Monday, December 04, 2023

'The Moment Before the Germans Will Arrive'

A Jewish friend writes: “The distraction of the war and its repercussions around the world is making concentration on other things difficult.  . . . I wish I could tune the news out. But the stakes for the future of Israel and of Jewish life generally are too great for me to be able to do so.” 

I’ve prided myself on being impervious to the hellishness of human nature, working hard not to be surprised by it, but I'm not succeeding. For the first time in my life I’m trying not to think about the latest round of horrors – in Ukraine, in Israel – and failing miserably. My thoughts have turned apocalyptic. The bad guys really are winning. I try to remind myself how sane people must have felt in 1939 – resorting to history for emotional distance, but I see through my own pathetic ruse. I remember Gibbon on history: “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” But how to deal with the vicarious barbarity of Hamas cheerleaders on U.S. campuses? The logic of the Sixties has inevitably flowered into nihilism, celebrating the murder of innocents. My friend continues:


“I go to the Times of Israel and The Jerusalem Post almost every couple hours--and I’m not ordinarily a compulsive follower of the news.  I’m keeping up with every twist and turn of the war, and every depressing report of its anti-Semitic fallout here and abroad.  To say that events are weighing heavily on me would be an understatement. I’m all but consumed by them.”


My friend is reading Adina Hoffman’s biography of Ben Hecht (1894-1964) – screenwriter, playwright, novelist and ardent Zionist. Emotionally, Hecht tended to overdo things. He supported Irgun, the underground Zionist organization responsible for the 1948 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. 


“Despite his excesses, Hecht was right (and early on) about a basic thing: Jews needed to be aggressive in defending themselves against the world’s endemic Jew-hatred; they could never again stand by and allow themselves to be the passive, self-pitying victims of ignorant brutishness. Unsurprisingly, that same theme—‘never again’--was invoked repeatedly at the D.C. march last month, the massive turnout for which, I like to think, reflected a newfound combativeness on the part of American Jews. So far as I know, Hecht didn’t come up with the ‘never again’ phrase, but he was among the earliest to promulgate the message--a legacy he could be proud of.”


I’ve been rereading Irving Feldman’s early work, including the title poem from his 1965 collection The Pripet Marshes. The marshes in Belarus and Ukraine were the site of the massacre of at least 18,000 Jews by the Germans in July-August 1941. Here are the opening stanzas of Feldman’s characteristically long-lined poem:


“Often I think of my Jewish friends and seize them as they are and

transport them in my mind to the shtetlach and ghettos,


“And set them walking the streets, visiting, praying in shul, feasting

and dancing. The men I set to arguing, because I love dialectic

and song—my ears tingle when I hear their voices—and the

girls and women I set to promenading or to cooking in the

kitchens, for the sake of their tiny feet and clever hands.


And put kerchiefs and long dresses on them, and some of the men I

dress in black and reward with beards. And all of them I set

among the mists of the Pripet Marshes, which I have never

seen, among wooden buildings that loom up suddenly one at a

time, because I have only heard of them in stories, and that long ago.


“It is the moment before the Germans will arrive.”

1 comment:

Tim Guirl said...

Whenever the topic of Israel comes up, I can reliably access Eric Hoffer to make sense of things. Here is a post from 2022 with Hoffer's words about Israel that are as timely as ever.,on%20Israel%20than%20Israel%20can%20rely%20on%20us.