A Series of Unpleasant Experiences
The first time it happened, I was in Poland. It was 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I had been studying in Paris and working as an au pair. I had had a classmate at the Sorbonne named Magda and we had become fast friends. We drank wine together and talked about love and what we wanted for the future, always in French, as I had no Polish and she had limited English (but very good Russian). Magda was intellectual and funny and when she returned to Poland at the end of 1989, her studies over, I missed her company. We had always gotten along well.
A few months later, that changed. I experienced some drama or other with a man and decided that a change of scenery was in order. I booked a ticket to Warsaw and flew on Air Lot — mercifully, a short flight from Paris — and Magda was waiting for me at the airport.
Once in Warsaw, I bought some Solidarnosc paraphernalia, which, after the fall of the Wall was relatively easy and safe to purchase. I tried a wonderful cake called “W-Z”: I still remember it fondly. Magda’s family welcomed me, putting me up on their couch. They talked a lot about their fear of a potentially-united Germany. “We get rid of the Russians; we get the Germans again,” her mother said. The family had suffered many deaths from cancer — Magda’s father and brother — which they were sure were due to Chernobyl. I felt for them and appreciated their openness.
Magda and I made plans — visiting pretty-as-a-gem Krakow was a priority. What did I want to see in Warsaw? Well, I ventured, the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. Her face fell. She informed me that the former Ghetto was now nothing more than a plaque. Not interesting. Not worth it. “There must be a museum,” I said. “No. Just a plaque.” I said that I would like to see the plaque and would certainly be happy to go by myself.
She asked me what else I wanted to see in Poland. Well, I told her — I don’t think I was conscious of engaging in brinksmanship — Auschwitz, of course. I suppose “wanted” is a strong word. I felt that I should. I had to. I would. I told her as much. She rolled her eyes. “They made us go there in high school,” she said. I quickly pointed out that again, she need not come with me. That didn’t seem to change her rueful — or was it angry? — expression. “Why do you want to go there?” I pointed out the obvious. It was history. It was horror. I felt that it was the very least I owed the victims.
“Polish people died there too, you know,” she said. I had never suggested they hadn’t. “Yes, I know, many of the Jews in Auschwitz were Polish…” I began, only to be interrupted with, “I mean Catholics died there,” she said. Oy. There we had it. I pointed out that I had never said or thought otherwise. Most of the victims at Auschwitz, however, and of the Holocaust, were Jews. She shook her head. “No.” she said. “There weren’t nearly as many as they say.” And there we had some more of it. I was stunned. I was quite young and had never been exposed to this kind of revisionism and trivializing before. Now, sadly, it is old hat to me. Back then it was new and I was shocked.
When I said again that I would go without her, she rolled her eyes. “Alright,” she said. “There’s a bus.” The discussion was over. I went alone on that bus to Auschwitz. She was more than cool to me for the rest of my visit and made a lot of political comments designed, I think, to pick a fight. I resisted. But it got to the point that I — pathologically introverted and never able to handle conflict well — decided to retreat. I thanked her family, leaving them flowers and a full W-Z cake, and booked into a hotel. At the time, even the fanciest hotels in Warsaw were cheap and I stayed somewhere very nice — it might have been a Marriott. I remember feeling very lucky the option was there. Even another day of dealing with the fury I could feel simmering off of Magda would have been too much.
I did invite her out for a thank-you dinner — regardless of what had happened, she and her family had been generous in many ways — and she accepted. I don’t remember what we discussed other than a bit of gossip regarding school friends, but I’m sure it wasn’t history. After that, I got the odd Christmas card from her, one with the news that she had married and was expecting a baby. The only long letter she sent was a plea for help when she and her husband wanted to immigrate to Canada. I wrote back with the truth — there was nothing I could do. They would be wiser to contact the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw.
I sometimes regret that I didn’t call Magda out more on her comments, or try to talk to her about them. I told myself that if any such thing happened again, I wouldn’t be so peace-able.
(I realize I have not written here about my actual visit to Auschwitz — that would take a column in itself. Suffice to say it marked me. Suffice to say I would like a chance to go back, now that I am older and I hope, have a better understanding of its significance.)
It was 1999, during the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia. I was back in Toronto, and had been invited over to dinner at the house of friends, a couple I had met at university. They were now married, with two very young kids and living in a leafy, lovely and expensive part of the city. The TV was on as we enjoyed pre-dinner chat and somehow, what was unfolding in Kosovo caused the wife to say, with a certain contempt, that we wouldn’t be hearing about the atrocities that had been occurring in the former Yugoslavia 50 years from now. Lest there be any doubt about her meaning, her husband chimed in that this was because the Bosnians had no equivalent of a “rich Jewish lobby” and “Jewish-owned media” to “force us” all to hear about the Holocaust “all the time.”
I remember feeling like I had been jackbooted in the stomach. I had known these people for over a decade — we shared startlingly similar WASP upbringings — and, until that night, I had always felt at home with them. Admittedly, there were long periods during which we had no contact other than a birthday card, but I had never heard them speak such nonsense. Were these views newly acquired? Had they held them for years? It wasn’t as though we often talked politics. I managed to stammer out that I believed we would be hearing about the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia decades from now, and that if we still learned and talked about the Holocaust fifty years after the war, it had nothing to do with any lobby, and everything to do with its importance — what Norm Geras would later call its uniqueness and its universality (a quote I wish I had had at the time). My friends fell silent at that, but I suspect it was only to peace-keep. I requested a change of topic and made a mental note to trust my gut, which generally tells me staying home is the safest bet.
But one does want company, from time to time.
It was the summer of 2003, and a terribly handsome man asked me out on a date. Now, the summer of 2003 also happened to be the summer of the SARS outbreak in Toronto. Each visit to a doctor saw one filling out a questionnaire about recent trips to Asia, a questionnaire that included the silly question, “Are you experiencing any general malaise?” At my dermatologist’s, I wrote, “Only when I’m conscious,” causing Dr. Eisen to smilingly scold, “You could end up in quarantine for that!” That might have been better than what happened.
Khaled, the terribly handsome man, was originally from Jordan, had immigrated to Canada 20 years earlier, and was an engineering professor at a Toronto university. He was tall, dark and charming. He laughed easily and often. On our first two or three dates, I tried to avoid any discussion of politics, as 2003 was also the first summer of the war in Iraq. By the time July rolled around I had already been bickering with people about it for several months. No more, I vowed. I lived Basil Fawlty’s Don’t Mention the War mantra. Discussing Iraq, and even Afghanistan, inevitably led to aggravation.
But there was another war I mentioned. Khaled had lived in Amsterdam, and given that I had visited the city myself, I asked him about its many museums. He reeled off a list of those he had visited — Rembrandt House, the van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum — neglecting to include one that had devastated me. ”What about Anne Frank House,” I asked. I wince at the cliché of it all, but the mouth that laughed so often and so loudly stiffened. No, he said. No, he hadn’t visited Anne Frank House because it represented “something that is exaggerated and gets too much attention.” I asked him what he meant, though I didn’t need to. I knew what was coming.
The Holocaust wasn’t “that bad,” the numbers “can’t be trusted,” there may have been deaths in camps but actual “death camps” could not have existed, “Jewish financiers” started the war anyway and various other calibrations. He told me the story of his great lost love, a German woman (a piece of the puzzle) whose father had been sent to Stalingrad. German soldiers suffered as much as any Jew, he said, “but there is no Anne Frank House for them.” I let him know how unimpressed I was with his theories, and he quickly attempted a bit of back-pedal, conceding that the Jews had been done “an injustice,” but that it was “not as bad as current injustices perpetrated against the Palestinians.” He protested that as “a scientist,” it was normal that he should doubt the numbers — most people weren’t trained to do so, he argued, so we gullibly accepted what we were told by generations of Jewish-controlled media and blah blah blah. I tuned out the rest and things ended before they began.
For a few years after that, I would occasionally run into him and he would inevitably mention that he was going to do something with his “Jewish friends.” “I’d love to talk,” he’d say. “but I have a bridge game with my Jewish friends.” “I’d invite you for coffee, but my Jewish friends have invited me for dinner.”
Whatever you say, fella.
In April 2015, I was very happy to attend the Festival Internazionale del Giornalismo in Perugia, a city I know well. After the first day of lectures and workshops, I went for a walk with Mauro, an Italian acquaintance who worked in PR, and we happened to pass by one of my favourite plaques in the city. It honours local young men who died fighting what Italians call Nazifascisti. It was erected in 1945 and refers to Teutono Bestiale or ‘the beastly/bestial Teuton’, and Turpe Fascista or ‘filthy/vile Fascist’. Yes, the Nazis were beastly and the Fascists vile, but I can’t imagine such language being used today, even in Italy, where the threshold for politically incorrect blunt-speaking is rather higher than in the anglosphere. I think that is why I like it so much, and why I find the sight of it rather refreshing. The choice of words almost makes me laugh.
I directed Mauro’s attention to it, and the conversation turned to the war and, well, by now you should know where this is going. Mauro asserted that the Shoah was bad, but why do we always have to hear about it? What about Rwanda? I pointed out that we do hear about Rwanda, as well we should. It isn’t either/or. He tried another tack: Jews have a lot of money! They’re rich, and that’s why we have to hear about the Shoah “all the time.” For good measure he added that what the Israelis were doing to the Palestinians was “the same” as Auschwitz. When I dismissed that last comment as patently absurd, he didn’t respond, instead carrying on about Jews being rich and powerful and diamonds, diamonds, diamonds. They’ve got lots of diamonds!
I should have dropped it right there and gone back to my hotel. But I persisted, which — other than the work-out it gave my Italian — was a sorry exercise in futility.
These unpleasant incidents are by no means the only such unpleasant incidents I’ve experienced. But they’re the ones that resonated the most with me, that surprised and upset me the most, that woke me up, that ended some relationships and nipped others in the bud.
My partner of ten years is Italian, and while he and I live in Canada, we spend as much time as possible — often months in a row — in Italy, where I am trying to perfect my Italian. I spent the latter part of 2016 taking an advanced Italian course at a university there, and one of my teachers taught us grammar through Italian literature. It was the class I enjoyed most — we got to read Pirandello, Calvino, Manzoni, Moravia, Baricco and others in the original Italian, increase our vocabulary and improve our knowledge of verb tenses. But there was one author she never touched, one I had always loved to read in English: Primo Levi.
As she was wonderfully approachable, I decided to ask her about it. “Oh,” she said, looking embarrassed. “We just try to avoid anything controversial in our classes here.” I asked her how Levi was controversial. “He wrote about his experiences, about facts of history,” I said. “What is controversial about that?”
“Nothing,” she admitted. “But we have students from Libya, we have Palestinians, Egyptians, and others who might not like it.” She shrugged, again looking embarrassed. I thought about my classmates, Middle Eastern and otherwise, and I thought she was selling many of them short. Soft bigotry of low expectations, anyone? And why assume only Middle-Eastern students might have a problem with reading Primo Levi? My own experiences tell me that anti-Semitism is pan-cultural.
Even if the risk for “controversy” exists in a classroom, isn’t the job of a teacher to teach? My professoressa implied it was a directive from above; she hadn’t a choice.
About a month after our conversation about Primo Levi, the same professor led our class in a discussion of same-sex marriage and abortion policies — or the lack thereof — in our various countries. Nothing controversial there.
[Note: Some names have been changed, others omitted. — RA]