Keeping Quiet

A young poet friend shared a poem with me. Gabriel Garcia Marquez declared the poet – Pablo Neruda – to be the twentieth century’s “greatest poet in any language.”

Such an accolade claims plenty poetic licence: does Mister Marquez read Sanskrit? Korean? Swahili? Arrernte?

Never mind: I think Mister Marquez is a good judge.

What is this power of the artfully selected offering of words?

This power that rivals music?

Read the poem; best of all, have someone read it aloud to you while you sit with your eyes comfortably closed:

Keeping Quiet Pablo Neruda

 

Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language; let’s stop for one second, and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines; we would all be together in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea would not harm whales and the man gathering salt would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire, victories with no survivors, would put on clean clothes and walk about with their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. Life is what it is about; I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go.

Imagine a World

Imagine a world without i-phones.

Imagine we lost our i-phones.

 

Imagine a world in which the President of the United States of America lost his i-phone.

Such a state of affairs might easily be.

Just imagine the President decided last week to cosy up to the Jews.

Such a thing might easily be: the previous week it was the anti-Semites.

So the Pres attends a Rosh Hashanah meal.

At that meal everyone is given a slice of apple.

All hold the apple in their hand and dip the apple in honey.

All intone: ‘may it be your will that you renew unto us a good year and a sweet one.’

 

The Pres watches and follows suit. The honey pot passes to him and he dips his Apple well and truly in the honey.

As is the wont of the incumbent of the White House he decides then to send off a tweet. Just as he did after meeting the Saudi king, declaring he had overcome Islamist terrorism, he now purposes to tell the world he’s given the Jews a good and sweet year.

 

But the thing with Apple is their device no longer works after a honey dipping.

The Apple Warranty states explicitly: ‘Apple Corp offers no warrant of service if the device be dipped into any fluid extruded from the rear of a bee.’

 

In the untweeting silence America is lost. For her

president cannot tweet.

 

The Pres finds himself impotent to provoke North Korea.

The Pres cannot encourage racists.

He cannot insult patriots.

He cannot communicate ill will.

He is powerless to wedge.

He cannot wage war against the climate of our planet.

 

The President remains, of course, incapable of coherent argument; and incapable sustaining any argument longer than 40 abusive characters.

 

A world in which our President presides without his i-phone is a different world.

It is a better world in which we can look forward to a good and a sweet year.

 

 

Flea Market

A hazy day in Jaffa. The Old City is full of blind turns and all turns are the right ones and no crooked street or alleyway disappoints. Galleries abound and every one repays our curiosity. The blaze of sun and the blue of sea have penetrated the local artists like an inoculum. Helpless, they turn out vivacious works bursting with colour. Over a number of hours we come across nothing that is dull or derivative or second rate.
 

Every so often we tumble from a narrow and twisting descent into an open space crammed with broken bric a brac. By one such space, a dusty shop manned by a torpid, pear-shaped man sells old art works of varying mediocrity and unvarying neglect. Here in this luminous place I come across a stark photograph. The image in black and white shows a cinematic scene that surely predates all cinema. In the picture a large man in a formal black suit stands at one side of a square like the Jaffa square at our shoulder. He faces a group of men who wear white suits. These men stand in a rank with rifles raised and trained at the man in black.     

 

We are about to witness an execution. As witnesses we cannot escape the victim’s aloneness. As witnesses we become complicit in something awful, something we cannot comprehend. The photographer has caught the moment, snapping the scene from a vantage above and behind the riflemen. They wear hats that would previously have been white like their suits, but the white is soiled. On closer view the suits do not appear pristine. The faces of the riflemen cannot be seen.

 

Our simple sympathy for the one, who, unarmed faces the many, gives way to complexity. The soiled suits and grimy hats hint at long labour in the field. The raised guns of the executioners rest on slack, uneven shoulders; these weary men are not ready to fire. Do they identify with their victim? War-weary, do they wonder whether when the guns will be trained on them? Do they perhaps reverence the man in the black suit? The victim who stands uncowed, the man who stares at his killers, the human who was sufficiently free only that morning to dress himself with such sober dignity looks older than the riflemen. Is he the father of one of them who fights for an opposing force in some civil war? Is he a burgher, or perhaps (as he too is hatted) even their rabbi?

  

I gaze at the photograph that captures so much. It stands loosely affixed to its frail wooden frame, grimy with age, eloquent of truth. And, importantly to me, the truth here is not easy. Fertile with hints, arid of certainty, the photo invites enquiry. How long has the image waited for its interlocutor?

 

I know I want this photograph that has so much to say to me. Can I afford it? Where in our artcrowded house will my wife allow me to hang such a miserable scene? How will I safely bring that frail and awkward thing home to Australia?

 

My granddaughter dwells in sunshine. She wonders, ‘Why on earth would you want a picture like that?

‘Why not, darling?’

‘It’s cruel, Saba.’

‘What if the man had to be punished, darling?’

‘Saba, do you believe in capital punishment?’ – she shakes her blond head, shocked by her grandfather’s response.

‘No darling, I don’t. I don’t believe in easy answers. And war asks hard questions, this picture asks hard questions.’

Another shake: ’ What, Saba? You know they make mistakes!’

 

I look around. Here is the photo, here the dusty premises, open, apparently abandoned; where is the vendor? I race through the doorway into an adjacent shop with my breathless enquiry. ‘Next door’, says that vendor. Slingshot back to the first premises I collide with the cushioning belly of Homer Simpson. No it’s not Homer. The face above the torso is stubbled grey.

‘How much is this picture?’

The man looks at my shoes, running shoes, tourist shoes. He calculates for a while, silently measuring, calibrating opportunity and innocence. He names a sum of astonishing modesty. ‘Fifty?’ – I ask, incredulous.

‘Alright, forty shekels.’

I hand the man his forty pieces of silver.

 

Hours later my mind floats and thuds to earth. Another sunny outdoor scene, one I witnessed myself in 1995. The location of the latter scene from real life was unambiguous: in the grounds of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, I paused while ascending a slope to read the inscription beneath a cattle truck perched at an angle on a section of rail line.

 

I read a Hebrew text explaining it was in such trucks that millions were crammed during their journey of some days to the extermination camps. There they died, ‘al Kiddush Hashem’, in sanctification of the Name.

 

Labouring up the slope towards me an older couple, aged, I guessed, in their seventies, puffed and sweated. They took a breather at my side. The man, plump and snowy haired, read the inscription and scowled. He grunted angrily. Between breaths he managed to declare: ‘There was no sanctification. I was there. I know!’ In the face of that knowing I stood silent. The man’s wife, younger than he, tried to calm him. Turning to me she apologised; ‘He always gets upset here. He always comes here on the first morning in Jerusalem. Always here in the morning, then the Wall.’

 

By now the man had recovered breath. ‘Nothing holy there. Nothing…’ He looked up: ‘Except once. One time only I saw sanctification. I was in the camp, one of hundreds, all of us there, all hassidim, with our Rebbe. The SS officer ordered soldiers to strip the rabbi. Violently, they tore all his clothes off him, that holy, holy man. His hat they threw down. We looked away from the rabbi, we would not see his disgrace. The SS man screamed, ‘Any one who turns away will be shot!’

We knew they would shoot. We knew because they shot anyone who would not look while they hanged our people in the ghetto.

 

The officer screamed orders to the soldiers who raised their guns ready to shoot our Rebbe. The rabbi turned to the officer. We heard his voice: ‘Will you give me one minute to bless my people?’ The officer laughed. He mocked the Rebbe. ‘You want a minute? Have two minutes old man.’

 

The Rebbe turned away from the officer and the soldiers. He turned to us, his hassidim. He raised his arms and he called out, ‘’How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” Then the soldiers shot him while we watched.’

 

I remember the year of that visit precisely. Two days later an Israeli patriot shot dead his country’s prime minister.

 

A Christmas Story

Every December for a few years now a friend has written to me and to everyone she knows requesting donations so she can purchase gifts at Christmas for people who have found asylum in our country. I send my small donation, very aware of its smallness. Presently my friend sends me – and all her circle of donor people – a photo of the gifts our donations have amassed. I am duly amazed: for in total they are not small.My friend was raised in a home where the ambient Evangelical Christianity weighed heavily. In time and in pain my friend left the family code behind. And so it is that my lapsed Evangelical friend and her many friends – including this unlapsed Jewish friend – send Christmas presents to a bunch of Muslim refuge seekers.

Christmas was never a part of my upbringing. When as a child , inevitably I learned the story of the nativity, I was moved. “No room at the inn” stayed in my mind as the saddest phrase, as a reproach. The inn in which I live is a Four Star establishment called Australia. There is room at this inn, lots of room.

In this state of mind I post the following children’s story. It feels appropriate to the season of goodwill. This is excerpted from a forthcoming book* provisionally titled ‘A Threefold Cord’, to be published on-line in 2016 by Hybrid Publishers. I have read the book and I like it. I commend it to your children: it is ideal for shared reading between an adult and a child aged from eight to twelve years.

This story begins with a five year old girl named Samara mustering her courage and her crumbs of English to tell her story to her Aussie friends, Jennifer, Nystagmus and Snoth:
“This story, my story. Today I say story. I English say.”
Samara spoke eagerly, her face serious and excited at the same time.
Her friends of the Threefold Cord were surprised to hear shy little Samara speaking like this. They listened without interrupting.
Samara stood up and screwed her eyes closed for a moment. She wanted to be brave and she needed to think hard, to search for every English word.
After a moment she started: “Mans with guns come our village. We family very frighten. Soldiers shoot many shootings. Father’s brother run outside house. He praying. Soldiers shoot guns. They angry because I girl, I going school. They think big mistake, they think Father brother is my father. They shoot father brother. He fall down, he not move, he many blood. Soldiers laughing, go away. Father hold his brother, he say Ahmed! Ahmed! He say Ahmed, soldiers shooting wrong man. Must shoot me, not brother.
Ahmed not answer. Father crying, his face on his brother face. Mother crying, my brother crying, Samara crying. Soldiers send bombings onto house. House is breaking. Is very noise, is very frighten.
Then Father hiding us under house. When is dark outside, Father bring donkey. He putting Mother, brother, Samara on donkey. Father walking. We riding, Father walking all night. We come far village, we hiding, we sleeping in day at Aunty house. And in night we riding, walking, we hiding when hear soldiers in night. Always we hearing shootings, bombings, we very quiet, Father giving donkey eating so donkey mouth have food, donkey not speak soldiers.”
Samara paused and blinked. The friends saw drops of water at the corners of Samara’s eyes. The child took a deep breath and spoke again. “I tell about more bad mans. Not gun mans, truck mans. Man say Father, you give money, I take you in truck. Father give man many money, man put family in truck in night. We say goodbye donkey. Brother cry, he loving donkey.
Truck go. Truck stop. Truck man say truck broken, not go now. Father pay money, truck man take money. He say, Truck not work. You walking. Sorry for truck.
We walking, walking, no donkey, no truck.
We come new country, no soldiers shooting. We come big, big water, shiny water like silver. Man say father, You come boat. I taking you family America. You pay money. Is also bad mans. He take all father money, none left now, we get in boat, fast fast, much peoples comes in little boat, such much peoples, boat very crowd. Is dark.
Boat start to move. I am excite and I am too fright. All peoples in boat very fright because big wind and big black cold water. Water come in boat, all peoples scream, cry, cry, scream.
Mother hold Samara and brother, Father hold too, boat is jump, jump, fall, fall, water is in boat, we very fright.
I praying, mother is pray, brother, father – all pray to Allah:please save us, save us please.
Boat stop, water push boat on side, push boat on other side, peoples falling on floor, fall on peoples. Mother, father holding tight children,
Big big water come and boat fall over, all peoples fall out, we all in water, wind is loud. We call Father! Mother! – no-one not hearing. I not hear voice, I looking, is everything black.
I not swimming, we family is not know swim, in our country is desert, is mountain, not is big water.
I look father…”
Samara stopped again and blinked. She blinked again, and a third time. She breathed deeply, opened her mouth, closed it. Finally she produced a small voice: “I look brother, not see.
I look mother, not see.
Father say Samara, you get up on top this wood, you hold tight. Father is lift me, I am hold tight, father head under water. He come up, he not close now, he under water.
I not… I not see him again more. I not see no-ones. I hold wood, I crying, I cold, I not family. Family is gone.
I pray Allah, I praying Allah, you bring back Samara family. If family not live, I not live. Allah, You take Samara paradise. I not family, I not want live.
But all time I holding wood like father saying me.”
The child shivered as if she felt again the cold water. She said: “Soon I say end of Samara Story. Big ship come with big light. I see water, water, empty, all empty. Not peoples, only many water. Man taking me in big ship, coming Australia. Man is good man, Australia man. But Samara alone, I no-one have. I in Christmas Island, I in Australia, Samara sad, sad all days.
Red Cross say they try find family. Maybe in one country, not Australia country.
Then one day you friends come Refugee place.” A small smile as Samara looked from Jennifer to Nystagmus to Snoth. She touched the face of all three.”You tell me many story, you teach me speak English. Samara not alone now.”
 
 
* the author of ‘A Threefold Cord’ is Howard Goldenberg

Flannelled Fools at the Wicket

We live in historic times. Australia humiliated! Slaughtered! Ten batsmen dismissed in the shortest space of time, surviving the fewest balls in all Test Match history! It happened overnight against the English whom we expected to slaughter, to humiliate, to crush. We had announced those intentions, declared them as good as facts.

 
The Test Cricket contests between Australia and England – termed reverently, ‘The Ashes’, for reasons as fatuous as they are imperishable – excite citizens and journalists of both countries inordinately. Five test matches, each of up to five days’ duration, hold the attention and the hopes of tens of millions at opposite ends of the globe. A strange set of phenomena, these, phenomena that speak seriously to the human condition.
 
What is the human condition? Broadly speaking we human animals are born and we die. In the interval between our beginning and end we live. Our animality drives us to compete, to form packs, while our humanity creates consciousness of self and pursuit of transcendence.
 
Like other animals we play. Alone and in groups, dolphins play, both with fellow dolphins and with humans. Lambs plashing on their dewy grasses play, gamboling and skipping. Foals and adult horses alike gallop and canter in groups for no other reason than they can. 
Humans play too.
 
Watch children as they proceed from A to B. Unconsciously, automatically, universally, they wander, they saunter, they skip, stride, jump and run. They do so because they can. Apparently they must.
 
In respect of play, adults remain children. Play rehearses animal needs: hence running races, wrestling, jumping and leaping contests, swimming contests. Primates learn the use of implements. Fencing as sport exemplifies the primitive contest with the evolved use of an implement, in this case an implement for slaughter, modified for play. At some early time in our story humans invented or discovered the ball. Arguably the ball surpasses the wheel as the singular development in this story.
 
Early in the story of warfare, which closely corresponds to the story of humans, the idea emerged of the champion, the representative best skilled in slaughter. The champion went out to battle on behalf of the tribe; if your champion slew the opposing champion, your tribe enslaved the opponent tribe.
 
Test Cricket survives as the recognisable fusion of these elements. When English persons wearing white flannels, and using sticks and a ball, compete for five days in fierce opposition to eleven Australian persons in similar attire, all twenty-two play out ancient animal and human impulses.
Preserved in the game are ancient rituals: fierce facial expressions, face painting, taunts and challenges, insults and oaths; violence in the flinging of the ball, in the plying of the willow; elegance, in batting poetry, in fielding as in batting the highest graces of dance; among players exhibitions of courage, hubris, cunning, strength, nimbleness, speed and deception; among the supporters, transcendence, transports of joy, of grief, of shame, of pride.
 
With the unbearable recent exception of Phillip Hughes, no-one dies. As in chess, the highly comparable very slow game of transmuted murder, cricket fulfills our animal need for mayhem, without shedding blood. It was Wellington (‘the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’) who pointed, albeit from a different angle, to the relation between games and war.
 
In the present Ashes series, we have SLAUGHTER! HUMILIATION! TRIUMPH! We have the march of the superlatives, but nothing new. Nothing at all.

Happy Breathing

Earlier this year I wrote of the man who, when a youthful slave in a Nazi slave camp, wished he’d been sent to Auschwitz. He’d been envious at that time of the greater food rations allowed to slaves at Auschwitz. When I met him, seventy years after liberation, the man was shackled to an oxygen cylinder.
We bumped into each other again today. “Where’s the oxygen tank, Jan?” The skull that is Jan’s face split into a grin: “I am supposed to use oxygen sixteen hours a day. Outside of home I am free. I enjoy my free hours. My wife and I will drive sometimes to the city. We walk around, we are away from home longer sometimes than eight hours, sometimes ten.” Big skull-splitting smile. Big lung-filling gulps of ordinary ambient air.
“I see you are watching my breathing, Doctor. I like breathing. It is easier, of course, with oxygen.” Jan leaned forward, confidingly, sharing one of life’s large jokes: “You know, Doctor, oxygen can be addictive…
“I used to smoke, but never heavily, and I stopped many years before now. Yet my lungs are quite wrecked. Our greatest teacher is our body. Of course we ignore it , we abuse it. Of course life is not even. It has its up and its down. But you accept… I have not any complaints.”
“We have our little span of life, we humans. Surprising that we humans rule the planet. Insects of course have been here first, well before the human. The insects are our seniors. They should rule the planet. They would do a better job.” When Jan uses words like ‘job’, he soften the hard letter ’j’ so the word comes out as ‘chob.’ ‘The insects doing a better chob’ – delivered with the Jan smile and punctuated by the heaving of the shattered chest – becomes a fanciful idea of unexpected weight.
‘’First we had ‘The War to End All Wars’. Soon after we finished that one we started to prepare for the next, which was worse. Now of course, we see them preparing for the Third.”
“You think so, Jan?”
“It is inevitable. They are grooming for it. It will happen because Man’s stupidity does not end.”
“How did you come to settle in Australia, Jan?”
“In 1944 I made myself useful to the Americans. I spoke, of course, Czech, and naturally Hungarian, also ‘Cherman’. The Americans in ‘Chermany’ needed intelligence about the Jerries they held. My languages were helpful. And so I improved my English. And the Americans paid me.”
“I returned to my own country, to my city, and the Communists were there. They decided I was interesting to them. Some kind person told the Commies my family used to have shops. So we were Capitalists. I was nineteen and the Commies decided I was an Enemy of the People. This had a familiar look, an uncomfortable look. I had been an enemy before. Also some helpful Jerry told the Commies I was slippery, an escaper. A friend said, ‘They will come for you tomorrow morning at four.’ So I left. I took a train.”
“To Vienna?”
“No, they closed that border. I went East, to Bratislava. From there, west again, to Prague.”
Another grin of bones. Throughout Jan’s discourse, in which his breezy phrases alternated with king tides of respiration, Jan stopped frequently to smile, either at his own serpentine cleverness or at the great joke of existence. “So I made my way from Prague to the border, which of course, our Commie friends patrolled. So I waited until dark and I watched and found a place in the wire furthest from the sentry posts. And I went under the wire.
And I left Comrade Stalin behind me forever. I came to Australia and visited Sydney.”
Jan’s wife, who knows these stories, who has heard them now for longer than the six decades of their marriage, listens actively, nodding, beaming, a happy audience. At this point she reminded Jan: “That’s where we met.”
“Yes, I met this girl but I did not settle then in Sydney. The government was sending men to the Snowy River but I went north and became a cane cutter.”
Jan is short and slight. In his old age he is bent like a banana. Work on the canefields is tough for the most robust and the humid heat is brutal. It is hard to picture Jan at this work.
“On the coast I saw a traditional Pacific Islander sailing boat, hollow, with an outrigger. My own country has no coast. I decided I would learn to sail. With an Aboriginal friend I found a tall straight tree and chopped it down and hollowed it with an axe. I made a boat and I sailed it to Sydney. I stopped here and there to work when I needed money. I stopped further south and there was this same girl and I took her to South Mole Island…”
Jan embarked for Sydney on December 26, 1951. He arrived in Sydney on December 26, 1953. Jan enjoys recalling precise dates. There were newsreel cameramen filming his arrival. “I was quite famous.”
Jan spoke of his work laying railway tracks, of his initiative in reinforcing curved sections to prevent derailments. The smiles flashed, signalling pride in serious work perfomed well. He married ‘the girl’ and they settled in sugar cane country where they raised red pawpaws and four children Jan spoke of his generations, of his ‘tribe of fifty.’
“You have fifty descendants, Jan?”
“Yes, they number fifty; children and grandchildren, and grandgrandchildren. Some from my children, some from step-grandchildren: it is not different, all the same, all my tribe. When we come together, all are the same. All are one.”
As I sat and listened to Jan, our heads bowed close to allow his soft words to breach my hard ears, I tasted his ideas of peace that ends to soon, of insects that should rule; I reflected how a life that started in Old Europe – “I am a relic the old Austro-Hungarian Empire” – flowered in this new country, how a sole person now has a tribe of half an hundred. I thought of my grandchildren and his ‘grandgrandchildren’, all of whom who must grow in this world. I thought of Jan’s eighty-eight years of living and breathing and smiling. Somehow this spirited man radiated a joy that quite defeated glooms past and pushed away gloom to come.

We Don’t Know their Names

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.