There are some questions that are so urgent that they have to be asked repeatedly, even though there has never been, nor ever will be an answer. They may be addressed to another person, but it is just as likely that they are spoken aloud to an empty chair when no one else is present. Certain questions have to be articulated, made real and sent off pulsing into the ether. When another person is present they behave as if they were expected to answer and focus their attention on the question, even perhaps, attempt some form of words, knowing all the while that the only proper response is a bewildered shake of the head. There is some ineffable Zen Buddhist koan to which the correct reply is to take off a shoe and place it on one’s head. It’s a response which is as absurd as the question that has no answer, but which also respects the necessity of the question by engaging with it.
Pearl Jacubowicz asked me her question a good half-dozen times during our conversation in her flat in West Hampstead. Sometimes it came out of what she had been saying, sometimes it seemed simply to arrive, a small explosion bracketed by a brief silence, as if the thought perpetually rolled around in her mind and from time to time had to be spoken as a form of release. Each time she paused and looked at me and each time the silence was prolonged while I failed to come up with an answer. Then, with a slight shrug of her shoulders, she would continue with her story.
‘Why am I alive?’ she asked. ‘Why do I deserve to be alive? Can you tell me that?’
The simple answer is that everybody deserves to be alive, though that’s simple indeed and perhaps not even true. But the context of the question is that Pearl, now nearly seventy years of age, lost 65 members of her family during the Nazi catastrophe. All of them: uncles, aunts and cousins, her parents, her eight brothers and sisters, her favourite sister’s five children of whom the oldest was six. In that context, the simple answer merely reiterates the question.
‘Have you read Primo Levi?’ I ask her. ‘He wrote about that. The feelings the survivors were left with.’
‘Yes, yes. Someone gave me a book. I read it over and over. He was a very clever man. He killed himself, you know?’
Primo Levi also could only ask the question. But Pearl’s mother had an answer of sorts.
‘My mother always used to say to me: “If you have years to live, nobody can kill you.” And she was right. I don’t know why I lived when everyone else died. In Belsen I didn’t care any more. I didn’t care if I lived or not, I was all alone, but I didn’t think of dying. I wasn’t sure I was going to live but I just didn’t think I was going to die. There was a girl in the bunk opposite me, she was eating the whole time – she had a friend in the kitchen – while I was starving and had typhus. You know, two days after Sunday the 15th of April, the liberation, she died. And I was alive. What do you make of that?’
Pearl always gives the date whenever she mentions the liberation of Belsen.
Pearl also has an answer of a kind to her question, though she thinks of it as the same answer her mother gave her, which it may not be.