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.
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?
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)