The year 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Time, the forceful and persistent dimension, will continue on its course and for the next decade’s anniversary the voice that recalls the monstrous event will be memory alone. There will be no witness remaining to testify. Maybe, in an increasingly hasty time, there will be no anniversary marked at all.
But to prod the decade, to prod the demographic groups for whom memory is as interesting and provocative as yesterday’s news, to prod us all, Nathan Englander, fourth generation American writer, and Jewish, has given us the short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” It was published in a collection of the same name, by Alfred A Knopf, in 2012.
Growing up in Canada, I was quietly startled by the intake of breath when I would say the word “evil” to describe someone I knew. I didn’t use the term often, I assigned it carefully but I recognized its application was something that just wasn’t done and I kept the descriptive designation to myself. It’s different now. The term is broadly used to describe countless actions and the designation is received without accompanying questions.
Terry Eagleton’s book On Evil (Yale University Press, 2010) would be a source for a considered definition. “Evil,” printed in bold white on a black cover, and the solid academic credentials drew me to it, but I should have read more closely the jacket notes, which used the words, “jaunty,” “witty,” “entertaining” as selling endorsements. It did move at a good tempo, it was accessible and well researched. But after reading this compendium of sources I expected an accretion, a stack, a pile of irrefutable evidence to add up to an indictment, a Here I Stand. Too wry, too careful at its conclusion that says, in effect, who is anyone to make a moral judgement, who could be sufficiently cognizant of all the material circumstances to be able to say, I would have acted this way, or I would have acted better? He’s probably right, I guess.
But Artaud doesn’t mind screaming in public and Nathan Englander asks the questions in such a way that the space in which he is asking them becomes claustrophobically unavoidable in an entirely necessary, morally probing manner.
Terry Eagleton was helpful in explaining evil as a deficiency, a void, and the unstoppable drive to expunge the emptiness, which was a relentless reminder of the nothingness of death. To explain, or as example, he used Iago, whose motivation for destroying Othello was simply his own inability to countenance beauty and virtue—no other substantial motive. He offers a hollowness at the core to explain Nazi behaviour, saying, “The obscene enjoyment of annihilating the Other becomes the only way of convincing yourself that you still exist.” He notes Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil as she applied it to Adolf Eichmann, which further speaks to the notion of a void. He quotes Kierkegaard’s referring to the demonic as “the contentless, the boring” and adds Arendt again in her description of Eichmann’s having “neither depth nor any demonic dimension.” Evil, Eagleton suggests, is boring because it is lifeless, “neither quite dead nor quite alive.” “It is boring,” he goes on, “because it keeps doing the same dreary thing, trapped as it is between life and death.” Eagleton carries on, and I am uncomfortable, confused because his next example by way of elaboration is a Nazi rally—all show and no substance. Evil is largely institutional is his argument (as though institutions spring from nowhere). It’s a tidy fit with Eichmann as a petty bureau official and the entire unspeakable horror of the Holocaust a perfectly executed manifestation of sound planning and a national mindset given to solid organization. “Flaws, loose ends and rough approximations are what evil cannot endure. This is one reason why it has a natural affinity with the bureaucratic mind,” Eagleton wrote. I line up with Kafka in loathing bureaucracies, seeing in them and their proliferating a real danger. Nearing the book’s end he queries if there can be evil acts without evil people to execute them and determines there cannot since “evil is a condition of being as well as a quality of behaviour.” In descending order he is prepared to identify Hitler and the very tight circle around him as evil. For the others who participated it was because they were compelled, obliged. Next, he lists thugs, patriots, anti-Semites who were nasty and guilty but not evil. Those who participated but without deriving any real pleasure—he includes Eichmann here—weren’t evil. The following sentence with its many qualifiers must be intentionally ironic: “Perhaps one can also speak tentatively of a national psyche,” Eagleton wrote, “of fantasies which gripped and infected those who did not concoct them themselves to the point where they, too, were afflicted through Nazi propaganda by a sickening sense of being invaded and undermined by alien slime.” And following this is his caution about the necessity to take into consideration material conditions lest we make moral judgements. “We simply cannot say what men and women might have been like if conditions had been otherwise.”
Nathan Englander grew up on Long Island. His entire family, for the generations he can count back, was born American. No one of his family directly experienced the Holocaust and yet they lived as though they had. His community was Jewish and he and his sister attended an orthodox day school. Outside of school, outside of home, the experience of anti-Semitism was real. In school, and at home, the telling of the Holocaust was vivid and persistent. A reoccurrence wasn’t presented as an impossibility. Being Jewish was to be outside; paranoia was a reactive, protective and real state.
I understand this. I grew up in Winnipeg’s legendary North End. Mythology has it a culturally rich and diverse population—socialist in leanings, with a strong sense of community and a commitment to education and achievement. It was that. The mix made it a welcoming and tolerant place for the immigrant populations that left Europe after the Second World War. That was as true as the hierarchies that made the earliest to settle the best and the peoples from the British Isles best of all. We expected anti-Semitic bullying in the playground, we went to our own Y for sports, and Hebrew school was twice weekly after public school let out and for two hours on Sunday mornings. All I remember from what I must have learned is the Hebrew alphabet and that God made miracles for the Jewish people. At home I absorbed the same lessons Nathan Englander grew up with. No one in my family had directly experienced the Holocaust, either. My maternal grandparents were born in Canada; my paternal grandparents arrived as children with their families while Czar Nicholas and his family were still happily exchanging petites cadeaux by Fabergé for birthdays in St Petersburg. But the Nazis were as near as the ends of the block on which I lived. I knew they were there, were everywhere, and vigilance was necessary. We stayed as a close community in everything we did and found the comfort of familiarity there. Reading “What We Talk about When We Talk About Anne Frank” prompted that same sense. Englander is pitch perfect in selecting tonal details that make it at once an astonishing document and a stunning short story.
Two couples are spending an afternoon together, brought to the occasion by the wives who had been inseparable throughout their years in the yeshiva schools they attended together. One of the young women, Deb, had married the story’s narrator, who isn’t given a name, and he had “turned her secular.” Her dearest friend, Lauren had married Mark shortly after and they left for Israel where they became Hasidic—ultra-orthodox. After 20 years Facebook had reconnected the two women, and the declining health of Mark’s parents who, by coincidence, now lived in Miami where the story is set, had brought the Hasidic couple for a visit. Mark’s parents are Holocaust survivors. Deb and her husband know this.
The narrator is a wry skeptic; Mark, whose name is now Yerucham, is pious and smug and apparently without humour. He and Lauren (Shoshana) are living a religious life in the Holy Land with their ten daughters. The narrator and Deb are living in the Sunshine State with their only child, Trevor. The two women pick up their relationship as though it had been without interruption. The two men are inclined to dislike one another, and the narrator, slightly distanced as the role makes him, is keeping a running score of the responses of these two guests who have been visited upon him on a Sunday afternoon. He describes them hilariously and with economy as seen through the eyes of Trevor who has just wakened mid afternoon and stumbled into the den. There is Trevor, “staring at this man in a black suit, a beard resting on the middle of his stomach. And Lauren…well she’s a big woman, in a bad dress and a giant Marilyn Monroe wig.”
So we see them, these two couples from different worlds, and the slight awkwardness is smoothed by the idea of a drink, which Lauren and Mark confess, is how they cope with ten children, and all. The vodka smoothes the distance and the couples sit together at the kitchen table. Politeness and what we learn is Deb’s obsession with the last generation of Holocaust survivors have her inquiring about the health of Mark’s parents, and in response he tells a story about his father and another survivor who live in the same upscale retirement community. The story concludes with an amusing example of human pettiness that overrides their having closely shared a Holocaust experience. Nothing about it is an uplifting homily; it’s just funny, and Deb is disappointed by its ordinariness. Englander has her husband explain. But what Englander is really telling is his own experience. Mine too. All over North America kids raised Jewish by parents who listened to the news, read the daily newspapers, the Jewish papers, and talked among themselves from 1936 or so, on, are nodding. “It’s like she’s a survivor’s kid, my wife, it’s crazy, that education they gave them. Her grandparents were all born in the Bronx, but it’s like, I don’t know. It’s like here we are twenty minutes from downtown Miami, but really it’s 1937 and we live on the edge of Berlin.”
The closeness of the two women and the vodka lead to Lauren’s reminiscing about Deb’s getting high, and confessing that getting high is what she really meant when she talked about drinking with Mark in order to cope with ten children. And suddenly Deb is offering pot and the narrator, shocked to hear that his wife had ever been high, is now doubly shocked to discover another secret, and then again when the source of the pot is their son Trevor, and he is just learning this now.
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” is a story about being inside and outside, the safety of being inside, and about trust. Who do you trust if you are a Jew and the Holocaust is present in your consciousness as a real threat? A sudden tropical rainstorm pulls Shoshana and Yerucham to the window where they press desert-hungry faces to the glass and then takes the giddy quartet outside to dance in a loose circle. The narrator says, “It is the most glorious, and the silliest, and the freest I can remember feeling in years. Who would think that’s what I would be saying with these strict, suffocatingly austere people who come to visit our house.” And what he is talking about here is feeling the rush of safety inside your own culture. It’s what Englander described when he moved to Jerusalem. The haunting paranoia disappeared. He was inside where the paranoia was comfortably replaced by real palpable danger. Not a pathology, it was healthy and real. They’re having a nice afternoon, these two couples, the vodka and pot allowing them to slide over Mark’s righteous assessments and posturing, his pronouncements on the trust in his family’s relationships being stronger because of their faith. Their smoking has made them hungry and led them to Deb’s oversized, over-stocked pantry. Stepping in, Lauren asks if they are anticipating a nuclear winter and Deb’s husband says what it really is, is a manifestation of Deb’s obsession with planning a hiding place. For Lauren this triggers memories of Deb’s always wanting them to play the hiding game, the “Anne Frank” game, which Lauren and the narrator also know as the “Righteous Gentile” game and the “Who Will Hide Me” game. But it’s not a game. It’s deadly serious. It’s Terry Eagleton’s asking who would behave well when pressed, and answering easily that no one can say, depending on circumstances.
The couples decide to play the game. Deb and the narrator go first. The game is—theirs is a mixed marriage. He is the Gentile. Would he risk his own life to save his wife and their son? He offers himself to her scrutiny and she looks him over. It’s an easy answer. “Of course he would,” she says. Then Yerucham and Shoshana play—he reluctantly, and then yielding to his role as the tested Gentile. Would he save the three of them, his companions in the pantry? Shoshana looks at him. Englander says enough time passes that there is a slight shift in the light visible through the crack under the pantry door. She’s looking that carefully and finally she says yes and he, through the screen of his bluster and pronouncements asks her to tell him his better self. “But wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t I hide you?”
Nathan Englander has them hesitate inside the pantry, suspended and waiting. What do you do, then, with this kind of knowledge, the kind that can’t be unlearned, or judged? ❚