A few words about the rhythm of sin

Írta: Szombat - Rovat: Archívum, English


A few words about the rhythm of sin

Elma Softic Kaunitz

I was somewhat taken aback when the question was put to me whether, today, given the absence of the ‘experience of catastrophe’ and the ending of the ‘sense of threat’, given that religious tradition is on the way out, the representatives of Central European Jewish culture would be drawn closer together.

Sadly I don’t believe it is possible to speak of any sort of experience of catastrophe – the holocaust included – in terms of absence, and I am astounded that there are those for whom the Shoah is over.

My own life has not been excessively long (my grandmother has lived three times as long, so far), yet neither has it been short, bearing in mind the last four years spent and survived in Sarajevo, in the course of which a horrific number of new-born and small and bigger children disappeared. Over those four years Sarajevo turned into a media circus, and that is also one of its tragedies – nobody believes us any longer. The reason for the disappearance of those babies and children was not famine or illness or another such imperfection of humanity, that is to say, of civilisation. It was rather the result of the most terrible imperfection in the most perfect of beings: the ancient need of man to wipe out, on the basis of this or that difference, the other.

Is there any reason why the babies of Sarajevo should interest the Jews of Central Europe? There were few Jewish babies in that city, but they existed. There were Jews in Sarajevo, for that matter, compared to other nationalities, there were few before the terrible war, but nevertheless there were some. They struggled with unbelievable determination for their right to stay and to survive. And so they entered the war as a community and survived as individuals. Some of them weren’t so lucky.

Sarajevo brought a few good things in its wake too: they murdered us with imperfect guns, but they never invented the gun that could ferret out persons of a certain nation and annihilate only those. (The fact that the citizens of Sarajevo emerged as a separate nation under the pressure of circumstance could have been useful if we had been intelligent enough to recognise and acknowledge it.)

Those who threw grenades at us killed us for being Sarajevoan not for being their enemies. We were the victims of genocide. We became enemies merely because we were Sarajevoan. Doesn’t this sound familiar?

I speak from my own experience, the experience of a hunted beast. My first-hand experience does not allow me to comprehend, much less accept, the possibility that experience of the Shoah no longer exists! I have so far tried to show that the need to annihilate other types of people is a typical human characteristic. The smaller the differences the stronger the justification.

In the middle of this century the holocaust wiped 6,000,000 (six million) Jews from the face of the earth! That’s an entire state! How many apartments does Israel have? I don’t know precisely, and I don’t know why I feel that it is just that number. For the love of God, its not just six million! How many potent and fertile men and women were there among that six million? How many healthy children, who just then would have entered the age of propagation? How many pregnant women? How many from among them were expecting twins? Today those children who survived the Auschwitzes, Treblinkas, Bergen-Belsens, Maydeneks, Yashenovats’, Buchenwalds have grandchildren, even great-grandchildren. But how many lost grandchildren and great-grandchildren are there? Is it not clear that the holocaust is still underway? I don’t like citations but I can’t forget a sentence from Joram Kaniuk’s Tales with Sad Endings: ‘Our children will, from the moment of their births, have five dead older brothers and sisters’.

I have already said, and I repeat, that in the middle of this century the holocaust wiped 6,000,000 (six million) Jews from the face of the earth. They were systematically annihilated. Legions of experts worked day and night, thinking up and executing the most effective methods of swift genocide.

Again I return to my own experience of war, that is to say, catastrophe. One of the most idiotic statements I have heard, and I doubt if anything in the near future will beat it, is the following: ‘How is it possible that something like that could happen at the end of the Twentieth Century?!’. This kind of foolishness can be heard in every society and intellectual stratum, simple people with modest education repeat it and so do big-wigs, the important players on the stage of global politics, expressing their disbelief or astonishment, or the simple idea that what happened in Bosnia after 1992 will never happen to them.

But I ask you, if it can happen all over Europe in the mid-Twentieth Century, why couldn’t it have happened again in Europe at the end of the century, and why couldn’t it happen again in fifty years time somewhere else in Europe?

If I cannot find a satisfactory answer to this last question, I will believe that the sense of threat has ended. To turn yet again to the example of my own experience: if you want to run across a crossroads and suddenly you hear bullets chipping the tarmac, so you duck down as low as possible, pulling your head down between your shoulders and attempting in the same movement to glance up at the hill from where the horrendous lightning is raining down, in order to see from where the bastard is poking at you, you acquire a certain sense which will stay with you for a long time, perhaps for the remainder of your life: that there is something waiting behind every hill and every cliff, which wants to destroy you. Although this experience is disgusting you will still venture across the crossroads, you will still yearn to climb the hill if you previously loved that hill. But imagine the following situation: you meet a very interesting and charismatic individual at a soiree, who conquers everyone. You like this guy. The evening comes to life in the pleasant surroundings and sparkling atmosphere. Then someone brings up politics and immediately everyone becomes very smart and more or less serious. Various political convictions are asserted or defended in turn. The guy is fairly loud, you don’t agree with his point of view, but you acknowledge that his ideas are sound enough. The atmosphere becomes increasingly tense, you feel that the disputes are mounting. You are sorry that the guy has lost his charm in your eyes, but you console yourself with the thought that on another, reasonable, day everything will look differently. And in that moment you hear the guy say the following: ‘Hitler’s only flaw was that he didn’t eradicate all the Jews’. I wonder if you can imagine how you could ever find him interesting again, or his company exciting? If you try to console yourself that this behaviour was just an exception, then you’re a fool.

There are some very sweet anti-Semitic jokes, for example:

  • Whose fault was the second world war?
  • The Jews and the cyclists.

The emancipated professor, who specialises in contemporary humanity and who has no prejudices, falls into the trap and calls out:

  • But why the cyclists?

There’s no need for commentary, but what follows is nevertheless related:

I, who dispose of both kind of experience, the hunted beast and the stupefying experience of anti-Semitism described above, I allege that it is easier to understand and accept the disturbed (and not even excessively disturbed) psyche of the hunter instinct than the pathological racist hatred of an otherwise apparently normal looking individual. Considering that so many people hate other people because they belong to a certain nation, or race, or creed, it can hardly be said that are not normal. There are too many of them. So many that I often ask myself whether I myself am not on the far side of normality. Because I don’t hate.

The threat exists. It has always existed. Everywhere and unceasingly. That is why we naturally don’t notice it – the closer and more dangerous it gets, the more we neglect it. A year before the Bosnian war broke out I saw clearly that a catastrophe was on the way, and I realised that it would be much healthier to gather my affairs and leave Bosnia and Yugoslavia (the former Yugoslavia, which consisted of six republics and two territories). I didn’t go. I believe I was lazy. If anyone had told me, two days before the first shell landed in my neighbours garden, that the war was going to break out in my backyard, I would have replied that they were lying, panicking and God knows what else. I simply didn’t want to believe it. That part of us which we often call humane – whereas it is the divine element of our nature – did not want, couldn’t stand, was ashamed to believe that despicable people (for they are despicable) were capable, at the end of the legendary Twentieth Century and after all the monstrosities of this and previous centuries, of soaking their hands in the blood of their fellow human (or call it what you will). Whereas it was more than obvious. The facts were begging for recognition.

When it seems as though the threat has disappeared it only means that the reason has withdrawn behind irrational desire.

I am neither paranoiac or depressed. I am the proud parent of an eleven month old girl – she was born on 21 July 1995. A horrible day of war, when shells hailed down all over the city. Around the hospital too, where I was in labour, whose upper stories were reduced to rubble by the shootings. And she was no accident – she is here because her father and I wanted her. We, like so many other of the town’s inhabitants, had enough pluck and courage to take the responsibility onto our shoulders. Can you imagine what sort of responsibility it is to give birth to a child who in the next moment, God forbid… I don’t dare to say the words. I genuinely don’t.

Something of that kind requires enormous quantities of optimism, faith, obstinacy and strength. Therefore I am not paranoid, nor depressed, nor pessimist, nor crazy, nor irresponsible. I am simply cautious. But not enough, because at the end of September this year I’ll be giving birth to a second!

Crime has a certain rhythm in the world. The beauty in the pauses grows out of the healing of the wounds. Sarajevo, 19 June, 1996


1999. májusi szám

Nincs végső magyarázat "A mi egyetlen utunk a munka Pálfalvi Lajos: Zsidó témák a lengyel irodalomban II. Isaac Bashevis Singer:...

May 1999 Issue

Summary A controversial article was published in Népszabadság (Hungary's largest distribution daily newspaper) by István Lovas well known extreme right-wing...