Lumps in the gravy

A café at the Alte Opernplatz

I just spent a couple of days in Frankfurt, Germany. I had been stationed there some 50 years ago, and since I was passing through on my way to Riga, I jumped at the opportunity to see how much it had changed. The late 60s, after all, were not all that long after the end of WWII, and Frankfurt, like much of the rest of the country, had been bombed into rubble; the few buildings left standing in 1945 were left on purpose, the allies having singled them out for future headquarters. A lot had been rebuilt when I was there, but although the rubble had been pretty much cleaned up, a lot had not. Whole quarters were still clear of buildings, including the historic Römer, one of the most important sites in German history. A few blocks away, the old Opera house was standing, albeit unused and unsafe, with rows of chest high bullet holes along its walls. There were similar reminders of the war all over town. All of that has now been rebuilt to exacting specs, and the city was eerily unfamiliar within a context of remembered places and new construction.

But the most striking thing was the population. On certain streets it was nearly impossible to find a bratwurst among the curry and halal restaurants. What I found was a vibrant diverse community of people living peacefully together.

Well, that’s not all that odd for Frankfurt. When I was there 50 years ago, we used to joke that it was the northernmost Italian city in Europe, with strong Turkish and Indo/Pakistan contingents as well. Still, Germany?

It is, after all, practically the birthplace of the very idea of the ethnic nation state. Those Mediterranean peoples I remembered from all those years ago had been invited in as guest workers, and Germans were pretty ambivalent about their presence.

Things are very different now, thanks largely to the efforts of Angela Merkel to keep the borders open to refugees from the many devastated parts of the world. There is resistance, of course, and a resurgence of the right, as in many other places in the west, but, at least so far, its impact has been rhetorical for the most part.  I have heard Americans say that Merkel has ruined Germany, by which they mean she has ruined it for people like them, racist xenophobes.  I agree, and I hope it stays ruined for them. Germany, of all places, is something of a beacon of hope in a dismal political landscape.

Which brings me to America. What an embarrassment. We strut and crow about melting pots, but when the chips are down we fold and curl up in a little ball. Not all of us, of course. I am happy to say that more than half the country fully and proudly stands for and lives up to the noble sentiment inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Unfortunately our cynicism has allowed the minority to elect a government headed by an appalling racist and a congressional majority too terrified of the loss of power to stand up to him. We of all people should be an example to the world of compassion, but we’re not.

I mean, Germany. Who would have ever thought it?

Courage, America, s’il vous plait

At this writing, the governors of 24 states, all but one of them Republican, have announced they will block the settlement of refugees in their states. It seems clear they don’t have the authority to do that under the constitution they are always on about revering, but it makes for political fodder in a year leading up to a major election. Conservatives contrast themselves from liberals by claiming they respect loyalty and duty above all. Such generalizations mean nothing if you can change the particulars any time a risk is involved.

I don’t generally bandy about words like courage and cowardice; God knows I’ve fallen short too many times in the past. But the bar for the settlement of refugees seems low enough even for someone like me. Yes, there is some risk involved, but relatively little. Only one of the attackers in Paris was identified as a possible refugee, the rest were either French or Belgian citizens. Even that one case is far from clear. The fact that the Syrian passport survived the suicide bomber’s destruction suggests it was meant to be found. French police are looking at the validity of the passport as a result.

In spite of your favorite movie or video game, courage is not a matter of acting without fear; it is acting in spite of fear, because a greater good will result. Surely we Americans, so proud of our toughness, can accept the small risk involved with the settlement of refugees from the very people we are so afraid of.

Actually, it would be comforting, in a weird way, to think all of these governors were simply cowards, but I think their real motivation lies in the realm of politics. The Republican party’s lifeblood is fear. They miss no opportunity to exploit it to their advantage, and this latest move falls right into place alongside their rhetoric about Mexican immigrants. This, to me, is far more despicable than mere cowardice, over which one may have little control.

I’ll keep this short. Do you remember all those veterans you were falling all over yourselves to thank last week? Well, this is your opportunity to step up and accept a small amount of risk, and show what you’re made of. That will make all that gratitude so much more meaningful; it won’t look so much like you were just glad to be off the hook for courage.

Life on the Mississippi, revisit

It’s Fathers’ Day. This is a reprise of something I posted on this blog in February of 2013.

In a dusty, fading memory of a National Geographic of my youth, among the bare-breasted African ladies and stripe-shirted Parisians, there is a sunny picture of a lad on a raft, his toes swirling the Mississippi River. His father had taken him out of school for a year of rafting on that mythic Father of Dreams, not only waters. Why could not I have a father like that, I grieved.

My own father thought peace, not adventure, was the greatest gift. He was born and grew in Latvia, in a forest of kin, as much a part of his place as the oak trees planted for the native sons. A small stone house, a well, three oaks and a horizon of fields. A burial ground nearby sheltered his ancestors on both sides; their names are gone now, weathered away like the wooden crosses that marked their graves. But he was there, where he belonged, in the embrace of family, living and dead.

When I was a boy, I would stand in front of the door of my house, looking outside, wishing and wondering. I think he was like that. Bye and bye, whatever was beyond the fields of oats and rye beckoned, and he answered. In a fit of irrational exuberance, he joined the army.

Not bad, really, at least at first. It was a free country, for that brief period between the great wars, and nothing for soldiers to do but dream of dying under foreign skies, all brave and noble. They certainly had the songs for it. He went off to Riga, to the War College. It was a blast. Bright lights, big city, no way to keep him down on the farm after that. He married a girl with an eighth grade education and a mind that was quicker than a hare chased by two foxes and an alley cat. No slouch himself, he thought she was normal. They had a couple of children. You know that feeling, in a dream, when you’ve climbed to the highest peak to look at the world, and you turn around to discover the mountain has disappeared while you weren’t paying attention?

Russians. Germans, then Russians again. The world was in one of its fits. This part of the story is a haze of half glimpsed hopes and fears, mostly projections on my part. Like one of those stunts on a magician’s stage : a loud noise, a lot of smoke, and when it all clears, everything is different. In a camp in Germany, full of shattered dreams, I was born, much to the chagrin, I’m betting, of my brothers.

The father I knew had had enough adventures, thank you. He had made some promises to God when all else had crumbled; he did his best to see that his children fulfilled them. Keep this in mind when you promise things to God: don’t involve others. Faust probably had a better deal.

These days, I live near the Mississippi, and occasionally, when I drive upriver, I see that kid on the raft in my mind. I’m almost as old as my father ever got. I hope I’ve done as well as he did.

Le Juif Errant

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.

 

the-wandering-jew-1925

Le Juif Errant, Chagall, 1925

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.