ANECDOTES

It’s been 8 months since I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust was published. During that time I was part of a blog tour, queried at least 1,000 individuals, organizations, associations, museums and schools of Jewish studies. I spread the word on FACEBOOK and Linkedin; contacted personal friends and acquaintances. I donate 10 books  as a giveaway on Goodreads on a monthly basis, paying for the books out of my pocket, not including the  mailing costs to Canada, Great Britain, Australia, France, and Israel. I handed out many copies for reviews and some as gifts to pique interest. I invested at least $4,000 for marketing my book.  Submitting my book to 17 literary contests here and abroad which included entrance fees, ranging from $40 to $125, I won the Beverly Hills Book Awards for short stories which is an immense pleasure. I am engaged in August to speak at two venues with the idea of selling a few books. Mentally I am giving myself until next September, which would make it one year since publication, to market the book and then I will stop. I am not through with this book, it will be a constant in my life.

During these past months the heavy breath of Holocaust resistance to my book has blown across my face. In short, we’ve read enough about the Holocaust; what! another book on the subject; it is too somber and morbid a subject; finally, let us Pontius Pilate the book, wash our hands of it, sight unseen. I can chew and taste the relentless unwillingness to invest time in the subject. There is no fair play in all this, nor can I expect any, as it is one more book I felt I had to write, and one more book not wanted. There is a surfeit of Holocaust books, fiction and non-fiction (Can there ever be?). There is reviewer fatigue about the subject. And there is also a lack of balls to engage the subject. Intellectual and psychological cowardice blows through my computer as bloggers resist, say they “pass,” or simply do not answer (class). Often magazine editors willing to accept the book cannot find reviewers to read it.

The Inquisition was the original blueprint of the Holocaust. Historically we are still examining that period for it hisses, suppurates anti-Semitism and is the template for the Holocaust, 1933 to 1945. It has rightly been argued that the history of Jews has been a series of Holocausts.I recently read a history of Jewish pirates in the Caribbean who waged war against Spain, having been expelled in 1492 and forced to enter another Diaspora. Revenge! The horror stories of Marranos and Conversos, the burning at the stake, autos-da-fe, led Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Benjamin Netanyahu, to write a 1200 page scholarly tome that specifically ascribes Jew hatred at the heart of the Inquisition; in short, it wasn’t the Jew as a non-Christian, it was hatred of the Jew as a people. The concept of limpieza de sangre or purity of blood led directly to the racial theories of Hitler. In a trip to Spain in 2007 I came across a resistance and unwillingness to discuss the Jewish experience in Spain; the odds are that most everyone in Spain, in the nooks and crannies of historical space, had a relative who was Jewish. Perhaps they feel “tainted.”

Since Jews hold memory in high esteem, Netanyahu, centuries later, unearths the real motives for the Inquisition. His book is the last word on the subject.

I am experiencing as a writer a kind of crypto-phenomenon. When I enrolled the book for a tour there were bloggers who resisted displaying the book on their sites. All this was subtly implied. The book is a “downer.” All this reaffirms, without rancor, my general assessment about the species, knowing full well the book would not be “popular.”And what is that assessment: Thou Shalt Not Know. It seems to me that the Holocaust is a litmus test for the mass of men. It reminds them of the continuing rolling reverberation of what each of us is capable of doing. The human race is not capable of remediation, never was, never is, and never will be. Which brings me back to me and why I wrote this book.

I wrote it for the same reason a prisoner etches dates and comments on his cell wall, announcing his existence. I will forever announce that I am a Jew.

Imaginative Renderings does in fact allow great insight. Books like this must continue to be…

READERSLAMENT

Title: “I Truly Lament Working Through the Holocaust”

Author: Mathias B. Freese

Publisher: Wheatmark

ISBN #978-1-62787-161-7

Reviewed by F.T. Donereau for RebeccasReads (1/15)

Amazon Headline: Living Art Rendering Unimaginable History

Amazon Rating: 5 Stars

In the preface to his new book, “I Truly Lament Working Through the Holocaust” Mathias B. Freese declares himself a failure. He also states that all artists who struggle with the Holocaust must begin with the acceptance of failure. I fully understand his point: the Holocaust as a living horror is too much to be rendered fully, in its full deviance, by any artist. This is the failure I believe Mr. Freese is talking about. He is right. It is too large of an incomprehensible ugliness; it can not be fully understood by those witnessing (in this case reading) a work of art. To know the Holocaust one must have been there as victim. But surely this does not preclude us from gaining much from the tales of this short story collection, of getting the gut punch of human folly, human failure. Reading these descriptive, imaginative renderings does in fact allow great insight. Books like this must continue to be created. We need to know as much as we can, to be hit with what was over and over, if there is to be any hope of avoiding such a living hell from appearing again. Mathias Freese’s art of storytelling, his wondrous imaginative flair, gives one hope that eyes will be opened, and hearts too.

Perhaps the great achievement of “I Truly Lament Working Through the Holocaust” is the variety of angles the author manages to strike in this collection totaling 27 stories. With brief strokes (the stories are mostly quite short) Mr. Freese brings forth a great deal of different perspectives— including a sci-fi story I would have thought impossible to make work but which does— which enable us to see the Shoah in more fuller colors. It is not one man’s story. It is not one point of view, one setting, one style of painting. In the end, we are left holding a mural, rather than a single still life. With the many stories cemented in the mind, the reader is able to feel and know this history in ways I don’t believe other books, or movies, have been able to do. It is the individual creativity, unique and at times startling, that makes “I Truly Lament” indispensable.

Because the writer here has taken the time to draw down history in detail, we are able to enter the past with a sense of knowing essential to feeling these stories. Freese is not afraid to lay bare hard things, the foibles of the human animal, its fears and cowardice, pettiness and foolishness and strength and fortitude as well. Backing down from hard truths would have taken away from this work. Because the author was fearless, he has given us truth, and that is always the most powerful thing; dealing with this most serious subject, eliminating some natures because they are too troubling to confess may just have amounted to a crime. We are blessed that this book does no such thing.

“A brutal knock on the door. When I opened it, three German soldiers with rifles barged in and grabbed me. I didn’t resist, it’s not my way.” These are the opening lines of a story entitled, “Of No Use” that appears part way through the collection. The hard clarity of those lines says a lot, don’t you think? I sense no heroes in those words, but I do feel humanity. Further on we get this opening in a story titled, “Snow Globe II: Homage to Kafka” “Snow reveals profoundly dark and black shadows. As the camp lights glare down from towers above, grays are beautifully exposed.” The first example has a brutality and truth to it. The second is otherworldly, description infused with sensuousness, but still somehow grounded. Many worlds in one subject, many ways of coming to it. Mathias Freese wields a strong pen. He writes with beauty, imagination, and fists of stone. Here in “I Truly Lament Working Through the Holocaust” he gives us what we must know, must never forget. That it is art, makes it living, and anything but a failure.

 

 

Readers+Writers Journal Review

READERSLAMENT

I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust by Mathias B. Freese

Is there a book big enough to elucidate or explain genocide on a mass scale? We can read about facts and figures, but the human toll is impossible to take in all at once. If there is any way to understand the mass murder of millions of human beings, it is in small doses or glimpses of the horror from the viewpoint of individuals. Snapshots of genocide, rather than great, over-arching tomes that seek to explain the inexplicable.  The most effective works of art about the subject of the holocaust, in which an estimated 11 million people were put to death, have been movies like Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants, and books like Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz,  which tell an individual story about the holocaust’s impact on one person. I Truly Lament, by focusing on the dark details and even minutia of genocide, personalizes the horror and allows the reader to grapple with its larger meaning and with the meaning of subsequent holocausts and genocides.

I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust, by Mathias B. Freese is a collection of 27 short stories that seeks to shed light on the holocaust by showing it from various angles. In the preface, the author writes, “All literary depictions of the Holocaust end as failures, perhaps revealing shards of understanding,” and Freese has written a collection of “shards” that are often horrifying, sometimes amusing and always fascinating. From the story of a man trying to escape the Nazis who enlists the help of a world-weary golem, to a dialogue about food between a concentration camp survivor and his rescuer to an interview with Eva Braun, Freese has written a collection that shows his own struggle for understanding, and that helps anyone with the fortitude to withstand some of the gory details to understand as well.  Even the “lighter” stories, about holocaust deniers and about Hitler memorabilia collectors, are infused with a great sense of sadness and even incredulity. Almost as though the author himself cannot quite believe what he is writing.

There are no silver linings or maudlin messages about hope in the midst of despair in this collection, and reading some is truly like staring into an abyss of cruelty and inhuman behavior. Freese’s stories, written from varying points of view and in varying styles, from magical realism to quasi-gothic, are often reminiscent of Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, with its grotesque descriptions of senseless violence. Each focuses on Jewish victims and the unique impact of the holocaust on Jews, and each is the work of a talented writer who freely admits that he is obsessed with examining the holocaust and wrestling with its meaning. These stories do just that, and it seems fitting that stories about a subject as complicated and dark and difficult as the murder of 11 million people and the attempted genocide of an entire culture should themselves be complicated and dark and difficult.

Catherine Rose Putsche Writes:

I truly Lament is a unique and remarkable compilation of 27 Holocaust stories. Each story explores different points of view, concepts and theses all corresponding to the Holocaust. The stories take the reader on a deep, psychological and profound emotional journey into the stark reality of what it was like to live, exist or to die in the inhumane conditions of the concentration camps run by the Nazis. In the opening chapters the stories deal mostly with the plight of Jews in concentration camps that have no choice to endure the cruel and unjustified punishments of the prison guards who would decide their own type of weapon as they saw fit. Many of the men were ordered to dig trenches for hours on end, often resulting in their death as the Nazi ideology behind this cruel task was to wear the men out to a point where they evolved into Muselmänner (the stage before the ovens). Existence in the camps was short, nasty and brutish without meaning. The Nazis kept the men alive upon the barest thread of existence, teased individuality out of them as they wanted the men to loath themselves to their last dying moment. Most vile of all the Nazis wanted the men to willingly go along with their own extermination.

Perhaps the most harrowing of all the stories is “Hummingbird” where a Holocaust survivor tells us his own unique story at the age of 82. Part of him wants to live, and a part of him doesn’t mind dying as his life was so consumed by his existence in the camps that he doesn’t know what it was like to grow up without those horrors. He is damaged in so many ways and feels his life is in transit as he was made to slog through one camp to another in his younger years. He concludes that he now wanders the earth as an old man in search of a planet and the only reason he survived the camps was that his body desired to go on long after his mind had given up.

Mathias B. Freese has created a powerful thought-provoking work of fiction that cleverly examines a number of diverse perspectives on the Holocaust through several different writing styles, ranging from gothic, Utopian, romantic and chimerical. Each and every story will no doubt leave the reader speechless as we follow the few survivors that managed to outlive the brutality and starvation imposed by the Nazis, only to find their lives are full of insecurities and there is no escape from the torment they once suffered. All of which leads me to close and agree that we will never be done with the Holocaust and this book is living proof of that and I fully agree with other reviewers that it should be mandatory reading for all.

My Ranking:
5 Stars

WOMEN OF VALOR, JOANNE D. GILBERT

Stephen Feuer,who is the publisher of Gihon River Press in Pennsylvania,  informed me that Joanne Gilbert’s new book Women of Valor  had just been published by his press. He asked me if I was willing to review it and I declined.  However, we agreed that I would send him I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust, a collection of short stories, which was recently published and he would give me Women of Valor, a sharing among brethren. Without the pressure of having to review the book, I read with no preconceptions.

As a historian Gilbert is well-versed with the Holocaust, much more than knowledgeable and her opening chapters that set the scene in Poland are very well done, detailed and informative. One can argue that this book could be used in a course on women’s studies, for it has much to say about gender and gender roles.

Since I approach the Holocaust as a fiction writer I count upon my imagination and whatever empathetic skills I own as a man,  setting out to  describe the unfathomable – am I wasting my time? I have written a novel and a book of short stories about the subject and I will not be writing any more on it. Gilbert has interviewed and taped, and edited narratives from four women of exceptional courage and remarkable strengths. One or two of them have published their own memoirs. All of them have lived long lives since the Holocaust; they have similarities and differences  but essentially they share how fortunate it is to have survived and how important it is to give witness to what they experienced as Jews.

Ms. Gilbert has three overarching themes, which I will sum up as that Gentiles and Jews did help one another and that this was not uncommon; that shared miseries crossed religious boundaries; that Jews abetted in their own destruction is a lie. Gilbert writes to take testimony from these survivors, to add to the collective archive of Jewish memory. My purposes are different but have similar goals. I write to feel, to write how it was to be a Jew in the Holocaust; to give the reader my feelings about what it was to be dehumanized. A wise man wrote that not even a survivor understands the circumstances of his plight. In the dazed, confused, and exceedingly cruelly randomized world of the Holocaust this was a given. I suppose as I look over my writings I deal with the dehumanization of the Jew. Women of Valor is saturated with that experience and so I approached the book differently. I wanted to see if I would be touched or given insight from such behaviors, which is my background as a writer and a retired psychotherapist.

So here are observations I would like to share about Women of Valor.  In a short declarative sentence in one of the narratives, it doesn’t matter which one, as it is latent in all four, the word “terror” is mentioned. Terror immobilizes, it paralyzes, cells freeze up, the mind cannot fathom, cannot respond; first there is the horror, and then there is terror. One indelible insight I uncovered as I read the book is how each of these women idiosyncratically experienced sheer terror, grappled with  it and stood their ground. Somehow and in some fashion, they metabolized this fear, unlocked themselves, fought back at attempted rapes, learned to shoot a gun, to outwit and outsmart the Hun. In short, to act. They would not use this word, but they acted existentially. I see this in all four testimonies. I choose to live. I choose to resist. I am Sisyphus. Arrival is not the issue. It is all in the struggle. It is a monumentally brave thing, is it not? Each one moved from real fear and the pungency of terror so as to unlock her self and fight back,  to resist, to self-actuate one self. Quite remarkable. And since women throughout the ages have suffered the collective backhand slap of men, it even takes on a larger measure of strength, character and that great word, resolve.

As I say terror was a constant, and I must add that to mobilize one self to resist was a choice these women also had to make. Psychological surrender would have been the comfortable way, paralysis and numbness the alternatives. Just examine the people about you and one can only surmise who would endure, who would resist and who would be shattered by the relentless Nazi machine of dehumanization, unprecedented in the history of man because it was systematic and organized. With people about you who would be traitorous, and who might very well reveal your identity, your very hiding place, one can only imagine what inner strengths had to be called upon so one would not commit treason against one’s self. Capitulation was always an available option.

A constant state of anomie prevailed in this environment. And how to engage that often became a test of character. Fortitude is the word that comes to mind. All of the women in one way or another, gave up their adolescence and assumed the mantle of  adult behaviors. It had its cost much later on. It is often said that young people in the camps, after two weeks, had already garnered the behavior of men. One of the delayed savageries of the Nazi system was the indelible cost it made upon the survivor in later life. Survivors suffered twice over.

Indeed, at the end, one woman of valor who became a scientist and has a brilliant mind speaks of post traumatic shock disorder. The word is not the thing itself, one philosopher has said. And before we had the term, the disorder had been with mankind for centuries.  Survivors who have had relentless dreams and flashbacks decades later can attest to this phenomenon. In my own stories I enter here with my own skills and try to grasp the psychological mayhem done to survivors. Ms. Gilbert gives the facts and her empathy; I relate feelings based on such facts as she has supplied as well as others, Primo Levi, Olga Lengyel and Wiesel.

It takes guts, if you think about, to be a living, feeling, thinking, and compassionate human being! Imagine the task for a young teenager who must psychologically defend herself and at the same time sustain her own inner-directedness as her culture collapses about her.

 

Uncle Miltie and Holocaust Fiction

This classic joke by Berle: “Anytime somebody orders a corned beef sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, somewhere in the world, a Jew dies.” How far can we read into this, what are the manifest and latent aspects of it? For some nagging and still non decipherable reason I feel it says something to what I am experiencing with the marketing of my book, I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust. Only a few days ago a blogger responded to my query with this stark sentence: “I don’t read Holocaust books.” In my fantasy I wanted to sentence her to writing this lunacy a million times on a blackboard. Mene mene tekel upharsin came  to mind.

Another blogger writes that she doesn’t read Holocaust books because they make her “sad,” the inference being that at least she’s read one or more. [Oh, you fragile, sensitive little posey.] And to be fair, I have known one or more survivors who will not read the literature but their reasons are more valid, for they have endured what the words speak of. I just get vexed by the scrawny little minds who can send off such appallingly ignorant statements of who they are interiorly. As to tact,  I authored the book and you imply it was not worth my effort. What they do not understand is that, in a way, it has nothing to do with being Jewish. It has everything to say about what we are as a species. And to deny, to refuse, to be acquainted with what the Holocaust is and says about each one of us is only proof of what morons bloggers can be. Back to Harlequin  romances, sweetie. Blog your little carbuncular heart out.

So a part of me dies, in a way, when I come up against this resistance, like Berle’s gentile eating of a kosher sandwich.

Yes, I experience the vapors when I come across such unwillingness, intransigency, soaked in the brine of prejudice and  profound ignorance which is always grounded, in my thinking, in callousness, insensitivity, and crudeness.

It makes me want to throw open my window, shove my head out and shout “I’ll teach anyone, anything, free.” Every teacher’s real enemy is ignorance, a killer of self and society in its greater proportions. If I were teaching as I had  decades ago, I would have a greater urgency as each class slogged in for another dose of conditioning to make them aware.

When Crusaders juiced with testosterone on their way to the Italian coast to embark to the Holy Land paused long enough to wipe out 45,000 Jews in a pogrom or when about 18,000 captive Jews were marched into Rome and who in essence constructed the Coliseum, and when Allen Dulles, head of the OSS and later CIA, colluded with Werner von Braun and other Nazi scientists to give them a free pass to the American way of life, I am aware. How can the truth set you free if you are unwilling to experience it? Any good writer, I believe, is interested in the following: love and death, time and the infinite intractability of the human species to become aware. For me that is literature. And when I write about the Holocaust all of the latter is subsumed under that title. When you refuse to read or learn about the Holocaust, awareness is crucified.

I have chosen an unpopular subject to write about. And I cannot realistically expect for readers to grab on to it or bloggers to avidly review it. It is a difficult subject. In a way the Holocaust is like Ishmael, banned with his mother to the desert. When I reflect about how I entered the bloodstream of the characters I chose to write about, when I see how I tried to comprehend their minds, and when I see how I imagined their selves and their worlds, that effort in itself was my writer’s task, and what sensibilities I have as a Jew. Not all writers choose, like me, to gnaw on the why; some of us want to glide in their craft. I am not here to condemn or choose about how one sees the craft, but clearly there are serious themes and not so serious themes. I am condemned to hard themes –shoot me!

This blog is a complaint. And like all complaints very personal. My complaint is not that I am not being reviewed or discussed. My complaint is really about not being heard because the mind is dead and the eye is blind. And how did that come about?

 

 

RESISTANCE

When reviewers or interested people write me why they will not review my book, I have noticed in some instances that the two stories they do like are what I call “Ann Frank” efforts; that is, they are safe, gives humanity a free pass and play on the cello strings of the human heart. I felt them at the time and I wrote what I felt. Most of my 27 stories offer  idiosyncratic points of view, gritty, graphic, savage, caustic, satirical, and stories that take no prisoners. When the head of a Jewish studies program writes me that she “shuddered” upon reading my other stories, I find that schizoid.  In a world in which we now have beheadings, her dainty perspective and head up her ass attitude is hard to take. She is an intellectual wuss.

Films are much more graphic than books, but books incise into the mind in a different kind of way. So here is an Holocaust educator who has circumscribed what she reads, to admit and accepts only what is safe. In Terence Des Pres’  book, The Survivor, about the concentration camp experience,  he graphically describes how camp guards made some Jews eat their own shit. It happened. Learn from it. As a writer use it. Don’t flinch. Or get out of the Holocaust experience as a writer.

So if I write a story in which an inmate had to eat his own shit, I wonder if that would be rejected out of hand. Of course, it would. It would make her “shudder.” So my literary imaginings get to her more than beheadings and Jews eating shit.

Another writer and educator complains to me, barely containing her rage, that she has no time for fiction about the Holocaust; that we should spend more time taking down the stories of survivors, become memoir recorders, assisting them in encapsulating their experiences. I have no problem with that at all, but in the same breath she castigates Holocaust fiction as a waste of time at this historical moment. Holocaust as memoir, Holocaust as remembrance, is that all there is? So no more Primo Levi, no more Elie Wiesel, no Olga Lengyel, no time for explication and exploration, or interpretation. I will take my copy of The Heart of Darkness and incinerate it and go up the mountain and crah.

I must say judgmentally that I experience these responses as a kind of moral cowardice. I have no need to defend my book nor to explain its contents or explain why and how I came to write it. When you mine for gold, digging produces slag, detritus; when you explore the heart of darkness you make things messy and muddied, conflictual,  and nowadays for the weak-minded, aggravating and annoying. However, it is the search that counts, always does. My mind wanders back to 1958 to a Contemporary Civilization course at Queens College. The instructor began to speak about Karl Marx and one of the undergrad women got upset with the mere mention of his name. The teacher went up to her seat and said Karl Marx…Karl Marx…Karl Marx…Karl Marx in an attempt to desensitize her, I imagine, of the very sound of Marx’s name. And so it is with the mentioning of the Holocaust.

When I receive these responses I feel soiled by human beings who want  the Holocaust neatly wrapped up, literally ended or tidied up or just not written about at all. Underneath is a need to be safe. And my Jewish brethren are as guilty as any one else. It is the dark and nether consequences of resistance, to put out of conscious mind what is nettlesome, frightening, scary and personally repulsive to bear under the scrutiny of awareness.

In short, it comes down to fear. I wrote in another place that fearlessness leads to authenticity in writing. I stand by that. I am so old that authenticity in living is still a vital principle to live by or struggle to attain. And when I come across prissy responses to my book I don’t relate to it well, for it is foreign to me, but it is the low flying scud in this rapidly collapsing culture. I’m naively taken aback that people don’t want to see, and yet I spent years dealing with the unsaid in my clients. So I have determined that if my book is to be read I must give it away which I am doing in certain cases — Holocaust museums, Holocaust studies programs, instructors and the like. After all, I am into sharing what I own and what I feel and what I can write about without an inordinate concern about marketing and making royalties;sweet gumdrops, assuredly,but they do not make up the fabric of myself.

Apparently any book on the Holocaust  nowadays,  like the Jews in the 40s, is met with indifference; ho-hum is the response. An ennui has settled in and like a miasmic swamp occludes efforts to understand again and again what the Holocaust is. Human beings are a shabby lot, one of my lifelong learnings.  I have no expectations of man because my own fellow man has not the slightest realistic expectation of himself, except to make money and fuck.

Kazantzakis said it well on his epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

Apparently I may like to get bruised or kicked in the ass, to perseverate in this agony or I don’t really give a damn. I do have a measure of hope. I hand out my book free, like a business card, just to share: “Hey, brother, I can spare a dime.” To be read is all that I require, to be asked a question is a wonderful chakra, something to behold. It is the teacher in me. At my age I experience what Erickson called “generativity,” the need to give what wisdom one has attained to the young or to those who are willing listeners.

And there is also the asbestos-like silence. I have mailed out over 1,000 queries,  and more than a handful to reviewers who have read my earlier works. And they don’t nibble at all. In my imagination they feel not to reply is not to be involved with a foul subject, or one that makes them shudder, or equivocate, or flee; whatever, the motivation , what I am left with is silence from previous supporters.  It is deafening.You might label this, Holocaust aversion. Human beings rarely ever face what they are capable of; consequently the hatred for Freud. Some “well intended” individuals want to protect survivors from the very horrors they have experienced — how interesting, and  self-servingly odd. In education reading readiness, if I recall, has to do with the child’s ability at a certain age and grade, to be introduced to reading or to another level of reading. I suspect Holocaustphobes are not “ready.” Apparently many of us cannot advance beyond Anne Frank’s outside experience. Although hidden from the concentration camp, not a few historians feel her diary is not part of Holocaust literature. Psychologically, many human beings suffer, with regard to the Holocaust, from arrested development. I have let out the genii from the bottle from my powder keg. A writer can never control the consequences of what he says in print, the misinterpretations, the misunderstandings or the lack of nuanced reading.

I also sense that I have touched upon several taboos  as reviewers write back. I am well aware that I rarely censor myself, or hold back  what I have to say; that is, I don’t send out my work to the cleaners. I am not a safe person to be around in any case. Some people cover holes with stones; I unearth them for a look see, call it characterological.

 

Best Review So Far

LEATHERBOUNDPOUNDS

February 3, 2015

I Truly Lament by Mathias B. Freese

By leatherboundpounds

Imagine agony is in the rendering. Feel what I have to say and don’t be indifferent.

In the preface to his collection of short stories on the Holocaust Mathias B. Freese says it is a story that no-one could ever tell in entirety. He describes it as a “ghastly grandiosity”. It is too large, too devastating, it goes beyond all understanding and adds up to one heaving firestorm in the history of humanity. But somehow, taking a selection of different experiences and giving them a minute, poetic, imaginative treatment, he then goes ahead and does exactly that.

This collection is quite simply heartbreaking. It is stark. It holds no quarter, it does not flinch, it does not let the weak stomach or soft temperament of the reader allow her to avert her gaze. This is a story that needs to be looked in the eye, Freese almost says. To skirt its edges, to be satisfied with a sanitised version of events, is to do the history an injustice. It is to be dishonest. It is to allow the horror to escape scrutiny.

My particular favourite, and the story that hit me the hardest emotionally, is Hummingbird, in which a Holocaust survivor describes his life at 82 years.

The entire race is depressed as well as psychotic. Looking at my fellow man I recollect the early primal fear in the camps. I don’t underestimate nor am I surprised by human beings. When I look at the face of another of the species, I cringe at what potential is in him or her to maim my very being. I live in dread. The lights are always on in my small home. An antiseptic for what may reside in the dark; the Germans did their job well. I’m forever a stolen self.

That’s not to say there’s no heart or warmth in this collection. The love story between Cantor Matyas Balogh and Rebecca Katzman is as touching as it is tragic. Even humour peeks through the clouds, though it in itself is horrific, a grimace instead of a smile greets the reader during a transcript of a fictional interview with Eva Braun. But buried somewhere in the pages and the stories is a dearth of feeling. A survivor’s emotional exhaustion, a camp doctor’s inability to scrutinise surgeries administered without anesthetic. An acceptance that the world, humanity, has gone to hell. It is as if it is only the reader who craves meaning, who is stunned by the terror, the inhumanity, who seeks some kind of reason. An explanation. Some reassurance that these acts were an aberration, that humankind is in reality far better than that. But Freese seems unconvinced that that’s the case, indeed in his preface he says so plainly: “Human beings are so much less than we give them credit for.”

“I’m not ready to be consoled. Do you know what I must give up to allow myself to be consoled? I’ll answer you. I have to give up a self made from sticks, paper and dried glue. I think I’ll die in the doing of it.”

This is a tough, heartwrenching read, but well worthwhile for the art with which Freese approaches his subject. And it’s a read that we should be prepared to embark on, to learn, to bear witness, to remember.

I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust, Mathias B Freese: four stars.

Read it: unflinchingly and one story at a time.

This review is a part of a book tour hosted by Nurture Your Books. I was supplied with a free Kindle version.

 

 

 

 

 

 

BUT WHY ANOTHER BOOK ON THE HOLOCAUST?

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If the murder of millions is something we must become numb to, in

order to persevere, then I disagree.

It is as if memory must be dismissed for present life and living.

Need it be? Granted, I do not think about a serf in twelfth-century

France. Perhaps I should, but I don’t. Our species itself has a short

attention span. Indeed, why do we practice the art and science of psychotherapy,

for example? It is not to put things behind us as much as

to bring them forth, to evoke experience. Real therapy, healing, is a

question asked of the species as revealed in an individual member.

I detect in this question an annoyance, in that Jews are given a certain

latitude and then no more; as if we have heard it all before. The

question bespeaks subliminal impatience, perhaps even anti-Jewish sentiment.

If yet another book on word processing, financial self-help,

travel, or cooking appears on the shelves of your local bookseller, that

is fine. But another book on the Holocaust, whether from Christians or

Jews, evokes a sigh of “enough.” Why is this? I write to make you feel

my impressions of the world; it is my rib on the barbie and I grill it in

my own special way. It is the writer’s job to do that. The Holocaust, as

far as I am concerned, is the single most important human event in

world history. It created a lens through which we can understand ourselves

culturally, anthropologically, and sociologically. We avoid knowing

ourselves, often fleeing more from the light than the dark. All the

great deprogrammers have been assailed, even murdered, Christ for

one.

In his clarion call, Jefferson said it best: “I have sworn upon the

altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the

mind of man.” Thrilling, isn’t it? And enlightened! Freud searched the

unconscious, in his own rational way, to try to set us free. Face it—

great slabs of self are cut off from our awareness. Most of what we do

is done and decided for us, unconsciously. You don’t really believe you

are in control, do you? Our species is that early grunting creature that

moved from out of the sea-slime to land, in gasping epochal leaps, until

it became a creature of terra firma. We are aware only in spasms,

twitches. Our circuitry is that way; we are hot-wired.

Since you are not a survivor, a witness, why do you feel you can add anything

more—or new—to the Holocaust literature?

I don’t have to be a witness to anything in order to exercise my own

humanity, either as a holder of opinions or a writer. In fact, and with all

due deference, why would a survivor necessarily have a grasp on what

happened? We spend our entire lives living, often very poorly, and very

often end without any set of rules, conclusions, or principles, much less

wisdom. I write about the Holocaust for it is an Amazonian cataract of

great force, of thundering essence, when we examine human behavior

at its most basic. I have every right to engage. Indeed, the question

should be: Shouldn’t every human alive, and yet to live, have a br

spectrum of ideas and views about this species-shaking event of the

twentieth century? We are all witnesses to the Holocaust. This is one

of the essential themes of my work. It should be dealt with until the end

of historic mankind on this planet, until its lessons become in some

implacable and evolutionary way part of our germ plasm.

We know this much: human beings can be morally inhibited—and

since we are not genetically wired not to kill our own, the only salvation

is in the word, in memory, to stave off our id impulses. This is why, for

the Jew, memory is essential, probably one of the greater gifts of

Judaism to the world. Jews, to use the vernacular, do not “put things

behind them” and “get on with it.” The Jew metabolizes life, records

and registers it. Memory kept the Jew as one during a two thousand year

diaspora—for indeed something indelible and lithographic had

happened in Sinai that the Jew chose not to forget. This is the great and

remarkable commentary on the history of the Jew. Metaphorically we

are all Jews, if we allow that to be.

QUESTIONS ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF THE I TETRALOGY AND I TRULY LAMENT

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 Raison d’Être

Can you reconstruct the creative process that led you to write The i Tetralogy?

i wrote itself.

i was written in white heat over a two-week period; it was as if I

were channeling my unconscious. I believe that this first of four books

on the Holocaust simmered and percolated inside me, away from consciousness,

for about four decades. At twenty I read the confession of

the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolph Hoess, who was required to

write it prior to his hanging in 1947. A riveting book, perplexing and

reptilian in its fascination, here was a man who had studied to be a seminarian,

yet ended his life as a loyal and dedicated Nazi. The book has

always stayed in mind, for within its pages is the entire Rosetta stone

to the Nazi mind, to humankind gone to seed.

As I matured I began slowly to comprehend the two selves that

Hoess inhabited, for he was a “doppelganger.” I began to understand

how he could “split,” to use the psychoanalytical term for the defense

mechanism, one self a seemingly rational and caring spouse and father,

lover of his German shepherds, the other a fiercely prideful and prejudicial

Nazi. Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors deals with this phenomenon

in comprehensive detail. And this fabric tear of self, this

numbness to human pain, later finds its way into my work.

Hoess’s autobiographical tale stayed with me, made a deposit in my

unconscious. If I recall correctly, the book is matter-of-fact, which

makes it awful. It is descriptive and lacks self-analysis and moral

insight. That makes it appalling.

My life, my rearing, my secular Judaism, my Hebrew school training,

my first encounter with anti-Semitism, coalesce into a strong ethnic

sense of identification with my forebears. I am, as I have been, a

proud Jew, realizing in college that a required two-year course in contemporary

civilization had little to say about the significant—the enormous—

Jewish contribution to the world. Chauvinistically, one might

argue that the history of the Western world, at least, is the history of

the Jew: Moses…Jesus…Spinoza…Maimonides…Marx…Einstein…

Freud. Other than selections by Spinoza, and Freud, Jews did not exist

in Western civilization: Jews were a fascinating living fossil, but not

much more.

I remember in high school a chemistry teacher vehemently denied

that soap could be made from rendered-down human fat—this was

before 1960, when William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

provided, in an extended footnote, the exact recipe. I had known about

the formula from reading, and asked the teacher to comment. After his

response I no longer trusted him. This was in the ’50s, before the Eichmann

trial, and the word Holocaust was not yet in the language, not

even in Hebrew school. Jews were traumatized worldwide, but I had

read by then a great deal about Jewish history. (I recall one author used

a pen name that spelled “suffer Israel” backwards.) I knew what was

reasonably true and false. I knew the suffering that the Christian world

had inflicted upon the Jew over two thousand years—and I was resentful,

surly, and rageful about the injustice of it all: the reek of hypocrisy

overwhelmed my sensibilities. Any minority member learns a great

deal about the majority in order to cope, adapt, and struggle back. I can

do a few minutes on the differences between “transubstantiation” and

“consubstantiation,” as well as the immaculate conception.

I was—I am—a passive-aggressive personality; but when it comes

to being a Jew, I am a lion. The ’50s were a time when Kirk Douglas, a

ragpicker’s son, born Issur Danielovitch, who later changed his name

to Isidore Demsky, and Tony Curtis, born Bernard Schwartz, the son

of an immigrant tailor, were not clearly identified as Jews. It would

have been desirable, encouraging, even ennobling, to identify with a

Jewish movie star at age fifteen or sixteen. The assimilated Jewish producers

and movie studio heads had sold out years ago, and fed the

goyim stereotypes, and married their shiksa princesses, at great cost.

At thirteen I lived in a housing project on the other side of the

tracks. I played sandlot baseball in Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn. And

almost every time I played, one boy, Billy, taller than I, very athletic,

Viking in appearance, would have a fit—a rather disturbed young boy,

as I look back now as a therapist. He would get frustrated sometime

during the game or claim he beat the throw to second. He wanted his

way. Often he would work himself up into a lathered frenzy and stomp

the base itself, actually fight with it. It reminded me of a cartoon fight,

flurries, puffs of animated smoke, sounds, swirling bodies barely discernible

in the scrap, and exaggerated responses. We would stop playing

and gawk at his behavior.

In such manic moments he’d make anti-Semitic comments—just

like that. It always is just like that. The world for Billy was imperfect,

and the cause of his internal and external disarray, his discomfiture,

was the Jew! So the Jew is a worldwide plague, an irritant, viral, life’s

wrinkled, gnarled, and disfigured cause of psychic pain. What power we

Jews are given as we ride the razor’s edge of projection. We are the

UFOs of the last two thousand years, fear projected onto ETs “out

there.”

As Billy mouthed his slurs and vicious bromides, the others stood

by, did nothing. I cannot account for that. I believe I was more stunned

and stressed by this than by anything else—even Billy’s anti-Semitism.

I wanted us all to gang up on Billy, teach him a lesson. Not then, but

later on, I realized I was alone, alone in life as well. Only my singular

efforts would unfreeze the moment so that I could act on the world. My

feelings are retrospective—as I give them voice now, they would be

appalled at the lack of outrage, at the silence, at the bystanders who

merely watched, at the passivity when faced with Billy.

By then, thirteen, probably bar mitzvahed at the time, something

was in me, perhaps rearing, perhaps, in grandiose terms, I felt an El

Greco-like flame burn within, touch my soul, much like Shadrach,

Meschach, and Abendigo, before they entered the furnace. What was in

them before that made them so fearless? That is the question to ponder.

Perhaps, as I muse, almost fifty years later, in a spiky way I can say that

my gravestone might read: “I took Billy on.”

I went at the bastard, body heated, fists flying, at the goy, the prick,

the maligner, the inquisitor, the crusader, the Christian—he still is very

much the bastard, in mind. And he whacked the hell out of me while my

own brethren, for whatever reasons, stood about me. They didn’t even

urge me on—“Beat his ass, Matt; give it to him!” They were quiet. This

was a religious war in silence; I was no David slyly picking up the right

stones for his sling. This was outright violence, in your face—and very

personal. In my gut I knew, by then, it was not right to say these things

about Jews. Even then I had acquired from Hebrew school, I believe,

and from home, a Talmudic sense of right and wrong. I recall how the

prophets, at considerable risk to themselves, would come down from

the hills to confront and condemn the Jewish kings for misdeeds, adultery

and the like.

The message seemed that the truth is above all men; it is the highest

mark of civilization and of the individual human being. And I was,

apparently, deeply moved by this without my awareness of it. I was a

serious young boy.

I gave Billy as much as I could as he lambasted me. I was short and

I could only get at his lean abdomen. And I struggled away at that spot,

hoping that the head might fall, to no avail, as he seemed to shirk off

my blows. He was strong—and powerful; his long, sinewy, grappling

arms interrupted my puny but furious attempts as he methodically

smacked away at my upper torso and head. Lathering my face with

punches, he was also punching me into recognition of what life had in

store for me.

Needless to say, Billy wiped me away, pounding from his height

advantage, swinging downward with force, tattooing my cheeks with

fists, but I stood my ground and fought back—and hard—and took a

hard beating. What moves me now is that I didn’t cry. At that age

young boys can cry in such a situation. I didn’t cry. I was relentless, a

defender of the faith. I was repeatedly beaten, but I never lost a fight

with Billy. You see, this is an essential part of who I am. I chose this travail.

It enveloped me, like a malign cloud. And it is so painful. But I did

not retreat.

Ultimately my intense readings about ancient Jews taught me

moral courage in a sly and covert manner, call it conditioning, call it

indoctrination. They fortified me for life! I admired the antique courage

of the Hebrew heroes—Samson, David, Joshua, although Kirk and

Tony had no hold on my heart, alas. Only Churchill evinced that in

World War II, when he rallied the English in his radio speeches—I

remember hearing snippets on tape, how he said that the English would

fight the Nazis in the streets, in the doorways, in the alleyways, with

hand, with stick, and that they would never surrender. Stirring, is it not?

I had fears, free-floating, butterfly-huge fears in mind, but I was in

the right. Being right doesn’t mean you will win or overcome—or that

there is justice in the world. That there is no justice in the world has

been a lifelong premise. I deal with what is, my rescuer is me, and the

heritage I breathe. There are only strong individuals, sometimes in

alliance with other like-minded strong individuals. The world is in each

of us, not “out there.” “Out There” is a parade of illusions; inside is the

sound of a different drummer, playing a tattoo of character.

For weeks on end, before, during, or after these baseball games, I

fought Billy, but not to a draw. Oh, no, he whipped me well. I was

slaughtered, to be blunt. I got off the field, out of the dust and grime,

the offal of the Christian upon my presence, and headed home. I told no

one at home of my battle. I was self-contained. It was my mission. No

one said anything to me for our war had become as much a fixture of

the game as Billy’s constant snits. I was all alone—and I didn’t even

know it. At that age we are with emergence, not reflection. As I look

back, I have always been alone. Jews have always been alone, I knew

that, and I knew how they had drawn great strength from that. I also

knew it was the aloneness that gave them character. The Bible is rife

with battles in which Jews were few, outnumbered, and consequences

severe. It was their faith that became another army to enter the fray

with, the Host of Hosts by their spiritual side.

I remember well the beatings at Billy’s hands. I remember no one

helping. I remember my mother not knowing for weeks until somehow

she discovered all this and confronted Billy’s mother. After that, Billy’s

fits continued—but he censored himself.

After all these decades Billy is vivid in mind. What I feel now is the

potent feeling in all four volumes of the i Tetralogy, especially i. I will

not be mastered. I will not be depleted. I will keep coming at you until

you are no longer a concern or obstacle. Perhaps the casting for “Spartacus”

was brilliant; Douglas, the Jew, as the slave seeking freedom—

and dignity. It is how, as I look back, in my senior years, I face life, I

suppose—indomitably, I imagine. In my later years I have learned to

know no fear.

It is how I practice therapy. It is how I father. It is how I love. I am

Jonathan, at David’s side, metaphorically fighting off the Philistines.

To the day I die I will remember the unflinching intensity of my

response. I find it sadly ironic that my bravest moment in life came so

young. Now I am with words. But I did not cave in. I stood—I stood

alone, who I was as a human being, in my mind, at stake: as a Jew, on

line. I endured. I would not be abused, nor my people. I would not be

labeled in such ugly words. Billy was, sadly enough, my first real

encounter with the Christian world—and it was indelible.

As I look back through the decades I feel in my gut that my

brethren are due something from me, as a Jew, for they have given me

so much. I have no ancestors, for they are very alive and immediate in

me. It is in the nature—and order—of my own particular world, among

Jewry, that I respond to what has been shared with me, what has been

passed down to me. It is our tradition. The i Tetralogy is this Jew’s giving

back to his own people. It is not a debt repaid; it is a profound honor

to do so, one that moves me deeply.

This is an intricate and complex response, for as a writer and

human being beyond conditioning and ethnicity, I owe life a response

as well. It is much more than scratches in the sand to say I was here—

I seek not to stop time or build illusionary pyramids. As a writer I

respond because it is in my plasm to do so. I need to write about my

people as well as life responding to life. If forsythia can grow in nasty

abandonment and weedy ways along highway dividers, I, too, can

express myself as existence exuding its very presence.

My Judaism was the potting soil for my writing; my life’s peculiar

pain and agony also contributed to my need to make sense of this journey

I am on, without a roadmap, most definitely without a destination.

I have come to believe that all I have to give is my being, and writing

is my idiosyncratic body scent. Hunt for my spoor, if you will.

I am one of those souls Kazantzakis wrote his prayer for: “Overdraw

me Lord, and who cares if I break!”

 

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