Geoffrey Clarfield (November 2013)
In memory of the late Emil Fackenheim, mentor and colleague.
When going one way means life and going the other means death, three in ten will be comrades of life, three in ten will be comrades of death, and there are those who value life and as a result move into the realm of death, and these also number three in ten. Why is this so? Because they set too much store by life. I have heard it said that one who excels in safeguarding his own life does not meet with rhinoceros or tiger when travelling on land nor is he touched by weapons when charging into an army. There is nowhere for the rhinoceros to pitch its horn; there is nowhere for the weapon to lodge its blade. Why is this so? Because for him there is no realm of death.
–Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Book Two
During the course of a man’s life, secrets buried in the past are sometimes given as gifts of memory in later decades. Just before my forty fifth birthday, a birthday that oddly triggered associations of heroic men in their forties, during the nineteen forties, men depicted in black and white with pencil thin mustaches, men like the Prince of Monaco or Douglas Fairbanks Junior, I was given by my unconscious mind, a repressed memory of a violation of law and custom that I perpetrated sometime before my fourteenth birthday.
The move from my primary school, to what Canadians call Junior High, precipitated the making of a new group of friends, a new peer group as the sociologists would have us call it, that to me felt as unsettling and exciting as any foreign country that I have ever traveled to. It included my first foreign friend, Jacques Medina, an immigrant from Morocco who while we tried to figure out the guitar chords to Beatles songs together, told me stories of sitting fearfully in the cities of the plain, waiting for Berber tribesmen to come down from the mountains and attack his city – shades of Beau Geste.
In truth, Crestwood Heights Junior High School was the first foreign country I ever traveled to, where students from the three different primary or prep schools of our borough congregated. The number of students was larger than at West Prep where I hailed from, the faces more diverse and the faces of the girls more varied and exotic than I had been accustomed to during my seven years of primary school.
There was also a bit of violence in the air. Fist fights often broke out in the boy’s locker room. I can still remember the look of intensity that came across one of my new school mates face when he was in the middle of one of these fights, hammering his opponent and being hammered in return against the unsupervised prison like barracks of metal doored lockers which were as dangerous as objects as the fists that flew.
When these fights broke out fear gripped us all. It could have been a part of one of those classic prison films, like the Shawshank Redemption, of a sudden all of us were linked subliminally by our fear, like a group of feuding vervet monkeys, the fear transferring itself across the locker room like an electrical current and leaving us all in a state of primitive anxiety.
I suppose there was an unconscious sense of relief when we all clambered up the stairs, towards the class rooms where the air was clear and the firm authority and order established by our many expatriate British and European teachers, who after the war had come to our suburb to taste the blessings of the New World while all the while, to our untutored and ahistorical ears, praising the glories of the old one that had forced them out.
In retrospect, the memory of this incident is heavily reinterpreted by the many French films that I have since seen when I was older, shot in black and white like, Le Jetee, as a series of stills that are presented by the camera in such a way that they cause the mind to look at them and are then perceived as moving parts of a dramatic tale.
How we got to the rooftop I still can’t remember, but there we were, a group of at least three boys-I can only remember three names but I am sure there were more of us, standing on the roof of an enormous, multi storied apartment building on a warm, balmy, late spring afternoon in Toronto. It was probably May because we did not feel the cool edge of the wind and I remember we wore shirts without jackets.
Steve led the way, I thought, because he was the tallest among us. In films the tallest always leads (in the same vein I once had a long, sustained argument with my two best friends from primary school. It went like this. I argued that all our birthdays fell in June. Two came during the first week and mine came during the third week. I therefore insisted to my friends that they would die before me since I had been born after them. One of them tried to explain that birth order had nothing to do with death order – although he put it much more bluntly and in simpler English. I was absolutely sure that I was right, although a hint of doubt penetrated my consciousness by the sheer reasonableness of the argument. I remember that the penetration of that logic came as a shock to my world view, similar to the Rendille elders, nomadic camel pastoralists among whom I have lived in the deserts near the Ethiopian border, and who would laughed uncontrollably when I confirmed that yes, the moving star that they saw in the night sky was made by the hands of men and was about the size of my jeep.)
Like some Hollywood actor, Steve beckoned us all forward in his nervous, jerky but oddly confident way. We all approached the edge of the roof. There was no railing, just gravel, like an unpaved driveway. I did not fear the height in and of itself in that distinctive, irrational way which I know is clinically called fear of heights, but I did feel fear, as I realized that this was not a film, that we had voluntarily perched ourselves at the edge of the abyss, that there were no railings here, there were no older brothers to watch over us and restrain us, no camp counselors or teachers to protect us from a fatal fall into the abyss and, that the cars below us and which looked like harmless, silent and miniature dinky toys, were indeed the same large vehicles that we so carefully watched out for when crossing the street.
The drama of the situation was simply that it was not a drama. There was no frame. It was not Superman, Batman or a film. It was real, dangerous, life threatening and worst of all, voluntary. We crawled to the edge of the roof and lay down, on our stomachs. We then positioned ourselves so that we lay with our bodies towards the center of the roof and our heads over the edge.
Someone then passed out marbles, what we in those days called alleys. We each in our turn threw one down onto the road. I was relieved that mine did not hit a car. Steve boasted that in the past they had done so regularly and that on other occasions they had thrown spotlights from the twenty or so stories from above the road where we were perched. After that, nothing happened and we all returned from whence we came.
A few days later we were found out. How, I will never know. But although being found out was horrible it was not associated with the same fear as had attended our actual delinquent behavior. Perhaps it was the fact that the people hauling us in were our parents and wished us no harm. Either someone had seen us, or more likely, someone had the need to confess. I know that it was not I who said the first word for soon enough my parents hauled me before them, interrogated me and investigated me and tried to hold me to account for what I had done.
They outlined the moral responsibility that I had held and betrayed. I felt more worry at their disapproval than I did moral guilt. Anthropologists would say that at that time in my moral development I still inhabited the honor and shame culture of the ancient Greeks of the Iliad and had yet to enter, developmentally speaking, the Biblical world of right and wrong, transgression and atonement.
Somehow, I was punished and part of this was my forced facing up to Barry’s (the third boy) father who was the owner of the apartment building, a successful lawyer who lived down the street from me. He spoke English with an Eastern European accent. He looked like Alfred Hitchcock and only now do I have some understanding of some of the horrors that he might have seen and experienced before he came to Canada after WWII to make a new start in the new world.
None of this stopped me. A year or two after this incident I noticed that the window of the washroom of the second floor of our house opened on to the apex of the roof of our garage, two stories above the street. On a number of occasions, when my parents and siblings were not in the house, I opened the window, crawled out onto the roof and slowly, like an actor in the film the Dirty Dozen, climbed down the roof of our French chateau, which had been occupied by the Nazis, and whose every exit and entrance was guarded, successfully negotiating the shingles with their green and black that gave them their distinctive color, down to a flat platform above the storage shed from which I could let myself down, first folding myself at the waist, then hanging by my hands and dropping down to the grass below and returning to my well manicured backyard garden of our house on 11 Fernwood Road. (Fernwood road, a street which should have had ten houses on each side but had only nine on our side, since 13 was considered an unlucky number by Canadian builders.)
I suppose that through these unsung and unrecorded acts of daring I had proven to myself that I could have escaped, if necessary, for indeed, I had had dreams of SS storm troopers entering my house, coming up the stairs to my bedroom and taking me away while still in my pajamas, with their German shepherds snapping at me from tightly held leashes.
These memories trigger one other significant episode in this flashback in time. During grade ten we had a French teacher. His name was Mr Sadowski. He was a non Jewish Ukrainian although he looked like an intense version of Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther fame. Having picked up the anglo-saxon prejudices of Ontario none of us (except for a few girls) showed the least interest in learning French. In his frustration Sadowski would walk up and down the isles of our class (we still had wooden desks in those days) look into someone’s face from about four inches away (I suppose this was his way of teaching us Mediterranean body language) and then enter upon his tirade. It was a tirade that did not change and was repeated ad nauseam.
Sadowski: You thinks it is funny don’t you ?
Me: No sir.
Sadowski: Admit it, you think this is a joke and that this is very funny (his volume rising and temper flaring).
Me: Yes sir, it is very funny.
Sadowski: Well the reason you think it is so funny is that you have never lived through a war! I have lived through a war and it is not funny!
He would then pick me up by my shirt collar, push me roughly against the wall and repeat his tirade until the passion had left him. This was his ritual. There we were, in the suburban paradise of Crestwood Heights, in the mid sixties. Europe was a map on the wall. French was a language only to be spoken in English with a French accent in an exaggerated form, from the lips of Jean Paul Belmondo bogus dramas about the French Resistance.
Who knows what Sadowski had lived through and who knows what guilt still tortured him? He was a little boy in the Ukraine from 1940-1945. What sort of atrocities had he witnessed? Who had done what to whom and what was he doing lecturing a class that was ninety seven per cent Jewish about the horrors of WWII? What sort of demons possessed him and what sort of guilt racked his frame?
I think I know by now. He was displacing some horrible feeling and acting it out in some way. It was indeed, his ritual and our, devil may care, light hearted attitude towards his obsessive compulsive desire to drill some of what some have called the “language of love” into our recalcitrant suburban brains, that seemed to cause him disproportionate anxiety.
Sadowski’s ritual and our adventurous flirtation with heights, the innocent traffic below us, the random dropping of dangerous glass balls onto the unsuspecting drivers some twenty stories below, and my escapades on the roof of my parent’s garage, were no doubt my closest, most authentic and inarticulate way of coming to terms with the arbitrariness, injustice, violence, savagery, danger and death that permeated the stories, films and personal experiences of so many of our parents' generation and with each passing, day seemed to be emerging from the past in order to haunt the present.
I believe that my and even perhaps Sadowski’s bizarre behavior was a symptom or an expression of survivor’s guilt. We were the generation that had been born just after the Holocaust and WWII. We were still too young to realize it at the time, but the horrors and trauma of WWII were just a few years away in our parents’ lives.
Then, as we grew up, and left the fifties behind us, a time of great denial and suppression, tales from the forties started to come forward to remind us what had happened, Freud would have called it the “rise of repressed memories.” The first glimmers of the scope and depth of the Holocaust began to penetrate Western consciousness after what had been a two decade long denial, of the betrayal of what little morality was left to Central European Civilization in 1939.
The pathetic diary of Anne Frank was the first wake up call, (I believe that the house that she hid in was recreated on one of those early TV talk shows – was it called This Is Your Life?, and that one of the people who hid her was invited to look at the set – I saw it one afternoon on TV after I came home from school. Only a year ago did the mother, in whose arms the young Anne Frank died come forward to describe Anne’s last days under her futile care in a German concentration camp. I read about it in Time Magazine). Soon this was followed by more and more revelations, stories, testimonies and trials such as that of Eichmann, until the absurd contrast between our protected suburb, Crestwood Heights, and the reality of WWII and the Holocaust started to penetrate our waking consciousness.
To be or not be, that is the question. With the exception of the kingdom of Denmark and many righteous individuals, Europe had betrayed its moral code, abetting and enabling the Holocaust to take place. We were teenagers and pre-teenagers. We had no way of dealing with any of this in an authentic way. It wasn’t taught at school.
I believe that the psychological term for what I and my friends did on that warm spring day was a form of acting out. We confronted danger. We risked our lives. We put ourselves in a situation where there was no moral control, and like Gods, we played dice with the universe, gambling with fate whether a car or an innocent bystander would get hit, maybe spin into an accident and then perhaps end life in an utterly absurd and unjust car accident. In short, we acted out the moral ambiguity of WWII and the Holocaust.
In return, we received more or less what most of its perpetrators got after the war, a bit of humiliation from those in authority in return for a promise that we would refrain from perpetrating these acts in the future. That is to say, we promised never to do them again – never again.
Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.
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