Jewishness

Gabriele Annan

This might have been the autobiography of the present Archbishop of Paris. It caused some sensation when it first appeared in French in 1978. The author is an Israeli historian and political scientist who teaches at the University of Tel Aviv and the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. He specialises in the history of the Third Reich and has also written about psycho-history and collaborated with an Arab, Mahmoud Hussein, in a Dialogue about Arabs and Israelis.

He was born in Prague ‘at the very worst possible moment, four months before Hitler came to power’, and was named Pavel. His parents were well-to-do German-speaking Jews, agnostic, cultured and musical. They went skiing in winter and kept a Czech governess for their little boy. In the spring of 1939 they fled to Paris and began a typical refugee existence in cramped lodgings. The father retrained, first as an electrician, then as a cheesemaker, but could get no work. The mother trained as a beautician and sometimes got a little. It might be depilating ladies’ legs, but more often it was scrubbing their floors. Pavel – now Paul – was put in a Jewish children’s home, where his mother visited him on Sundays. From his point of view, the fall of France improved matters, because his parents carried him off to a small spa near Montluçon in the unoccupied zone. Néris was full of Jewish refugees, French and foreign, and full of rumours about their future. When it was clear that all the foreigners would be deported, Paul’s parents appealed to an acquaintance to hide him. She agreed on condition that he be baptised and brought up a Catholic – even if he should one day be reunited with his parents. ‘Happily for them no religious allegiance stood in their way, and the step was taken without doubt or guilt.’ They tried to cross the Swiss border, were turned back, and shortly afterwards despatched to Auschwitz.

Paul was sent to a boarding school, ‘to an entirely new world, to the strictest Catholicism, to an almost Royalist, ferociously pro-Pétain, anti-semitic France’. As soon as he had learnt his catechism he was baptised and his name changed to Paul-Henri Marie Ferland. He ran away – it was a few days before his parents started for Switzerland – and found them sheltering in the hospital at Montluçon; they steeled themselves and sent him back. After that ‘I became sadder and sadder: in one way or another I was going to let myself die. Toward the end of the winter, in March, the occasion to do so presented itself. I had felt feverish for several days, but was determined not to say a word about it.’ On a school walk, he waded into an icy brook. Weeks of fever followed. By the time he recovered he had changed: ‘The memory of my parents seemed further away somehow.’

For three years he never left school except in a crocodile, or to serve mass in a church nearby. His holidays sound like Lucy Snow’s at the Pensionnat Héger: ‘In the evening it was necessary to confront an empty dormitory ... my three comrades were asleep and I was alone, staring at the vague outlines of the room by the blue light of a night lamp. Then I would begin to feel a growing, vague, intolerable fear.’ It was the fear of death, and it attacked him periodically; apart from that, he settled down well to being Paul-Henri Ferland. He shone at lessons, served mass, struggled with impure thoughts as he was taught to do, prayed for Pétain and planned, like many other boys, to become a priest. ‘I had passed over to Catholicism body and soul. The fact that the misdeeds of the Jews were mentioned in Holy Week did not trouble me in the slightest.’ He even told his companions stories of the wicked usurer Abraham who had plotted against Kosciusko. ‘Each of us has certain shames, those brief instants buried in forgetfulness that provoke an immediate burning sensation when an association brings them back to conscious awareness, immediately followed by the desire to see those memories blotted out for ever: for me it is the stories I told of the usurer Abraham.’

The war ended. Paul-Henri refused to join his grandmother in Sweden. He still wanted to enter the Church and was sent to consult a Jesuit who knew him well. Father L. told him that it was at Auschwitz that his parents had died. He had never heard of the place. The Jesuit spoke of the Jews ‘with emotion and respect ... perhaps he would have preferred to see me remain a Catholic – but his sense of justice (or was it profound charity) led him to recognise my right to choose for myself by helping me to renew the contact with my past.’ Paul-Henri did not immediately stop being a Catholic: but he accepted that he was ‘fully Jewish’ and resumed his old name.

Shortly afterwards, he was sent to live with a family of poor, uneducated, Orthodox Russian Jews who had been appointed his guardians. Now he got to know ‘the atmosphere of the shtetl, a little Jewish settlement in Eastern Europe’, with its warmth, emotionalism and vitality.

He spent the summer of 1946 in a Zionist youth camp; he felt an outsider, but nevertheless embraced Zionism because it seemed to him the only way Jews could protect themselves against persecution and humiliation. In the autumn he was accepted as a boarder by the prestigious Lycée Henri IV in Paris. He now became a Communist – not incompatible, in those days, with being a Zionist. When the Israeli-Arab war broke out, he falsified his age (he was 15), joined an Irgun-affiliated group, and sailed for Israel on the clandestine Altalena, which was shelled on arrival.

Friedländer’s book is arranged in three intercut layers. From a reflective diary kept during the second half of 1977, he looks back on his childhood up to 1948 and, separately, on his early years in Israel, first at school and then in the Army:

Our faith was monolithic at the beginning. It seemed able to stand up to every sort of test, to all the onslaughts of reality. We were not stupid at 16 or 17, but at the same time we had the same received ideas as everyone else ... Our new state was the culmination, at once heroic and natural, of a history without any other possible ending ... A mere 25 years later and everything looks to me like one immense sentimental print of the 19th century ... the fundamental characteristic of Israel in the early days was an extraordinary naivety.

By 1977 the question implicit in the setting up of Israel had become a thorn in sensitive flesh: ‘What is the point, the invisible line, beyond which the imperfections of every day life come to undermine the very meaning of the undertaking?’ The answer – ‘the recent past ... remains a massive justification’ – is reluctantly given. The author is a fastidious man, morally and aesthetically, and a natural dove. But in addition to his scruples – alluded to but never defined – about Israel’s policy and moral tone, there is a further disappointment. Zionists believed that, by becoming a nation like any other, the Jews would at last stop being outsiders, despised and persecuted. In 1977 it seemed – in spite of a ray of hope cast by Sadat’s visit – that Israel was not a nation like any other, but an outsider among nations. Moreover, the menace evidently built into the Jewish fate had not gone away: the author’s son was waiting to be called up.

Friedländer says he is confused about who he is: first he was Pavel, then Paul, then Paul-Henri, then Shaul (in his early days in Israel), now Saul. Each of these names defines him as a member of a group to which he has never quite belonged. His life reads like a search for membership, for communication, like a struggle to break through the sense of isolation that imprisons him. Most human beings suffer from this feeling: but the Jew also symbolises it, because his isolation is easy to see. Before he was six, Pavel was excluded from scripture lessons at his Czech school. At the Jewish home in Paris, on the other hand, the little Orthodox boys beat him up because he was different. An assimilated Jew, he concludes, is the most isolated Jew of all: ‘My father was hunted down for what he had refused to remain: a Jew. What he wanted to become, a man like others, had been taken away from him, leaving him no possible recourse. He was being refused the right to live, and no longer even knew what to die for.’ The father, as it happens, was a very reserved man who found communication difficult – expecially with his little son.

No wonder Paul-Henri plunged into Catholicism and wanted to enter the priesthood, to become irrevocably a member of a group; no wonder, when he could not go on with that, he joined the Zionist youth: another chance to belong. No wonder that, once in Israel, he fell in love with the sabras and their heroic outdoor style: it was the same love, he recognised, that ‘Tonio Kröger [felt for] blond Hans Hansen and blonde Inge Holm’ – the love of the outsider for the insider. Thomas Mann made Tonio dark and shy and half Latin American. Being Thomas Mann, he couldn’t make him Jewish, but as an expression of the story’s theme, he might just as well have done.

After the war the adolescent Paul could have chosen to belong to the Orthodox world of his guardian. It was welcoming, and he is too just and too polite not to acknowledge its merits. Moreover, it taught him, through the ritual of feasts, for instance, about a Jewish tradition he had never encountered. But one feels a slight recoil: he preferred the restrained, unemphatic style of his own family. I have already said how fastidious he appears: whatever he was to identify with would have to have a style he could accept. The style of the shtetl was not really acceptable, and the insensitive, rumbustious frontier style of the Zionist youth soon palled in its turn.

A period of disenchantment and sterility followed, what the religious call ‘dryness’ – a term Friedländer would surely recognise. He was trying ‘to find the way back to my own past. I could not banish the memory of events themselves, but if I tried to speak of them or pick up a pen to describe them, I immediately found myself in the grip of a strange paralysis ...’ He was jolted out of his numbness during a visit to Sweden in 1956-57, where he encountered a symbol of isolation more extreme than the Jews. His uncle ran a home for severely disturbed children near Stockholm; Friedländer stayed there for a year. He worked with the children and tried – in vain – to help them break out of ‘their howling dumb suffering’, their humiliation, the ‘powerlessness that for me became ... an obsessive symbol – on a personal level, I was going to say, an actual provocation.’

He discovered something else in Sweden too: in his uncle’s library he came upon the works of Martin Buber and ‘felt ... the hidden grace of this secret world of Hasidism’, as different from the rough banality of Israel as it was from ‘Biblical austerity and the cold rigour of the Law’. Was this the style he was looking for? At any rate, it had an important effect: ‘For the first time I began to feel a clear difference between my identification with Israel, which for a time at least seemed to me to be superficial and almost empty of meaning, and a feeling of my Jewishness ... suddenly endowed with a new, mysterious, powerful, magnificent dimension.’

As its title proclaims, Friedländer’s book is a recherche du temps perdu; and writing it, he says, was his only hope of recovering his own past. But he is also defining a gestalt for a Jewish identity based on a communal Jewish past. In an essay written in 1961 and recently republished in Sociological Journeys, Daniel Bell says: ‘For me ... to be a Jew is to be part of a community woven by memory.’ Friedländer seems to want to be a Jew in that way too, but because of his assimilated, agnostic family and the vicissitudes of his youth, he has to learn the memory from scratch, whereas Bell, a second-generation American immigrant, is still in touch with it. Both writers emphasise the commemorative nature of Jewish ritual, and feel that because Jews have always existed under threat, the ritual that links them to their past is the only thing that can reassure them that there will be a future. ‘When crises occur,’ says Friedländer, ‘one searches the depths of one’s memory to discover some vestige of the past, not the past of the individual, faltering and ephemeral, but rather that of the community, which, though left behind, nonetheless represents that which is permanent and lasting.’

Bell quotes the Jewish existentialist Fackenheim’s definition of a Jew – ‘anyone who by his descent is subject to Jewish fate’. And he goes on to say that he ‘chooses’ that fate while rejecting Orthodoxy: Orthodoxy carried to its logical conclusion leads to quietism – ‘suffering is the badge; one accepts it as the mark of fate.’ Such an attitude may even account for the ‘extreme passivity’ of the Jews in the death camps. ‘The fatalism that comes out of the religious tradition violates one’s conception of a personal autonomy ... The Orthodox view of Judaism is too constricted ... to feel at home in.’ As we have seen, Friedländer feels even less at home with Orthodoxy, but he seems much less sure than Bell that he can ‘choose’ Jewish fate without Jewish fatalism. The sacrifice of Isaac is a painful symbol for him: ‘Abraham’s obedience explains our entire history. Today most Jews no longer obey God’s injunctions, yet they still obey the call of some mysterious destiny. Why this fidelity? In the name of what?’

There is no answer; there are no answers of any kind in this scrupulous book. It is an examen de conscience – the Fathers at Montluçon could have been pleased with it. It is sensitive but restrained, and written with such precision that not one word seems expendable, even though it goes round in circles. The circles are not concentric, however: every time Friedländer returns to an earlier theme or event, he pushes it a little further, trying to extract more memory and more truth. He ends with the Altalena in sight of the shore: all the problems and questions of his adult life are ready to come round and be faced all over again.