“You make it sound like my betrayal of you and your sister was the same as my mother’s betrayal of me,” said the skeleton peevishly. “I’m not even saying my mother betrayed me, but by your portrayal, you know, I’m interested in how you do this calculation.”
It’s simple arithmetic, dad. You were a baby who needed to be held and protected. You got whipped in the face instead. If that’s not betrayal, I don’t know what qualifies.
“Fine, my mother betrayed me,” he said.
What’s fine about it? I don’t mean to employ your tactics by picking at one word out of context and making it the entire focus, but what the fuck? You’re making a concession to me that your mother whipping you in the face was a betrayal? Like “fine, I’ll grant you that, it doesn’t matter. Finish making this point so I can set up and knock down the next one”? What the fuck, man? Are you trying to prove that even after death you are the same as you always were, unchanged by your deathbed regrets and insights, that there is no hope for anything better, ever? Still trying to fucking win an unending argument?
The skeleton just grinned, or grimaced, or whatever the hell that expression was supposed to mean.
I can understand the roots of your anger, I really can. You grew up in extreme deprivation, nobody should have to struggle in that kind of need– maybe the worst of it all was the emotional deprivation you had to contend with. There are poor people who grow up in loving families, who laugh together, play music, enjoy other things besides those that money can buy. The children of these families are loved for who they are. You never had that, you were hated and whipped from your earliest memory. I get how painful that is. That pain never goes away, I understand that.
“Well, that’s very understanding of you. Of course, at the same time, knowing the roots of my reasonable anger doesn’t excuse the cruelty I practiced, and perfected, I might say, on you and your sister.”
No, and your mother’s nightmare life, which included, after an unimaginably hideous childhood, during her frustrated adulthood in a miserable and humiliating arranged marriage, the murder of her entire family and the complete erasure of the little settlement she came from, while it sheds light on how she could become crazy enough to whip you in the face and withhold all love from her infant child, is no excuse. Hitler’s father was a brutal, merciless, autocratic piece of shit.
“Fuck Hitler,” the skeleton and I said in unison.
Agreed. But you asked me to show the equivalence of your mother’s abusiveness and your own. It is more ticklish to portray the full dramatic impact of your technique than it is in the case of physical violence. All we need to say about the abuse you endured was that your mother whipped her baby in the face. Clearly, there have been lifelong repercussions from your abuse as well, it’s hard to dismiss the destruction you inflicted on your children, even as it’s tricky to describe.
“Go ahead, then, lay it the fuck out, then,” said the skeleton.
Against your advice, and in spite of mom begging me, I went to movie night at that Young Judaea Convention in Hampton Bays.
“Oh, here we go… Johnny One Note, yes, I was mean, oh, your father was so damned mean to you…” said the skeleton.
If I had my guitar I’d play a bit of One Note Samba for you, but I dare not digress. You were screening the movie ‘Let My People Go’ for an audience of Jewish teenagers from Nassau and Suffolk counties, the Nassau-Suffolk region of Young Judaea you oversaw. I wanted to go to the movie. You told me I couldn’t go. Mom became tearful as I insisted on going, she knew what I was about to see. Truthfully, I had no idea, how could I have? I was only about eight, maybe seven. I’d been told to act like a fucking man so many times by then that I was putting my little foot down. Whatever the hell it was, I was old enough to deal with it.
“Were you old enough to deal with it?” asked the skeleton.
No, I wasn’t, obviously. Nobody is old enough to deal with it. You and mom were certainly right to try to protect me from seeing what was in that movie. Mom cried, helplessly and your attitude, after you saw my determination, was “well, fuck it, if you’re such a big man, go ahead and see the fucking movie.”
“Admittedly a weaker position for a father to take than explaining, ‘look, there are some terrible things in that movie that you will never be able to unsee. Think of the worst nightmare you ever had then multiply it by a million. There is filmed footage of real things that happened, not that long ago, that are so much worse than the worst thing you can imagine, that I have to beg you, for your own sake, for mom’s sake, to wait a few years before you look at these kind of images. They are very upsetting, and you’re still a bit too young to make any fucking sense of them. I’m forty, and if I live to be a hundred and forty I’ll still be too young to make any sense of them. Listen to your mother, she’s crying for a very good reason. She’s protecting you. Let her protect you, Elie.’
“I can see now that would have been a better, much more compassionate, mature, fatherly way to have responded. Instead I just told my lifelong adversary: ‘fine, it’s your funeral, pal. Don’t say your mother and I didn’t try to warn you.'”
I think my sister was with me when the movie started. I guess if I was going to go she demanded her right to go. To her credit, and she must have been in kindergarten, or first grade, she left after a couple of minutes. Mom might have been there too, trying to convince us both to leave with her, if so, they left together. Either my little sister sniffed which way the wind was blowing or she just got bored. But I sat, determined to endure whatever was coming, with the empty seat next to me, the faces of the teenagers around me, virtually all of whom were smoking cigarettes.
The smoking cast a fog in the air that helped catch the dust motes swirling in the light of the projector, and added a grim dimension to the proceedings on the screen. The screen cast light back on the audience, illuminating the concerned young faces staring glumly ahead in that hotel ballroom.
What we were watching was a Zionist propaganda film. I’m not saying that what it depicted was not true. It all happened. I call it propaganda because of its single-minded intent. It drove the audience toward the only logical conclusion: a despised and persecuted people, mistreated, vilified and murdered for centuries, needed a land of their own where they could defend themselves against a world of enemies.
It was not an unreasonable conclusion at all, but the entire film was constructed to drive the point home using every weapon in the filmmaker’s arsenal. The music and visuals were carefully chosen for maximum emotional impact, the narration was alternately stirring and ominous, as the graphics on the screen changed from drawings of slavery in Biblical times to renderings of the twice destroyed temple in Jerusalem, to Babylonian carvings of Jewish hostages, to crude Medieval depictions of Jews going about our wicked, Christ killing business, draining blood from ritually murdered Christian children to make matzoh for Passover.
“Ridiculous, ignorant anti-Semites. The blood libel makes no goddamn sense. You make wine from the blood of Christian children, not matzoh, isn’t that self-evident? What the fuck is wrong with those stupid, unreasoning haters?” said the skeleton.
I was feeling pretty complacent about this parade of ancient injustices until the depictions of the Spanish Inquisition, the black and white woodcuts of the auto de fe and atrocities like that, Jews flayed alive, water-boarded, burned alive at the stake, their crudely rendered faces crying to heaven, for not embracing the all-loving, all-forgiving God of Catholic Spain. I felt my stomach beginning to tighten. Then we had the famous Ukrainian national hero Bogdan Chemlnitsky…
“… for whom a town is named not far from where Grandma and Pop grew up …”
… leading armed bands on horseback into unarmed little Jewish villages and murdering, raping, plundering. Things were getting worse fast, even an eight year-old could see that. Then suddenly there were photographs, and I began to feel a little queasy. The music began to sob louder, the narration became scarier too.
There was a photo of French Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus, victim of false charges and a kangaroo court, sentenced to life in prison for treason by anti-Semitic elements in the French army. Liberals of the day like Emile Zola cried out against this lynching, but Dreyfus was legally lynched, even though exonerated after years in prison. Then there was the familiar face of Theodore Herzl, father of modern Zionism, with his mighty beard. A few inspirational lines of his were read aloud, while the truth of what he spoke was shown on the screen. Photos of pogrom victims in Russia and Poland, stretched out in death, were like an overture to what was about to come.
Suddenly we see Adolf Hitler, a face every Jewish kid knows from a very early age. Hitler is pissed. I see the tears beginning to stream down all the faces around me, glittering in the reflected light of the movie screen. Hitler is screaming, gesticulating wildly, pounding the lectern, he’s clearly insane, and the audience on film is roaring his name, raising their arms. This is not going to end well, I recall thinking.
Then we see Kristallnacht, an organized, nation-wide pogrom against Jews in Germany that fired the starting gun for the orgy of official government hatred that was now released. The maniac is overrunning Poland, unleashing blitzkrieg, plunging the world back into the Great War that, according to Hitler, Germany never lost, that Jewish traitors ended by treacherously stabbing the victorious German army in the back.
Then we see another proof of what a madman Hitler was, in case a little overkill was needed. We see him smiling demonically and doing a mad jig when he learns that France is now in Nazi hands. I would not learn until thirty years later that the jig had been created by a filmmaker working for the Allies in their office of wartime propaganda.
Watching Hitler do that jig was maddening, I recall even as an eight year-old taking a little time-out to get mad, saying “whoa! wait a minute… that’s just sick!” It turned out the famous jig was nothing more than a single triumphant foot stomp from a German newsreel. The editor took the single stomp and repeated it a dozen times in a row. Now Hitler was not stomping in triumph, he was dancing an insane jig. The filmmakers of ‘Let My People Go’ may have known that, or maybe not, but it suited their purpose so they made a point of featuring the mad jack-booted “jig” at a strategic point in their story.
In a moment it didn’t matter what they knew or what they didn’t. Now there were film clips of sick, skinny Jews keeling over dead on filthy ghetto sidewalks, smiling Nazis clipping beards and earlocks off somber old Jews as German crowds laughed, a boy about my age, in an iconic photo, arms raised, surrendering to armed Germans who pointed their guns at him. Then, as the violins on the soundtrack rose and wept, the very images my mother had sobbed imagining her sensitive little boy seeing:
A grainy black and white film. A man in a cap, his sleeves rolled up, wheels a huge wheelbarrow full of rubbery, naked human skeletons covered with unnaturally pale skin. He smokes a cigarette as he wheels the wheelbarrow in the brilliant sunlight. He reaches a ramp, at the top of a mass grave. He grunts as he exerts himself to upend the wheelbarrow. The naked skeletons jiggle down the chute into the open pit, fall on top of other dead, starved, sickeningly rubbery bodies. He throws the cigarette into the mass grave after them.
I rise out of my seat, stomach churning. I see that everyone in the audience is sobbing. These tough teenagers are all bawling. I’m just a little kid. I start running up the aisle, get to the elevator. I’m becoming hysterical as I wait for the car to come. Maybe I run up the stairs, I burst down the hall, find the room, pound on the door. My mother is crying, my sister is staring at me as I shove the door open. I open my mouth to speak and a stream of vomit pours out. My mother hugs me, weeping. Unlike with my other nightmares, there is nothing she can say to reassure me about anything.
“Okay, that is truly, truly terrible. It’s unforgivable that I didn’t act like an adult, I’m truly sorry,” said the skeleton. “I dread to ask: do you remember what I did after that?”
Right after that, no. I have no recollection at all. You were probably even quite sympathetic, probably expressed remorse, spoke quietly, soothingly, as you often did at such times, told me that’s why mom had begged me not to see the movie. You surely took the teachable moment to instruct me that here was a perfect illustration of why your parents always have your best interests at heart and why you shouldn’t fight about everything.
“Advice that would have served me well as a father, not everything is a casus belli, for fucksake.”
As predicted, I had nightmares for a long time after that. I recall one vividly where I lived the helplessness of being in a living nightmare– enemy soldiers with guns, blindly obedient to an all-powerful psychopath, coming to get us. There was nothing we could do, in our comfortable house in Queens, when they stormed in, right through the screened-in back porch. They were wearing those Nazi helmets and they just took us, there was nothing we could do. I was desperately trying to think of something to do, but it was useless at that point. They just grabbed us.
It was some time after that I realized that Grandma and Pop, who had each been one of seven children in a Ukrainian town called Vishnevitz, never heard from any of their brothers or sisters back in Europe. “The letters just stopped coming,” was what you told me when I asked. It’s what happened when I probed that ranks as pure abuse. Do you remember?
“Elie, don’t,” the skeleton said.