Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Clattering Train

Unless this is somehow the first of my letters that you’re reading, you already know about my predilection for old books…and particularly for the kind that allow us to see history unfolding before our eyes as a narrator who was present on the ground attempts to describe events he or she personally experienced. The autobiographies of the famous are part of that genre, obviously, although it is surely also the case that the very last thing most people should be permitted to do is to tell their own story. But also included in that category are books written by the closest relatives of the great, people well positioned to know their subjects intimately and personally, and thus to be able to provide a window into that person’s interior self that would otherwise be closed off to the public. In that category are some of my favorite books about, not by, some of my favorite authors: Anna Dostoevsky’s book about life with her husband (published simply as Dostoevsky: Reminiscences), Sophia Tolstoy’s Diaries (featuring fifty-seven years’ worth of diary entries about her often tumultuous life with Leo), and, most recently (because one of her students’ parents gave it to Joan as a gift after her terrific Schechter production of Les Mis last spring), Adèle Hugo’s coyly-titled, but extremely interesting and surprisingly intimate, Victor Hugo by a Witness of His Life.  Less stirring, but also fascinating, is Martin Freud’s portrait of his father, a bit pathetically entitled Glory Reflected: Sigmund Freud, Man and Father. And there are many others as well.

And then there are books written by talented authors about events they personally witnessed. Sometimes these books are ghoulish (I am thinking in that regard specifically of the autobiography that Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, was ordered by his captors to compose in the spring of 1947 during the weeks between his conviction as a war criminal and his execution), but more often they serve not as freak shows or the literary equivalent of horror movies, but simply as windows into history.  I wrote a while back to you about my experience rereading Ulysses Grant’s account of the Civil War, written as the author lay dying specifically to raise funds for his wife to use after his death. (The plan worked too—in the end Julia Grant received almost half a million dollars in royalties from her late husband’s Personal Memoirs, a goodly sum even today but a true fortune in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Interesting too, but far less well known, is Mrs. Grant’s own book of memoirs, a book first published in 1975, almost three-quarters of a century after its author’s death.) I’ve written about my experiences reading President Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe and finding it strangely—and disappointingly—dull. I wrote a few weeks ago about my plan to read Jefferson Davis’ The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government this summer as a way of looking at the Civil War from a vantage point wholly other than the one I’m used to. But the greatest of all these “I was there” books has to be Winston Churchill’s six-volume work, simply entitled The Second World War. And he was there too, and for more or less all of it.

Published over a period of six years that ended with the year of my birth, I read the first book when I was a senior in high school and the rest in the course of my college years. They stay with me still, or parts of them do. And it was something that Churchill wrote in that first volume that somehow came to me, entirely unexpectedly, when I first heard about the terrible Amtrak accident of earlier this week, the one on the Washington to New York train on which I myself have been a passenger many times. The specific stretch of track on which the derailment occurred has its own tragic history: it was less than a mile from this week’s crash site that a 1943 train derailment resulted in the death of seventy-nine people and more than one hundred wounded, some grievously, on a similar Washington-to-New York run. But this week’s disaster was horrible enough: the number of dead is fixed at seven as I write and the wounded at more than two hundred. But there are still passengers unaccounted for and it seems very likely that the number of dead, but only possibly the number of wounded, will rise as the wreckage is cleared.
One of the most foundational points in Churchill’s work is his conviction that the story of the Second World War can only cogently be told in light of the First War. And, indeed, it is both because that idea seemed (and still seems) so interesting to ponder, and also because I was so young when I read the first book, that that first volume, entitled The Gathering Storm, had such an effect on me. In the part that I wish to share with you, Churchill is writing about the mid-1930s, which he recalls as a depressing time for him personally and, on a larger scale, for his nation. In the specific section of the book devoted to the events of 1935, the House of Commons is busy debating a proposed increase in funding for the Royal Air Force, which debate Churchill finds dispiriting and rooted in what he himself considers a faulty and fully-fantasy-based understanding of what the future might bring and at best a half-hearted sense that any future war with Germany was going to have to be won in the air. And then he writes this, which passage somehow surged out of my unconscious to assert itself as I read the newspaper accounts of the Amtrak disaster:

There lay in my memory at this time some lines from an unknown writer about a railway accident. I had learnt them from a volume of Punch cartoons which I used to pore over when I was eight or nine years old at school in Brighton. “Who is in charge of the clattering train? / The axles creak and the couplings strain, / and the pace is hot and the points are near, / and sleep hath deadened the driver's ear, / and the signals flash through the night in vain, / for death is in charge of the clattering train.” However I did not repeat them.

Why that stuck in my mind, I have no idea. But, intrigued by the vagaries of my own subconscious, I set myself to discovering the real story behind Churchill’s comment. It turns out that it’s significantly less interesting than I would have expected. The long-since forgotten poet Edwin James Milliken (1839-1897) had apparently heard of a train wreck that had cost the life of a guard working for the London & South Western Railway, and which had apparently ensued when the engine-driver and his engine-stoker both fell asleep on the job. It was, among the world’s rail catastrophes, a modest disaster. Yet the poet’s conclusion, just as chilling now as then, is what struck Churchill as he listened to Parliament dither about the worth of upgrading their own nation’s air defenses and realized that his country too, just like the runaway train in Milliken’s poem, was too headed for a disaster that could possibly still be headed off, but which would become inevitable soon enough…once the decision to stint on RAF funding was made, once the train was simply going too fast for its own braking system to stop it.

I would like to reproduce here the end of the poem, which reads as follows:

Sleep—Death's brother, as poets deem,
Stealeth soft to his side; a dream.
Of home and rest on his spirit creeps,
That wearied man, as the engine leaps,
Throbbing, swaying along the line;
Those poppy-fingers his head incline
Lower, lower, in slumber's trance;
The shadows fleet, and the gas-gleams dance.
Faster, faster in mazy flight,
As the engine flashes across the night.
Mortal muscle and human nerve
Cheap to purchase, and stout to serve.
Strained too fiercely will faint and swerve.
Over-weighted, and underpaid,
This human tool of exploiting Trade,
Though tougher than leather, tenser than steel.
Fails at last, for his senses reel,
His nerves collapse, and, with sleep-sealed eyes,
Prone and helpless a log he lies!
A hundred hearts beat placidly on,
Unwitting they that their warder's gone;
A hundred lips are babbling blithe,
Some seconds hence they in pain may writhe.
For the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the driver's ear;
And signals flash through the night in vain.
Death is in charge of the clattering train!

In theory, death is just the name of the absence of life, just as silence is the name for the absence of sound. But silence feels real when we are surrounded unexpectedly by it, just as does death feel entirely real when we confront it in the context of family life or when it touches our friends or our neighbors. So the poet’s notion that the accident occurred because personified Death seized the train, because as a “hundred hearts beat placidly on” a line was crossed that could not be crossed back over, that at a certain moment what a few minutes earlier had been a horrific possibility became an inevitable catastrophe…that notion that life is far more fragile, and intensely more arbitrary, than any of us would ever wish to admit—that is what Churchill meant when he recalled the last lines of Milliken’s poem and likened England to a train whose engineer succumbed first to drowsiness and then to sleep, and whose personal failure led to disaster.


Coming on the heels of the Germanwings disaster in March that cost 144 passengers and six crew members their lives, it suddenly seems less safe out there…and I’m the kind of person who prefers to take the train precisely because it feels so much safer than flying. (That’s an excellent example, by the way, of a personal conviction that is true and false at the same time.) But the question of whether one form of travel is safer than another is hardly the point, which is far more potently just how delicate our places in the world truly are…and just how thin the foundation stones upon which we stand and on the apparent sturdiness of which we convince ourselves it would be irrational not to depend. But, at least in the final analysis, it’s all a chimera. Things are safe until they aren’t, until the engineer falls asleep, until the pilot’s suicidal tendencies cross the line from troublesome to irresistible, “until the silver cord snaps and the golden bowl breaks, until the pitcher shatters down by the spring and the wheel at the well is ruined, until the dust returns to the earth as it once was and the spirit returns to the God Who once gave it…then Kohelet’s truth will be wholly obvious to all. The merest of breaths, proclaims King Kohelet—everything is as insubstantial as a single breath.”

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Oskar, Ram, Odran

In the wake of my letter of a few weeks ago about Oskar Gröning, the ninety-three-year old ex-SS officer on trial in Germany for his participation in the murder of about 300,000 people in the course of a few months in 1944, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a good person or an evil one. Other than when serving as one of Hitler’s willing executioners, after all, Gröning was a normal member of society and a productive one. He worked. He married. He raised a family. He collected stamps. He played sports. He wasn’t a monster who could only do evil, therefore, but merely a man who once, and only in the course of a few years, participated in the perpetration of an unspeakable crime. For some reason, his story and the questions it raises have stayed with me in the weeks since I wrote about his story and his trial. And that story and those questions have prompted me to revisit some of my favorite questions about human nature, about a few of which I’d like to write today.

What does it mean to be a good person? Does it mean to be one who does good? What if one also does evil? Can good people do evil? Or does make them by definition not good people?  And what about the inverse? Can evil people do good?  Or is the more reasonable approach simply to accept that people can be good and bad. That most people spend their lives doing good and bad things. That people are capable of mostly sticking to pre-embraced principles, but that even the saintly occasionally crumble under the weight of the kind of pressure to conform that momentarily feels to them unbearable. That the natural human condition is for most of us alternately to be saintly and sinful as we stumble down the path from cradle to grave possessed both of the will to embrace the principles of moral excellence and the capacity occasionally to betray those same principles out of sloth or greed, or out of weakness.  And, indeed, if the labels “good” and “bad” relate solely to our deeds—in other words, if we aren’t anything at all other than what we dothen doesn’t it follow that we aren’t really anything at all other than the walking, talking aggregates of our deeds? Are our deeds all there is to our moral selves, then, and the rest mere blather?  To ask the same question from a different vantage point, is there a fundamental potential to do good in us all—creatures, all of us, created in God’s image—that we are free either to access or to deny? That sounds closer to how things generally feel to me…but that notion implies that there is no such thing as a fundamentally good person, or a fundamentally evil one. That some people become Oskar Grönings is not to be explained with reference to their intrinsic or innate badness, then, but with simple reference to their failure meaningfully to embrace their own potential to do good. And that basic notion of badness as moral failure rather than innate depravity is the idea I’ve been wrestling with as the trial in Lüneburg has unfolded and witnesses to the Nazis’ crimes at Auschwitz have come forward to speak.

I’ve just recently read two remarkable books that deal with these questions in a fully engaging way. The first, Akhil Sharma’s book, An Obedient Father, is the story of Ram Karan, a despicable character in almost every way. He molests his own granddaughter, mimicking his own vile behavior with his daughter Anita, his granddaughter’s mother, when she, the mother, was a girl of twelve. He is a corrupt and dishonest man as well who earns his living collecting bribes for his corrupt and dishonest masters in the New Delhi school system, which itself is merely a front for crooked political activity of the kind at which Ram excels. Nor does he have any loyalty even to his own bosses, whom he betrays in the wake of Rajiv Ghandi’s assassination when he understands that he himself will pay a huge price for sticking with the men who have given him whatever limited but highly lucrative power he has in the world.  He is also obesely fat, which girth is depicted not as a moral failing in and of itself but rather as the outer manifestation of Ram’s inability to deny himself anything at all that he’d like to have and that he finds within his grasp. He also drinks way too much.

Ram has basically no redeeming qualities at all. And yet, right in the middle of everything, this vile human being shows himself capable of great courage and, in the middle of a riot, personally steps forward to save the lives of a woman and her two children, strangers he doesn’t know and to whom he has no prior relationship. More to the point is that there is no obvious way for him to benefit by stepping into the melee—and truly risking his life—to save innocents in danger merely because they are Sikhs and the mob surrounding their shop has concluded, incorrectly, that Rajiv Ghandi’s assassin too was a Sikh. And so we are presented with a rich, intriguing portrait of the anti-Oskar Gröning. The latter is a man who lived a normal, mostly decent life but who succumbed at one specific point to the inclination to participate in a crime so great that even now, more than seventy years later, its details still seem to some extent unimaginable. Ram Karan, on the other hand, is the inverse: a man whose every waking minute is given over to corruption and venality but who in one soaring moment does something magnificent and kind, a deed of true selflessness that could easily have cost him his life.

Born in Delhi, Akhil Sharma did his undergraduate work at Princeton and then ended up studying law at Harvard. Now he teaches writing at Rutgers and just last year published his second novel, Family Life, which is on my list to read this summer. I think you’ll find An Obedient Father, published in 2000 by Farrar Strauss Giroux, well worth your time: repulsive in many of its details, it somehow manages to end up as a compelling, fascinating portrait of human behavior in all its maddening complexity. It rings true in many ways and, in its own way, it constitutes a very interesting answer to my initial question about the relationship of being and doing in the context of living. I recommend it to you all.

The second book is John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness, which I’ve just finished reading. At forty-four and so exactly the same age as Akhil Sharma, Boyne is still counted among Ireland’s younger authors. Most of my readers will know him as the author the young person’s novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which was later made into a successful movie that I wrote about at length about six years ago after seeing on an El Al flight home from Israel. (If you are reading this electronically, click here to see my comments.) But he is on entirely different ground in this latest of his novels, ground that is in every sense his own native soil. 

A History of Loneliness is the story of Odran Yates, a young Irish boy who is pushed into the seminary by his mother in the wake of a devastating tragedy that took her husband and her youngest son from her on the same day. (I won’t give the specifics away so as not to ruin the book for any of you who might read it. But the author’s account of that day is something that I expect to stay with me for a very long time.) And so, as a boy of seventeen in 1972, Odran enters the Clonliffe Seminary in Dublin and is assigned as his roommate one Tom Cardle, a boy who unlike Odran—who is at least willing to take his mother’s word that he has a calling to the priesthood—truly hates the seminary and all it implies about his personal future.

As we move forward and backward through time—the book is structured in such as way so that every successive chapter is situated in a different decade so that you only learn some of the most crucial details about the beginning of the story towards the end of the book—you begin by thinking that the book is about Tom Cardle, that this is Odran telling us his friend’s story. And it is a horrific story too, one that features not years but decades of abuse of innocent boys entrusted to his tutelage or his spiritual guidance.  But as I approached the end of the book, I suddenly realize that this was not Tom’s story but Odran’s, that the interesting character—and by far—was the narrator, not his roommate. He is a good man, Father Odran, one who accepts his vocation and spends his life teaching in a Catholic high school and then serving in a parish near Dublin. Odran is kind and just, a decent young man who grows in the course of a lifetime into the kind of avuncular pastor that any Catholic would want as his or her priest.

But in all that good, there is also bad: as the years pass, we realize that he has known about his roommate’s depravity almost from the start, depravity that among much else has eventually led to the suicide of one of Tom’s young victims. Nor is it irrelevant that among those victims is one of Odran’s own nephews, for whose abuse and subsequent troubles he, Odran, realizes himself to be at least partially responsible. And so we are left to contemplate the portrait drawn of a good man who does a terrible thing…and the fact that his is a sin of omission, that he does that terrible thing not by doing but by not doing, by not speaking up, by not having the insight to know what he should have known and not finding the courage to speak up when he should never have been silent—that seems only to make Odran’s story that much more interesting to contemplate, not to make his behavior any easier to excuse or less challenging to explain.

Both books, Akhil Sharma’s and John Boyne’s, are well worth reading. Both are upsetting in some ways, but elevating in others. More to the point is that both are very accomplished portraits of human beings who resist our natural impulse to label people as one thing or another. In every meaningful sense, the books’ protagonists, Ram Karan and Odran Yates, are men who are defined by their deeds, by their actions (which category in Father Yates’ story includes inaction). They couldn’t be less alike, these two characters. My guess is that, in some cross-over novel in which they somehow met, they wouldn’t like or understand each other. But we, the readers, understand them both…and profit from what the authors who created them have to say through their artistry about human nature. That we can see ourselves clearly in portraits of men who by every measure could not be less like us, and who engage in behavior we cannot possibly imagine ourselves mimicking—that is the sign of good writing that draws readers in and, by holding up an invisible mirror, allows them to see themselves all the more clearly. I recommend both books to you highly!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

In the Crawl Space, A Box

Joan and I have moved around a lot since we got married almost thirty-five years ago. We’ve lived at eight addresses since then, two for a decade each (next year we will have lived on Reed Drive for longer than we’ve ever lived anywhere as a married couple) and the rest for stays of one, two, or three years each. So you’d think we’d be pretty good at moving by now. I’d think that too! And we are, more or less. We’ve become better at jettisoning things we don’t and won’t ever want again or use, for example. We’ve learned to avoid the ridiculous expense we underwent in our third year of marriage, when we paid a fortune (or what then seemed to us like a fortune) to squirrel away in some storage facility in the Bronx most of the contents of our apartment on 111th Street, only to throw most of it away three years later when we took a good look at what we had saved and decided that we didn’t want hardly any of it after all, that it was all junk. Which it mostly was.

Our system, shared by many, is that we deal with 95% of our stuff in the first two weeks at a new address and the remaining 5% over the next few years. But that doesn’t take into account the boxes we end up never dealing with, the few boxes that somehow never get opened, that we don’t seem ever to find the time actually to open and deal with even by bringing their contents to the curb for pickup.  And so I found myself in the crawl space over the garage before Pesach rooting around among the relics of former stages of our family’s existence—I was, if you all must know, looking for a Pesach tablecloth that Joan and both remember clearly from our home in southern California and haven’t seen since, yet can’t imagine we wouldn’t have taken with us when we moved here in 2002 and certainly wouldn’t ever have thrown out—and it was in that least appealing of all our home's accessible spaces that I noticed a box I couldn’t recall ever having seen before.

It felt like the beginning—the part before the opening titles—of some ridiculous horror movie, the kind that begins with a normal person going about his daily activities and then coming unawares across the portal to a different dimension or a distant universe. (Now that I think of it, Stephen King’s great novel 11/22/63 begins in exactly that way and that actually was first-rate fiction. So, for that matter, does Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps it was the introduction of myself into the tableau that made it feel ridiculous.) I looked again. It was a box that, according to the printed information on its side, once held file 9x12 manila envelopes. But it was clearly a box of new envelopes no longer: it was dented and slightly crushed and there was duct tape sealing it. On the front someone, possibly myself, had scrawled my own initials, indicating—what else?—that the contents belonged to me or pertained to me. But I couldn’t recall ever having seen that box, not lately and not ever.

You can’t stand up in a crawl space. (Otherwise, they’d be called stand spaces!)  Nor is there a window to open. So it was dusty and cold up there—which was no surprise given the temperature outside—and there I was staring at this strange box that I had absolutely no recollection of ever having seen before.  For a strange moment, I wondered if the sought-after tablecloth could possibly have been in the box. If this had been an O. Henry story (or a Twilight Zone episode), maybe. But in the real world, why would I have put a Pesach tablecloth in a cardboard box by itself and then sealed it with duct tape? Curious, I crawled over to the box, picked it up…and carried it downstairs, where it then proceeded to spend the entire holiday gathering dust under my desk. And then, just last week, I carried it into the kitchen and, using one of our less good steak knives, opened it to see what was inside.

My younger readers will not know this, but there was a time before the cloud, before (even) the internet itself. People wrote things out with pens on paper. Or they typed them on big machines that didn’t correct your spelling or allow you insert hyperlinks into your prose. (Of course, that wasn’t really an issue, since there was nothing to link your prose to anyway.) When you were done typing your work onto a piece of paper you had previously inserted by hand into the machine, it fell onto the floor if you didn’t retrieve it in time. (That much, at least, modern printers haven’t changed.) And then you put another piece of paper into the machine and started over. If you wanted to insert a paragraph onto the first page of a four-page essay, you typed the entire thing over from the beginning. It was that simple!

Since I began saving them electronically, first to disks and then to drives and finally to the cloud itself, I have delivered as of this week 209 eulogies for exactly that many deceased individuals. I knew personally almost every one of the people I’ve eulogized too, some well and others less so. On that list of 209 are two of my own relatives, my father and my Aunt Molly. The other 207 were congregants or, occasionally, others whom I was asked to eulogize as a gesture of kindness to a bereaved family that had no one else to whom they could turn. But before those 209 were a different 100 or so whose eulogies I wrote, delivered, and then—this all came right back to me as I stood in my kitchen and peered into the box—and put into a box that once had held file folders and was just the right size, therefore, to hold eulogies printed on standard-size typing paper. (Other than a few times at the very beginning of my career, I haven’t ever delivered a eulogy other than from a prepared text.) And that was the box—still unopened from our Vancouver days—I found in the crawl space and the contents of which I have now been reading through for the last few days.

You see the passage of time in such a box differently than when you experience it on a daily basis. Lots of the eulogized, at least in the beginning of my career, were born in the nineteenth century. (That hasn’t been the case for years now, obviously. But it was then!) Did I really know someone once who was alive when Chester A. Arthur was in the White House? I did! Among the eulogized was a Red Army veteran who was present at Stalingrad, an IDF veteran who participated in the capture of Jerusalem in 1967, and several men who landed in France on D-Day. None of that sounds that amazing…but what of the man, in his 90s when he passed away in the late 1970s, who spent time in the trenches during the First World War and who had been present at Passchendaele when the Canadians seized it on November 6, 1917 in the Third Battle of Ypres (now also known as the Battle of Passchendaele), a campaign now forgotten by most but which at the time cost the lives of a full quarter of a million combatants. That battle was the defining moment of that man’s life. But when I mentioned it in his eulogy, I felt obliged to explain the background as though no one would otherwise recall its details. Yet, when I read what I wrote—and there are scores upon scores of eulogies in that box, including some I have no clear recollection of having delivered—I am struck not by the differences between them, but by the common features they all seem to have.

When I gather information for a eulogy, I’m obviously not interviewing the deceased. I did once have a congregant who took to mailing me an ongoing series of updates regarding her latest undertakings and adventures so that I’d be completely current when I eventually composed her eulogy, which I eventually did. But that was the exception that proves the rule, and mostly I’m speaking to that individual’s children or spouse when I gather the information I need to compose my remarks, or to that person’s siblings or, occasionally, to his or her parents.

What they all have to say is very different in terms of the details of the now-lost life. Some of the people whose eulogies I’ve been reading obsessively for the last few days were very well educated; others didn’t go further than high school. A few didn’t even get that far. Some must have been wealthy. Others, reading between my own lines, must have been of very modest means. But death truly is the great equalizer…and the truths that come through over and over are not shocking or radical, but basic and familiar. The happiest memories are of time spent together as a family. A happy marriage is almost always touted as the great achievement of a lifetime, second only to successful parenting.  Money doesn’t matter, not in the long run…and this appears to be true both with respect to deceased individuals who were rolling in it and those who spent their lives never having quite enough to make ends meet. No one I interview when I prepare a eulogy seems impressed by the things the dead acquired in the course of their short or long lifetimes. Details that feel all-consuming in life—details concerning someone’s physical appearance, for example—are rarely mentioned. Politics, sports, organizational affiliation, advances at work, musical or artistic tastes…these are all referenced, sometimes even emphatically, but when I ask the big question about what the person I am to eulogize was really like and what his or her descendants want me to feature as the crowning achievement of that person’s lifetime, the answers are almost always the same. He was a great husband. She was the best wife. He was the most devoted father. She was an adoring, caring mother whose love for her children knew no bounds. The deceased was a wonderful friend to so many people. And the words that the family wants stressed are almost always the same as well, at least in happy families: generous, kind, loving, caring, decent, charitable, considerate, tolerant, gracious, giving, and good.


I don’t believe I’ve ever had the experience of re-reading so many eulogies one after the next, but it was an instructive exercise…and one I wanted to share with you. And I’ll share with you a confession as well. One of my own habits, slightly chastening and always sobering, has to do with me personally. As I drive home after visiting with the family to cull the information for a eulogy, I almost always find myself wondering what my own people will tell the rabbi when it’s my turn to leave this world to the living and move on to whatever awaits on the other side of the abyss. Will they tell about my books or my e-letters? Will they stress the irony involved in having to eulogize the eulogizer? Will they mention that I somehow managed to lose the same forty pounds twenty different times in the course of what I hope ends up being a very long life? Or will they say of me what I hear people constantly say in the context of these interviews with respect to their own lost loved ones? I don’t ask that question because I wish to answer it out loud, or even because it even could be answered definitively.  Instead, I ask it merely to demonstrate that it can be posed and, if one is all alone in a car driving between a house full of people reeling in the wake of loss and one’s own home…and if one has the courage to look at oneself in the mirror of one’s mind without flinching, I can assure you that one can guess at the answer too. I know what I wish the answer to be! But how exactly to make it so, that is the challenge posed to me over and over on those drives home…and also by the experience of reading a box full of eulogies slowly, one after the next.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Accountant

We have become used to the fact that the survivors’ numbers are dwindling. 1500 survivors of Auschwitz gathered in January of 2005 to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the camp’s liberation by the Red Army in 1945, but just one-fifth as many came to Poland this last January to mark the seventieth anniversary. Nor is that at all surprising. There were no children among the survivors of the camps. The liberated teenagers of 1945 are in their mid-eighties today. And those who were older than that then are older than that now as well. But more surprising to notice, at least to me personally, is that the perpetrators are also dwindling. There were, after all, also no children working in any of the camps…and so the survivors in those ranks—the actual murderers and their countless willing accomplices in the Nazi war against the Jews—they too are dwindling and becoming fewer and fewer with each passing year.

Given that their survival into old age itself could entirely rationally be taken as an insult to their victims, it seems odd even to suggest that one could, let alone should, care. Nor is it irrelevant in this context to note how many of those who made the camps into the world’s most efficient killing centers faced neither prosecution nor, needless to say, punishment for their crimes. (Of the roughly 6,500 men and women who ran Auschwitz from 1941 to 1945, no more than fifteen percent were eventually convicted of war crimes.) Some comfort comes from knowing that death is the great leveler of the playing field of justice…and that the only court from which escape is possible is the earthly tribunal, not the heavenly one. I actually do find great comfort in that thought, but I still find it unpalatable in the extreme to imagine the men and women who ran Auschwitz returning to their homes and their families after the war ended, free either to regret or not to regret their role in the murder of millions but otherwise unencumbered by their past lives as purveyors of genocide.

But now, almost at the very last moment, the rules of the game have changed. When the war ended and the war crimes trials conducted by the Allies were finally over, the German government focused on prosecuting the upper-echelon Nazis who actually gave the orders that those who were “just following orders” were following. But things changed with the successful prosecution in 2011 of John Demjanjuk, who was found guilty of being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Dutch Jews at Sobibor. And although Demjanjuk remained technically innocent under German law because he died while his appeal was still pending (see above, regarding the heavenly tribunal), his conviction made possible the redirection of German prosecutorial efforts towards those who by their actions were merely complicit in the murder of millions. 

And now that the trial of Oskar Gröning has begun, we can see what that idea looks like when translated from the language of legal theory into the nuts-and-bolts like of the German criminal justice system.  Oskar Gröning is ninety-three years old. He walks with a walker. He looks his age. But once he was a handsome twenty-year-old member of the SS who volunteered for work at Auschwitz and was thus part of the human machine that murdered about 300,000 people in May, June, and July of 1944. (Even though he worked at the camp from 1942 to 1945, the indictment specifically references his work during those three months, during which time 137 trainloads of deported Hungarian Jews arrived at the camp, because these were the specific months regarding which viable witnesses were available to testify.) His specific job was only tangentially related to the murder of those 300,000 people, however: it was his assignment to collect the baggage from the arrival ramp after its owners were either sent to their deaths or processed as slave laborers. He was considered trustworthy, apparently, because part of his job involved personally removing any bank notes he found in the baggage. (He would then tally their sums and send the bills along to the SS office in Berlin, thus earning his grotesque nickname, “The Accountant of Auschwitz.”) And he was an enthusiastic participant as well: in a 2005 BBC documentary, he said openly that as a young man he believed that killing Jews, including children, was “the right thing to do.” So he was a willing executioner whose duties did not actually involve murdering anyone at all. Does that make him guilty or innocent? And if the former, then guilty of what exactly? That is the question I’d like to write about this week.

It’s a complicated question that goes far beyond the simple question of what role in someone’s murder an individual actually has to take to be indicted as that person’s murderer. Forty-six states, including New York, have felony murder rules, for example, that hold individuals who participate in a felony liable for any deaths that occur in the course of the commission of the crime. That rule is hardly applicable in Oskar Gröning’s case—the deaths of those who died in the camps was hardly a function of the Nazis’ wish to steal from them—but it illustrates the concept of liability going far beyond the actual trigger-puller to those “merely” constructing the context in which an innocent’s death took place. The defendant himself, speaking clearly and in easily-understandable German, framed the question as well as any could. “It is beyond question that I am morally complicit,” he said unambiguously as he addressed the court. And then he went on to say that he was prepared not merely to acknowledge his moral guilt but to do so before the victims “with regret and with humility.” He asked for forgiveness as well. And then, turning to Judge Franz Kompisch, he admitted his lack of legal expertise in the matter. “As concerns guilt before the law,” he said almost humbly, “that will have to be your job to decide.”

Well, doesn’t that complicate things! How simple it would be to condemn the unrepentant Nazi, the monster who after all these years still cannot understand how he can have done wrong by following his superiors’ orders, how he can possibly have been expected to know that it was wrong to murder children when the Führer said otherwise. That would be a true no-brainer. But here is a man who openly admits his guilt, who did not limit himself to the language of tangential complicity when speaking of himself in court but who spoke instead of actual moral responsibility. Clearly, he knows what he did was wrong. Does that make his prosecution unnecessary? On the one hand, if we routinely assert that ignorance of the law is no excuse for wrongdoing, then certainly knowledge that one did wrong also shouldn’t be!  On the other, we are talking about a young man not old enough in 1942 even to buy a beer at a bar today in New York State who was party to monstrous crimes more than seventy years in the past? Is it reasonable to pursue him? Is it just? Or, given his age and his willingness to confess his guilt plainly and unambiguously, is it pointless or excessive to do so? You will find people vehemently arguing in both those directions on the editorial pages of the world’s newspapers and, with far less abandon, in the blogosphere. Nor is it obvious what the punishment should be if he is found guilty. Any sentence to prison at all would in effect be a life sentence. It’s easy enough to play the Javert in a case like this, but is that what we really think should happen…not to faceless murderers who aren’t actually on trial but to Oskar Gröning himself, the nonagenarian who actually is?

If I could address the court, I would deliver a sermon in two parts. First, I would argue that finding the accused not guilty despite his willing participation in mass murder would be not only be an insult to the Nazis’ victims but also a true perversion of justice. Nor does it seem important to me that the accused personally did not actually kill anyone with his bare hands because he was part of a team that as an aggregate of well-disciplined and well-organized co-workers was fully responsible for what they did in that place. But then, having made the case for conviction, I would move on to argue against incarceration as the man’s punishment. John Demjanjuk, who was convicted of being complicit in the murder of just one-tenth the number of victims in Gröning’s case, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. But what would be the point of sentencing a ninety-three-year-old to fifty years in prison? In my opinion, the man—frail but fully lucid and easy to understand when he speaks—should be sentenced to a life sentence to be served in the high schools of Germany. He should be obliged to spend a full five days of every week he has left telling his story, describing the ramp and the selections he witnessed, describing as best he can what he saw…and explaining how in a handful of years he personally moved on from being an innocent child in the German equivalent of middle school to the kind of young man who willingly volunteered for service in hell. He should be obliged to write his own story too, providing in his own words a lesson for future generations about how quickly—how unbelievably quickly—after losing one’s moral compass one can find oneself murdering babies, secure in the fantasy that one is behaving morally and patriotically.


By being sentenced to spend his remaining years bearing witness to what he himself saw and experienced, perhaps some good could come from this trial that comes more than half a century too late for “real” justice. Oskar Gröning has already won. He lived out his life in peace and calm. He married, became the father of two sons. He became an avid stamp collector. Barred from the banking industry because of his membership in the SS, he became instead a manager at a glass factory. He had a good middle-class life in a peaceful Germany city and lived, as the world now knows, into advanced old age. Nothing that can now happen can change any of that. But some good can come from his conviction if now, as the very last perpetrators pass from the scene, one of them were to serve as a living icon of the power of repentance not to undo the past or make innocent the guilty, but to inspire others to understand that, in the end, the boundary line between saint and sinner is narrow, not broad. And that to step across it requires nothing more complex than the simple willingness to harden one’s heart, to look away from the light…and to believe that one is too little important for one’s deeds to be of any real consequence.  If the court is curious, that’s what I think should happen next.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

To Be Cured You Have To Be Ill

While campaigning for re-election in 2011, President Obama famously noted that his attitudes towards same-sex marriage were, to use his own word, “evolving.” And so, clearly, have his opinions about other issues relating to the gay community, which evolution reached its latest stage just this week when the President formally announced his opposition to so-called conversion therapy (also called reparative therapy) undertaken to alter sexual identity. The president did not explicitly call for congressional legislation to ban the practice, but merely encouraged the eighteen states currently considering laws that would do just that to persevere and thus to join California, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., where this kind of therapy is already forbidden by law. Presumably, the President would like the other thirty states to follow suit. But even without the intimation of future federal legislation, this was the first time the issue was brought so forcefully to the fore as part of a larger national debate about the place of gay people in American society.

White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett explained the President’s stance in terms of the efficacy of the therapy, nothing that “the overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that conversion therapy, especially when it is practiced on young people, is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm.”  And that appears to be the widely accepted view in the medical community as well. As early as 2001, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher published a report in which he wrote that he knew then of no evidence at all that sexual orientation can be changed. Later studies have confirmed that sentiment.  Even Robert Spitzer, the renowned psychiatrist whose 2003 paper endorsing the potential worth of therapy undertaken to change sexual orientation was very widely cited by groups in favor of the practice, even Dr. Spitzer himself has backtracked, describing his own work as “fatally flawed” and apologizing to the gay community for proffering claims about the efficacy of conversion therapy that he now realizes remain unproven. Nor is this a new line of thought: Freud himself wrote in his 1920 essay, “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman,” that “in general to undertake to convert a fully developed homosexual into a heterosexual does not offer much more prospect of success than the reverse.” In other words: none at all.

All that being the case, it’s hard to imagine what the fuss is about. Surely no one is in favor of it being legal for snake-oil salespeople posing as therapists to offer cures that do not work, just as no one thinks pharmaceutical companies should be allowed to market drugs that don’t actually do anything or that hospitals should be allowed to permit procedures that merely make the hospital lots of money but do not actually have any sort of salutary effect on the patients who undergo them.  So the President’s stance is hardly too daring a one, just a rational commitment to the more-than-widely-accepted principle that only effective forms of medical or psychological treatment should be permitted by law. But hiding behind this specific discussion is a different, far more interesting one.

White House Senior Advisor Jarrett wrote plainly that conversion therapy should not be allowed because it doesn’t work.  But what if it did work? In other words, what if some way were to be found to alter sexual identity? It’s true that no one seems to know how to do it. But medical procedures we’ve come to think of as ordinary—dialysis, in vitro fertilization, coronary bypass surgery, to name three among a thousand—would also once (and in the lifetimes, I think, of most of my readers) have been dismissed as undoable fantasies. So let’s say that someone somewhere comes up with an actual way to alter sexual identity. Let’s posit it works too, and with no other effect than the desired one. Would it be morally wrong for citizens who wished to be differently oriented to avail themselves of it? Valerie Jarrett used the word “unethical” to describe conversion therapy, but the context of her remarks suggests that she meant that it is unethical because it is foisted on naïve souls as efficacious, which it clearly is not. But what if it were efficacious. What if it did work? Would it still be unethical? To my way of thinking, that is the far more interesting issue and it’s the one I’d like to write about this week.

We live in a society that encourages people to live free, to be what they wish to be, to self-alter if self-alteration is perceived as the path towards future happiness. That much sounds like apple pie, like something you couldn’t debate because there wouldn’t be any rational reason to oppose the concept. People who weigh too much go on diets to lose weight. People who have no natural musical talent take piano lessons because they want to learn how to make music nevertheless and we think that’s admirable, particularly in adults. People who feel held back by their lack of formal education go back to school, even later in life, to self-improve, to self-transform, to become the men and women they feel they could be and they wish to be. So the notion of being dissatisfied with who or what you are and wishing to morph into a version of yourself that better suits your conception of who you could or should or would be…that notion is as basic to the bedrock American value of self-reliance as it is fundamental to the right of every individual to live as he or she wishes and according to his or her own lights.

But is that the right framework for discussing the question of self-alteration when it touches something as basic as sexual orientation? Not fully apt is the parallel that comes to mind the most easily: the one to the kind of hormonal and surgical therapy intended to help transgendered, or potentially transgendered, people overcome the lack of correspondence they feel between gender and sex. People who suffer from gender dysphoria are possessed of the conviction that they actually are men or women even though they were born into the world in bodies that specifically do not conform to that aspect of their internal identity. But the audience for conversion therapy is hardly made up of gay people who feel that they really are straight people who have somehow been born into the world encased in the psyches of gay people. (I’m not even sure what that would mean.) Instead, the candidates for this kind of therapy understand themselves truly to be gay people, but wish that that weren’t the case…and so they turn to therapy in the hope, apparently the vain hope, that it might alter that aspect of their internal selves and make them not into someone they already truly are, as might a young person in the transgender context, but into someone they aren’t but wish they were. So that parallel doesn’t really work.

Nor is the parallel to plastic surgery entirely right. People, for example, who submit to surgery because they wish they had different shaped noses or breasts, or less plump bellies or more shapely posteriors, are eager to alter some aspect of their appearance so that they will be more pleased with the way they look, not to change something so deeply embedded in the psyche that to alter it would really be to change into a different person almost entirely. So to compare the alteration of one’s sexual identity to the alteration of the shape of one’s nose is to make too little of the one and too much of the other. I don’t suppose there’s any specific reason for people who can afford such procedures not to look as they wish, but, in the end, there’s a reason that kind of surgery is qualified as “cosmetic”: because it is cosmetic and affects only the outer shell, not the inner core, of the person undergoing it.

More relevant than the search for parallels in other arenas of modern life, however, is the fact that desire to alter one’s sexual orientation—always in the direction of gay to straight, of course, and never in the opposite direction—is generally rooted in the kind of self-loathing that society should discourage rather than promote. Thinking you would look better with straighter teeth or a tinier nose doesn’t strike me as something intrinsically negative or harmful because the post-surgery individual with the desired teeth or nose is fundamentally the same individual as the pre-surgery one. But sexual identity, I believe, is more like gender itself: something that is so basic to the integral self that to alter it truly is to alter who that individual is. Many times in the course of all these years of marriage I’ve been told that “if I were a woman, I’d get it.” Clearly, I know what Joan means: that women see things differently than men and, if I were a woman, so would I.  But, her implied meaning notwithstanding, the thought itself doesn’t really make any sense: if my mother had given birth to a baby girl on the day of my birth instead of myself, I would hardly be myself except that I’d be a woman. Gender is too basic, too deeply rooted in the most interior aspects of the psyche, too ineradicable for it to be reasonable to imagine oneself being exactly who one is except of the opposite gender. That person, had my mother done that thing, would be someone entirely different than me. She wouldn’t have my name or look like me. (That poor thing if she did!) But she also wouldn’t have had my experiences, wouldn’t have grown up seeing the world through my eyes, wouldn’t have become who I am except for some few physiological and endocrinological details.  I think we all feel that way about gender, but I think it’s true about sexual identity as well.


And that’s why society is doing well to be moving away from this kind of therapy. It’s not relevant that it doesn’t work. Lots of things in the world used to not work and now they do! What’s relevant is the notion that the desire to undergo conversion therapy is almost always routed in the deeply internalized lesson that being gay is some sort of moral defect that needs to be fixed, that it is a disease that only a crazy person would wish to suffer from instead of being cured of. As the father of a gay man, I have learned not to think of gayness as a burden to be shouldered stoically and bravely, but as a deeply embedded feature of personality. To wish a gay person straight is to wish that person not to exist, and to deny the right of the self—one’s own self or someone else’s—to exist on its own terms is tragic. Gay people who are so miserable that they see no step as too extreme to take to eradicate their sexuality should be helped…not to become different people even if that were possible, but to embrace their inner selves and the constellation of affects that is theirs alone. Only then will such people find the kind of inner peace that is only truly available to those who understand that self-acceptance is the threshold across which all must step who would be accepted by the world beyond the self, by the world of others, by the world of neighbors and potential friends.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

On the Sesquicentennial of President Lincoln's Death

As our nation prepares to mark the sesquicentennial anniversary of President Lincoln’s death next week, his yahrtzeit seems especially poignant to me personally…but possibly not for the reason some of my readers may think. (Speaking more precisely, his yahrtzeit was actually this last Wednesday since he died on the fifth day of Pesach in 1865, just one day after he was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington. But the rest of the world is planning on observing the anniversary of his death next week on Wednesday, April 15, the secular date of his death 150 years ago.)

With the publication just last month of Jonathan Sarna’s gorgeously illustrated and extremely interesting Lincoln and the Jews: A History and the mounting of a rich exhibition at the New York Historical Society called “Lincoln and the Jews” (which Joan and I actually went to see last Wednesday on the actual fifth day of Pesach), there are more than enough ways to read up on the relationship between our sixteenth president and the American Jewish community of his time. (It was a small community in those days of about 150,000 souls in a larger American population in 1860 of more than 31 million. The community, however, even then was burgeoning; a mere twenty years earlier there had only been one-tenth as many Jewish Americans amidst their then-17-million co-citizens.)  Much has been made, for example, of Lincoln’s early friendship with one Louis Salzenstein, whose store served as regional post office in Athens, Illinois, when Lincoln himself served their common district as regional postmaster.  Nor was “Old Salty” Lincoln’s only Jewish friend in his pre-presidential years: the names of Abraham Jonas and Julius Hammerslough, among many others, are well known to history buffs as living “evidence” of Lincoln’s willingness to accept Jews as friends and colleagues. And some of those many others are highlighted in the Historical Society exhibit, including the president’s flamboyant chiropodist and confident Issachar Zacharie, and his photographer friend Samuel Altschuler, whose clean-shaven portrait of the future president taken in April of 1858 is also on display. (The Altschuler portrait is on loan from the Library of Congress. Chiropodists today are more commonly called podiatrists. The exhibit will be open to the public through June 7.)

Later on, of course, President Lincoln became famous as a great defender of Jewish rights when he personally countermanded General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous Order No. 11, which expelled Jews from certain areas of the occupied Confederacy in January of 1863. (That episode, by the way, is covered in great and definitive depth in a different book by Jonathan Sarna, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, which was published by Schocken in 2012 and which I can also recommend highly.) Less widely discussed, but surely just as relevant, is the fact that Lincoln appointed seven Jews as generals in the United States Army and in 1862 went personally to Capitol Hill to ask Congress to amend the existing law to grant rabbis the right to serve as chaplains in the Armed Forces of the Unites States. (Upon the passage of the law in July of that year, Lincoln then personally appointed three American rabbis, Jacob Frankel, Bernard Gotthelf, and Ferdinand Sarna, as U.S. Army chaplains.)

Also well-known is the report by Mary Todd Lincoln that, in the last week of his life, the president commented to her that one of his great hopes was one day to visit Jerusalem and the Holy Land. And, of course, well documented too is Lincoln’s great love for the Hebrew Bible and particularly for the books of the prophets and the Psalms, from which he quoted often both in public and private speech.

All that is compelling evidence regarding Lincoln’s warm feelings towards the American Jewish community of his day and his willingness publicly to be seen as a defender of the rights of its members to live freely and fully as American citizens. But in this world of never-ending turmoil in which we seem to be living, Lincoln—in my mind, at least—stands for something else even more compellingly.

In Lincoln’s day, just as in our own, our country was facing unprecedented challenges. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated in March of 1861, seven states had voted to secede from the union and had formed the Confederate States of America. Then, after the attack on Fort Sumter just one month after his inauguration, four more states joined the original seven to bring the total up to eleven. (After those eleven states declared their independence, the Union consisted of twenty free states and the five border slave states—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia—that did not secede.) The issues on the table in need of immediate resolution were military and economic, obviously, but the most profound ideas at the true heart of the conflict were philosophical ones…and it is on them, or rather one of them, that I would like now to focus.

The United States itself was formed when the original thirteen colonies declared their self-arrogated right to declare independence because, in their own words, the right “to dissolve political bands” unilaterally and to assume “among the powers of the earth, a separate and equal station” is among the basic human rights shared by all peoples. In other words, our Founding Fathers based their claim to statehood on the fact that, because their lawful ruler had made it impossible for them to pursue their own destiny in the specific way they wished—i.e., as a self-constituted entity of like-minded citizens united as one in the desire to self-govern according to principles they considered to be self-evident truths—that in and of itself made it lawful for them to secede (to use the loaded term in this context) from their own country and to set out on their own independent course forward as an independent nation.  And now, by asserting their right to assume their own separate and equal station among the powers of the earth, the leaders of the southern states were in effect throwing down to Washington the same gauntlet that our nation’s founders had thrown down to London.  This, to my way of thinking, was the true challenge that the secessionist states laid at the feet of the nation’s leadership and, once he assumed office, specifically at the feet—those same feet cared for so assiduously by the faithful Dr. Zacharie—of President Lincoln. Would what had long-since been accepted as kosher sauce for the gander now too be kosher for the goose? Or would the president simply refuse to preside over the dissolution of his own country despite the obvious challenge of precedent rooted in his country’s own history?

Jefferson Davis, in a long series of speeches and essays defending the legitimacy of the Confederacy, returned again and again to the example of the founding fathers, sometimes expressing himself in the context of the right of each individual state to chart its own destiny and other times arguing that the right to secede from the national union was inherent in the decision of each state to join in the first place. (Readers who want to learn more about Jefferson Davis’ thinking on each of these matters have only to get a copy of his own The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, published by the Confederacy’s only president in his own old age and still in print more than 130 years later. I’ve always wanted to read that book…and now that I’ve recommended it, perhaps I even will!)

But Lincoln, who knew the published works of our Founding Fathers as well as did Jefferson Davis, had his own way of reading history. In his First Inaugural Address, he spoke of his belief that by its nature the union of the states that collectively formed the United States was perpetual and irrevocable. In other speeches and addresses, he pursued that line of thinking further. Obviously, he insisted, the Founding Fathers were not acting within English law when they broke with England. But the difference between their actions and those of the leaders of the Confederacy was that the former were acting in accordance with moral principles—as famously listed in the Declaration of Independence itself—whereas the leaders of the Confederate State of America were not. The American Revolution was thus an exercise of a moral right that depended for its legitimacy on the ethical principles prompting it and not on the law of the country being revolted against, which idea would be an absurdity that would render ipso facto all rebellion illegitimate.

In others, President Lincoln was the opposite of a moral relativist. For him, the imperative that should guide a nation forward is not conformity with past practices or some indefensible argument that what’s right and legitimate in one context must logically be both those things in every other context as well. And it was that conviction, that the quest for the greater moral good must always be the principle that guides nations forward, that made Lincoln into the greatest of all our presidents, one prepared to put all on the line to do what seemed to him right and good.  To justify immoral behavior—and particularly on the level of nations—with reference to historical parallels but without caring—or even without caring enough—what is just in any given situation…that is precisely where nations begin down the road to perdition. And it was exactly that line of reasoning that made it feel natural and right for the federal government not to acquiesce to the secession of states eager to be free, among other things, to own slaves and to treat them as beasts of burden. I am well aware of the argument that Lincoln’s own attitude towards slavery evolved over the years. But it seems to me that at the core of the conflict between the states was the wish of one side to preserve a life style built on indignity, injustice, and a denial of basic human rights to millions—there were more than 3.5 million slaves in the states that voted to secede from the Union—and the wish of the other side to grow towards a finer model of societal living, towards basic respect for human rights, and towards an eventual renunciation of slavery as a legitimate commercial institution.

In our day, I hear constantly—and read constantly on the op-ed pages of our newspapers as well—thinking rooted in precisely the kind of moral relativism that President Lincoln would never have found sound or cogent. Our sixteenth president believed there to be nothing immoral in favoring the right side in a dispute even if doing so almost by definition means not treating both parties to that dispute in precisely the same way…and so, if we truly wish to think of ourselves as his heirs as we pause to take note of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of President Lincoln’s passing, should we.