Monday, June 27, 2011

The Assault by Harry Mulisch first published in 1982 in Dutch; published in English in 1985 – fiction

"For a book to have deeply serious intentions, as this one does, is, of course, no guarantee of artistic success. But Mr. Mulisch also brings exceptional skill and imagination to his task." from a review by John Gross in the New York Times on May 31, 1985

Harry Mulisch (1927-2010), considered an important Dutch post-World War II writer, was the son of a Jewish mother and Austrian father. Mulisch’s father worked for a bank that catalogued property stolen from the Netherlands' Jewish community and after the war he was sentenced to three years in prison. Mulisch’s father maintained that he collaborated with the Nazis in an effort to save his family. His wife and son survived the war. The author’s maternal grandmother, however, was killed.

It is easy to see how the novel, The Assault, grew out of Mulisch’s complicated history, though the characters and the plot are not autobiographical.  The novel starts with a short prologue that sets the scene in a home in Haarlem and then recounts moments both during and after the war as seen through the eyes and experiences of the son Anton who was twelve in January of 1945. The novel is divided into five “episodes,” each pegged to a year in Anton’s life: 1945, 1952, 1956, 1966, and 1981.

This is not a specifically Jewish story. Anton and his family are not Jewish. They get into trouble because they unwittingly get caught up in the repercussions after “the assault” - the murder committed by members of the Resistance of a Chief Inspector of Police. Anton never sees his brother or parents again. We see that throughout his life he tries to leave the past behind, but in each of the episodes because of various encounters, he is forced to look back into his past and puzzle over details he thought he had forgotten that have been deeply submerged.

It's clear that a major theme in this novel is that victims of war are scarred for life. Memory and its accompanying pain lie buried waiting to be summoned by a chance encounter or remark. For the above reasons this novel is an important contribution to a corpus of work, both non-fiction and fiction, having to do with the trauma of war on survivors and the children of survivors.

The Assault was made into a movie in the Netherlands that won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1986.

To read the obituary for Harry Mulisch published in the New York Times, click here.

Alice Schwarz – author’s mother
    Harry Mulisch – her son; author

The Netherlands

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Four Seasons Lodge - a documentary directed by Andrew Jacobs 2010

"[Director Andrew Jacob's] pitch-perfect film provides an affectionate look at a brave, disappearing subculture." from a review by Lou Lumenick in the New York Post 11/13/2009

The Four Seasons Lodge near Ellenville in the Catskill Mountains in New York was for twenty-five years a bungalow colony that served as refuge for a group of Holocaust survivors mostly from Poland. At the time of the filming the survivors were in their 80’s and 90’s. Some of the original members had died and some were ailing. But life goes on, and this moving documentary records the day-to-day summer lives of these survivors in their cabins and in the main lodge where they socialize at dinner dances, where they play cards, and eat some communal meals.

Amongst themselves their pasts are acknowledged but mostly unspoken. However, many, prodded, talk briefly in the camera’s presence about their experiences during the war. Some exhibit bitterness and anger, some say little, some tell their stories in a matter-of-fact tone. Some refuse to talk. But what comes across time and again is that the traumas they experienced during World War II – displacement, torture, hunger, sickness, the death of loved ones - are an integral part of who they are, and that they understand each other like no one else outside that experience can. They feel comfortable amongst each other. They have become a large surrogate family.

Beyond their shared tragic past, however is also the camaraderie prompted by memories of life before the war- shared customs and culture. Though they have been in America many more years than they lived in Poland, many of them switched easily between speaking English, Yiddish and Polish.

The documentary has many joyous moments. Despite the tragedies inflicted on them during World War II, they survived, married (or re-married), had children, became successful in businesses and careers, found each other, and celebrated each summer by spending it together. But there is an obvious elegiac quality to the film as well. They are old and many are frail. They realize that they cannot keep coming to Four Seasons Lodge much longer. They had actually voted to sell it the previous summer and at the end of the documentary we are witness to a meeting where they reconsider. Can they cancel the sale? We see that the will to live and continue as a community is strong.

To learn more about the movie and to see a 2 1/2 minute trailer, click here.

Lodge members (not all with speaking parts in the film)
Hyman and Tosha Abramowitz
Aron and Basie Adelman
Pola Alexander
Rose Ashkenazy
Ella Berenstein
Lisa Bernstein
Esther Bershtel
Ruth Bieber
Sonya Blumenfeld
Olga Bowman
Eugenia Boyman
Jack and Rosa Braun
Henry and Rose Brewster
Sol and Rose Bronheim
Sima Broszencki
Tobias Buchman
Leon and Hanka Chain
Harris and Ann Chandler
Tadeusz and Jadwiga Chrostowscy
Edith Dach
Irving and Etel Drexler
Yankel and Tusia Elkes
Josef Feinsilber
Isaak Fenster
Chava (Claire) Ligorski-Fenster
Joe Fenster
Joseph and Minnie Fox
Paula Ganis
Sam Gaska
Esther Geizhals
Sol Glazer
Henry and Carola Greenspan
Helga Grunberg
Regina and Morris Grysman
Miriam Hendler
Nettie Insdorf
Carolina Jerud
Nadzia Josefowicz
Etel Kotlarski
Victor and Regina Lewis
Eva Ligorski
Pola Lubat
Linda Mandelbaum
Lucy Myers
Felicia Neuwirth
Ted and Susan Ostrowitz
Regina Peterseil
Joseph and Minnie Plonsky
Joseph Hedy Pollack
Carl and Cesia Potok
David and Ester Potok
Anita Skorecky Reisner
Sidney Rosen
Toby Rosenstein
Lola Rotschwalb
Max Rubin
Helen Schwartzberg
Bella Shampan
Leon Sherman
Rose Simpser
Anita and Martin Skorecky
Erna Strenger
Charles and Pola Swietarski
Irving and Shari Weinberger
Sophie Welwart
Lola Wenglin
Sabina Zeimel

Catskill Mountains, NY

Monday, June 13, 2011

Great House by Nicole Krauss 2010 (fiction)

"Great House is a smart, serious, sharply written novel of great care and yearning." from a review by Patrick Ness in The Guardian 2/19/2011

Nicole Krauss’s latest novel is a profoundly Jewish book. One way to interpret Krauss’s Great House is to see it as a novel whose subject is how history, but most specifically Jewish history, shaped the lives of her characters.  This is not an easy novel. Krauss constructs four distinct but interconnected stories. Each story is divided into two chapters, but the two chapters of each story are not placed side by side. She adds to the reader’s difficulty in following each strand by introducing characters with similar names. One of her narrators is named Arthur; another narrator is named Aaron. There’s an important character named Lotte in one strand and another named Leah in a separate strand. There is a Dov and a Daniel in two different strands.  But these confusions serve a purpose: They help blur the distinctions of plot and character and force us to ask the question: Why did she make these choices?

By making it difficult to keep track of various characters and plots we’re more likely to see them less as distinct individuals, but more as just slight permutations - threads in the strands that make up the tapestry of a traumatizing Jewish history. They all live “now” but their stories range over time and they all have been formed and scarred by historical events, most especially events of Jewish history. The narrator of one of the threads talks about his growing up in Budapest and being routed out by the Nazis in 1944. His father died on a death march. Another character in a different strand tries to puzzle out his wife’s behavior in light of her having been born in Nurenberg and of her having been part of the kindertransport to England. She never saw her parents again. In a third story that takes place in Israel the narrator’s sons go off to fight in Israel’s Yom Kippur war. In another, the narrator tells us about her involvement with a Chilean Jewish poet who went back to Chile and died under Pinochet’s regime fighting the dictatorship.

Characters are haunted by the past. Ghosts appear in dreams and float into everyday life. Krauss's narrators make allusions to people and events in Jewish history that stretch all the way back to Biblical history and forward into recent Israeli history. For example, there are mentions of Molech, Bar Kochba, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Moshe Dayan. Readers who are interested in an exploration through the medium of fiction of the psychic burden that a history of loss has exacted and continues to exact on the Jewish people are urged to read Nicole Krauss’s Great House.

To read an interview with Nicole Krauss discussing Great House, click here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Watermarks (documentary) directed by Yaron Zilberman 2005 (in English, Hebrew and German)

"As these women tell their stories in a tone of wonderment, 'Watermarks' becomes more than a pointed footnote to the Holocaust." from a review by Stephen Holden in the New York Times, 1/21/2005

This moving documentary combines contemporary interviews of surviving members of a Jewish women’s Austrian swim team with archival footage. In response to the “No Jews Allowed” policy of Austrian sports clubs, a Jewish sports club called Hakoah was founded in Vienna in the early part of the 20th century for the purpose of fielding a soccer team. In the documentary, members of the women’s swim team interviewed who are in their 80’s and live in Israel, England and the United States talk about how the club was so popular it kept adding new sports. At one point there were 3000 active members. Interviewees stressed that Jewish athletes were motivated to perform well and win medals to prove to the world that they could succeed at athletics. Many athletes who trained with Hakoah went on to win medals for Austria in major competitions.

We learn about the lives of these young girls as swimmers, their dedication to each other as well as to their sport, and the trips they took to sports events outside the country. For example they competed in the U.S. and they went to Palestine in 1935 to participate in the second Maccabbiah games. Wherever they went, their competitions were attended by thousands of adoring fans.

Two sisters who were interviewed for the movie who emigrated to Israel – Judith and Hanni Deutsch – were both on the swim team and recall vividly their great successes but also the creeping climate of hate against the Jews. The club leadership made a decision once Hitler came into power not to attend any events in Germany, which of course included the 1936 Olympics. When Judith Deutsch, who had been named best Austrian athlete in 1935, was asked to join the Austrian swim team and she declined, it provoked such anger on the part of the Austrians, they banned her from ever competing for Austria again. Her sister Hanni also related an upsetting incident. In honor of the Olympics and the Olympic torch bearer who ran through Vienna on his way to the stadium in Berlin, there was a parade in which all sporting clubs marched. Onlookers regaled members of EWASK, a pro-Nazi sports group with loud cheers of “Heil Hitler.” Members of Hakoah were met with silence. Hanni said she could feel the hate and it was terrifying.

Valentin Rosenfeld, the president of the Hakoah swim team and Zsigo Wertheimer, their coach, escaped Hitler’s clutches by fleeing to England. Once there they worked on helping members of the swim team to emigrate by providing them with the paperwork and signatures they needed. Valentin Rosenfeld then established a Hakoah newsletter that went out to all the émigrés which kept them connected.

The documentary ends with a return trip to Vienna. The women were excited but nervous. Some of them had such bad memories of Vienna, they didn’t want to return, but they reconnected, revisited the city of their youth, and confronted their past. This documentary brings to light through interviews with the former swimmers, through their conversations with each other, and through fascinating archival footage, their triumphs representing a Jewish sports club in 1930’s Vienna. Their collective experience constitutes a thread in the tapestry of European history that deserves to be better known today.

To read an interesting article in the Forward that covered the 100th  birthday of the founding of Hakoah in Vienna and discusses the size and status of the Vienna Jewish community today, click here.

Hanne Deutsch Lux 
Judith Deutsch Haspel
Trude Platzek Hirschler
Anne Lampl
Ann Marie Pick Pisker
Valentin Rosenfeld
Nanne Selinger

Greta Wertheimer Stanton
Elisheva Schmidt Susz
Hedy Bienenfelld Wertheimer
Zsigo Wertheimer

Vienna, Austria