We want Messiah now!

Írta: Szombat - Rovat: Archívum, English


We want Messiah now!

Milos Ziak

‘If you ever forget you’re Jewish, some Christian will always remind you.’ We could hardly think about post-war, and post-holocaust, Slovakian Jewish culture – assimilation has been important, and even today it remains a determining phenomenon – without recalling this sentence. But how can I think about it? Many of my Slovakian writer contemporaries, some of them half-Jewish, who do not want to be labelled Jewish writers would reproach me with a somewhat altered version of this sentence: ‘If you ever forget you’re Jewish, some Jew will always remind you’.

The distaste of my Jewish friends and acquaintances – Slovakian writers – is nourished by the tradition of voluntary assimilation according to which the individual is a free person with an inviolable right to identity choice. Not even the experience of the Holocaust has shaken this desire, despite the fact that the way the Jews, themselves, thought about themselves played no role whatever in filling the trains. (They say that many of them – and surprisingly not those who had converted to Christianity hoping to escape being ground by the relentless cogwheels of persecution, but those Jews who were born Christian, whose ancestors had converted long before – actually protested, and demanded separate carriages and special privileges.)

It is even more surprising that the decisive event of the early fifties didn’t shred to pieces what was left of the faith they had tossed into the final solution of assimilation – I’m thinking of the trial of Rudolf Slansky, the party secretary of the CSCP CC.

From 1945 (when his group returned from exile in Moscow) to 1951, Slansky discharged the function of leader of the communist party. Then, after he was relieved of office and returned as vice prime minister of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, he was locked up, convicted and executed. Slansky was without doubt an assimilated atheist, a convinced communist, a successful apparatchik of the Stalin era. Just like many of his comrades he was tried and executed – understandably – for being of Jewish origin, not for what he thought or did.

If the Slansky group had been convicted by independent judges in a democratic society for having organised and executed the deplorably successful communist putsch of 1948 and the merciless realisation of the communist monopoly over violence, it would certainly have warranted several decades worth of lost freedom (not, however, the death penalty). But in this case the comrades of yesteryear didn’t even base their charges against Slansky on his thoughts or acts, which in any case were merely more grist to the communist mill. The communist judiciary should have, in all probability, not merely saved Slansky, but awarded him the highest state honour. The charge was grounded, naturally, on fictitious thoughts and acts: targeting the former prime minister’s Achilles heel, he was found guilty of organising an alleged Zionist conspiracy.

Therefore if my Slovakian writer friends take care today to refer to their writings as products of Jewish writers workshops in the diaspora, one reason amongst others is that they would like the readers and critics to value the genuine literary products – in contrast to the Slanksy case – rather than pry into their Jewish origins, which in a society latently tuned to anti-Semitism, would necessarily strike chords of prejudice. If there isn’t so much as a hint of the Jewish theme in their work, then they can feel justified to they themselves that others view them as liberated from the burden of their deeply absorbed racial ….

As for myself, I initially wrote poetry (a collection of mine entitled From the Fire to the Blaze was published in 1982). When I was contemplating my poetry it never occurred to me to think about my Jewishness. Then when I started thinking about Jewishness my poems adopted the form of tragi-grotesque dialogues (my book Don Quixote in Hell saw the light of day in 1989). And so finally I arrived at prose, at story-telling. In 1984, in the period between the poetry and tragi-grotesque I dedicated myself to an analysis of the cultural philosophy of Goethe’s Faust (in 1983 I published The World According to Goethe).

I arrived at Jewishness (initially as an existential question) when I began to examine the ever increasing traumas of my own Jewishness more seriously. Simply put, I arrived at the problem of my own identity. My more sensitive contemporaries, who without exception started to come to their senses following the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia, posed the question: ‘who am I?’. Slovakian Slovaks, Slovakian Hungarians, Slovakian Jews and Slovakian Germans. (Unfortunately I have no information about the debates in Slovakian Roma intellectual circles). And, since at that time the most personal from of expression I had was through literature, I represented the problems of my self-identity in literary form. From my first published narrative (the short story Death Hamburger written in 1988) I concentrated more frequently and intensively on the problems of my Jewish identity as lived within the framework of the communist regime, and my opposition to the regime came to the fore.

In early 1989 I handed a manuscript to my friend Milan Simecka for the samizdat periodical Fragment K. The piece was called I Don’t Dare to Fear, and the last short story which carried the same title concerned a young Jew in Slovakia who reveals the world of his senses and ideas, searching for the answer to the question of who he really is. In a middle section, entitled A Bad Man’s Good Advisor, I elaborated on the protagonist’s circumstances by portraying him as half-Jewish (the progeny of a Jewish mother and Slovakian Catholic father). In addition, in order to further complicate the issue, I mentioned that his mother had converted during the Second World War, and was now an evangelist. The mother and father got to know each other as enthusiastic communist party members. Following the occupation of the five ‘friendly armies’ in 1968 I depicted the protagonist’s father as having been excluded from communist party membership because of his allegedly counter-revolutionary sympathies. This convinced communist, who sincerely believed in the worldwide victory of communism becomes deeply psychotic following his exclusion from the party, feeling that he had been unjustly deprived of the opportunity to participate in the great victory of mankind – or its so called most progressive element. His sense of injury, coupled with a later persecution complex brings the father to fear that his comrades want to poison him. Finally he breaks down from the strain and spends some time in a lunatic asylum.

The manuscript was copied down in the summer of 1989. The binding and distribution was planned for the end of the year. However in November 1989 the communist structures in Czechoslovakia collapsed, and what was revealed was not the foundations, but a void which the superstructure had concealed for decades. In the euphoric atmosphere that followed the collapse of communism, my own thoughts of emigration also lost the sense they had had heretofore, and the publication of my samizdat manuscript also became unnecessary, since it was now possible to consider publishing books legally, irrespective of their contents.

The manuscript finally saw the light of day in the summer of 1990, as the first volume in a series of books published, legally this time, by the periodical Fragment K. I wrote three stories in 1991. An imaginary contemporary of mine, a half-Jewish boy named David Goldberg (Jewish father, Slovakian mother), featured as the protagonist in a couple of them. All three short stories were published in journals, and to my surprise my Hungarian literary colleagues also published two of them in the periodical Kalligram (1993, 1995).

Doubtless they too, like every sensitive person of minority status, are tormented by their own identity problems. Although, unlike we Slovakian Jews, they live close to their motherland. Whatever state framework they may live in they remain in the close neighbourhood, leaning against the national sovereign state.

Under the increasing pressure of events I gradually gave up my writing. For a while I didn’t even read literature, nor did I listen to music. For that period I was involved in politics. As an amateur at first, a founding member of the anticommunist movement Citizens Against Violence, and a member of the movement’s central coordination. There was no-one among us who had any experience in the exercise of power – at that time no non-communist had. How could they have had when the communists did everything in their power to ensure that we could not touch it? Later I became an official politician: as the head of Vaclav Havel’s local republican presidential office in Bratislava, where I worked from April 1992 until the collapse of the federation.

In 1993 I wrote a number of political essays which were published in 1994 under the title The Failure of Communism in Slovakia. In 1994 I again stepped into the political field, this time as a civil servant and advisor to the Prime Minister in Jozef Moravcik’s grand coalition. When Vladimir Meciar came back into power for the third time (December 1994) I was advised to absorb myself in the entrepreneurial sphere. Besides the fact that I became acquainted with the wholly new world of professional money matters, I wrote a new book of political essays in 1996, as a gesture of self-protection of some kind, entitled Slovakia: Where to After Communism?. I have no reason to deny that both books were born from the radical change in my circumstances of living (the failure of communism, the collapse of the Czech-Slovak coalition, the failure of the November changes based on a new state system, with which I strongly identified, and openly associated.) And so once again I had to review who I really am. I felt that if I didn’t engage myself immediately and intensively with this question, the trend towards directionless and impermanent chaos would engulf me. In this way the theme of identity is present – if only indirectly – in those two books as well.

To sum it up, I’m a Slovakian Jew born after the holocaust who thus far in life has also written literary texts (the reasons why are not absolutely clear even to myself, since in the communist era it brought neither wealth nor glory, but only systematic trouble) which were also answers – and how could it be otherwise – to the questions of my own existence. I do not know if this in itself suffices for me to be considered a representative of the Jewish literary diaspora (in my case this means the Jewish literature binding the Slovakian territory and history). Nevertheless the fact that I simply call myself a writer is a source of trouble to me too.

To my mind a writer is someone who brings literary texts into existence, not someone who writes some sort of text or who intends to write. In the last four years I haven’t even approached literature per se (and not just in terms of writing, but of reading too). That’s why I said ‘No’ to Peter Krasztev, whom I only know as a voice on the telephone, when he stubbornly strove to persuade me, in perfectly good English, to write some kind of literary essay about Slovakian Jewish literature from my own perspective. The solution I settled on was to send him some of my earlier short stories. The telephone voice, however, wouldn’t leave me in peace, putting me under more and more pressure until finally – I myself don’t know why – a little later I discovered a pressing inner need to write something which could be called literary.

Which is why, in an unguarded moment, I sat down once again to write a short story after those four years. Luckily the story isn’t ready yet. If this was not the case – that is, if the story was more than a mere rough sketch – this present text wouldn’t exist either, although that would hardly be the end of the world. In any case I owe Peter Krasztev my sincere thanks. Whether the readers and translators will also be grateful I cannot, of course, guarantee.

The communist and post-communist life experience of the generation of (post-holocaust) Central European Jewish minority writers to which I belong can, in my opinion, enrich the entirety of Jewish literature. The experience of the holocaust is present on every branch of modern Jewish writing (American authors through to Israeli). Jewish writers in the US – those who were not part of the post-war emigration – did not get the opportunity to directly experience and survive the holocaust. Naturally, I don’t mean by this to query the right of a writer to describe life on Mars without having lived there. Fortunately my own generation, in their thirties today, did not have the chance to experience the holocaust either. What we were able to get a taste of was the post-holocaust trauma, which was also a very real life experience in the so-called socialist period of the seventies and eighties. Instead of the physical annihilation of the Jewish people there appeared, in the remains of the once strong and numerous Jewish community, a psychic and spiritual annihilation. Naturally the experience of increasingly heavy pressure to assimilate, both from within and without, does not in itself suffice for any kind of representation of authenticity. Out of the theme we must make good literature.

Reflecting on the current circumstances and literature of Slovakian, or in the wider sense, Central and East European Jewry would certainly not have been all that attractive to me if some image had not formed within me – at least cursorily – of that which is most painful for many people – the foundation of doubt which cannot be doubted: the question mark over Jewish existence.

I was born in 1959 in the dark years of communism, and until the age of 30 I knew no other system. Despite the fact that, in all probability Hitler had suffered an irrevocably crushing defeat, both my grandmothers, secretly and separately, christened me for the sake of security. Which makes me a Catholic twice over although I have never worshipped in a Christian church, only in a synagogue. My mother’s mother only revealed my double baptism to me immediately before her death (she outlived my father’s mother by a few years). She said: ‘Myself and your grandmother were too ashamed to tell each other what we had done, we only found out when it was too late. But still, Milenko, should another Hitler come to power, hurry over here – you will find your baptism certificate. And if you can’t make it here then go to where your other baptism certificate is kept.’

At the end of the eighties, so as to keep my reputation intact, I confided it to a close friend, a practising Catholic and an important Slovakian Christian politician today. I was greatly interested to know whether I had any prerogatives as a twice baptised Catholic. My friend smiled sadly and said ‘You know, if I was to be honest, for one thing your Catholicism is suspicious. Normal Catholics don’t get christened twice. That could only happen to a Jew’. His answer seemed so complete to me that the subject hasn’t bothered me since.

In 1991, however, I found myself compelled to ponder the question a second time, this time as a member of the board of the alliance of Slovakian Jewish communities. I participated in an official conference with one of the leading leftist politicians of the era following the changes of November 1989, who not only has characteristically Jewish features, but also a typical family name. (Although, for the sake of accuracy, I must emphasise that this surname was not only preferred by Slovakian Jews but by Slovakian Germans also.) Another member of the board who was present openly and bluntly – although half jokingly – asked the politician if he wasn’t associated in some way with Jews. The politician stammered in a fluster ‘Excuse me, I can guarantee that I am not a Jew. We have documentary evidence of our Christianity dating from the time of the fascist Slovakian state.’ To which the board member replied soothingly and understandingly, ‘I wouldn’t worry Mr X, there’s no need to make an issue of it. Some of us here present, members of the Jewish board, have proof at home that we are not Jews, which we can show you whenever you like if you’re interested.’

This more or less incidental remark was dropped in a tone of jest, however it signals the depth of the chasm which has opened up within Slovakian Jewry in the last fifty years. And this is aggravated by a simple truth. Yes, the Slovakian Jews attempted to endure, in the physical sense, the 6 years of fascism and the decades of communism which followed. They strove to endure the post November 1989 systems too, and will no doubt do the same with all future systems. Their greatest problem is not, however, that certain systems appear to a greater or lesser degree favourable towards Jews. Our main problem today is that, physically speaking, we’re floored. In Slovakia, of the pre-war Jewish community of approximately 90,000, about 3,500 remain, the majority of them well beyond their biologically allocated life-span. We, the direct descendants of those Jews who lived through fascism and communism, and who decided to stay, are no longer capable of reproducing the population of once upon a time. In all probability we will eventually die out. And this fact cannot be concealed, even by the touching placard my three and a half year old son brought home from his Jewish kindergarten (which opened many decades ago in Bratislava, with the help of Lubavich Jews living in New York): ‘We want the Messiah… Now!’

P.S: When my best friend Milan Simecka read over this text he said: ‘The expression ‘assimilation’ is very strong. It reminds me of ‘simulation’ and ‘collaboration’.’ I can’t help it if people make this connection. There’s obviously some truth in it. Doubtless a lot of Slovakian Jews assimilated after the Second World War so that their families would have peace in a hostile environment, and from the state ideology of atheism trumpeted by a victorious communist system. Others chose assimilation because they felt that it was the authentic answer to the pressing challenges to the left of the 19th and 20th Centuries. And there are also those who genuinely settled on assimilation to facilitate their collaboration with the communists, or with whatever system that might make a bid for it.


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