|Oct/Nov 2017 Spotlight|
Textile Photo Art by Jeffrey Trespel
The voicemail from my sister was brief, just a few seconds long. Her voice, wracked by sobs, was tiny: "Call me as soon as you can. Something awful has happened."
For years, I had braced myself against the inevitability of her husband Boris's passing, likely—though not assuredly—before her. He was a dozen years her senior. They met when her synagogue requested help placing him and his son as refugee boarders; soon, he moved to a more elevated status. A rangy, impish wire of a man, his scruffy beard usually concealed a warm, guileless, and genuine smile.
Boris was strong in the fullest sense of the word: Born in the Ukraine in 1940, a few months before the full horror of the German onslaught descended on that country, he spent the first two years of his life in a dirt dugout. That's not an exaggeration. His family literally hid in holes to avoid both German patrols and bands of partisans, some of whom were more than happy to help the Germans carry out their Final Solution.
In the West, the war was understood to be a struggle among equals. The fierce combat of the Norman hedgerows and the Ardennes Forest is now backlit in the soft sepia glow of fading memory, an historic contest between worthy adversaries. In the East, it was very different, a war of existential fury and racial annihilation without precedent in its mechanistic appetite. Definitive numbers are difficult to establish, but it's estimated more than 26 million souls perished in the USSR. Of Ukraine's pre-war population, nearly one out of five people died in the span of roughly three years.
Boris survived the war, but his life was never easy. His father having been killed at the front, his mother remarried to an angry alcoholic who beat her and her son in drunken rages. Boris remade himself as an Iron Man, a tough, wiry ball of energy and purpose. He honed this identity by joining the Red Army and becoming a paratrooper. Later, he practiced yoga daily and began his mornings by dumping a bucket of frigid water over his body, even in the dead of the Ukranian winter.
Even this was not enough to protect him from the harshness of his surroundings. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster occured in his backyard, figuratively speaking, and his young son bore its scars in the form of mysterious, lingering infections and the permanently weakened teeth common to those caught near the Exclusion Zone.
Nor was that the end of their troubles. Walking in the street one day, Boris and his son—not yet ten years old—were jumped by anti-Semitic thugs and beaten with boards. The son still bears scars on the back of his head. Not long afterwards, a pogrom found them at their apartment and again beat them nearly senseless. Boris knew it was time to leave, and he and his son managed to gain asylum in the United States in 1992.
When and where I grew up—in 1970s Washington, DC—pogroms, Nazis, and the Final Solution were the stuff of stories, of the faraway, terrible past kept alive in the many books on the Holocaust lining the walls of our home. Never forget, said the books on the shelves, and while my father, a survivor himself, made sheltering his family his overarching goal, the books and the tacit silence around them made sure we never could.
The very walls of our house were a hushed tomb, constructed not of stone but of stories: The War Against the Jews, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Exodus. Were they ever read? Or were the slightly—okay, extremely—pretentious "Ex libris George Lorinczi" stickers affixed to the end papers, and the books simply mortared into their final resting places in the walls? It was my father's way of controlling and containing his history, but it also ensured I would grow up enfolded in it myself, not entirely sure of my place in it but crushed by its awful weight all the same.
Boris survived all this and more. Hunted throughout his life, he faced his challenges with pugilistic bravado, never afraid to speak his mind, hold his peace, stand his ground. I didn't expect him to live forever, but to be truthful, I put roughly even odds on him outliving my sister. So the last thing I expected to hear, once I finally reached her, was that she had just found his body, a bullet through his brain, and the pistol lying on the floor beside him.
Suicide is Painless
Ours was not a family prepared to delve into the mystery, the pain, and the ambiguity of loss. Hide, hide yourselves away; it's the only way we will survive, says the disembodied character I call simply "The Voice." There is no actual human-made sound I associate with it, more a visual and olfactory memory. My grandparents, forever stiff and formal in suits or starchy blouses, lightly dusted in the scented powders of old age. If I were forced to name a single source of this entity, it would be my eternally disapproving grandmother, Jane, for whom no sequence of piano scales was correct enough, no shirt tucked in and straight enough.
Her sourness was born not of the passion of anger, but a far broader, almost elemental denial of joy; I recognized even as a child it would never be penetrated. My father would spend his entire life courting, marrying, divorcing, or burying similarly fierce, hard-assed women in a fruitless bid at reunion with her. It was she who trudged out of the family's basement refuge amid close gunfire during the Battle of Budapest, buckets in hand to calmly collect snow for water. And it was she alone who kept alive the faintest ember of Judaism deep in her heart, after the family publicly converted to Catholicism in a futile attempt to forestall everything that was to come.
I do not recall a single time in which it was explicitly said: We are Jewish. The closest one could come was a sort of sly eliding, statements delivered in the passive voice that could later be interpreted as mere commentary rather than an outright declaration of identity. "One can be Hungarian, or Jewish," said my father; "Not both." See? I never said we were Jewish!
And of course, as his loving son, it's hard not to put myself in my father's place, to want to see through his eyes. I was a sensitive and pampered upper middle-class child; he had a story, one of real suffering. In fewer than 50 years, he'd survived the most destructive event of the 20th century, narrowly escaped being trapped behind the Iron Curtain, embarked on an ill-considered and disastrous marriage, extricated himself and finally, in his 40s, found love—in the form of my mother—and began to more fully inhabit his life, at least to the extent he was capable.
Then, seemingly out of the blue, my mother sickened. This fierce and brilliant woman was brought down by, of all things, a mosquito carrying encephalitis, a disease that causes a sudden-onset swelling of the brain. Although it's implicated in some 150,000 deaths per year, historically none of these tend to occur in the United States.
Over the course of a nauseating, vertiginous week, she slipped into a netherworld of pain, lethargy, disembodiment, and finally death. On a conscious level, I have nearly no memories of her but a flash of cuddling with her in bed, her final bed. She is already sick but gamely staying awake for me, against a pain and terror I can only dimly imagine.
For many years I did my best to ignore the pain of her passing, and my family was all too willing to help. My younger sister and I did not attend her funeral, and my father remarried quickly, to a woman who bore a striking resemblance to her. Shortly thereafter, all the photographs of my mother disappeared from sight. Hide, hide yourself away; it's the only way we will survive.
And so I shoved this exquisite discomfort and pain down, deep down. I insisted what had happened was, really, not that big of a deal. And for the most part, no one objected. As it turns out, no one really wants to talk about mothers dying, leaving young children behind. I can still do things like normal kids do, see?
After my mother died, I was determined to act like a grown-up. I refused athletics and other age-appropriate pursuits, burying myself instead in books, music, and any adult company I could find. I was going to handle this the adult way, putting my head down, stuffing the discomfort of unexamined grief deep down inside, and insisting everything was okay. Even now, I more readily recall my mother's passing through my father's eyes than my own.
To anyone capable of the slightest empathy, the cruelty of this latest loss would be staggering. And of course, on some level this loss was also deeply familiar and even comfortable to my father, perhaps to everyone who had survived what he had. His closest friends were a coterie of Jewish Hungarian survivors. There are many stories of the loathsome Arrow Cross—Hungarian fascists, styled after their older, cooler siblings, the Nazis—lining up people they deemed undesirable on the banks of the Danube, sometimes stripped naked so as not to forgo any items of value—such as shoes—then pushing them into the water with a bullet to the back of the neck. The only evidence, their bodies, carried out of sight and out of mind by the current.
One of these was my beloved "Uncle" Peter, my father's best friend. By chance he missed catching one of these bullets, dropped into the frigid water to bob amongst the corpses, and was fished out by a sympathetic farmer downstream. A funny, charismatic, deeply good and deeply sad man, he came to the United States and married a fabled beauty. A survivor herself, she took her own life two years before I was born. So, too, did my father's friend Tom, who one day walked into the Canadian woods with a pistol.
These deaths, occurring so long after the millions of others that comprised that unspeakable war, raise an uncomfortable question for me: The war was over, but who had won? Wasn't the price of this monstrous upheaval—the needless killing of some 50 to 80 million people, depending on how you prefer to count—supposed to have earned some measure of peace for the sufferers? And yet, decades after the "cessation of hostilities," it was clear that for untold millions, the war had not ended, let alone been "won."
There is a part of me that desperately wants justice, to feel that those who perpetrated the bestialities of war themselves suffered more than their victims. I think of the famous photo—taken in Vinnitsa, Ukraine, not far from Boris' birthplace, coincidentally—of a bespectacled German soldier, looking more like an accountant than a man of war, leaning almost casually to the right to aim his pistol at the back of a haggard, thin-faced man's head as he in turn kneels before a shallow pit of the freshly dead. A crowd of soldiers stands in the near background, watching with largely neutral expressions. Get this over with; it's time for lunch.
This desire for retribution, for a full accounting of the crimes, is natural on some level, the one that assumes "justice" to be a human rather than a cosmic concern. To this end, the famed Israeli Nazi-hunters of the 1950s and 60s brought a few noteworthy perpetrators to trial, most famously Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal architects of the Holocaust and the inspiration for Hannah Arendt's deathless description of "the banality of evil."
But what of the untold thousands of Germans who played a direct part in carrying out the actual work of extermination? Or the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who burned villages, summarily executed prisoners and civilians, engaged in rape and torture for sport? For that matter, what about the millions of German citizens who saw their Jewish neighbors taken away and helped themselves to their possessions, or every so often detected a sickening stench coming from the smokestacks of the "labor camp" in the woods and merely closed their windows.
My point isn't that the vastness of guilt makes complete prosecution impossible (though of course, it does). It's that our discomfort with accepting the possibility of pain, darkness, and "evil" forever locks us into the past, and an angry and victimized one at that.
I'm drawn back to Yad Vashem, the primary Holocaust museum in Israel, and often one of the first sites to which foreign visitors are taken. It's a beautiful, troubling, and utterly moving monument to the millions of lives taken, or profoundly and agonizingly rearranged, by hatred of the Jews. And yet, its primacy in post-War Jewish culture—the debate between saying "Never forget" or "Never again" rages still—ensures its continuation into infinity. There is no way to repay us for what has been done to us, so why even try?
Real sorrow and real tragedy are hallmarks of our existence on this planet, but they aren't the only ones. In the face of the vast blackness of the Holocaust, or any of the other human-made hells before and since, I can't realistically imagine any response but acceptance, reconciliation, forgiveness. Not that I always exercise such open-heartedness myself, but really: What could possibly make us "even"?
Boris understood the human body in ways I couldn't conceive. One morning during those last phantasmagoric months of my father's life, when cancer had riddled his very bones and rendered them flimsy twigs, he collapsed in sudden agony while getting out of bed. The mere act of sitting up had cracked a rib. His face registered a shock and fear I had never before seen. Having no idea how to help him, I could only watch, paralyzed. Boris, moving with characteristic grace, quickly but carefully scooped him up and deposited him without pain back on the bed.
He brought this perfection and economy to his own death as well. As the self-made Iron Man, he rarely permitted anyone to see the pain in his life, hiding it beneath an implacable mask of endurance and fortitude. He insisted he would not end his days in a nursing home, but that he would instead choose the terms of his end.
This choice was, of course, not without its repercussions. If Boris was generous, warm, and loving, there were other, less kind aspects of his personality. When he settled on a course of action, he had little regard for what effect it might have on those around him. So it was that my sister awoke, the dogs barking to be let out and Boris uncharacteristically silent. When she found his body, a shot glass rested on the bed beside him, but I know he wasn't drunk. Though it feels deeply awry to describe his final act in these terms, he was nothing if not courageous. He had made up his mind, and for better or worse, nothing in heaven or earth would change his decision. He had no control during so many chapters of his life; this was not a decision over which he would cede authority.
So, was this what it meant to take control over one's life? To wrest control over the vagaries of chance, the unfortunate circumstances of one's birth? The thought sickens me a bit. Is it truly your finger on the trigger, or that of that reedy, unprepossessing German soldier in the photograph, reaching through the decades to finish his work?
Boris had, against all odds, survived, charging his way through a life bearing challenges the likes of which I couldn't even conceive, finally making his way to America and finding deep love and safety in the form of my sister. And yet there was a dark, unexamined side to him, the side that could rage at his own children for their perceived selfishness and cunning, explode at his wife without warning. And, in refusing to submit to the helplessness and indignity of old age, he also abandoned forever the possibility of loving another human being.
That night, as my wife, my daughter, and I sat down to dinner, I pondered what to say. We typically offer a sort of grace before eating, a stab at the togetherness and acknowledgement of Spirit that eluded my own family of origin. Now, I faltered. Could my ten-year-old daughter hold this discomfort, my discomfort? She had last seen Boris years before and would not remember him. Surely I could wait a little longer—or forever—to tell her what had happened. I exhaled and began to speak.
"I'm so grateful for this food, for my family... and I want to send extra love to my sister. She's in a lot of pain and needs our love."
My daughter typically treats mealtimes as she does any other chore: obligations to be rushed through with the minimal expenditure of time, preferably with a book in hand, soccer highlights on the screen, or both. She's also a keen observer, and it's increasingly difficult to slip information past her. Tonight, her response was immediate: "Why? What happened?"
I thought back to what I was told, and what I was not told, around my mother's death.
"Boris died this morning..."
"He decided to end his own life. I think he was just feeling... tired."
My wife is far more emotionally attuned than I. When I want to remain silent, or blunder ahead with a frontal assault, she knows how to instead maintain gentle contact. She joined in now: "He really didn't want to depend on other people to care for him. He wanted to choose how he left this world."
My daughter was silent, not facing either of us now, with a faraway look I've come to recognize as a sign of discomfort but also concentration. After a moment, she turned to look directly at me. "Are you going to do that?"
This was a question I hadn't anticipated, and for a long moment, I froze. I had never put a gun to my head or stepped into the bathtub with the razor blade pinched between my fingers. But from a very early age, the possibility of my own suicide had stalked me, a shadow no amount of rationalization could fully dispel. Death was the only permanent relief from the pain of having lost my essential connection to life—through the woman who created me—and believing in my heart I would never find it again. Now, sitting before my daughter, it had been many years since that black desperation had come calling, and I believed suicide was an option I had forever closed the door on. But, really, I did not know, just as I had not really known Boris. I answered as truthfully as I could: "I don't intend to."
My daughter appeared satisfied by my answer, and she turned back to her dinner.
I talked to my sister once more that day. She was almost shockingly composed. Her sadness was palpable, an awful weight telegraphed from hundreds of miles away, but she was also startlingly, beautifully present.
"I know this was what he wanted, and I know that he loved me completely," she began. "It's okay, in its own awful way. It just... is. He absolutely did not do this to hurt me. The hardest thing in my entire life was losing your mother. I'm older and stronger now, and if I could take that, I can take this. I wanted so much to take that pain off of you, but there was no way I could..."
Now she cried in earnest. I sensed tears welling behind my eyes as well, felt the characteristic clenching against them, and then—gently, quietly—let them free. I thought of the somber drive to the cemetery, now 20 years ago, to inter my father's ashes, and the shock of seeing my mother's name inscribed in the marble plaque beside his. If I had ever visited this place before, it had been decades ago, and I now had no recollection. Until that moment, I had never for an instant believed there was any record of my mother's presence on this earth.
My sister and I sat in silence for a long moment, me in my darkening living room with my family nearby, she now alone in the house she and her husband of 23 years had just moved into. She knew she would have to leave it now; it was marked forever with his passing, the bullet still lodged in the roof in an unreachable spot. Perhaps someone would find it one day and know.
"Your daughter is so strong and so fierce, she can hold this," she said, crying again now. "She has to learn what this sadness is, and know it doesn't have to own her."
I knew she was right, and I breathed a quiet sigh of relief at having opened that door, the black, impossibly heavy bank vault encasing the depths of my own fear, the pain of not being seen, the shame of having feelings at all. My daughter could take it, or rather, I could no longer afford not to allow her to. I felt the suffocating weight of my family bearing down on me, the sadnesses denied, the acknowledgement of discomfort avoided at any cost. The stiffness and formality with which my grandparents and their traumatized children carried themselves, and with which they staunchly maintained a semblance of dignity in the most demeaning of circumstances, now felt like a corset twisting my bones into unnatural and painful shapes, a powder-scented, girdled strait-jacket.
My sister, speaking from the depths of this commingled grief and acceptance, said simply, "This ends here."