FROM A NEW MEMOIR: “Naomi”

 

 

ON NAOMI

 

I’m Naomi and this part will be mine as Matt is uncomfortable with it after all these decades because what he did was to blame the victim: me. When I met him I was 24 and in a loose relationship with a pharmacist in Queens. I was gorgeous, no doubt about it. I slithered into pants as I did not have much of an ass, and I had a small chest, but I was wide in the beam and had a stunning face, or so I heard from many men at the time. How can I say it? I was a knockout, with a beautiful Irish nose, small and sculpted at that, with fine dyed-blond hair. Matt shared with me that to walk through a restaurant as a couple to a table made him proud because men and women would turn to look at me and then wonder what size schwanz he had to keep my interest. He needed me to need himself.

 

The very first time I met Matt I wore silver boots, I mean silver with a flowing dark-blue velvet cape. I look back and see how daring I was with clothes, but it was the Sixties. What men in particular didn’t realize, and, unfortunately, I suffered greatly from, was the belief that who I was matched up to the presentation. I was then a little girl, that’s all, with few defenses to handle what came at me, especially from the male sex in lust. And I am not very knowledgeable about many things so I do see that I gave off a ditzy quality. I just barely got through high school and worked in a cosmetic store as a salesclerk. Often I keep silent because that can easily be interpreted as having smarts. Which, I must say, I do not have.

 

I heard from his friend Artie, months later, that when we first saw each other in Marchal’s, a diner on Main Street, in Flushing, Queens, that he had not noticed the come hither looks I was sending out to him – but his friend saw that and urged him to go to my table and pick me up. As I later learned he was so out of circulation he didn’t know what a pass was. He was so oblivious to the world, so into himself and his troubles. I was sitting with my Jewish uncle who I adored, and after dinner we went out to the parking lot to leave. Clearly I had no expectations and never do have them, as I have always been and always am pursued. At that time Matt appeared anxiously at the side of my uncle’s car window and asked me for my phone number right in front of my uncle, who was very amused. If he hadn’t done that, I would never have been raped.

 

Our first date was way out on Long Island, at a restaurant next to a lake. I had the feeling he knew about this place because he must have had an earlier date here with some other woman, perhaps Marlene. Although I was extremely good-looking, it was not helpful in that I was often placed in situations in which men thought I was more sophisticated than I was and wiser sexually. And Matt, like others, did not see me clearly, for he thought that I was more intelligent than I am, but again, my looks eased my way in relationships. On our second date, we hadn’t had sex as yet, for he was not assertive, we went to a movie with my uncle to see Camelot, which was a tear-jerker, or so it was for Matt, for he told me much later on it was like experiencing his affair with Marlene all over, especially what he saw as the cheating theme in the movie or so it was for him. He felt remorse for what had happened to Arthur. Guilt is the word. I always felt Matt was into me because of my looks rather than who I was, although who I was at 24 was not very known to me. I strolled through life.

 

As they say in books, it came to pass that he took me to Woodstock to see his friends Hal and Estelle, Jack and Ava, in the summer of 1968. He and I met with a Catholic priest on a mountain which was interesting and he showed me other highlights of the town. I can say that our relationship at that time was cordial, not loving, more of having someone to go places with. As I look back now he was just too smitten with Marlene. He sometimes appeared distracted, off somewhere.  He could not allow himself to feel or to be connected with me as Naomi. Sad to say, and there is some exaggeration in this, but I may have just been a beautiful toy to him, a thing. And I went along for the adventure since I still had the pharmacist in my corner if I ever needed him. And Woodstock was an eye-opener for me.

 

In the back of Hal’s house was an above-ground pool, and I put on a striking silver bathing suit.  Jack began to engage me in place of Matt, who was somewhere in the house. Jack came on like the world-wise slick traveling salesman he was. Matt had no idea that Jack viewed me as prey, and later that night, after Matt had gone to bed in one of the bedrooms, Jack pursued me relentlessly – and before I knew it he forced himself on me, to my disgust. I never shared with Matt exactly how it came about or if I resisted or cried out for help, but I do remember going to Matt’s room and trying to rouse him from sleep to no avail.

 

The following day, as we went home, I shared what had happened with Jack. He was angry, if not perturbed. He said no more. I do recall that he came to see me at my home a day or two later. I opened the door with a smile.

“How could you have let that happened?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Why, Naomi, didn’t you shout or raise a ruckus?” I was surprised by his anger at me, as if I had in some way violated him. We were still at the doorway and I ended the conversation by shutting it. We never went out again. I was being blamed for what Jack had done to me in so many words.

What there was of our friendship ended. One time I needed help because I was undergoing a surgical procedure, and he came to see me in the hospital, since he was reliable in that way. But when I needed him most critically he was unreliable. I could have responded in many different ways to Jack, and I regret now that I didn’t shame him before his wife by screaming for help until I got someone to help me, but I was stuck in the Sixties when men still ruled.

 

 

A CHAPTER FROM A NEW MEMOIR IN THE MAKING

 

 

AN  ABUNDANCE OF AWARENESS

When I consider the amount of time I have lived and the abundance of memories I have accrued, I think of all that history that will vanish when I disappear. Which is the greater loss, the absence of me or the absence of all I have experienced? I vote against me. I choose for  office the history I have made.

I cannot capture Woodstock in words. ( I cannot describe in words the last strong feeling I had.) I can only glimpse the times in Woodstock indirectly, through a glass darkly. Whatever awareness I had of it then or now has long since gone because it was once lived and is no more. What is left are the distortions of memory, remembrance and reminiscence, all wrapped into the enigma of time. And all these conjectured states are lies.

I cannot capture the past. Never will. Presumptuous. All I can give is a written expression (a lie) which disfigures the very feeling I want to give voice to.

So, I suppose I must go ahead and write not the truth of things, for that is also a lie, but I can set out to write the untruth, the lie, as best as truthfully I can, for this will be less of an unrelenting need to be truthful. I suppose once again that the lie of an event lived or recalled much later on in life has a measure of some truth to it. I cannot get to the truth if all my experiences in Woodstock can only give me an approximation of it at age 74.

And so there was Mary. As I dwell in memory I cannot remember how I came across her or when personal connections led to our acquaintance. All that is lost to me. I do remember her uncle, Edgar Pangborn, a writer of some note, who was a short and slight man, recently felled by a heart attack and recuperating, thin, a man of few words. He would die in the mid 70s. He had written a short story which I later discovered was much anthologized and viewed as a fantasy classic of its kind. I met Pangborn for a short time while at his home – perhaps Mary had first met me and then introduced us. While at his home I met his sister who I also think was called Mary and I learned she was a scientist. What I gathered by talking with young Mary was that Edgar and Mary’s mother was schizophrenic and apparently neither Pangborn married lest that their progeny be genetically inflicted with this malady. And here is an instance of a lie well told when truth is unobtainable or if available, a kind of lie. It was a family tale out of Hawthorne.

At the very few times I saw Edgar there was a quiet, observant woman in her forties who sat in the living room and was originally introduced as his friend and a librarian in the local Woodstock branch. At some intuitive level I felt she was more than his friend or better yet, wish she could be an intimate of his. What is essential to my observation, or my projection, was a kind of poignancy I experienced, as if she was a lady in waiting for him, he who had a recent heart attack and was damaged if not disabled. I introduce her because in some way she is as indelible as Edgar himself. And why is that?

Somehow and in some way I began to observe Mary who was 18. She had a cute face and bushy hair as if a Sixty’s version of Shirley Temple who she probably did not know of. I did not care for her hair, although her face was reasonable attractive. At the early times I met her she “dressed” in those unattractive sun dresses of the time, a rip off of the Empire style, or in jeans that were not flattering as if she did not consider her body worth of attention or, more to the point, hair and clothing were not essential to any relationship at that time and period. Mary had a boyfriend, Steve, who I later met and they were a couple and he generally carried a guitar with him as some appurtenance of who he was. I once took him back to the city and I recall his gently complaining that things between Mary and he were coming apart.  And at that time I did not know, I did not sense that Mary’s affections – or interest were waning for Steve and now focusing on me. I was 28, she 18, and perhaps she saw something in me, obviously, that Steve could not offer her. Of course, I never did learn what she “saw” in me.

I do remember one time with Steve and Mary which probably was the high mark of their relationship. I went with them and another couple to a forest waterfall and before I knew it they stripped down and hand in hand succumbed to the weary cataract above. Mary was what we call now a BBW, her breasts large and she was wide in the beam, a Rubenesque torso something altogether voluptuous and pleasing to my eye. Her exposed mons pubis, her delta of Venus, was how should I say? a mound of hair, now softened by rivulets of rushing water. She was not pornographic to my eye. I felt prurience, the kind one feels as a man by a nude in an oil by one of the masters.

Mary is 64 now, if she lives. She still, in my mind’s eye, looks grotto gorgeous beneath that waterfall, and if I could I’d redirect her in memory to do one more rehearsal, for a final staged reminiscence. I must have for too long stared or gazed at her totality, that wonderful body, and by doing so I had the sense she felt embarrassed, but for a moment, as I was still a stranger to her. On the other hand, it is a lie, I suppose, that she wished to favor me with her apple. Who knows now? Then?

So waves of a new relationship were struck, neither Mary nor I speaking to one another.

As I look back after 46 years the web of feelings, the infinite linked connections of the fragile cat’s cradle that bring people together are omissions in mind as I cannot recall my first romantic feint of connecting to Mary, nor can I recall how I learned of Steve and Mary breaking up and after that there is a significant memory blur, of no recall. I can only share now the lie of it all, for the truth of it is irrelevant as I think of it. I cannot rediscover or excavate the archaeological truth of it all. Perhaps I can approximate the felt truth of it, knowing full well that is something of a lie as well. I choose not to fabricate dialogue between Mary and I, for that is a construction made up of shoddy and inferior materials, not credulous in any case nor critical or tangential to the telling of this failed adventure.

Somewhere near Pangborn’s house, somewhere in a back pasture Mary and I walked alone, confident that we were safely unobserved.  We dropped to the ground and she unbuttoned her blouse to reveal her redolent breasts and lowered her pants as well, altogether passive and welcoming in action. Mary was await for me. As if her breaking up with Steve, her roiling, subliminal assumptions about me, never tested, and her “reading” of my behaviors so far, she apparently craved my penetrating her. I had no condom with me and I had the dread that if I exploded within her she might get pregnant. Given my marital and extramarital situation I could not do this. I controlled myself, although I did stroke her and was taken by her lusty body.

Mary may or may not have given me the contemporary “line” that I need not fear, that she could handle any act of “fate” that occurred. I cannot remember. I was very much a creature of the Fifties in 1968 and in some way we both “cooled” down and walked back to Pangborn’s home in silence. When Edgar saw our heated and still flushed faces I felt he sensed that we had done the dirty deed. Perhaps I should have had sex with Mary, it was in the air, it was in Woodstock, it was of the time, Mary had no qualifications in mind, for she was eager to have me. What feelings perplexed her as we walked back, I do not know. All kinds of misinterpretation of my behavior were possible.

What time passed after that I cannot recollect, much is lost to memory, except for the last time I met Mary. I believe we were in front of a fireplace on the floor and she had come in wearing once again her dowdy jeans, unattractive, but I knew what a bodily treasure lay beneath. I don’t think much was said, indeed as I try to recall I cannot think of one sentence she ever said to me that I do remember. This is not a slight, but a fact, or a lie. What I felt was that I did want to make love to her with or without condoms, all libido. She may have very well wanted an explanation at this second meeting after the abortive sex in the field. I thought I was given a second chance with her. What turned her off were my actions. I moved a few pillows about as if preparing for making love.

And then Mary rose, quietly, and lefty, not a word said. Between almost having her in the pasture and demurring, and now alone again and much more aggressive, she reached several conclusions, shall I say, which was not to her liking. It would have been better if we spoke to one another, instead of counting on or believing the lies we gave to one another, my inhibitions and her subliminal assumptions.

Mary tossed Steve in the expectations of attaining me, that is for sure, or my sense of it. Is it the truth of the matter? I don’t know, just feels like it. I unexpectedly “rejected” her in the field. That is true, but that itself is not the truth of the matter, having explained the causation I experienced. Fifties met Sixties. When I told this tale to a woman, she thought I had done the right thing, for not risking sex with Mary, for she was much too young. I know for certain if I had  a condom with me lust would have swept over me. When I look back any relationship we would hope to have died because of the age differences, but that is temporocentrism, from this time to that time, and a weak, useless and extraneous thinking.

But an abundance of awareness to little effect.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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