For the end of a week in remembrance of the Holocaust, I am offering up this post of mine from a couple of years ago.
When I was a boy, I developed an aversion to the art of Marc Chagall. Why? Because some of his work was used to illustrate a catechism we were tortured with in St. Philip Neri School. I had no way of knowing at the time that St. Philip himself, a notorious iconoclast, would probably have flung the damned book out the window if we found it distracting. After all, when one of his monks came rushing to him all aglow with the news that the Virgin Mary had visited with him while he prayed, he advised him to spit in her face the next time she disturbed his meditation. Had I known, I might still be among the faithful, but there it is.
But I digress, as usual. It’s what I do, isn’t it? At any rate, as time went by, and the pain of extracting the religion from the boy, or vice versa (I’ll never know which), matured into a dull tingling sensation, I came to appreciate artistic trinkets like the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Pietá without revisiting the centuries of pilloried self-worth it took to create them. I came also to love Chagall, whose work I had so unreasonably imprisoned in the ghetto of my anti-religiousness.
I particularly came to love his 1925 painting Le Juif Errant, The Wandering Jew. I saw myself in that character, his home bundled on his back, passing window lit houses with their cozy fires, on his way to his appointment with the Second Coming. If you’re not familiar with the legend, it involves a Jew who berated Jesus on the way to the crucifixion for stopping to rest. As punishment, he was condemned to wander homeless, and deathless, until the Jesus returned triumphantly. Considering that early Christians thought that event was just around the corner, it must have seemed to them a curiously lenient punishment at the time!
Actually, the legend only came into full flower in the European Middle Ages, long after the alleged fact, so I suppose that’s irrelevant. It dovetailed nicely with the social realities of Judaism in that time and place, Jews often being in commerce and other trades involving traveling, and culturally separate from the largely agrarian Christians. Of course, these elements played a crucial role in antisemitism as well. In a time when both the Catholic Church and Islam forbade money lending, and when capitalism was just being born, Jews were the only group religiously allowed to do the necessary midwifery. Awkward, to say the least.
Anyway, it was this essential otherness that appealed to me. I was born in a Displaced Persons (refugee) camp following WW II. The land that would otherwise have been my homeland, Latvia, had been requisitioned in the name of the people by Stalin and his cronies, without much consultation with said people. I had nowhere to call home. My family eventually settled in the US, and now I’m as American as apple pie and, er, sour cream, but I still harbor a feeling of not quite belonging, anywhere, really. I’m not complaining. The casual presumptuousness and giddy brutality with which social membership is often enforced more than offset the cozy warmth of it, in my view. There’s a feeling of freedom, as well, in not holding yourself responsible for the original foundational sin of the prevailing system, whatever that may be. The price, of course, is total responsibility for your own choices, but that’s a fair bargain.
Latvia, the sweet, imaginary homeland of my youthful dreams, never existed, of course. In its brief experiment with independence between the World Wars, there was a tendency to authoritarianism, especially toward the end. We’ll never know how that would have ended, thanks to Uncle Joe. Then there was the shameful massacre of the Jews at Salaspils and other places while the country was in the grip of German Nazis. Some, perhaps even many, Latvians, like the Vichy French, enthusiastically participated.
But things were not always thus. A couple of years ago, I was wandering through what used to be the Jewish ghetto in Riga, now a sort of Russian quarter near the city market. The ghetto was “cleaned out” toward the end of 1941, all the occupants trundled off to a nearby forest, and exterminated like so many cockroaches. Turning a corner, I came upon a construction fence, and, sitting at a makeshift booth at the entrance, a young man with a bushy beard and a yarmulke. It was the site of a new Latvian Holocaust Museum. There were the expected photographs of Nazi atrocities, of course, but also the less expected evidence of mistreatment under the hands of the Soviets, who so often seem curiously off limits when discussing such things. But what moved me the most were the stories and photographs of Latvia before the Nazis, before the Soviets, a country where Jews fleeing the progroms of czarist Russia could find a home. Every major city in the country had a strong, proud Jewish heritage; Riga had one of the great yeshivas of Eastern Europe. There was antisemitism, yes, but not as strong and not as institutionalized as elsewhere. The nostalgic pictures of Jews during the inter-war independence years were especially moving, considering how all that came so cruelly to an end.
The Jewish population of Latvia was all but wiped out. Even now, all these years later, it is still struggling to regain a footing. As I see it, it’s a big chunk of my own cultural heritage, Jew or gentile, that’s been torn savagely off. It’s genuinely heartbreaking.
Well, I’m not a Jew, so I guess I can’t be a Wandering Jew, my romantic imagery notwithstanding. But we can travel together for a while and keep each other company.