Helen is ninety-three now. When she left Danzig in 1938, she was twelve. Every one of Helen’s grandchildren has quizzed her about Danzig for their roots projects and none of them has got much out of her. No happy memories, not a single friendship, nothing pleasant, Helen speaks of the place bleakly. Now adults, some of the grandchildren urge their grandmother to travel with them to visit her childhood places in Danzig. Helen rejects the idea categorically. No, she says dully, there’ll be nothing there. Nothing to see. No point.
Helen didn’t reach her present great age in such radiant good health by negativity. She’s creative and lively, she’s joyful company, fully engaged in her life and in the lives of all her generations here. It’s as if life began for Helen only on leaving Danzig. Australia embraced Helen and she embraced Australia. Helen’s Danzig was, it seems, a place of no life.
Sometimes Helen went to school in Danzig. Sometimes she didn’t go. She’d stay home where she wouldn’t be teased and frightened and humiliated. She’d stay home to feel safe. We asked her once, Didn’t you have any gentile friends?
I thought I did, she said. There was one girl. She was kind to us.
You need to understand. Mum helped Dad in the shop, every day. They needed someone to look after us girls, me and Mary. They found a family in the country who wanted their girl to move to the city, where she’d have greater opportunities. So she came. She learned to cook the kosher way. Mum taught her to sew and embroider. She became a daughter alongside us.
She worked in our house, helping Mum. Sometimes she took us to her own house in the village. We ate fresh bread there, with lard. We never had bread like that at home. When she married, we had the ceremony in our house. Mary and I were her flower girls. Then her husband joined the Nazi Party. Our friend left us. You couldn’t work for Jews…
I never learned anything in Danzig. School there was terrible. It wasn’t a place to learn.
Last night Helen put down the book she’d been reading, Her face was ashen. I looked and I saw ninety-three years of pain. She spoke: That’s a terrible story.
I asked what it was she’d been reading. She showed me the book:
‘Idiots First’, short stories by Bernard Malamud. The book belongs to me. I know some of the stories. I asked Helen, What story were you reading?
‘The German Refugee’. That’s a terrible story.
She spoke slowly: the word ‘terrible’ never had so many syllables before.
I waited but Helen added nothing. Her beautiful face slumped, her features collapsed. I searched her face for tears. Nothing. She looked down at nothing.
I held her for a while. The old lady grasped my arm, hard, as one might who is holding on. I asked her, What’s the story about?
It’s the story of a man from Danzig. He escapes, but he takes his life. Helen shook her head slowly. After what he loses in Danzig, he can’t live.
After a time she spoke again. I had an uncle in Danzig. He was very prosperous. We called him Uncle David. He had a mistress in Danzig. She wasn’t Jewish. When the Nazis came, she told Uncle she was breaking it off. It wasn’t safe. She ended it.
Uncle David hanged himself.
Helen stopped speaking. She looked at me, a child of twelve, wonderstruck by the evil of the world, remembering her uncle, remembering all the lost uncles. Out of her depth once more,
in her sea of sorrow.
A week or so ago this blog wailed about the darkness of the news, the darkness at the heart of man. Two readers responded.
One referred to my wailing as my de profundis, an expression I’d seen bobbing along on the high cultural current over my decades, passing by unpassed. Now it came to me: from the depths. That rang a bell: David, warrior poet, king of ancient Israel, wrote a psalm,
min ha’ma’amakim, From the depths I called…’
Well, two answered my call.
From England, author, bloggish fruitcake maker and novelist Hilary Custance Green is writing her account of her father, a POW in the same camp as Weary Dunlop. He was
one of many untrained medical orderlies who worked in the camp under Canadian surgeon Jacob Markovitz. She writes: “I used to weep continuously as I read these accounts, but I found a dreadful tendency to habituate to the misery and cruelty…”
Robert Hillman, Australian novelist and ghostwriter of lives in ghastly times and climes, sent an antidote:
“Dear Howard – I’ve read your De Frofundis, and your blog about the Richard Flanagan book. I’ll get that book, most certainly, after all you had to say about it. The De Profundis was wonderful in its sincerity, Howard. It’s what all of (us) want to say. But you actually said it. And yet, you know, thank God that there are people of courage and grace in the world who also have a say. I’ve just finished writing a book (‘The Wailing Song’) for a guy who served – most reluctantly – in the Iranian armed forces in the last two years of the Iran-Iraq war. A situation arose when his most senior officer made a mistake, failing to issue an order to 2500 men under his command to withdraw to a ceasefire position in the face of an Iraqi advance. My guy knew of the mistake, and after awful soul-searching, decided to issue the order himself. If he had not, those 2500 men would have been massacred by the vastly superior Iraqi force. Usurping the authority of a Colonel when you are no more than a humble corporal will almost certainly get you court-martialed and hanged in the Iranian army. My guy accepted that he would be hanged, but went ahead and issued the order anyway – he was circumstantially in a position to do so, without having his authority questioned. The men were saved, my guy wasn’t hanged, due to the difficulty the Colonel would have had in explaining his blunder. Its one of those existential situations, a moment of truth, when all that you hope about yourself and believe about yourself is suddenly up for testing: do you have the courage to die at the end of noose in order to save others? Will your life have any meaning if you find a way to duck out? It must be like being thrust into an arena, a bright light directed at you. Here’s your chance. Yes or no?”
I know that moment of moral choice. I know it from reading with growing dread Conrad’s Lord Jim. I read it in the dread of self-knowledge that I would not rise to that challenge. However, since the start of my sixth decade I have imagined that I might.
(Free advice: read ‘Joyful’, which I enthused over in this blog half a year ago. Hillman writes in his own and in many voices of those who struggle in these depths and of some who rise in them).