“If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t live”

Nussbaum: "Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card"

Nussbaum: "Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card"

My piece on Irena Sendler below reminded me again of a different kind of resistance — creative resistance, which I wrote about here, following a presentation on the subject by authors John and Mary Felstiner. My reflections on the subject were renewed after reading an article a few days ago in the New York Times (it’s here) about Russian-born novelist Irène Némirovsky, who died at Auschwitz in 1942:

“In the end, the biography and the stories leave one feeling both sad and intensely conscious of the disparity between Irène Némirovksy’s literary offenses and the fate that awaited her at Auschwitz. What we’re left with are the paradoxes. A woman who wrote so often about the terror of aging was never given a chance to find out if old age was really as bad as she feared. A woman obsessed with defining her own identity learned how little her opinion mattered to authorities with their own criteria for determining who she was.”

Although the world knows of Anne Frank and a few others, the Felstiners’ talk mentioned too many names unknown to most of us:  the artists Halina Olomucki (“I am an artist, only and always”), who is still alive; Felix Bloch, beaten to death by the S.S.; Lithuanian poet and partisan Abraham Sutzkever; artist Lea Lilienblum; artist Felix Nussbaum; artist David Brainin; artist Amalie Seckbach; and poet Itzhak Katznelson, who wrote in his diary before he was gassed at Auschwitz:

“Sure enough, the nations did not interfere, nor did they protest, nor shake their heads, nor did they warn the murderers, never a murmur.”


Olomucki: "When will it end? Enough! Enough!" from the cycle "Camp"

There’s hope in numbers, for one of the surprising things about last month’s event at Hillel’s Koret Pavilion was the number of Stanford faculty in the audience:  I noticed Irv and Marilyn Yalom, Eva Domanska, David Riggs, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Steve Zipperstein, Myra Strober, Tobias Wolff, Joe and Marguerite Frank, and, much to my surprise, someone I had met in 2007 at the Villa Decius an hour outside Krakow,  Nina Witoszek, who at that time was giving a rather controversial talk about the Velvet Revolutions.

The event was a seemed a sort of love fest for the Felstiners.  I arrived amid the leftover hors d’ouevres and champagne (the party started before I got there) and their talk ended with a standing ovation and presentation of flowers.  But more importantly: the heavy professorial presentation could signal a much stronger academic presence in the future of “creative resistance” — which turns away from Jewish traditions of diplomacy and negotiations, which failed them utterly in the face of merciless aggressors — and instead focuses on creative ways the victims resisted, even the simple scrawling of “Courage!” on the wall at Drancy.

I missed the hors d’ouevres, but students were selling challah downstairs after the event — and five bucks for chocolate-chip challah still hot from the oven was a deal.

But thoughts about the event have lingered — especially since, by sheer coincidence, I attended an excellent multimedia presentation of “They Left a Light” at the Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco a few days later.  Curiously, I heard Gideon Klein’s haunting “Variation on a Moravian Folk Song” — a work previously unknown to me — twice within one week.

Charlotte Salomon painted 1,300 autobiographical portraits in the last year of her life, as she waited for the Germans to take Paris. As history gained momentum on the young woman, she was painting so fast she used not images, but words.  In the beginning was the Word … and perhaps in the end as well.


Seckbach: "Flowers" in Terazin ghetto

Her oeuvre, Life? or Theater? An Operetta, extended her life way beyond what her tormentors could take from her. “Her very self is a work of art,” said Mary Felstiner, “she would paint her life instead of taking her life.” Tzvetan Todorov spoke a few days ago spoke about dictators’ craving for self-reinvention, especially a self-reinvention through art.  Where does the impulse come from?  And when is it restorative and regenerative — and when is it grandiose folly and self-delusion?

I’ve always been mistrustful of the glib assertion that moral courage is more important or difficult than physical courage.  However, many of these artists had plenty of both. Take Abraham Sutzkever, who worked with Lithuanian partisans and smuggled arms into the Vilnius ghetto, and spent his long life afterwards writing poems in Yiddish.  From his New York Times obituary:

“All that time he composed poems, writing, he once said, while crawling through sewers and even while hiding in a coffin.

“’If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t live,’ he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1985 while reminiscing over a glass of French cognac. ‘When I was in the Vilna ghetto, I believed, as an observant Jew believes in the Messiah, that as long as I was writing, was able to be a poet, I would have a weapon against death.'”

Clearly he did.

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