Friday, 29 September 2017

The Bet is Still On - Yizkor Yom Kippur 5778

The best book I’ve read in the last year is an oddly named book by the French writer, Laurent Binet. It’s called HHhH.[1] In part HHhH is the story of the Nazi, Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Butcher of Prague. Heydrich was intimately complicit in Kristallnacht and convened the conference where the Final Solution was most fully articulated.

I’ve read a bunch of books about Nazis. I am sure many of us have. But what makes Binet’s work particularly interesting is that it’s not a book about a Nazi. It’s rather a book about writing a book about a Nazi. Having introduced us to Heydrich’s brutality, Binet steps out from behind the fourth wall. ‘You see,’ he writes, ‘Heydrich is the target [of this book] not [it’s] protagonist. Everything I’ve written about him [to this point] is by way of background.’  And if that sounds a bit arch, a bit - forgive my generalisation - a bit French, bear with me. Because Binet is on to something deeply important.

The book unfolds, Binet recalls the events of Heydrich’s life. He introduces us to his heroes; Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš; two Czech partisans, trained in England and sent by the Czech Government-in-exile to assassinate Prague’s Butcher. On the fateful day, as Heydrich’s car slows - as the assassins knew it would - at the corner where they planned to strike, Gabčík’s gun jams. The plan - so carefully considered - looks to be failing. But then Kubiš has a moment to lob a grenade in Heydrich’s direction and does. It seems to affect only minor damage on Heydrich the target. But then septicaemia sets in and the Butcher of Prague dies an invalid’s death a week later. Binet goes on to tell the story of Lidice, the Czech town of 500 razed to the ground by the Nazi’s as punishment for the assassination - razed on the entirely erroneous notion that its inhabitants had something to do with the plot. And finally Binet recounts the final moments of Gabčík and Kubiš, holed up in the basement of a Prague Church, keeping 800 Nazis at bay [through a day and long into the night], until at last, they too suffer the same mortal consequence that met their target.

And all through this brilliant storytelling, Binet keeps peeking out from behind the fourth wall, asking us, and asking himself - does it matter? In the shadow of the Holocaust, and millions murdered in so many awful ways, does it matter that the butcher Heydrich dies on a hospital gurney while Gabčík and Kubiš die in a heroic last stand. In the face of the impossible awfulness of Nazi brutality does any of this matter?

Back in the earliest pages of the book, as we first meet Heydrich the child, Binet tells us his target grew up in the German village of Halle. He supposes he ought, at that point, wax lyrical about the village, but admits that he doesn’t know which of the two German towns called Halle Heydrich actually was from, ‘For the time being,’ he tells us ‘I’m not sure it’s important.’ Binet asks if it matters that the gun jammed, or if it matters that more Czech’s died because of the assassination that would have died had Heydrich been left to get on with his awful existence.

As the Nazi’s destroy Lidice and every man and most of the women who lived in the town, Gabcik and Kubis hide in a Prague basement, in despair at the wave of Nazi destruction unleashed in the aftermath of their ultimately successful assasination. They knew, they surely knew that their plotting could result in their own death, but did they consider the mass deaths of innocents their actions would provoke? Was it worth it? ‘Gabcik and Kubis weep from rage and powerlessness,’ Binet writes, ‘No one ever manages to persuade them that Heydrich’s death was good for anything . Perhaps,’ he continues, ‘I am writing this book to make them understand that they are wrong.’

HHhH becomes a book about the possibility of meaning, it’s a challenge posed in the face of Nazi brutality. But it’s a challenge, I suspect, we all feel sometimes. Particularly especially at this point on this day, with our memories of those who are no longer here; some taken peacefully at the ends of long fulfilled lives, others taken too early or too bitterly.

Soren Kierkegaard once wrote, a “single event of inexplicable horror ‘has the power to make everything inexplicable, including the most explicable events.’[2]

This is part of the problem of the Holocaust, it can strip us of all understanding, it can make it seem impossible to care about anything anymore.

And here I find myself drawn into the awful debate, now some 30 years old, surrounding the death of one of the bravest souls ever to have looked into the furnace of Auschwitz; Primo Levi. [3] In 1987 Levi was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs in his apartment building. Almost immediately Eli Wiesel pronounced, “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz ... forty years later.” The coroner in seeming agreement called his death a suicide. The American homme des lettres, Leon Wieseltier felt the loss not only of the man, Levi, but everything Levi stood for. "[Levi],” wrote Wieseltier, “spoke for the bet that there is no blow from which the soul may not recover. When he smashed his body, he smashed his bet.”

There’s a certain dangerous, seductive romance given succour by considering Levi’s death a suicide - the whiff of Juliette, taking her life as Romeo lies apparently dead before her. Here, the Levi, takes his life having completed his last great work, having said everything there is to say about the appalling failures of human possibility.

It’s just that - much like Romeo’s apparent death - this dark dangerous romantic vision of Levi might be quite wrong. In the years since his death the notion that Levi gave up on life as a direct result of his suffering in the camps has taken a battering. For one thing Levi himself is recorded active, engaged and excited by life and the various diary commitments he had set out for himself in the weeks after his death. He told his friends he no longer felt under the weight of the experiences of his formative years. And the fall down the stairs is a strange way to commit suicide - especially for a chemist - who could, surely have found easier paths towards death if that was indeed what he had chosen. Levi’s friend and cardiologist, David Mendel, observed that drugs Levi was taking often lower the blood pressure. Mendel imagines Levi on the point of fainting, reaching for banisters to steady himself and instead toppling.

Maybe Levi didn’t accept that the value of life is always trumped by the power of darkness and death.
Maybe Wieseltier’s bet, that there is no blow from which the soul may not recover, that there is no hell which some element of human virtue cannot penetrate, illuminate and palliate is still on.
Maybe life is still worth living - and living fully and heroically and as brightly as we are capable.

We are teetering on a knife-edge, trying to discover if there is anything authentic to do in a world where human will treat human with such abject violence and hatred; a world where the good and the evil suffer the same inevitable mortal consequence. And we are grasping for something that allows us to feel the bet is still on.

Let me draw one more voice into this conversation - Emil Fackenheim - by some twist of fate or coincidence, born in Halle, Saxony in 1916. That turns out to be the very same village in which the butcher of Prague, Heydrich was born 12 years earlier. Fackenheim, by 1939 a Rabbi, fled the Sauchsenhausen concentration camp in which he was detained in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, to become one of the most significant thinkers in 20th Century Jewry.

To read Fackenheim’s work, To Mend the World, is to feel Fackenheim being eaten away at by the notion that the Holocaust strips the life from ... life. Perhaps everything, he suggests is inauthentic after the Holocaust.

But no. Fackenheim, Binet and even Primo Levi, ultimately don’t suggest life is inauthentic, despite their deep investigations into the very darkest of times. They each emerge, if not with a jolly spring in their step, with a sense of the value of a life lived heroically, frankly, the value of a life lived at all. The stories of those who survived and those who did not, are for each of these three writers, full of authentic responses to the extraordinary gift of life even as their, so often tragically, are cut short. The acts of violence are never recounted as voiding the possibility of finding and creating meaning in these stories.

Fackenheim in particular, latches on to moments of heroism; sometimes the dramatic stories - such as Heydrich’s assassins Gabčík and Kubiš;’ sometimes the simpler triumphs of a survivor like Pelagia Lewinska. Lewinska spent 20 month’s in Auschwitz and her great triumph lay in nothing more than refusing to allow the Nazis to strip from her her belief in the value of behaving with human decency - she’s a hero too. Levi tells stories like these with a cooler spirit, but, I think, with pride nonetheless. Fackenheim’s point is that these  acts of heroism can’t be deemed inauthentic, or meaningless because they were performed in full understanding of the consequences. When a group of German philosophers, called the White Rose, sprayed ‘Down with Hitler’ on the walls of Munich in 1943, they knew they were courting death, and that by a certain standard that their actions would surely be futile. But they went ahead. ‘They knew it,’ wrote Fackenheim, ‘but they did it.’[4] And this, the philosopher writes, makes activism after the Holocaust capable of touching authenticity.

Or try this example, from HHhH. It comes from a section where Binet considers Theresienstadt, the so called ‘model’ concentration camp where the Nazis encouraged Jews to have a ‘relatively well developed cultural life with art and theatre.’ The Red Cross were fooled by the demonstrations of culture on show. But the Jewish residents weren’t. Of the 140,000 Jews imprisoned at Theresienstadt, only 17,000 survived. Binet cites Milan Kundera, ‘They were under no illusions: [they knew] their cultural life was exhibited by Nazi propaganda as an alibi; but should that be a reason to refuse freedom, however precarious and fraudulent? Their response was utterly clear: their creations, their art shows, their concerts, their loves, the whole array of their lives were incomparably more important than their jailers’ macabre theatrics. That was their [bet][5]. It should be ours too.’
Weiseltier’s bet, it seems, can survive the Holocaust because it was undertaken also in the midst of the Holocaust.

At the heart of all these articulations of possibility in the face of death, and in the face of the Holocaust most particularly, lies something irreducibly spiritual, perhaps we might even call it religious. I’m not trying to co-opt any of these thinkers and writers. But, for me, considering art, rebellion and even refusing to lose one’s humanity as meaningful bespeaks our belief that we are not just flesh and bones. We are not just material. We contain something other. We need something more than the material and, most remarkably, we become capable of creating something other than the material. As humans we create something other than material even when we are deprived of all material things; even in the midst of the Holocaust. And the heart of this thing that survives even such darkness as the Holocaust, are stories.

Binet writes that ‘The Nazis kept files, but burnt books.’ Files are the quotidian account of what will pass in time. But books are repositories of our soul, playgrounds for our imagination and homes of our dreams. Of course the Nazis were afraid of books. Of course they sought refuge in the reductive false security of ledgers. But the stories have survived. They have survived because stories of life are more powerful than numbers. The actions of the spirit are more powerful than the losses of the material - as much as the material we have lost hurt us so. That’s, of course, what we are all doing here, at Yizkor, remembering stories, even when the material presene of those we have lost and lost has gone.

As we tell stories, as we remind ourselves of all those we mourn. We remind ourselves of those destroyed by the Nazis and of those who have perished since in ways less brutal. But more than any of this we remind ourselves that life is more important than the material.

We remind ourselves of the value of a life lived beyond the realm of the material.
We remind ourselves that the bet is still on.
We remind ourselves that there is a point to living.
Even - in fact especially - as we consider the lives of those who have gone.
May all these lives be for a blessing.

[1] Originally published, in French, in 2010, and winner of the Prix Goncourt Du Premier Roman of that year. I read it in Sam Taylor’s 2012 translation, published by Harvill Secker.
[2] Cited in Kierkegaard’s name but with no citation in Emil Fackenheim’s To Mend the World, p.191.
[4] MW 266-267.
[5] ‘wager’ in the original.

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