had inside my stomach? I had a cockerroach** inside me?

 

I say to him, Darling, next time you eat an insect, make sure it’s cooked properly.

I wouldn’t eat a cockerroach, Saba. They disgust me.

Well you did eat it darling. After all, you do eat boogers. It might have been an accident…

 

A thought occurs to me: Have you eaten any food your eldest brother prepared for you in the last twenty-four hours?

What are you talking about, Saba?

Darling, twice in the last month you’ve drunk a cup of tea he brought you. Twice he piddled into it and twice you drank it.

 

 

A worried look settles on the boy’s face. He thinks for a few moments: No, Saba, I definitely didn’t eat anything he gave me. He slept out last night and I haven’t seen him today.

 

 

And there the matter lies. The child has no knowledge of ingesting an arthropod. But he has, by accident, solved a question as old as human-cockroach cohabitation. The small black beasts have lived among us since we arrived on the planet. And we know they’d survive a nuclear war that would wipe out us human hosts. The question, how do you kill a cockroach, has been answered at last by my grandson.


______________________________________________________________________
* This is not a verbatim quote: the boy used a vulgar expression.

** The boy is an Hispanophone. Here his father’s Spanish, (cucaracha) collides with his mother’s English. Disgusting in any language. 
______________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

Dennis, Twelve Years On


 

I remember you today, Den, with the candle burning and with the prayers of mourning.

I remember you in our boyhood home in Leeton, where a life of risk called you always, and you’d drag me and I’d follow, with terror and tremor and delight. I remember you taking me into Dad’s Surgery, that forbidden room, where the ever-present smell of anaesthetic ether warned a boy of the consequences that would follow. You found Dad’s blood pressure machine and you showed me how you could squeeze the rubber bulb and inflate the bladder. You kept showing me, squeezing, pumping, and the mercury climbed above 200, 250, 290, until the bladder burst, and liquid mercury ran everywhere.

 

 

When you were eight you decided we should pay a visit on Miss Paull, my teacher, Leeton’s aristocrat, in her residence at the Hydro Hotel. I followed you up the long hill. I followed you up the sweeping drive. Bold as brass, you announced to the man in the black suit, who opened the door, ‘We have come to visit Mis Paull’, and the man showed us in, and Miss Paull emerged, all white and willowy and English, and she said, ‘Good morning Dennis, good morning Howard, how utterly delightful that you should come. Please join me for morning tea.’ And the man in the black suit sat us down and spread white linen squares over our laps, and I was in heaven, nearly wetting myself in excitement. On the way out you heeded the call of your own bladder and you peed on the Hydro’s flowerbeds.

 

I sit and I remember you, my big brother, how you protected me when we were small. I remember, when I was fourteen, Dad summoning me to the forbidden room and sitting me down for a serious talk. The tremors again, but this time I wasn’t in trouble. Dad said, Dennis doesn’t have as easy a path in life as yours. 

I didn’t want to hear this because I knew it to be true.

Dad continued: I want you to help him. My heart sank.

 

I did try, Den, but I lacked your boldness. When I saw other children bullying you I died twice. Others, children and adults and old people, loved you and cherished you, for the beauty of your soul, for your generosity.

 

You loved music with the abundance and the zest of all your loving. I remember you in ICU, in the room of your dying, and you lying there in your coma. Annette, your sister in law, played a Mozart CD for you, and you lifted your arms and you started to conduct. I hope that beauty stayed with you as you slipped away, Dennis.

 

 

It’s the 18th day of the month of Ellul, Den. I remember you and I miss you.

 

Early Spring

The date comes up on his screen, September five. Instantly he sees a round face, lightly freckled. Her wavy hair is light brown.

He’s known her two brothers for years and her two elder sisters, both of them young ladies in their late teens. But this is the first summer  he and she have noticed each other: she’s 11 years old and he’s fourteen. While the slow afternoons make everyone else drowsy, the two go for walks to nowhere in particular. They talk comfortably about their mums and dads  and their brothers and sisters. They both come from large families and there’s lots to tell. Last week it was his birthday. Hers is in spring. One afternoon they find themselves at the far end of the island. There in the long grass they sit. Something tells him to move closer. He kisses her. Soon after they walk back to their families on their neighbouring boats.

 

The next afternoon he looks for her, but she and her mum have gone shopping in town on the further shore.

He doesn’t find her the next day either.

On the third day her elder sister says she went back to Geelong with Dad to buy her schoolbooks. He confesses to the elder sister he’s missing her. Her response surprises him:  Sometimes a young girl can feel confused if she has feelings she’s never felt before. It can scare her.

 

Summer ends and they don’t meet again. Most years he thinks of her on September five.

 

He’s about sixty when he buys a book by John Marsden. Its title is ‘This I Believe’. In it he reads the credos of one hundred eminent Australians. One essay is written by a woman shortly before she dies, too young, of breast cancer. A companion essay is written by her eminent daughter. He doesn’t recognise the surnames of the two women. The essays move him. He notes the dates of birth and death of the  mother. She has been dead now for some years.

 

Every year, on September five, he thinks of her.

Fathers Day


 

 

They say Fathers Day is the invention of the people at Hallmark Cards. That doesn’t make it a bad idea. If someone told me Hallmark had just invented the wheel or the toilet brush or brotherly love, I hope I’d give those ideas worthy consideration.

 

No it’s not Hallmark that’s my problem. (And I do have more than one problemwith Fathers Day, none more pressing than where to place the apostrophe. I have every confidence I’d dispute whatever verdict were chosen. You only have to look at this paragraph to see I like the apostrophe, I cherish it and I bewail its* public fate.)

 

When the first Sunday in September dawns no-one feeds me breakfast in bed, no-one buys me neckties or self-help books or DIY apparati. And I never did any of these for my own father. (Well, almost never: when I was five my elder brother spent five shillings on a large tea cup for Dad, which we presented as a joint Fathers Day gift. The cup showed a man seated on an easy chair and smoking his pipe. Dad didn’t smoke and never drank tea. He held tea to be addictive,correctly so. That, after all, is its beauty and its purpose.) 

 

Breakfast in bed could not have enhanced the love that existed between my father and me**, nor would it have reduced the pain my brother and my father experienced in their own shared loving. 

 

 

 

 

My own children accept my distance from Fathers Day (as from Mothers Day). They see it as just another eccentricity of their wilful father. Seven hundred telephone calls per annum from my children to that difficult father say all that needs to be said.

 

Numerous earnest homilies (‘Slow down, Dad’; ‘Don’t you think it’s time you workeda bit less?’ ‘Have a good run, Dad, and don’t come back dead’; ‘I don’t want you riding your bike at peak hour, Dad. If anything ever happened to you…’)

 

 

Well of course one day the anything will happen to me. And as far as fathers go, I’ll go happy, well fathered and well loved by those I’ve fathered.

 

 

Nowadays my children have their father on Brain Watch. About time. And one single day a year would not suffice for the purpose.

 

 

Note*: no apostrophe.

Note:** It took me 220 pages to sketch the love between my father and me, in ‘My Father’ Compass’ (Hybrid, 2007). A young man approached me after reading the book. He said, I always wanted to be a loving father and no-one ever showed me how. But when I read your book I knew.’

 

Doing the Cartesian Plod

The auguries are not favourable. In the cricket Australia has lost to the South Africans. In the footy Collingwood has lost to a bunch of nonentities. In the bedroom needed slumber has lost to an importuning bladder, that groans with pre-marathon hydration.

 

 

But truly my sleep has been under attack also from pre-race nerves. This particular marathon, in Broome, will be my first in the heat and my first on sand. I know I can run 42.2 kilometres, but I fear I’ll lack the moral strength to keep running in the sands as they deepen with the incoming tide, and the heat that will rise as surely as I slow.

 

 

 

At 5.00am it’s dark and cool down on Cable Beach, and wonderfully quiet. I stand beneath a crescent of moon, freshly born but days ago. The stars are few. The waves crash and the breakers break and I am a man alone in the vastness. At this moment, than this place there is nowhere I’d rather stand and nothing I’d rather do. How long I stand there watching the flashes of white foam light the darkness I cannot know. How do you measure the dimensions of enchantment?

 

 

 

 

The sky pinks slightly in the east. Time now to pray the Dawn Service. After I’ve finished those prayers and the Traveller’s Prayer, mandatory since the bombings in Boston, (Rescue us from any enemy, ambush or danger on the way, and from all afflictions that trouble the world), the beach starts to fill with runners, with fleeting flashes of light, with murmurs. All speak quietly, all discreet, decorous, in this, our secret convocation, as if noise were desecration. 

 

 

 

Thirty-two of us line up at the Start. The Race Director delivers his instructions and his directions, larded liberally with his benedictions: Have a good run, marathoners, enjoy yourselves, drink plenty, welcome, welcome, welcome, have fun. The event closes in six hours. Our sweeper will come by on a bike and tell you if you look like going over time… But you won’t. The tide is well out and will keep ebbing for the next 97 minutes. After that there’ll be a full six hours before high water. Go well, brothers and sisters, run well and enjoy yourselves.

 

 

 

 

The Broome Marathon might be the sole event in the running calendar whose date is governed by the moon. The organisers choose the Sunday closest in time to the winter neap. Today the sand is firm underfoot, while yielding. My racing feet love it. Our route takes us out five kilometres to the dinosaur footprints at Gantheaume Rocks, before the turn which will bring us back to the Start, which will later be the Finish. 

 

 

 

 

I spend those ten kilometres deep in superficial thought: How do you pronounce Gantheame? Looks French, should follow the rules of French pronunciation. But I’ve no-one seems to pronounce it that way…

 

 

 

And of truer gravumen, the self-question, How fast can I prudently complete the first ten kilometres? I know I can do the distance in an hour, but that pace would be unsustainably fast.

 

 

 

I raise my head from these cogitations and regard the young buttocks speeding ahead of me. I look back. To my surprise a half dozen or so runners plod along behind me. An unfamiliar sight, a puzzlement. It takes less than one hour for me to realise these are tortoises and I am a foolish hare, for the ten kilometres have passed and sixty minutes are not yet up.

 

 

 

But who could take these pleasures at a languid jog – at my left shoulder the rising sun (the sun came up upon the left, out of the sea came he), at my right the rolling waves, overhead the arching blue, and beneath that blue the turquoise waters? 

 

 

 

And so I run, fast at first, more slowly later, but on I run, alone, and ever in earnest conversation. First I address Rene Descartes. Rene says, I think, therefore I am.  (At least that’s what they say he says.) Finding myself so steeped in running delight might I not say, I run, therefore I am?  Of course that would reduce me to a pair of stubborn legs. But does life offer anything sweeter than this, this delight beneath absent clouds? I can, therefore I run. Here I am, running early in the event, later plodding, ever ruminating, doing the Cartesian Plod.

 

 

 

 

The Race Director directed us to run south all the way to the halfway mark at Coconut Wells. Here we’ll turn and head for home. I’ve never heard of Coconut Wells but I should know it once I arrive: there’ll surely be an oasis there; the entire marathon course is dotted by pop-up oases, where Staminade and water rest on trestle tables beneath shade. Here volunteers dole out encouragement and sustaining fluids. Each oasis is manned by members of a different local sporting team. The Jiu Jitsus water me first, then the Rugby Leaguers, followed by the Philatelists and here at the Halfway it’s the Water Poloists. Later, the Man Cave Vigoro Team, later still the elderly Chinese players of Mah Jong. Such patience, such good natures! 

 

 

 

 

In the five kilometres that stretch between the oases, all along the wide beach, people picnic or swim or cast their lines into the waves. Some sit beneath their portable shade and drink beer and gaze as inconspicuously as possible in the direction of unclad sunbathing women. The drinkers and the fishers and the swimmers and the picnickers look up as I pass and they assure me I am a champion and utter similar kindly falsehoods, so it’s roses, roses, all the way, roses strewn in my path like mad.

 

 

 

 

Just before the turn a voice breaks into my reveries: Howard! Howard! The voice is feminine; whose can it be? A slender figure approaches from the thicker sand high on the beach: Howard, it’s me, Mel. Ian’s partner. You’re doing so well! Is there anything I can give you, anything you need? I shake my grinning head. Sylph-like Mel, Mel who will join the orthopedic trade, Mel is what I needed without my knowing the need. The simple fact of being known – such a deep human satisfaction. Thanks, Mel. I’ll see you at work. And on I run.  

 

 

 

Now as I run I hear the voice and see the image of my younger daughter, she who has always held my joy in running in the balance against the hazards of running; she’s known how marathons have claimed and killed and stilled many runners, faster and fitter than her Dad, fathers no less beloved, no less unreplaceable. Before every marathon I’d hear the voice of that daughter, have a good run, Dad, and don’t come back dead. At the conclusion of every marathon over the last twenty years, it was that daughter whom I’d call first: I had a great run, darling, and I’m not dead. But after the fifty-second marathon that dialogue came to an end. Dad, said the daughter, I don’t want you to die but I know you will one day. Meanwhile you love to run and I love you and I want you to do what you love. And if you die doing what you love I’ll be sad but I won’t be mad at you.

 

 

 

 

If my daughter’s relationship with my running has been ambivalent, I might say the same of my glomeruli.Wikipedia will tell you that glomeruli form a network of small blood vessels in the kidney, through which blood is filtered to yield a filtrate of urine. The rate at which blood is filtered through all of the glomeruli, and thus the measure of the overall kidney function, is the glomerular filtration rate (GFR). A combination of increasing age, high blood pressure and family tradition has knocked my glomeruli about somewhat, and my filtration rate has fallen as a result. I consult a kidney doctor who advises me, somewhat ambivalently, to keep running marathons: overall it’s probably beneficial to you, but – and here he wags a finger and his gravel voice deepens to a rattling scree – don’t get dehydrated.  That’s like saying, you can run marathons but don’t get tired. So at every drink stop I drink, taking great camel draughts, one time of water, the next of an electrolyte drink. Have you ever drunk Staminade? If you’re fond of blue cordial you’ll like the look of it; if you enjoy drinking glomerular filtrate you’ll love the taste of it.  

 

 

 

Soon my left calf provokes a conversation. The calf has started to feel strange: What – I ask – do you mean by this hard, dead feeling? Didn’t we meet each other in 2013? On that occasion you forced me out of the Melbourne Marathon. Piss off now! Two kilometres later my calf feels fine. And I do not hear from it again. 

 

 

 

 

Never lost for thought, my nimble mind now enters earnest intercourse with the sand. Beaches in Australia are expanses of sand, this particular beach being vastly expansive. I look down and notice something new – striations in the sand. Between the predominant areas of cream, pink streaks appear. The pink is of such delicacy that I perceive it today for the very first time in the quarter century of my running here. Aah, beauty. O blessed day!

 

 

 

 

I interrogate this pink. Pink? Pink? Unheard of. What, where is the earth pink? Answer – the earth here is paprika-pink, rust red, burnt red all through the Pilbara, the Centre, the Kimberley. And whence comes the redness? From iron, that same red element that makes me red blooded. This peaches and cream earth and I are blood brothers. I am at home here, I belong here. Like Adam I am made from this earth. Carried now by this flooding of aesthetic pleasure I am far from the sensations that should affect me. Fatigue is a stranger, thoughts of labour washed away.

 

 

 

 

At this stage I discover I’ve reached the 25-kilometre mark, ordinarily the locus of a great groan of self-pity. The discovery, after three hours of running that I still have seventeen kilometres to run has always fallen heavily upon my morale. But today my being rejoices in all that is before me. Seventeen kilometres? How fortunate! I want this never to end.

 

 

 

 

 

I fill those seventeen kilometres with thoughts that should embarrass me, so deeply dorky are they. I will confide in you, dear reader, trusting to your discretion: I play a word game in which I choose a word of a few syllables, say, ‘catheter’; and using the letters of that word, try to name other words of four letters or more. I find lots of words that, being unwritten, circle and loop though my mind time and again. I will spare you the full list, mentioning just a few words that tickled my vanity practically to orgasm. Those words are theta and theca, followed by terce and tercet, the former denoting the third meditative Christian chant of the morning, the latter referring to a trio of lines in verse.

 

 

 

 

 

The mind is a magpie. My mind has no business knowing the name of an element in High Church liturgy, but it pecks around and picks up useless information prodigiously. If you want to know anything unimportant, ask me.

 

 

 

 

 

A being on a bike intrudes upon my word games. He wears black and he identifies himself as the Sweeper. The Grim Sweeper, the Broome Sweeper! 

I ask, Am I running last?

No mate, there’s a couple behind you still. You’re killing it.

How old are you, if I may ask?

I tell him my age and he says, You’re running like a boy, and I say, If I were your dog you’d take me to the vet and the Sweeper laughs and I laugh and he sweeps back to the laggards behind me and the world feels very nice.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sweeper has put his finger on something real. To run, simply to run, for no real purpose and to no material end, to run for play, is precisely what a small boy does, what a little girl does. Utterly useless, it’s a physical expression of delight in being. It’s the undying spirit of play in a dying animal. I still am, therefore I run; I still can, therefore I run; I run, therefore I am still that small boy. And, enjoying this conversation with myself, I run on and on, doing the Cartesian Plod.

 

 

 

 

 

So sweet, this frolic, I wish it never to end.  Running alone, I think of my mother’s father, who came to Broome in 1906 with his three brothers to dive for pearl. I never met that grandfather. I know he played polo, I know he built and played a one-string violin and performed for large audiences in Perth. I know he carved tortoise shell and pearl shell into objects of art. I know he was brave, plying his trade that carried a mortality rate of thirty percent. That grandfather, a laughing cavalier, died young of lung cancer, and I don’t know by what tender name I’d have called him if I’d known him.

 

 

 

 

 

So, communing with the dead grandfather and the dead philosopher, puzzling with words, rejoicing in all that befalls me, I come to the end. My marathon ends in a finishing time of five hours and seven minutes, six minutes slower than I ran five weeks earlier in Traralgon. Of course I’m jubilant, drinking deep of endorphin, floating on euphoria.  A crowd numbering perhaps five persons cheers me across the Line, and behind a phone is the face and form of Mel, taking photographs to record Pheidipides Goldenberg finishing the Broome Marathon in first place (Male, Ancient), there being no other runners aged over seventy.

 

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Morning Breaking

Yesterday morning I stood in the cold and dark and waited for the tram that would take to work. I shivered, insufficiently warmed by four layers of clothing. I looked up and saw a sky filled with stars. Stars – in the morning!

Morning had broken me.

Today I was up early, running. I heard a sound; birdsong! I ran past shrubs in bud.

Winter will end.

This morning morning mended me.

Hope

The Unexpected Uses of Yeats

 

 

Annette and I set out on our travels in the northern spring of the year 2019 without any thought of deep time. This was to be a pleasure trip, to celebrate an event that took place in 1949. Annette was to have a big birthday and for some time I had pressed her to name a place she’d never been and which she’d dreamed of visiting. Greek Islands was her eventual answer.

 

 

 

 

We found a cruise that would begin and end in Rome, visiting Greek Isles and numerous Italian ports. So we signed up. Before the cruise we celebrated Passover, the Festival of Spring, in Israel. After the festival we set out on our cruise full of thoughts of geography and its delights, not the moral swamps of history. But History jumped out and ambushed us. History chooses often to show a face that’s beautiful or graceful. But behind the handsome face History is no more moral than the humans who make it.

 

 

 

So much, so general. To understand my particular timorousness, my constitutional alertness to risk, to possible harm, I need to insert a lengthy parenthesis: I’ve spent a lifetime in health; I grew up in a doctor’s house. In childhood I’d open to a knocking at our front door and before me I’d find the milkman holding his bleeding fingers (his horse had bit him!) or the man with his forearm in a tourniquet (a snake had bit him). From earliest days I knew the reality of savage misadventure. From earliest days I feared harm coming to me or to my loved ones. In time I went into Medicine in my own right and ever since I’ve walked those fearful paths of human hazard. All that has changed over the decades has been the measure of breadth and depth. I care more broadly and I care more deeply.

 

 

 

 

In the late seventies when my children were still small I knocked on the door of an old farmhouse that stood distinctive among the modern houses surrounding it. The area had been covered in orchards only a generation earlier. I asked the owner if he’d sell me his house.

It’s not for sale, he said, smiling in surprise. But as you’re here I’ll show you around.

The house was everything I imagined – high ceilings, large rooms, shady verandahs, grounds overgrown with fruit trees and vines. And there, lying beneath a cast iron trapdoor the owner showed me a cavernous cellar, its walls lined with bottles of wine.

Would you consider selling it? – I persisted.

Not likely. Why do you want it?

I like everything. Most of all, the cellar.

Are you a wine enthusiast?

Not really. Thanks for showing me around.

 

 

 

I left him my phone number against the day he might change his mind and we parted. I drove past that house every morning on my way to work and again every evening when I returned. And every time I passed I thought of that wine cellar and how it might keep my children safe in the event of a nuclear war.

 

 

 

 

Forty years on I still search for a shelter, but now it must be large enough to protect not just my children, but their children and their spouses, as well as our extended families, and everyone I know. And everyone I don’t know. All, I find, are my children.

 

 

 

So it is I find myself vulnerable when I contemplate History’s reality. T S Eliot suggests I’m not alone: Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

As the years pass, as my loved little ones enter a world that can be hard, as I see them multiply and grow, as I see them stumble; as I look upon those suffering adults (who in reality are still children), who come to doctors who cannot cure their loneliness, their confusion, their fears; as our planet heats up and I see how fellow species perish; at all these trembling times I look about me for salve. I listen for the still, small voice, I watch, I search for acts of kindness or courage.

 

 

 

 

I need to preserve belief. I look for signs that we humans are good. In the course of refereeing the endless, internal moral wrestling match conducted in my mind between human goodness and badness, I’ve been surprised by the use I’ve found in the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. The poet had struggles of his own. In much of his poetry the older Yeats struggles with the arbitrary hardness of experience. He yearns for life’s lovely fullness, he’s baffled by disappointing reality: 


Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance

 

 

Yeats concludes that old men are alive to this reality and it can drive them mad:

 

Observant old men know it well;
And when they know what old books tell,
And that no better can be had,
Know why an old man should be mad.

 

 

 

 

And so it came to pass that Annette and I stopped at Santorini and at Mykonos, then in Athens. In all these places we kept a fraternal eye open for Jews, alive or dead. The dead predominated. The Lonely Planet mentioned an ancient synagogue in Santorini but gave no details.  We never found it.

In Mykonos, no sign, but no matter: the beauty, the sunblissed radiance was all, and it sufficed.

 

 

 

 

We phoned the synagogue in Athens. No you can’t just visit, said the voice on the telephone. You need to send us an image of your passport and your email and we’ll let you know. We did all that and the voice said we could come. Be here at eleven, said the voice. Time was short, the bus line we needed ran both ways and we had no idea which was the correct one. Passers by offered confident, clear and contradictory directions, so we took a cab.

 

 

 

 

 

Sinagoga? – said the driver. I take you close, but to Sinagoga I cannot arrive. It is closed.

The driver dropped us and pointed somewhere indistinct. We looked around, sighted a narrow street whose entry was obstructed by barriers and bollards, and we made our way. Standing in the cobbled roadway we could make out two sinagoga. On our left a contemporary-looking structure declared itself Beth Shalom, the House of Peace. On our right stood a modest, older structure, seeming to shrink from our gaze. This was EtzChaim, the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life would remain closed to us. The House of Peace would open to us, carefully, ever so carefully, under armed guard.

 

 

 

 

From a booth stepped a fit-looking, youngish man wearing a handgun at his hip. A colleague, also young, also armed, eyed us closely from the booth. We stated our names and business, showed passports and won a smile. Yes, we expect you. But do not go in now. After thirty minutes you enter. Please now walk to the gardens at the end of the street, the Holocaust memorial gardens.

 

 

 

We walked fifty metres and found ourselves in a small area of scrubby shrubbery. High on a skinny pole a notice read, The Holocaust Memorial in Athens. Low to the ground a piece of creamy rock said nothing, but next to it burned a Yahrzeit (memorial) Candle. Close by, on a bronze panel were lines in Hebrew I recognised from Lamentations:

 

Righteous is He, our Lord:

Hear, now, all peoples

And see my pain –

My maidens, my young men

Have gone into captivity

 

 

 

Tucked behind another shrub, closer to the footpaths and plainer to the sight of passing Athenians, we found a steel plaque attached to a block of marble. It read:

 

Pause a while as you pass by,

Close your eyes and remember.

Remember the time when here or near here,

Men, women, children – our own fellow creatures –

Congregated in peace and trust, only to be arrested, humiliated, deported and murdered in Camps that shall forever shame our civilization.

Because they were Jewish, six million people

were denied the right to be free, happy, to hope,

to smile, to pray and finally, the right to live.

Remember them, their anguish and their death.

Do not recoil at such horror; do not descend into despair at man’s inhumanity to man.

Just remember. For by remembering we honourtheir deaths, and we save them from dying again – in oblivion.

 

 

Elie Wiesel

 

For the Holocaust Memorial in Athens, May 2016.

 

 

 

(2016! – was Wiesel still living? We checked; he died two months after the stone was set. Were these words the dying testimony of Elie Wiesel – he who embodied for my generation the anguish, the loss, the surviving remnant?) Standing in this broader street, bathed in Mediterranean sunshine, with heads bowed, we sighed and sighed again.

 

 

 

 

The guards said we could go in now. Entering Beth Shalom we found we were not the only visitors. A rabbi addressed a group of thirty young people. He showed them the Ark, the Torah scrolls, the various ritual implements. These were university students, enrolled in a subject of a vaguely cultural nature. This would be a surface encounter only, a fleeting crossing of intersecting orbits. Unless the students were, whether by chance or by design, to follow the cobbled path and to pause in the shrubbery and to absorb the words of Ecclesiastes and Wiesel. Or will the students gravitate perhaps to a neofascist group named Golden Dawn which already commands seven percent of the popular vote in Greece?

 

 

 

 

Hidden away in a narrow street elsewhere in Athens we found the Jewish Museum of Greece. Behind gates of steel, guarded by cameras and electronics, up a narrow flight of steps, a watchful person examined our passports and our faces before admitting us. Inside, poignant relics told their stories of Jews who found shelter from vengeful Christendom in these formerly Ottoman places. In time the tides of history turned, and turned again; the Turk retreated, independent Greece arose, Italian Fascists invaded, succeeded by genocidal Nazis. The War against the Allies might well be lost, but the War against the Jews must still be prosecuted. With feverish haste, even as the Nazis retreated from the Allies, they hunted out local Jews for deportation. Communities of great antiquity, some of them older than Christianity, faced their end. Before the War Greece’s Jews numbered around 80,000, with the greatest population in Thessaloniki. By the end of the War about 10,000 remained alive. Why did these thousands survive, how did they survive? The Museum held answers to these questions, answers that surprised and cheered us.

 

 

 

 

Well before the War, Greek Orthodox clergy and orthodox Jewish Rabbis were befriending each other. When the Nazis arrived, late in 1943, the cross-faith ties held strong. Across the Greek Church, priests, known as Metropolitans, acted to protect and save entire Jewish communities. Upon the eve of deportations from Thessaloniki, the supreme cleric Archbishop Damaskinos was about to undergo throat surgery. Putting off his operation, he wrote to the German commanders, begging clemency for the Jews in the name of Christian mercy. He rushed to the puppet Prime Minister of Greece bearing open letters from priests, from the Bar Association, from the Academy and the University of Athens, and from the Actors’ Guild, all in support of Greece’s Jews. 

 

 

 

 

In all, twenty-eight institutions of civil society in  Greece pressed the PM to act. In the face of this pressure he did intercede, albeit without success.

 

 

 

 

All over Greece Nazi commanders ordered local priests and mayors immediately to create lists of all local Jews in preparation for imminent deportation. In town after town, in island after island, priests resisted, delayed and deceived the Nazis, while urging Jews to hide or flee, to change their names, to affect Christianity, or to join the partisans.  Delay by even a single day saved many. Priests urged their parishioners to hide Jews, to keep safe their treasures, to pass Jews on to the Free Greek Army.

 

 

 

 

In this way the Resistance spirited Chief Rabbi Barzilai into a succession of mountain villages of increasing remoteness and inaccessibility. The Nazis were desperate to find Barzilai, but he was kept safe.

 

 

 

 

On the island of Zakynthos the Germans arrived and demanded of the Mayor and the Priest the usual complete list of all the three hundred or so Jews, all their possessions, all their addresses. The list was to be handed in, complete, within twenty-four hours. The two officials handed in a list with but two names – those of the priest and the mayor. All of Zakynthos’ Jews were saved. And what of Luth, the German Commander? He never pursued the matter. For his pains Luth was replaced by the Nazis, arrested and detained.

 

 

 

 

I read all these testimonies, affirmed by rescuers and confirmed by the rescued, and a great swelling of thankfulness rose within me. I felt grateful to the brave Metropolitans of Athens, of Volos, of Zakynthos, of Arta, of Dimitriada, of Didimoteicho, of Thessaloniki, of Thiva and Livadia. Also of Ioannina, of Corfu and Paxi, of Corinth and of Halkida, Xirohori and the Northern Sporades.

 

 

 

 

Were all Jews saved? Clearly ninety percent perished. But he who saves but a single life, saves a whole world. In the case of this tearful visitor to a tiny museum, those Christians had saved my whole world.

 

 

 

 

Some days later our ship stopped briefly at Chania, a pretty port city on the island of Crete. We had read how the Nazis had captured the entire Cretan Jewish population of nearly 2000, and herded them aboard a ship bound for the mainland. A British warship, recognizing the vessel as German, torpedoed and sank it, with the loss of all who were aboard. After two thousand years of stubborn survival had Jewish life on Crete been snuffed out? Almost, but not entirely: we had read of a small synagogue that had been found in Chania and restored by American Jewish donors. Trip Advisor spoke of poignant services conducted by the tiny numbers of local Jews (returning descendants of Cretan Jews who’d been absent from the island at the precise time of the deportation) as well as the odd Shabbat visitor.

 

 

 

 

Annette and I resolved to find the synagogue. Once again the taxi driver said: To the sinagoga I cannot arrive. I drive and then you walk. It is close. It is down there – an airy wave – and then more down, leftwards. We went down there, and more down, we turned leftwards, and we followed a winding little cobbled street of shops and cafes and B and B’s. Time flew, embarkation hour neared and our faint hopes flickered.

 

 

 

 

 

Abruptly Hebrew lettering among the stones announced our arrival at the Etz Chaim Synagogue.

Since its restoration Etz Chaim has suffered two separate terrorist attacks. Expecting high securitywe fished for our passports and crossed the threshold hesitantly. Seated in a sunny little garden courtyard a cheerful man with a cheerful rubicund face waved away our documents and waved us in. Welcome, come in, please look around – through there is the synagogue, beyond it the mikve, and in the rooms, many documents and records.  

 

 

 

 

We had twenty minutes for twenty centuries. Unforgettable minutes they were. Unforgotten the two thousand who drowned, unforgotten the two thousand years. As we left we bought a cookery book of old Jewish Greek recipes from the young woman attendant. Her English was precise, her accent not Greek. We asked her, Where do you come from?

Austria.

You are Jewish?

Christian. A smile.

Why are you here?

Because my nation, my people have never acknowledged, never repented. Austria today chooses to be a victim of the Nazis.

What are you doing here?

I research, I document the Jewish life here. From our small church young graduates travel to many small communities, where each of us spends one year.

 

 

 

 

One whole year! One year of the twenty or so of a bright young life. Humbling, inspiring, a salve.

 

 

 

I must have arrived in ‘the Ancient World’ with a nasty case of Weltenschmerz. I had not realized its severity. I had not anticipated relief.

 

 

 

 

I have been writing these recollections in the remote northern town of Broome where my grandfather and his three brothers came to dive for pearls. Here, unexpectedly, they found other Jews who came together at Festivals to express their remnant Jewishness.

 

 

 

 

When I am free of work duties at the hospital I run along the endless miles of Cable Beach. In my ears recorded poetry plays. Yeats reminds me I am not alone, not the only old man that the world might make mad.

 

 

 

 

Back at the hospital a young nurse asks me where I’m from. Where am I from? I’m from Melbourne, I’m from Leeton, I’m from Broome, from England and France – and before that from Poland and Russia. And in the end, which is the beginning, I’m from Israel. In return the young woman says, my family comes from Holland. My grandmother was five when the Germans came. Her parents took in a Jewish family and hid them. Oma was only five but she never said a word. Nazis moved in and out while the Jewish guests stayed safe in the attic.  

 

 

 

 

“Nature, bad, base and blind,

Dearly thou canst be kind,

There, dearly then, dearly

I’ll cry thou canst be kind.”

 

(Gerard Manley Hopkins)