display inside the library doorway
I struggled inside self all day yesterday in a minor way. It takes a lot to make me turn the key in the car's ignition. Necessity only. Seven o'clock Monday evening at the library in Sparta a man talking of his experiences as a Polish Jew in his teens subject to the hatred of European Christians in the early 1940s. It was the ones identifying themselves Nazi actively, consciously terrorizing the Jews of Europe. The other Christians were complicit, not necessarily by aggressive action, but in the hatred. Europe still has some Jews, like North Carolina still has descendants of the Cherokee in the southwestern corner. Over a lifetime I've read quite a lot about the holocaust, have seen documentaries galore, read histories, memoirs, fiction, plays and poetry concerning the time. I've known a woman with the numbers tattooed on her arm and two men who were successful in their attempts to stay out of sight of Nazis and collaborators. One dyed his hair blonde. In the late 1960s I saw Peter Weiss's play in New York, The Investigation. It was script from trials in a German court 1964-1965, of 21 people active in the Auschwitz camp, 1941-1945. It was surely the most powerful stage or film performance of my life. I don't think there was ever a laugh, the theater was full, and it was Broadway. It was long. It amounted to witness after witness telling their experience at the will of the accused. Mournful is what it was. I was so empathetic with the Jewish people in that time of my life, still am, I identified with them in a very, very, very minor way that was a hundred percent major in my own feelings. In my college years I knew a great many Jews from working in the bookstore. Jews read books. Intelligent conversations I valued. People I valued, always will. I am of the belief that it is important the stories of that time be told, generation after generation, as long as hate continues to wither the human heart.
I questioned going to hear the man talk unto the last moment. Picked up the keys twenty-five minutes to seven and went out the door, leaving it open for Caterpillar, who was enjoying the outdoor air, to go in as she wills. I like allowing my pets their own will, as long as it's not dangerous, like chasing cars, biting. I like my dog or cat not to be a replica of my mind, but itself as much as possible. I find allowing my pets to be themselves much more interesting for me and for them than requiring obedience. In like manner, I want to be allowed to live my life by my own decisions within the realm of my control by decision making. Personal autonomy is what I call it. I believe it is important as a birthright, human, animal, bird, fish, reptile, bug, tree. I value it for myself and value it for others. I cannot with conscience deny for someone else what I value for myself. I cannot believe other people for whom an empathetic feeling is not even a consideration. I have a hard time believing somebody can run a knife down the belly of a deer corpse hanging by its back legs and watch the guts fall out. In my heart the animals have exactly the same value as we super-egoic humans. This aspect of my nature is where my empathetic attitude toward Jews comes from. It's the same with the Indians. They call themselves Indians. Why would I want to call them Native Americans? They're insulted by that. Indian means the enemy. It's not insulting; it's the truth. I feel the same toward the rabbit grazing by the side of the road. It starts, in my heart, with a belief I live by that all living beings are holy. I cannot believe people who claim alliance with a religion and a "belief" in God can be zealous about denying others a right to existence, by one's own individual will. When I say I can't believe them, I mean I never believe anything they say. They are liars living a lie. I see no truth in them. Herein is the core of why I have no use for religion. It's only good for its original purpose, power of the few over the many. Christendom gave itself to the dark side over Jews with zeal. Christians around the world didn't care what happened to the Jews same as they didn't care what happened in Rwanda. The photographs in LIFE magazine when I was in the 6th grade burnt tattoos into the child's brain. I still see them. I couldn't stop looking at them. I saw that each one of them had a life like I did, going along unconcerned, then a corpse on a pile because the Christians went nuts again.
I chose to drive to town to honor the man by listening to him. I wanted to hear his story. I've never heard anyone talk of his experiences in concentration camps. I've read, saw films, documentaries, but had never heard someone in person talk. Jews tend not to talk about Jewish matters with outsiders for an abundance of historical reasons, literally in the millions. He said that he spoke so those people whose lives had been destroyed by the worst among us would be remembered as valid and honorable persons in their autonomous selves. It took me back to being in the audience at Peter Weiss's play, seeing, hearing Hank Brodt tell in an hour his story it would take a lifetime to tell. He took me by association to a poem I looked up this morning by American poet, Anthony Hecht, from his book, The Hard Hours, the poem, "More Light! More Light!" The quotation marks are in the title. I'm sure it's easy to find online. It is the down and dirtiest, hardest to read of any poem in my limited experience. I can't even write out a brief few sentences to suggest what it's about. It's too horrid for me to repeat and I don't want to bring you down any more than I already have. It was the story of an atrocity, the kind that curls the toes, callouses the mind and bruises the heart. I'll put here the last verse.
No prayers or incense rose up in those hours
Which grew to be years, and every day came mute
Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,
And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.
This poem is as close as I have found in writing to the profound hopelessness and hatred as the Jewish people of Europe truly suffered. Hank Brodt is the name of the man talking at the library. I felt profound respect looking at him while he spoke of that time. The part that struck me deepest, I feel like, was speaking of the hatred received at every turn, only hatred, revulsion in other people's eyes. He didn't say it, but I was thinking, Christians. Even people who were friends before the furor. Only hate everywhere you turn. Not just you-piss-me-off hate, but murderous, I-want-to-see-you-dead and I could get away with killing you hate. I watched him as he talked, thinking, this is truly an honorable man. He survived the unspeakable, for no crime, and is able to speak it rationally. A woman I knew in Charleston with the numbers on her arm stayed home out of sight, never went anywhere. When her husband, a writer, Robert Marks, had visitors, she stayed in the kitchen and smoked cigarettes. I was thinking if Hank Brodt could let himself, he could drift into such a condition. It must be a constant mental effort to stay out of such a condition. I thought about asking at the end how it felt when you're taken up without recourse knowing there is no turning back. I didn't want to put him through it in his mind. I could have sat and had conversation with him for hours, but couldn't break through the crowd that piled in around him. My energy was gone and I was ready for bed. Parked here at the house, I opened the car door, sat sideways in the seat with feet on the ground, sat there and looked at the landscape across the road, the bright yellow asters in flower. Sat there and gazed without thought at the green bank without seeing it, like it was a stage background and nothing was happening on stage. I sat on the side of the seat feeling I could happily fall asleep sitting in the car's open doorway, take a little nap. It felt like my energy went away, all but that needed to make it to the house far enough inside to fall down on the bed. Slept straight through for ten hours. Woke ready to start a new day. Something way down deep within was stirred. I want now to reread Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet, the story of a Polish Jew who survived the camps. A powerful, intelligent book. I took it off the shelf when I picked up Anthony Hecht's book this morning. A good time to reread Bellow and Hecht. Most often I get Hank Brodt's name mixed up in my mind with Max Brod, Kafka's biographer. I find it odd that Hank Brodt lived Kafka's The Trial and The Castle in everyday life. I can't help but wonder, wouldn't it have been better to die than to survive? I believe I'd rather be a ghost drifting out of a smokestack across the sky than the one standing on the ground seeing it. Or so I like to think, not having the decision to face.