The darkest shadow lies beneath the candle

candles

Pod svícnem bývá největší tma. The darkest shadow lies beneath the candle. The phrase occurs about half-way through Ariana Neumann’s extraordinary book, When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains. When her father, a Czech émigré who’d built an industrial empire in post-war Venezuela, died, Ariana wondered if she’d be able to learn something of his previous life, something he’d firmly refused to talk about during her childhood and beyond. She didn’t even know he was Jewish until she was in university and someone told her that her name and her bearing were Jewish. She did know there were mysteries. She’d found his name on the Pinkas Synagogue memorial in Prague on a trip there when her father was still alive in Caracas. His name, with his birthdate and a question mark elegantly calligraphed onto the wall. When she asked him about it — “What does it mean, Papi? If your name is on the wall, they must think you are dead.”– his answer was cryptic: “What does it mean?” he said, chuckling quietly. “It means that I tricked them. That is exactly what it means.” On a later trip to Prague with him, there were moments when she realized that the past was something too terrible for him to share.

Hans Neumann’s extended family was large and accomplished. His father owned a paint factory in Prague, his mother loved the house they bought in Libcice, on the Vltava River and kept it as a haven for her sons and the wider family. Their lives were rich and purposeful. In 1933, news of anti-Jewish laws and restrictions in neighbouring Germany filtered through to the Neumanns. Two uncles had already left for the USA. They urged the rest of the family to immigrate too. They didn’t. The Germans moved into the Czech Sudetanland in 1938. The rest is history, though the personal details of this history were unknown to Ariana until after her father’s death.

He left papers, a few photographs, a collection of watches. She knew of her father’s meticulous obsession with time-pieces, how he’d spend hours taking them apart and repairing them. The papers led her to a vast network of people, the children and grandchildren of that Czech family. Too many of them perished in camps. Otto and Ella Neumann, Ariana’s unknown grandparents. Uncles. Cousins. The survivors were few but some of them had bits and pieces of papers, some of them remembered someone else who might know something of the story, and through dedicated detective work, Ariana reconstructs her father’s past, which is also a larger past: her narrative will have familiar moments for many. She learns of her father’s hiding place within a wall of the paint factory as he waited for papers that would allow him to escape transportation. How did he pass the time in a compartment a few square feet in size? He took apart his watch, carefully observing the mechanical components, and he put it together again.

The darkest shadow lies beneath the candle. This phrase inspired the act that was the means of Hans’ survival. It’s worth reading this book to discover what that was. It’s worth reading this book for the beauty of the writing, for the careful construction of its narrative, balancing a personal family story against the terrible historical events. I was reminded a little of East West Street, by Philippe Sands, in that its author also uncovers his hidden family story within the fabric of the Second World War, specifically the Nazi crimes against humanity. Both writers have a similar tenacity and drive to piece together the puzzle of their family history, knowing as they do so that significant parts might never be clear.

Sometimes I lose my bearings. I forget that time has passed. And for that briefest moment, I want to rush again to my father. I want to tear along the checkered floor of the hall to the long windowless room and, as he raises his visor and looks up from his watches, explain that I finally solved the puzzle.

bright hips, late roses: a meditation on history

bright hips

Yesterday I cut some sprays of rosehips from the Rosa canina that grows around my bedroom window. It is the earliest rose to bloom, early May, and its hips always remind me of those pale pink single blossoms with their golden crowns of anthers. When I go into the kitchen and see the pot of hips on the table, I wonder how the summer passed so quickly. I remember the first warm days of April and how we’d have a glass of wine and a little snack on the deck, surrounded by pots of tulips. John’s been lugging those big pots down the stairs to overwinter in protected areas under the house. How did it pass so quickly?

Two weeks ago I was in Lviv. It was a city I’d long wanted to visit. A few years ago I read East West Street by Philippe Sands and knew something of the city’s 20th century history, not exactly a happy one. Sands uses 3 families rooted in Lviv, and their particular experiences of that city and that century to weave together an extraordinary story of hope, of violence, of terrible loss, and of resilience. That the city was known by 4 different names—Lemberg, Lviv, Lvov, and Lwów— contains its own message of war, aggression, and conquest. I’d hoped we could see a performance at the Solomiya Krushelnytska Lviv State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet or Lviv Opera but there wasn’t anything on during our visit.

lviv opera

We did go inside for a tour and it was interesting to see the preparations for an upcoming opera (I think it was Don Quixote). The building itself is glorious but I kept (somehow) remembering the first photograph I saw of it, in East West Street, draped in flags and bunting to welcome Hans Frank, Governor-General of the occupied Polish Territories. He attended a concert in August, 1942, a performance of Beethoven’s Lenore Overture no. 3, opus 72, followed by the Ninth Symphony. He addressed the audience from the orchestra pit:

We, the Germans, do not to go foreign lands with opium and similar measures like the English. We bring art and culture to other nations.

As we explored Lviv, I kept thinking about what happened during those terrible years. The city’s Jews concentrated first in the Lwów Ghetto and the Janowska camp on the outskirts of the city, then Belzek concentration camp: of the 100,000 Jews in the city at the beginning of the war, only about 300 remained at the end. The narrow cobbled streets and beautiful faded houses, the churches, the grand halls: they’d all absorbed the sound of gunshot and shouts, the hammering at doors, the jackboots. I know this is true for so many places in Europe (and elsewhere of course) but I was perhaps more attentive to the layers in Lviv.

Two weeks I was in Lviv. Now I’m at home, thinking and writing about how time accumulates in a city, in memory, in the bright hips of roses on my kitchen table, and in this last spray I cut from the garden just now.

late roses

Lviv won’t leave me alone. When I came home, I re-read East West Street. I tracked down poetry, history, and have peered through my reading glasses at old photographs, wanting to understand where I was in relation to everything else. The poet Adam Zagajewski was born in Lviv in 1945, though his family was expelled shortly after.

…go breathless, go to Lvov, after all
it exists, quiet and pure as
a peach. It is everywhere.

of larks and genocide

Every year I buy at least one new rose and this year’s is an airy David Austin called “The Lark Ascending”. While I was watering this morning, I leaned in to smell the open blossoms, so fresh and lovely. What’s in a name? So much. The name led me to thinking about war and about violence and the whole week of noise.

lark

A week when the airwaves were filled with sound and memories of the Normandy landings 75 years ago and also a week when the report on the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls was released. I  haven’t read the report yet although I’ve been working through the Executive Summary, itself 121 pages. The introduction discusses the use of the term “genocide” to describe the acts of violence against women, girls, and other First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people. The term was coined by Raphael Lemkin in his book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1943). His definition includes psychological and other non-physical acts to undermine and destroy the foundational structures of race and culture.

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.

Last year I read East West Street, by Philippe Sands. It’s a stunning exploration of family history set against the backdrop of the Second World War and also a detailed account of the legal foundations of the Nuremberg trial. I found the information about the actual resistance to using Lemkin’s word genocide fascinating. The resistance was to the concept of group identity in the law versus the individual.

Every newspaper columnist and every politician has an opinion, of course. And it seems that most of them are uncomfortable with the term “genocide”. But history catches up with us. It does. And we’ve learned some lessons about our country and ourselves in it. While I was a child walking to school along Fairfield’s mild and tree-lined streets, Indigenous kids were being forcibly taken from their homes to schools that had been established to educate them in ways that ignored their family systems, their culture, their languages. Listen to Duncan Campbell Scott in his role as a bureaucrat in the Department of Indian Affairs:

I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone. . . . Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.

Lemkin argued that the term genocide was appropriate and vitally important during the Nuremberg trial not because individual rights were less important than group rights but because the reality of what happened in Nazi Germany was that individuals were killed because they were members of targeted groups.The prevailing ethos of the trial was that it was about crimes against humanity, individuals.

So yes, we’re uncomfortable with the notion that genocide can happen within our borders, in our communities, on the long highways of our country, in its rivers where so many young women were thrown, in its courtrooms where an Indigenous woman’s torn vaginal tissues can be shown to all as evidence of supposedly consensual rough sex. Would we be any more comfortable if the MMIWG Report suggested that our country was guilty of crimes against humanity rather than genocide? Words are important but so are deep-seeded (and nurtured) attitudes, embedded in our culture like weeds.

Listening to elderly men talk of their experiences on the beaches of Normandy, I kept hearing “The Lark Ascending”, the beautiful tone poem by Ralph Vaughan Williams, composed against the military maneuvers of the First World War. One story is that he was vacationing at Margate and saw the fleet exercises in preparation for embarkation. I have several recordings but I think my favourite is Hilary Hahn. Her bow takes us over the fields of England and France, lets us hear the transcendent notes of a lark’s song, but in it we also hear loss. We are in the presence of beauty haunted by violence.

A rose is a rose is a rose. A word, well, not so simple.

 

 

 

 

 

“What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.”

two women, postcard Czernowitz Hauptstrasse 16, Atelier Riveria

A couple of months ago, on a Sunday, I was making dinner and listening to Writers and Company on the CBC. The host Eleanor Wachtel was interviewing Philippe Sands, a British/French lawyer with a specialty in international law. The conversation was interesting and I was glad to be listening as I prepared vegetables, checked the roasting chicken. It was when Sands said the word Lviv that my ears really pricked up.

He went on to talk about the background for his book East West Street, an account of his attempts to trace his family story within the historical context of WW11 and the larger story of the Nuremberg trial. Maybe I forgot something important for the meal because I couldn’t move from where I stood as I listened.

As soon as the interview ended, I ordered East West Street and it’s been waiting for me to open it. Which I did, yesterday. During a cloudy period, after transplanting arugula seedlings and weeding the garlic bed, I sat in our living room and entered a world I know I will remember forever. Because in a way it’s my world. My family background, unlike Sands’, is not Jewish; my Ukrainian grandfather was Eastern Orthodox (I guess). But like Sands, I grew up not knowing the family secrets. And how prescient the epigraph for East West Street: “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” This is taken from an essay, “Notes on the Phantom”, by the French psychoanalyst Nicolas Abraham. (And of course I’ve ordered his book.) At the beginning of East West Street, after receiving an invitation to give a lecture on the origins of international law to students at the university in Lviv, Sands spends time with his mother looking through two old briefcases filled with his maternal grandfather’s papers.

the moirs box

I thought of the Moirs Happiness Package. I found this in my parents’ apartment after they’d died and I brought it home with me, along with an assortment of materials I’d never known about. There’s not much—some photographs of unknown women, my grandfather’s travel papers and his army book, two rosaries— but in a way what I have has filled me with a fierce desire to piece together my grandfather’s story. In the Moirs Happiness Package is a small photocopied map of Bukovina, the province my grandfather came from, and so I know my father must have wondered about his father, wondered if a map would help him to figure out things about the place and its history. But that was as far as he went. I know a little more than he knew and in the way that these things work, I’ve already booked a trip to Ukraine in September and the final city of my travels there will be Lviv. So this book, right now, is the book I need to read. Philippe Sands explores Lviv with three maps: “…modern Ukrainian (2010), old Polish (1930), ancient Austrian (1911).” I will take the little map my father used and try to locate a cadastral map as well. I’ve given a researcher in Chernivtsi other details—names and dates from the parish records kindly decoded for me by my son Forrest—in the hope that there might be people remaining who are related to me (my grandfather left in 1907).

One thing that Sands finds in his grandfather’s briefcases is a Fremdenpass, or a travel pass. In the Moirs Happiness Package, I also found one of these:

his travel paper

A small object, stained and brittle, but I hope it will help me to travel backwards, across water, across the Carpathians, to a village where a midwife named Rosalia Inravschi delivered my grandfather in 1879. Going back, we find ourselves waiting, waiting, for the moment when the maps show us everything, the gaps between then and now, every season unfolding and the years opening for us, including us in the old family story.