Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Seed of Sarah

This year for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I wanted to take a look at Seed of Sarah: Memoirs of a Survivor by Judith Magyar Isaacson. It may not be the best known Holocaust memoir, but it's well-written, and I heard Isaacson give a talk several years ago and spoke with her briefly afterwards. She makes an impression. Apparently, she has a second book coming out (although there's not an English edition, at least yet).

Isaacson had rarely talked of her experiences until 1976, when she spoke in an informal discussion after a screening of Night and Fog at Bowdoin College. As students asked her questions – some very personal – she began to tell her tale, and wound up speaking past midnight. It prompted her to write Seed of Sarah and revisit her experiences.

Among other things, Judith Magyar Isaacson served as the Dean of Students at Bates College in Maine. I imagine it's not a coincidence that Bates got Elie Wiesel to be their featured speaker for a big college anniversary. I hear him speak then, and heard Isaacson at a later event. What struck me the most about both of them was a certain energy, a spiritual maturity - grace. That quality is all the more remarkable after hearing their life experiences surviving the Holocaust. Or maybe it's more explicable. I have heard at least one survivor speak who was extremely angry, not that one can blame him - that's lifetime pass territory – although I was more surprised to hear him harshly criticize other survivors, including authors like Viktor Frankl, whose work I value. However, Isaacson's internal path took her in a different direction. The prologue for her book is called, "How Can You Smile?" and I remember her as smiling often, with a grounded but very optimistic demeanor.

She was born in Kaposvár, Hungary in 1925, and thus a schoolgirl when Hitler began his rise to power. The Hungarian National Socialists used the arrowcross as their symbol. Hungary passed a series of anti-Semitic laws following the German model starting in 1938. Forced mass deportations of Jews and other victims to concentration camps didn't start in Hungary until 1944, much later than in Germany and Poland, but they were done with ruthless efficiency. Exact estimates differ, especially depending on what regions are included, but over 430,000 Jews were deported, and the total death toll exceeded 600,000.

Beyond Issacson's story of survival in the camps, what's most stuck with me is her tales of her schoolyard days, her reflections on forgiveness and her demeanor. Here's a few excerpts – but it's worth reading the whole book.

The year is 1938, and young Judith Magyar is 13, a bright student with a special love of poetry. Dr. Biczó, one of the most admired teachers at her school, picks her to recite a poem for the upcoming March Fifteenth Festival, a big event. She's nervous but excited. From chapter 1, "The Hidden Crowd":

I learned my poem by heart and rehearsed it for hours each night. Unfortunately it was a patriotically contrived ode, trite and childish. "Don't exaggerate that awful rhythm," mother coached, "you're rocking me to sleep. Tone it down. And make your voice resonant: like silver bells in the wind." But camouflaging the rhymes and rhythm wasn't easy. Even while I practiced diligently, I couldn't help but laugh at the poem, so amateurish compared to an Ady or a Babits. I complained to my aunt Madga. "It smacks of the principal," she jeered with the patronizing air of the recently graduated. "I'm sure Dr. Biczó didn't choose it." But as the weeks passed, the poem grew on me, and as I declaimed to mother, I waxed so emotional that tears collected on my lashes. Hadn't my great-grandfather Weiss volunteered in the revolution? Hadn't my father and my paternal uncles fought in the World War? Secretly, I prayed for another upheaval and the chance to risk my own life for my country.

A few days before the festival, Dr. Biczó listened to me recite the poem in its entirety. He nodded his bald head with satisfaction: "Just think what you could do with a great poet like Ady."

Before the festival, however, Hitler invades nearby Austria. Judith's parents become very worried. The atmosphere in town is getting nastier, and there's even the question of whether Judith, as a Jew, will still be allowed to deliver the poem. But Dr. Biczó says there will be no change. The big day comes:

Today, our classes were celebration, and the whole day was spent with history, poetry, and son. In the evening I arrived at school in Marika's splendid costume, jumping with excitement. Among the participants, I was the only child. Our art instructor made up my face with the concentration of a true artist. She held me at arm's length: "You look lovely, Magyar: the picture of a little Hungarian girl." She thinks I don't look Jewish, I figured, and skipped off, foolishly taking it for a compliment.

My poem was second in the program. All through the Bartók-Kodály choirs, I trembled behind the heavy, plush curtains, waiting for Dr. Biczó's cue. At the stroke of his plump finger, I parted the crimson drapes and stomped on stage. Mother had warned me of this terrifying moment: "Just pretend that all those heads are cabbages." But unfortunately there were no heads for me to see. Only darkness, threatening darkness. Under the dazzling light, I stood isolated, vulnerable. I curtsied, lifting the embroidered silk skirt with two fingers, and heard my voice choke up as I announced the title and author. Breathlessly, childishly, I began:

Magyar Iáyok, tudjátok-e
Micsoda nap van ma?
A Magyar nép dicsösétgét
E nagy naptól kapta.

Hungarian girls, say,
What day is today?
Magyar people's glory
Stems for this day.

"Shut up, Jewess!" a belligerent voice thundered from the void. Coarse shouts startled me from terribly near: "Dirty Jew!" "Away with the Kike!" Shrill, mocking whistles sprang up from all directions, hissing their hatred and spite. I shivered, terrified. Our friendly auditorium, where I had so often played and exercised, was transformed into an enemy den. Unseeing, I faced a nightmare. My knees shook above my white knee socks and my teeth chattered audibly. All my instincts propelled me backstage. But I would not give in.

I took a deep breath and dug my nails deep into my palms. My eyes had become accustomed to the spotlights, and I forced them to stare into the void. I gave another curtsy, this time low, unhurried, formal – just as I had learned in folk dance. Proud of my newfound courage, I smiled involuntarily.

Applause sprang from the dark hall, first sporadically, then solidly from all directions. Here and there, a mocking whistle soared above the clapping, but no one shouted anymore.

I decided to recite my poem from the start:

Hungarian girls, say,
What day is today?

My voice surprised me. It was fuller, stronger than before, almost adult. The large hall echoed it encouragingly, and there were no more interruptions until the final din of applause. One more curtsy, and I backed offstage, exhausted but exhilarated.

"Well done," smiled Dr. Biczó, and I ran to change into my navy dress uniform with the tricolor corsage.

It was with some trepidation that I went to Dr. Biczó's study the next morning to return the book containing my poem. What would he say about the Nazi interference? Could he possibly understand how terrifying it had been?

He received me kindly. "Excellent performance! Your voice is well suited to a large auditorium." Not a word about the demonstrators.

"The whistles..." I mumbled.

"Oh, yes!" he interrupted. "Some lunatic fringe, no doubt. Do you know, Magyar, how many Nyilasok - Arrowcross – there are in all of Kaposvár? No more than a hundred, surely. In a population of thirty-five thousand." He rapped his pencil against the desk for emphasis. "They pose no danger. I hope they did not frighten you."

"Oh, no..." I hung my head."

"have you ever read Plato, Judit Magyar?"

I hardly knew who Plato was. "We haven't had him, professor, sir."

Dr. Biczó stepped to the nearest bookshelf and slowly, with great formality, extracted a thin, worn volume and handed it to me. "You may take it home, Magyar, but please, be careful. I don't make a habit of lending my books to students. Note the dialogue Gorgias, and remember, Magyar, what Socrates teaches us: 'It is better to suffer an injustice than to commit one.'"

I held the frayed book as if in prayer. "Thank you, professor, sir," I curtsied. Down in the courtyard, a willful March wind bent the shivering poplars. I watched through Dr. Biczó's window as one of the young trees bowed humbly to the ground and stood upright again.

That's a lovely image. Dr. Biczó was probably seeking to reassure her. Along with a portrait of young courage, this story shows the influence of a supportive teacher. Similarly, Judith Magyar is very close with her mother and young aunt Madga, and it's those bonds that help them all survive later.

Most of the teachers at her school are decent people, but one, Köváry, nicknamed "Adam's Apple" by the girls, is a horrible anti-Semite, and he begins to show it after the first "Jewish Laws" are passed in Hungary. Using a revisionist, anti-Semitic history book, Köváry takes a perverse pleasure in forcing the Jewish girls in class to read the most bigoted passages. In Chapter 2, "Grandfather Escapes," Köváry is bullying his favorite target, a shy Jewish girl named Böde, who falters and falls silent in the middle of reading aloud an anti-Semitic passage. This does not go over well:

"Cow's udder between bull's horns!" Köváry bellowed. Thirty-night uniformed young ladies dipped pens into inkwells and copied "Cow's udder between bull's horns" into their notebooks. We loved to spread Köváry's novel vulgarities during recess. Böde clutched her desk and closed her eyes; two tears slid down her inflamed cheeks. But her tormentor hadn't finished. "Tell me, you offspring of blushing idiots, where did those worthless Jews come from? Stay mum another minute and I'll flunk you out of here without another chance. One less Jewish intellectual to worry about! Go, hide yourself in your father's grocery shop!"

That did it. Böde hated helping in her father's store. Burly peasants filled it on market days, and she was much too shy to take their good-natured pleasantries. Quickly, she quoted from our textbook: "During the Middle Ages, the Jews infiltrated Hungary, mostly from Poland, Galicia, and Rumania..." She hesitated, emitted a half-choked sob, then switched to the text we had three year previously: "But the Israelites in western Hungary are descendants of the Kazars!" We Jews of Somogy county prided ourselves on our "Aryan" ancestry: prejudice is contagious, and imperceptibly we had absorbed the media's bias. In self-irony, we often paraphrased Hitler's slogan "Herause mit den Juden! – Out with the Jews!" to "Heraus mit uns! – Out with us!"

"You improvising donkey with an elephant's trunk!" Köváry sputtered. A shocked sigh sprang from the class. This was just too much – even from Adam's Apple.

Ági Torony stuck up both hands, waving them insistently. The daughter of a prominent gentile doctor, she would not be ignored. "Toronyi," Köváry nodded.

Ági took her time, for the stage was clearly hers. With an exaggerated poise, she smoothed down her pleated skirt and threw back her head. Instead of her boyish voice, she sounded resonant and calm, almost grown-up. "Professor, sir, we learned about the Kazars in first form. They were a nomad tribe who adopted Judaism before they joined the Magyars in the occupation of present-day Hungary."

"Who is teaching whom?" Köváry bellowed. "Jewish horsemen! Bahhh! Legends of the past. The Kazars are gone. Wiped out! There isn't even any mention of them in your textbook."

Évi Kárpárti couldn't take it anymore: her right arm waving like a flag, she cried out passionately: "They weren't lost for a thousand years! We still had them in first form!"

There was a peal of appreciative laughter, underscored by the bells for recess. Köváry grabbed his book and left the room, followed by a surge of my classmates.

Köváry's behavior is utterly appalling. On the other hand, I love this portrait of young civil disobedience against indoctrination. Teenagers and even younger kids often get what's going on much better than adults give them credit for. There's a dark undercurrent here, though, because as readers we know what the students don't fully grasp yet – that the situation in Hungary will grow far worse. Mocking petty authority and bigotry, satisfying and praiseworthy though it is, will prove insufficient for the scale of cruelty to come.

Still, this reminds me of another tale. During one of my brief teaching stints, I covered a unit on the Holocaust. One of the students had grandparents who were survivors, and had fought in the Dutch resistance. His grandfather had been interviewed by a local public television station in Atlanta, and we watched part of it in class, with the student teaching. His grandfather said something about sitting in on classes today and being struck by the way students challenged their teachers. And rather than scolding this behavior - he thought it was great. He said that as a schoolboy, he and his classmates had been taught to be obedient, and this made them – here he paused – "ill-equipped" to resist Hitler and the fascists.

Judith Magyar continues her schoolwork, but her dreams of attending the Sorbonne are denied - she is 19 when she is sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She's later shuttled to the Hessisch-Lichtenau work camp in Germany. The middle chapters center on her family's struggle to survive under grueling, cruel conditions. Chapter 8, "Stay Together!" recounts the challenges for Judith, her mother Rozsa and aunt Madga to remain intact as a group in the face of Nazi selections. Those efforts sometimes increases their peril, but their family bonds remain essential. Judith also lives with a well-founded fear of rape in the camps. It's a perspective and experience that's not found in all Holocaust memoirs. (I won't try to summarize every event – it's better to read the book for one's self.)

In the 80s, Judith Magyar Issacson and her husband Ike return to the sites of the camps, partially so she can do research. She later attends some reunions in Europe and gives some talks. This last chapter, "A Time to Forgive?" is very thoughtful, and features some memorable incidents:

I spotted the intricate little railroad station from a distance, looking like an illustration for a Grimm Brothers' fairytale. "This station hasn't changed at all," I told Ike, "it gives me the creeps." Closing my eyes, I could see our trainload of decrepit women swarming by the half-timbered building, bent and skeptical.

Getting out of the car, I faced a stout, neatly dressed woman about my age, waiting on the platform for a train. "Pardon me," I addressed her in my rusty German, "can you tell us the way to the munitions factory?"

"Why go up there?" she asked, and I explained briefly. "Oh, yes, I remember you women," she said in the local dialect.

"You do?" I whispered, awed to find a witness.

"Of course," she shrugged. "We used to watch you file past the grocery store, where I worked as a girl. You'd trudge by in rows of five, accompanied by guards and dogs. Yes?"

"Yes," I nodded.

"Ah, I remember you well," she droned on, eyeing my tailored dress. "You arrived ragged, barefoot, shaven to the scalp... What were you, criminals?" she blurted with sudden interest. "Or prostitutes?"

"Neither," I shook my head. "One thousand Hungarian Jewish women."

Her face, puffy with years of fat, grew indifferent, and we left her behind, staring at us, expressionless.

It's a remarkable interchange. Stories like this aren't uncommon in Holocaust accounts. It's about as stark an example of cognitive dissonance as you can find. Some citizen sees a group of prisoners, who have clearly been treated poorly – so poorly it's genuinely shocking. Naturally, the citizen asks, "Why? What's going on here?" Faced with the sight of Nazis (or their collaborators) commanding these ragged prisoners, or perhaps after witnessing actual abuse, the answer the citizen often arrives at is, "Those people must have done something really terrible to deserve that treatment." The alternative realization - that they don't deserve it, that these people in power are abusing it - and thus the same thing could happen to me - is truly terrifying. (I've covered some of these dynamics in earlier pieces; more, perhaps, in later posts.)

This brings us to forgiveness. When I heard her speak, Isaacson shared a story that wasn't in the book (at least my edition), so my details may be off. On one of her trips to Europe, after giving a talk, she was approached afterwards by a man. He said he had driven some of the deportation trains. He said something to the effect of: I didn't completely know what was going on, but I partially knew, or suspected, and didn't really want to know. Can you forgive me?

Forgiveness exists on at least two levels. There's the historical, collective level. And there's a far more personal one. Survivor Primo Levi delves very deeply into both the treachery of memory and the issue of forgiveness in The Drowned and the Saved. Levi writes that he and his fellows didn't blame those without power much; but blame grew the further one went up the ladder. He also spends a great deal of time considering the lies people tell to protect themselves. He examines this in Nazi perpetrators, the tales they make up to exonerate themselves and in some cases convince themselves to be true. Yet even the capos and other dull brutes he describes knew, however dimly, they were being cruel. Meanwhile, he also recounts the tale of the family of a fellow prisoner who almost certainly died. When Levi visits them to give them the news, they stop him – and tell him a story they've heard that the man escaped to France, or elsewhere. The story changes a bit over time. They simply cannot bear to face the loss of their loved one directly. (More on this dynamic, too, in an earlier post.)

In Isaacson's case – yes, she could and did forgive the man. It was a remarkable gesture, one of tremendous grace, and it was moving to hear. One response to evil is to say, forgive but never forget, but on the individual level, forgiveness must remain an intensely personal matter. Forgiveness cannot be forced, and in some cases may never be earned or deserved. But despite that, an individual may still choose to forgive, for his or her own sense of peace, or dignity, or something else altogether. After her talk, I asked Isaacson a question, because she seemed so serene. It was something like – apart from having family members back, would you change your life if you could? She smiled and said no. In her talk, she had spoken of her beloved husband, whom she met after the camps, and of course she wouldn't change that - but all of her experiences, including the Holocaust, made her who she was. She appreciated her life very much, and felt she was lucky.

The nobility and grace of a victim's perseverance does not excuse the crime. On the historical, collective level, "forgiveness" generally can only follow after the law and justice have had their way. The perpetrators may not regret their actions, and there's also the great danger of revisionism and whitewashing. The point is to prevent such abuses from happening again. Consequently, history must be reported accurately. That said, on the personal level, I found much to admire in Judith Magyar Isaacson's compassion, serenity and wisdom. It's not surprising she went into education, and I imagine she was exceptional at it.

At the end of "A Time to Forgive?" she writes about the chapter title:

The question mark is meant for those who haven't come to terms with forgiveness, especially my fellow former victims. As for me, my recent trips to Germany have taught me to distinguish between the culprits and the innocents, the enemies and the friends.

As the prophet Micah said some three thousand years ago:

What does the Lord require of Thee?
To do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with thy God.

(Here's the VS Holocaust archive.)

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