Ioram Melcer | A Toothache in Europe
The quasi-continent ever-present in Jewish consciousness is experiencing a riveting process of change, upheaval and decline. Author and translator Ioram Melcer, editor of the online magazine Alaxon, offers a personal essay on Europe’s enigmatic and elusive nature. A view from Jerusalem.
I sometimes have need of Dr. Goldberg, a Jewish dentist who has never let me down. He always answers when I call, although he doesn’t have a phone, and since I've known him — no address either. Dr. Goldberg, a dentist, sometimes living in Paris, at other times in Lisbon, once even in Rome, and even Amsterdam, comes to my aid at my time of need. Because I use Dr. Goldberg when I find myself engaging in conversation with European friends complaining about the situation, wondering where the continent is headed and what will happen to it, maybe even during their own lifetime. That’s when I summon Dr. Goldberg, a Jewish dentist of the old school, probably once the owner of a clinic in one of the larger cities, to join the conversation and do his thing. He sits with us silently, a little discomfited at the exposure I force on him, lowering his sad gaze as he waits for me to terminate his role in the conversation and let him get back to the next world.
“You didn’t want Dr. Goldberg,” I say, extrapolating from my interlocutor to the residents of the continent as a whole, stretching the assertion two or three generations back in time. In any case, the doctor cannot object. “You didn’t want Dr. Goldberg, the Jewish dentist, so this is what you got instead: Mohammad who does all the jobs you consider beneath you. Live with it. Reality abhors a vacuum.” That’s what I say, sometimes more, sometimes less, and the doctor vanishes from sight until the next time, leaving me with the shame of my shallow argument, my cheap demagoguery, as if there is any other kind. Remorse and an onerous exhaustion: Once again, I raised the Jewish dentist, murdered in the Holocaust, from the dead, and that is the only reason why he still lives in me, available at any time.
Where are you, disappearing continent?
It would not be unreasonable to argue, as I often do in these conversations, that in the first half of the twentieth century, Europe committed suicide — and did so by murdering the Jews, by systematically exterminating them, deliberately amputating them from its body. This refers to the fact that European Jews were exterminated by Europeans, and their absence is obvious, even if you’re not a Jew whose perspective is calibrated to seek out that which is missing. We look at Europe, and the Jews that are there no longer, and we know how it happened, and this knowledge colors our perspective and there is no way of escaping it. It is a source of no small amount of demagoguery, something that the good (and useful) Dr. Goldberg attests to with his silently exhausted gaze. But demagoguery often contains a grain of truth. There were Jews in Europe for many centuries, until 1945. Since then, the Jewish presence in Europe is nothing like it was, and there is no place in our imagination, or in our analysis of reality, to portray a European world bustling with Jews as it did before the Holocaust.
But what is it that we are looking at when we say or think “Europe”?
The child that I was had an easy and intuitive answer. The word “Europe” occupied my consciousness as the place that my grandmother came from. My mother’s mother, born in 1912, came from Europe. I know because I asked her, and because to this day, the family still says that, “She came from Europe.” Well, where did grandmother come from? After I was no longer satisfied by the answer that encompassed a continent, she told me “from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.” Three spokes in a little boy’s wheel of thought. Empire? Where are there empires in Europe? After all, she didn’t come from the Roman Empire; no-one’s come from there for quite some time now. Austro-Hungarian? There’s no such animal. I checked on the map and in the atlas. Once, she narrowed her answer to “Austria,” but I didn’t find in her any more of Austria than Hungary. And in one of the next rounds, either my grandmother or mother explained that there once had been, in the past, when grandmother was born, an Austro-Hungarian Empire. Guided by matters of language since my earliest childhood, the answer satisfied me no more than if she had told me that she came from the Roman Empire. After all, she was fluent in neither Hungarian nor German, but in Yiddish, until she travelled to Argentina and quickly learned Spanish, followed by French and then finally Hebrew when she came to Israel in the year of my birth.
Grandmother herself narrowed the prism: “Galicia.” And I was told the name of the town, and the county seat, both south of Lvov, whose name was pronounced with suspicious intimacy: Apparently Lvov was Europe. But I knew it wasn’t that simple. But nor did I question the conclusion: Grandmother came from Europe. But what of my two grandfathers and my other grandmother, the one on my father’s side? No-one ever told me that they came from Europe. The Odessan roots of my grandfather, who was born in Argentina to parents who fled the pogroms of 1905, were not attributed to Europe. That was Russia. And my other grandmother, who was born in Bessarabia, a place I couldn’t find on any relevant map, and my grandfather who married her in Argentina, after being born in Lithuania and leaving for Argentina — none of them were said to have come from Europe. Even when I discovered that my Lithuanian grandfather, who had grown away from the Haredi world, enlisted in the Lithuanian Army around the time of World War I, I didn’t associate with Europe — even though he had worn a uniform in the great European conflict, and could be seen, standing clear eyed and proud in a photograph bearing the stamp of a photographer from Vilnius, the place we know as Vilna.
Today, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, all of these are Europe, whether formally or conceptually, and when we look at the political, demographic, economic, and human reality as the eyes see them when looking towards the continent dappled with peoples, languages and lines that connect and divide, the eye collects them all into the large and turbulent basket of unease we call “Europe.” Certainly in demagogic terms, when we want to indict, blame, prophesy and pass judgment, this totality is Europe. Up to the very edge of the historic accounting, as we conduct it, given the case and opportunity.
This is not a question for geography classes in elementary or high school. Europe is unclear to us as an entity. In the broadest terms, it is a “continent.” But who better than Israelis know that continents are inventions. “What continent are we on?” each of my children asked me in their first years of school. And I, mindful of the need to tell the truth told them that we aren’t on any continent, that we were taught in school that we are part of Asia geographically. But that was in school, in my time — as though it was a distant era, almost like my grandmother’s time in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And I also used sports, a good way to connect features of collective identity, certainly when the arguments are based on soccer. The explanation became simple, but also comical: “We were in Asia, they threw us out, we went around for years without a continent and then they appended us to Europe.” A country jumping around like a ball. And historical memory is available to spell it out: Official games in Tehran, victories in Thailand, exile to decisive games in Oceania — the Jewish State in Oceania, between Fiji and New Zealand, getting beaten up by the neighborhood bully Australia, whose players have Italian and Serbian, Irish, Croatian and English names. That’s where we were. Until thanks to kindness and grace, we gradually crept in through the back door. With lots of patience and a fair amount of humiliation, we arrived at the shores of the continent and were appended to Europe. No-one said we’d been returned to it. Beggars lacking a continent. Israelis without a continent to a continent without Jews.
Europe, land of Longing
Long before we reached Oceania, my grandmother left the place she left as a girl of ten. And that was a good thing, since almost her entire family was murdered in the Holocaust — town, forest, bunker, payment to a local boy who brought food, the money that ran out, informed on to the Nazis, murdered on the spot, as far as she knew, and through her we knew too. No-one remained of her family, aside from the few who had left before the war. To Argentina. My grandmother grew up in her uncle’s house in Argentina, and the Holocaust was for us, her grandchildren and even her children, a distant matter to the point of one degree of separation or more. They sat shiva for the relatives a year after the war, when they learned what had happened to them. It seems that she didn’t even know the names of all her siblings that had been murdered. A few photographs remained, second-hand memories, and the name of a town that no one has visited for almost a hundred years. In Galicia, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Europe.
Today, the town, Delatyn, is in Ukraine. There’s no guarantee that it will remain there. An examination conducted by one who as a child loved maps and atlases shows that the region is currently known as Transcarpathia, one of those places whose name denotes that they are beyond another piece of geography. In this case, beyond the Carpathians – from the perspective of Vienna and Prague, of course. Since from my perspective today, the region is actually on the nearer side of the Carpathians, which for me mark the beginning of Romania, and also the mysterious, esoteric Land of Appelfeld. Of course, I checked: To reach “my grandmother’s” Delatyn, you need to travel to Lvov, rent a car and travel southward for about a hundred and fifty kilometers. Someone originally from the town, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Holland, visited there and shot a video. Mainly gravestones. It is very likely that there are gravestones there of my ancestors, my grandmother’s ancestors. “Everything is Illuminated,” wrote Jonathan Safran Foer. Something like that.
Transcarpathia is not even recognized by Word’s spellcheck. But in this networked age, it’s easy enough to submerge oneself in the treasures of Transcarpathia and forget the Europe of the news and the political noise, the daily punching bag of what was once the beating heart of the world and now functions as its liver. Maybe that’s what Europe is today, sending its bile in all directions, suffused with pangs of conscience and bitterness. Some years ago, the EU declared Transcarpathia a region to be specially fostered by the European Union due to its rare cultural and human diversity: about a dozen or so peoples, and a similar number of languages, and all still existing to this day, going back many generations. They include two Turkic peoples, one of whom inherited a powerful and highly significant historical chronicle from the Middle Ages, when it first began to settle in the area. So that the Turks and Slavs and other peoples and races, Jews and Christians and Muslims and pagans made up the mosaic of where my European grandmother lived for the first ten years of her life. And there is no doubt about it: For us, today’s Israelis, this fairly sizable area is not only undefined and unfamiliar, it is swallowed up by Ukraine, which is only partially included in Europe, and only formally so. And I must add the lines “at the time of this writing” because Ukraine has itself for some time been in the process of being torn between Russia and Europe, and in the most concrete way possible: blood and fire, historical reckonings, conflicts over culture and language.
There is good reason why I dwell on this issue before moving on from the multicolored corner of the world 150 kilometers south of Lvov I discovered to a discussion of the continent as a whole, as a political, earthly, integrated entity. I am drawn to stop at the living room in my grandmother’s house. The living room behind the door closed to the dust of the small moshav in the Hefer Valley, the place with the precise and very unlikely name Hibat Tziyon [Fondness for Zion]. That’s where my grandfather and grandmother arrived when they came to Israel. And the living room, one of the house’s three rooms, was an entity unto itself. And it was Europe. The rug and the varnish on the furniture, the scent of another time, of a distant, guarded place. Its innards reveal themselves when I move the lacquered wooden door of the cabinet that incorporated a phonograph and a large radio, whose dial noted the major cities from Moscow to London, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Madrid and Lisbon, with the size of the letters commensurate with the importance of the city, and they are all distributed according to the frequencies of the broadcast stations, not one of which is picked up between the orchards and eucalyptus trees just beyond the walls. And everywhere are objects, which, like the radio, identified themselves as European. The Czech crystal and the small china plates adorned with images of rosy-cheeked shepherdesses and cows with bells, or a wandering youth crossing a green meadow on his way to a bridge leading to a town with a clock tower and a large church. And more sculpted Czech crystal, and in the cupboard, a set of fine Rosenthal china.
None of this is Europe, but rather the representation of an ideal, an imagined image, a set of concepts. No fragrance of guava or citrus blossoms or the moist aroma of red loam, nor the noise of the spinning washing machine drum under the asbestos overhang at the back of the house could obliterate that which was deeply rooted in my grandmother and that she preserved and cultivated thanks to forty years and an entire life in Argentina, at the other end of the world. Argentina, with its pretensions of Europe, part of its conflicted national identity. Argentina was a garden patch in which my grandmother could water the European sprouts she bore within herself, as did the family members and other Jews in her immediate surroundings.
The story of my grandmother is indeed unique, a ten year old girl sent to Argentina on her own, but it’s also a very ordinary Jewish story. There were Jews in Eastern Europe and now, after the Holocaust, there are regions filled with scars, memories, family past and history. Is this Europe? After all, if I travel to Delatyn via Lvov, I would certainly try to find out if it’s safe to do so via Kiev, and how far the front line is between the two parts of Ukraine, and maybe it’s better to travel via Vienna, and perhaps the route south from there to Delatyn should also be checked properly before driving there in a local vehicle. And that’s not what one does when travelling to Italy, France, Spain or Germany. It is a sign that Delatyn (near Stanislavov, as my grandmother always said), Lvov (today we say Lviv, lest we insult the independent Ukrainians), Transcarpathia and all of Ukraine are not in Europe. An unfinished affair. The question will not let go.
I wash my face, rub my eyes as I peel off the thin layers that reflect past maps, one by one. The senses return to the present and I try to focus. Where is it? What is it? The truth is that “Europe” is a matter of context and need. At times, it is the “classic” Europe in the West, at others a historic bloc from the past, and in our time, also a combination of national units with the Union that acts as a super-state, with varying degrees of success. And so, sometimes we refer to a specific country, and at others to the totality. And the totality has greatly grown and has also split up within itself and may continue to fragment even more in the future. Within the large, unconsolidated body of the EU, it is easier for national, ethnic and linguistic groups to raise their particularistic flag.
Still, it is Europe we face. And whatever Europe we conjure up, with or without Dr. Goldberg, it is based on the Europe of the past. Human beings read the present through the past. Lacking patience, we reject the quibbling. Because we know exactly what Europe it is we are talking about. That one from the extermination. That one that is filling up with Muslims, may its – or their – name be erased, or both of them – may they devour one another. And here both our legs stand firm on burning ground, and everything is standing. That Europe, that kind of Europe – all its actions are read, tested and interpreted based on the greatest of horrors, and it’s very easy to find it guilty, even regardless of the evidence before us at any given moment. As though the mark of Cain defines it. And we have no desire to remember that that mark of Cain, the real one, was placed on the forehead of the first murderer to protect him after the blood of his brother cried out from the earth, and the entire world echoed with his cry.
On the question of whether this is a reasonable, wise or fair way to conduct ourselves, we have no answer. Post-traumatics can’t possibly have an answer to such a question. And it’s very easy for us to summon the trauma, identify it, cultivate it in the cellar of our conscience, in the attic of our consciousness. For that, no second or third generation is needed. We all have trauma, flint that the slightest friction of which ignites any straw or twig. Even my family, none of whose members identified themselves as survivors, although many remembered siblings, parents and other relatives, are full-fledged survivors of the Holocaust.
Post-trauma, of course
We feel it every day: The past sits on us with its unique weight, and we have no way of removing it from our shoulders. The embers of the past continue to glow. Because for us, es brent, our poor little town is burning, an eternal flame whose tongues of fire may rage higher at any moment, by chance or deliberately, sincerely and demagogically. But fire is fire. I will therefore give it its due respect and recount a little of the history of my own personal fire.
My first train ride in Europe, shortly after graduating high school. From Paris to Amsterdam on a summer day of wheat, sunflowers and a sky of blue from Van Gogh’s room at Arles. I look out the window as the fields pass by and their colors are once again smudges. And the flame ignites: Who knows how many Jews saw this very scene on their way east, like me today, in other trains, through cracks, not like a scene through a spacious window? My sense of hearing overtakes me, casting upon me a silence where all I can hear is the rhythmic chugging of the train and cars, and I say: du geyst dem letstn veg – this is your final journey. Kitsch and death, said the scholar. Things calm down in sweet days in Amsterdam, and I take the train westward, back to Paris. But how many got to go back west? After all, those trains returned empty. Still, everything is fine, until the border between Belgium and France. Police officers board the train. No, not police officers: gendarmes. A search.
There are drugs on the train. I share my carriage with a man and a woman, and even my young eyes can see that this is a new relationship, a romance that has not had the time or place to discover the full height of its flame. She is black, he is white. Open your bags and valises and do not leave the carriage, the officers say in French and immediately in English, which oozes from the French like spoiled cheese. In the valise that the woman opens I can see a bag with a lump of hashish perspiring like her. And in his, a pipe for smoking that oh-so-sweet stuff. I take the bag in one hand, and the metal pipe in the other. The bag disappears and the pipe lands in my bag. It doesn’t do any good. The uniformed officers find more pot on her, and take her off the train to the platform. They find nothing on him. And on me, just a pipe. “You smoke, eh?” the officer accuses me, and I pretend I don’t know French. They take me out of the carriage and place me in the toilet. “Clothes, remove,” he tells me in his English. “No,” I answer. I say to him in English, “Bring your officer.” He tries to insist, asking for a passport. He opens it on the wrong side, gets angry, exits and returns with the officer, who eyes the first page and realizes that I’m Israeli. “Sir, I must ask you to take off your clothes.” “I am a Jew, and a police officer on a train in Europe will not strip me.” He pulls out the pipe. I look at it and him. Silence. He rebukes me, waving it at me like a finger. I return to the carriage, and the couple is gone. The bag I got rid of for them is still there, in its hiding place. I leave it there. Perhaps it will bring happiness to someone else.
Demagoguery and a prosthetic memory? Yes. And also a heart that pounded loudly on a train in Europe facing men in uniform. Paris is a beloved city and this is the start of a long romance between us. It will offer me countless opportunities for the flame to ignite. A friend I often stay with when I’m in Paris, an American woman who married the son of a French admiral, then divorced him. She lives on the fifth floor of a nineteenth-century building in which it’s not advisable to take the rickety elevator. Time and time again, I climb the stairs, sometimes carrying a heavy bag. And one of those times, when I stop to breathe, I see that to the right of one of the doors there is a mark left by a mezuzah that was removed. Who owns the apartment? The name sounds Italian-French; I guess they must be Corsicans. But a trip or two later, the American woman reveals to me that this apartment once belonged to Jews who were deported to Drancy, to Auschwitz, and did not return. So whose apartment is it? It is the property of the French government, the municipality of Paris. Absentee property, there is no-one to claim it, and if there were — they wouldn’t have a chance. I once again stop to breathe.
Isn’t this our classic Europe? Yes, it is the same Europe we accuse, and not without some justification. Of hypocrisy and insensitivity and the ease of forgetting and the rapid normalization that we feel so uncomfortable with, and that often runs counter to the political interests of the people who happen to be in power in the conflicted state of the Jews. This is the Europe that we hiss through gritted teeth like a curse. A continent whose reach is determined based on the news that upset us that morning. It offends us, upsets us, we lecture it on morality, make demands. Sometimes like children confronting parents, at other times, like teenagers filled with sanctimonious rage, at yet other times, like older siblings with a wayward sister, who is denuding herself of what we believe should be her values. And we never set a boundary; we never say, “If Europe does such and such… we’ll be satisfied.” Because that’s not how post-traumatics, to say nothing of demagogues, do things. But as the saying goes, even a paranoid can have real enemies. And we can’t digest the fact that Europe, after “just” seventy years, is now speaking to us in the language of Realpolitik, criticizing the Jewish state, voting against Israel, and parts of it are in no rush to uproot occurrences that harbinger a return to the cancerous ideas of the thirties. And strangest of all, ultimately, is seeing how we are most comfortable, of all places, with Germany, with its policy towards Israel, as well as with its strict internal policies towards racist and neo-Nazi behavior.
A new-old confusion
In recent years, however, immediately after the word “Europe,” comes the word “Muslims.” And Europe is mapping itself according to the number of Muslims entering its territory and the extent of their rise as a prominent, significant and active minority. For the demagogue, the contour lines are simple and post-trauma is no longer needed. This is the region where “They have it coming to them” is followed by “They have no idea,” and Europe is no longer a wayward sister, obtuse parent, or a self-righteous teenager. Whether due to spiteful alienation, unconcealed Schadenfreude, and a short-term and cynical perspective — those who relate to the present reality in Europe in this way are playing a zero-sum game on the brink of the abyss. We love to boast that Israel is a country that absorbs immigration, and justifiably so when viewed historically. The enormous wave of immigration from the crumbling Soviet Union and from Russia and its satellites that came after the fall of the Soviet empire is undoubtedly one of the largest documented waves of immigration in history, in terms of percentages. But Europe, ah Europe, say the critics sitting in the small country at the eastern rim of the Mediterranean, it doesn’t know what it’s doing to itself. It is not taking in brothers and sisters, relatives (albeit distant ones), or a “suitable population,” and it is not melting them in a common European pot. It is simply throwing itself, body and soul, at them, to let them do what they want.
People who see things this way also foresee the end of Europe, and some don’t even bother to add the reservation “as we know it.” Well, you didn’t want Dr. Goldberg? So now, you’re getting what you deserve: You’re getting Mohammad. And not only that, but we also reckon Europe’s demographic-religious calculus. Muslims it accepts, as it sometimes even rejects Christians from Iraq or Syria, we tut-tut. If Europe once went mad and rose up to destroy the Jews, to destroy its Jews, it now appears feeble, exhausted, confused, lacking in solid values, perhaps even “See how the faithful city has become a whore.” But the seemingly debilitated Europe surprises those who snap at it from this side of the sea. The German Chancellor opens her country to a wave of Muslim migrants, and for a moment, her country wavers, cracks and, at least according to the TV and Internet, perhaps almost collapses. And it’s difficult for demagogues to respond to those who say that a country that did what it did in the first half of the twentieth century cannot close its gates to refugees from a distress zone. Cognitive dissonance for demagogues. Dr. Goldberg, if he were working today as a dentist in Germany — would he volunteer to work in a refugee camp, perhaps even hire a Syrian hygienist? Why not?
“Did you see what sons of bitches those Germans are? How okay they are…,” an officer in a reserve unit serving in in the First Gulf War in 1991 said when Germany was quick to offer essential aid while Israel was being hit with missiles from Saddam Hussein and preparing for the possibility that its cities might be hit by chemical and biological weapons. And the Germans, added the cynic, know all about exterminating people with gas and other laboratory substances. That’s why it comes as no surprise that they provided Israel with vehicles for detecting hazardous chemicals, of all things. More than a quarter century of cognitive dissonance, and regarding submarines, a German specialty since World War I, best not to add anything more at this stage. The cynic hisses the phrase Thyssen-Krupp through his teeth, like a password. Tragedy, comedy, farce, operetta, pathetic drama and all the other familiar European formats, above the water and deep in the sea.
And Europe also surprises by how little it surprises. It’s enough to mention the word “Hungary” these days. Not the Hungary of the second side of the hyphen where my grandmother hailed from. The real Hungary, on the spectrum that ranges from the fascist regime of the 1930s to the current one. Democratic Hungary, with its xenophobia, harassment of refugees, the racism that goes as far as cooperating with bold, shameless anti-Semitism, a regime that bizarrely receives support from Israeli institutions and members of Israel’s government and its surroundings. Hungary, as evidenced by all the signs, is in Europe. Today, even more so than during the age of communism, it’s practically in the heart of Europe, almost like in the days of His Imperial and Royal Majesty Kaiser Franz Joseph. You take one look at Hungary and you want nothing more than to kick it out of Europe. But what then will remain of grandmother’s empire? The Austria of Eichmann and Hitler?
I return to the maps, to the geography, where already as a child I used to orient myself, in search of a measure of peace. Europe’s eastern border is unclear; it’s certainly changing. In the schools I attended, in Israel and abroad, the geographical claim was that Europe reaches as far as the Ural Mountains. But no-one taught us anything about the regions east of the Volga, and Europe ended, culturally, in the whereabouts of Vienna. With the passage of time, literature, high school historiography and the reading of books afterwards, Europe stretched perhaps as far as Drohobycz of Bruno Schulz, to Warsaw, which was passed from hand to hand as it produced extraordinary European poets, Kafka’s Prague, of course, but not much beyond that. The Slavic regions are suspected of being Asiatic.
But the sea knows: The problem is only on the unclear eastern border. Because from the west, Europe ends with the Atlantic Ocean, a fact that is unimpeachable. Columbus knew it too, even though he died convinced he had reached India, without realizing that his ships had bumped into a continent unknown to his European contemporaries. Europe ends at Cabo da Roca, the westernmost tip of mainland Portugal. Europa appears to be lying on her side, with her frock brushing against Asia at an unclear point of contact, with the waters of the Atlantic caressing the top of her head. Saramago will play with that idea in The Stone Raft, with the Iberian peninsula breaking off from the continent along the Pyrenees. And a great Portuguese poet, Ruy Belo, will put it simply: “My land is what the sea did not want.” While he may be speaking of Portugal, why not let the idea slip eastward.
500 years in dreams
As Jews, when we cast our eyes towards our past in Europe, before the twentieth century and the Holocaust, one guaranteed stop is the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, perhaps the greatest catastrophe we experienced since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. And it was not only the expulsion, but 101 years of violent persecution culminating in 1492, the year of the expulsion, which was also the year when Columbus sailed west and bumped into a continent that wasn’t India. And not just what happened up to the expulsion, but also what happened afterwards, for generations, with the growing persecution of Jews, of those whose parents were Jews, of those suspected of having Jewish blood in their veins, of those who had a parent or grandparent or who himself had converted to Christianity. All of these were suspected of being a foreign body in Christian Europe, including Catholic Spain, which wanted pure blood –limpieza de sangre – without a trace of Jewish biological matter. Indeed, to no small extent, this was the conceptual model that the Nazis developed and realized to an industrial extreme. But if we internalize from the Holocaust to the Europe of the Iberian Peninsula of yore, we must face reality: As nature would have it, there are no more survivors of that disaster. There is no-one who can claim direct pain or marks on his body, no one who has a personal memory of the expulsion. Largely and certainly in terms of consciousness, the Iberian Peninsula — Spain and Portugal in their various configurations on the European map — remained empty of Jews until the twentieth century.
Generations passed, and the tangible event became history. And it is still with us. Dr. Goldberg has every reason to sit at a café table in the Iberian Peninsula too, and certainly in recent years, with the Spanish and the Portuguese expressing European embarrassments similar to those of the French, Germans, Dutch, Belgians and many others. I first saw the Jewish dentist sitting in a great university hall in Barcelona, towards the end of a lecture in 2000, “The Holocaust in Israeli Literature” or “The Holocaust in Israeli Culture” or perhaps “The Presence of the Holocaust in Day-to-Day Life and Israeli Culture,” before a large audience that contained no more than a handful of Jews. And at the end of the lecture, after a few questions, a hand is raised at the back of the hall. A young face, three-day stubble and bubbly curls, from which an Italian accent and a hesitant voice emerge: “I don’t know exactly how to ask this…,” and I encourage him, coaxing the question to come out, until it does, trembling: “What’s going to happen with the Holocaust…, I mean, in the future?”
Even Dr. Goldberg is taken by surprise. After a brief pause to gather my thoughts, which probably seemed like a dramatic pause in view of the pregnant silence, I answer: “I don’t know. I assume that in another 30 or 50 years there won’t be a big difference. The Holocaust will still be a memory, even if it is only an inherited memory. People will attest to what they heard from survivors in their childhood, members of the third and fourth generations, or anyone who ever knew a survivor. What will happen in another 100 or 150 years from now I really have no way of guessing. But I know what will happen in exactly 433 years, or perhaps 445 years.” Now the audience looked like a single, faceless entity, on the edge of their seats, completely focused. “Because in another 433 or 445 years Germany will mark the 500th anniversary of the horrific events that occurred in the twentieth century. And numerous events will be held to mark the 500th anniversary, and in Germany, the Chancellor will receive the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, if there is still a Germany and there is still a State of Israel — but let’s be optimistic and assume that both will exist then — and the German Chancellor will say that it is impossible to imagine Germany, its history, culture and deep conscience without the Jews. And he will hear in response from his Israeli counterpart that without the German element, it would be hard to understand Jewish existence or even Jewish identity, essence, or the cultural, political and moral path of the State of Israel. And the German Chancellor, faithful to the facts and aware of his historic duty, will say that although there were indeed twelve terrible years, years when Germany turned against not only German Jews, but the entire Jewish People, dark years that almost led to Germany’s demise. But that from the ashes, horror and suffering, a new German people arose, tied with every fiber of its being to the Jewish People, and here we are now, 500 years later,” and so on and so forth. Silence in the hall – before the coup de grace: “But since you like to say that blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth – that German Chancellor leading the 500th anniversary ceremony, who is a member of the conservative center-right party, will be of Muslim extraction.”
Because 500 years – a magic, round and stable number – can be seen everywhere on the Iberian Peninsula, even years after that moment in Barcelona. It’s round and imprecise enough to contain many more years of pursuit of identity west of the Pyrenees, which ultimately did not see the stone raft break off and reluctantly sail into the Atlantic. In the westernmost part of Europe, “Jews” is a matter associated with 1492 and the two generations that followed, who saw the expulsion from Spain and then the expulsion from Portugal and ultimately also the formation of the inquisition in Portugal. From the opening of the dams — from the rise of democracy following years of coercive and stagnant conservative Catholic-nationalist rule in Spain and Portugal under Franco and Salazar — the number 500 appears to be a code word for the Jewish past, for the complex, problematic web of relations with that mysterious minority whose ghost presence refuses to let go. It is also a code word for harsh violence and persecution, which even now is being portrayed in other, palatable colors to make room for them in the multi-cultural and tolerant discourse in the wake of the considerable secularization that came with democracy and becoming part of Europe after World War II.
The inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula of the last generation have been suffering from an obvious problem of identity and self-awareness. Their Catholic identity has been weakened, fractured and somewhat exposed. The secularism of the European project, both the national and EU one, has had a huge and highly concentrated impact, due to the late exposure. The two Iberian countries knowingly and to varying degrees kept themselves mostly outside the events of World War II, and even further from the general indictment of Europe as a continent that took action to exterminate its Jews to the point of near-suicide, and perhaps beyond. So I encounter them, men and women, young and old, educated and less so, pondering their identity — in literature, art, historiography, as well as in personal conversations. “500,” in Spain, is almost always noted in the context of the “three cultures,” meaning the Christian, Jewish and Muslim ones, with a fair amount of nostalgia for a romantic picture of the past, with the former overshadowing the latter. Innumerable Spaniards and Portuguese are searching for their roots. Many of them find, imagine, hope and also fear that they will find some sign of Judaism somewhere in the branches of their family tree. Often, the discovery of a pruned branch or untangled knot is considered proof that “there must have been Jews there,” because the generations that followed them and knew who their ancestors were undoubtedly quick to obfuscate their past.
Now I can ask my interlocutors on the Iberian Peninsula – carefully, gently, even with humor: “When you look in the mirror, what do you see?” As those whose national identity was for centuries defined by the purity of their blood and the sanctity of the integrity of their land, they know the answer: In the mirror, looking back at them is a Christian, Jew and Muslim. A European, that is a Celt and a Roman and sundry other nations few remember any more, and a Jew and an Arab. For standing before the mirror stands a person whose image responds with racial fragments. The pure blood is mixed blood, and that is how it has been for 500 years.
The humility of time and a window of hope
The long historical view contains a glimmer of hope, even if, as dwellers in the present, it is not to our taste. Even if the Iberian Peninsula did not commit genocide as defined by international law after World War II, it certainly made great efforts to commit ethnic cleansing, to purify itself of elements it considered foreign and menacing: Jewish blood and Muslim blood. It did so and succeeded but also failed. Because the blood separated from the Catholic veins of the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal was in fact mixed into them, so much so that they can no longer be separated. This purity of blood was not only a pipe dream and complete fiction, but also an inherent failure by its very definition.
In twenty-first-century Realpolitik terms, the Catholics’ racist policies in Western Europe guaranteed that they would bear in their— biological, spiritual, cultural, linguistic and religious — bodies many of the elements of the very thing they wished to be rid of. If I said that this contains a degree of positivity or hope, then they lie in retrospective view after the passing of generations, 500 and 600 years after the rise of the nationalist-religious hatred that was an integral part of the formation of Iberian identity as we know it since.
The result is clear: The Catholic Spaniards, the national entity we know as Spain, has already absorbed “foreigners” at an enormous rate, and Portugal is no different. Whether through planned or de facto migration, or by accepting the descendants of invaders and migrants that settled on the Iberian Peninsula —in all the forms known to us from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries — Europe was already in a state similar to what it is today. I say “Europe” because what happened on a huge scale in Spain and Portugal also happened to a lesser but significant degree in Italy, parts of France, the Balkans and other regions. In truth, this is an inseparable part of the history of Europe even before it became known or identified itself as Europe. The invader of today is the migrant of tomorrow, and the migrant of today is the ruler of tomorrow. And ultimately, this ruler is as legitimate as his predecessors, and if he is lucky, he will also write the history that will be read after his demise.
These changes are greater than our individual lives and the lives of those dear to us even in the widest circles. We cannot evade the finite nature of our existence. We live only that portion of life given to us, and it offers us a limited view of history. In the 80 or so years of a person’s life — and in the past, life expectancy was significantly shorter — we do not see the full influence of any historical, biological or cultural process. In this sense, we have seen a French President of Hungarian extraction lead his nation and celebrate the successes of France’s national soccer team, almost all of whose players were the sons of conquered nations from the colonies that France lost less than 60 years ago. All of them are Europeans, of course: France, its national team, former president Sarkozy along with the members of its national team. As long as they identify as Europeans, as long as they speak on behalf of Europe, they bear on their backs its future along with its past. Europe, for better or worse, in success and in pain, contains them all and changes accordingly. Could we ever have imagined that on unified Germany’s national soccer team, under a formerly communist chancellor from East Germany, Muslim Arabs would play alongside Muslim Turks and the sons of Poles conquered by Germany or who migrated to it?
Our finite nature demands of us a degree of humility. When it comes to Europe, we are all scarred, even post-traumatic. Europe is there and we are not a part of it. The Jews that were there are no more, and we cannot turn back the clock. Nor can we exact the full price; after all, what is a price, full or partial that can be imagined as just or that would satisfy reason and the heart? We took much from Europe, and not just the surviving Jews and the remnants of our existence. We also took from it the idea of national revival, which we are actualizing here, today, with all the problems it entails.
Europe too, mutatis mutandis, is paying the price of the terrible twentieth century it inflicted upon itself. To a certain degree, both the Jews and Europe define themselves by their scars. Even if natural, it is not a particularly healthy thing. Cynics and the embittered will continue to point to Europe’s bloody past, and almost with glee will say that a continent that was mired in bloody internal wars for centuries cannot claim innocence and demand rapid solutions to problems in other parts of the world, such as in the Middle East, which has been bleeding for “only” 120 or 130 years. They will say so not as a statement about Europe, but rather as an attempt to have the freedom not to try and solve the current predicament in those places where they are responsible for events. In the context of the demagoguery of “Let’s meet again after another 500 years of war,” they will be ignoring not only the price, but also that the victors may eventually discover that a large part of their glorious triumph was achieved by assimilating with the enemy, making it part of their proud, victorious national body. Optimists will say that Europe shows that even terrible conflicts over religion and the essence of faith, which have led to countless dead, find themselves bowing their heads before humanity, before the desire to live, before the balances created by exhaustion and the calculations of life.
National identity cannot exist without carriers. And these carriers are necessarily human beings, that is people living in their generation, descendants of parents and grandparents, parents of children and grandparents of grandchildren, our immediate, intimate circles. It is in them that we absorb the stories and it is to them that we answer with our stories, into the general reservoir. Who will be the carriers of our current identity in another hundred or thousand years? We don’t know. We have no way of knowing exactly to what extent our identity code — whether cultural-historical or religious or simply genetic — will be part of those who identify themselves, in the future, with the Jewish story, with the Israeli story, with everything between them at that time. Our ability to influence that is limited, for the most human and mundane reasons. This is true for us, Jews, Israelis, and for Europe and Europeans, whoever they may be.
It seems that despite our virtual worlds and globalization, the geographical expanse and its human content still have the final say. Those who are there, those who live and find a way to give life to the next generations are the ones who will end up writing the history. And those who want to live now and guarantee that their children and grandchildren will live after them can look towards Europe, which at the time of this writing is not spilling its blood as it did in the past, not like in the 20th century, not like in the 16th century, and not like in the generations before the coronation of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor. It has pains and dilemmas, huge waves of migration are washing over its borders, both those more blurred as well as the clearer ones. But immigrants come to where there is life, prospective life. And they bring life with them. And there is no life without friction.
We, in the meantime, as Jews close in time and pain to the greatest of all horrors perpetrated in documented history, have a possible role in influencing the future. We survived, and we have the ability to write chapters of the history that will flow in the veins of future Europeans and Jews, whoever they may be. But we must beware the trap of hubris: Precisely because, for now, we still have the privilege of victors. Europe will bear its guilt for many generations to come, even as the Europeans are replaced, even change the color of their face. The increasing normality of the Jewish State undermines its moral pretentions, but it brings it closer to the world, for worse and also for better. Will we, following the words of the prophet Micah, act justly and love mercy and walk humbly? There is no way of knowing, but it seems to me that that is the only way to get people to listen to us, so that our memory will channel at least one measure of goodness into the world.
Translated to English by Ruchie Avital
The Slovenian Armed Forces, assisting in the accommodation center and at the border. Photo: Wikimedia Borut Podgoršek, MORS [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]