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Published January 1996Become a subscriber
Speaks true who speaks shadow— Paul Celan
It was my Jewish lover who told me that every snowflake is an image of the Star of David. An image, he said. We stood in the city of Paris, in stony mid-winter, caressed by snowfall in which, purely and infinitely multiplied, he saw his own sign. Snow and star, snow and star, snow and star, snow and star. In Hebrew, he added, the word for image is zelem and the word for shade is zel. In the image, said my lover, lies its shade, its shadow. This trace, this negation, haunts every image we see.
That winter he bore such fluorescent pale skin that my lovemaking left him covered with Catholic stigmata.
I think I loved not only David but every member of his family. His parents, Rozsi and Leo, were both survivors of Auschwitz (or Oswiecim, as Poles continue to call it), and this notation of disaster gave them an otherworldly aspect: both lived as though they were visitors from somewhere else; both looked at the world, defamiliarised, noting its details and its novelties. Their daughter Esther was a science student, beautiful and confident (she leant against me, salaciously, whispering her desires), and full of hypothetical, lucky-starred future. Each was wedded to history; each had extraordinary vivacity. I adored their assumption of the significance of all things. When we toasted Life with red wine—holding it aloft like holy chalices—delighted, drunken, stuffed with rich Polish food, Rozsi and Esther almost fell off their chairs with giggling, and Leo guffawed and mimed “crazy” by twirling his finger near his ear. They had amplitude, largesse. They were entirely present. David, my snow-skinned lover, just sat quietly and grinned.
I remember that their faces around the dinner-table, burnished with gold candlelight, were all remarkably alike. And behind them on plate-glass, the semi-circle they made around me—this shape I wanted to bring to an inclusive completion—hung suspended, glistening, in the full pitch of night-time.
My loves, my miracles, Rozsi used to say.
In this family it was David who was unvivacious. Between the disastrous parental past and the confident sisterly future, he was the one who seemed somehow detached and adrift—perhaps it was this quality of displacement I had been initially attracted to. When he looked at the world he saw imagery, not incarnation; objects and people were phantomised, like shadowy television transmissions; he spoke of himself as though even his own existence was uncertain. I suppose—is this foolish?—I wanted to bring him solidly into being. One night David woke beside me, his features vague in the inky blackness, and asked outright: are we real?
I kissed his face at six points, real as any lover, creating, still half-asleep, his namesake Star.
In those days David Heller was working as an artist, though I have heard now from mutual friends that he no longer exhibits. His work consisted then of gaudy silk-screen repetitions, Warhol-style, of the face of Adolph Hitler. Each image he inscribed afterwards with words and names, carefully selected, but randomly pasted in collage, so that the face became a defaced and nonsensical text. The effect was to make Adolph Hitler strange: his rather ordinary image, with its truncated signature moustache, its tight mean lips, its stare, its obliviousness, its adamantine authority, became a kind of gargoyle covered over with words. A few of David’s images were more intelligible: in one Hitler bore on his forehead, in a neat little arc, the series of numbers tattooed on the forearms of Rozsi and Leo; in another the slogan Arbeit Macht Frei was strung beneath his chin like a necklace of barbed wire. But most of the defacements were just that, a scarring of newsreel smooth surface, an over-inscription.
(At the opening of the first exhibition—which David’s parents and sister did not attend—one old lady vomited at the sight of so many reproduced Adolph Hitlers. David hurried to attend her. There were tears in his eyes.)
It was my Jewish lover who told me that in concentration camps the Nazis controlled even the choice of vocabulary. Dead bodies were not allowed to be called corpses or victims, but were instead nominated figuren. The figure of the human is of course not a human: it is a doll, a puppet; it is a nullified substitution. Sometimes, said my lover, bodies were fetzen, “rags”. That is what I am doing to Adolph Hitler. Degrading him to figure, voiding his substance. Hitler/figuren. Hitler/fetzen.
It was Rozsi’s view that her son David had inherited desolation.
We were so tired of it, she said. Some of us unwittingly passed it on. There was just too much to be contained in one single generation.
We drank red wine together and exchanged confessions and intimacies; and this—with permission (for who among us owns suffering?) is Rozsi Heller’s story:
Rozsi and Leo did not actually meet in Auschwitz: they were in fact in different camps—she interned in the Stammlager, known as Camp 1, the main camp, and he at Birkenau, a few miles to the west. Leo survived for three years a time he finds unutterable: he waved away David’s enquiries, he looked down at his shoes, he was inviolably silent.
Rozsi also refused her son’s request for barbarities, but offered up, instead, a story of romance. Having first escaped into hiding (to be betrayed, accidentally, by her cat scratching at the door of the small cupboard that had become her home), Rozsi was captured and transported relatively late, in ’44. She will not speak of the darkness—she too has a waving gesture and a foreclosing turning-away—but dwells exclusively on her love-life, on her secret exultations.
(It is not, said Rozsi, that I don’t remember.)
So what is a miracle?
(She lifted her two hands as if she was catching snowfall or rain.)
Rozsi Levi, miraculously, had a lover in Oswiecim; he was a gentile political prisoner, marked as such by the red triangle he carried on his blue and white striped pyjamas, and she spent the entire length of her internment, perversely and death-defying, contriving systems of signs, kisses, glances and assignations. This romance preoccupied Rozsi above everything else—she was seventeen and in love, and bent on extrapolating her desire so extravagantly that it would obliterate every evil thing she saw happening around her. The man was just twenty-four and a philology student—not particularly remarkable, not particularly handsome—and what Rozsi remembers is that his gaze seemed perpetually tender: he had lost his eyeglasses early on and peered with a searching intensity. She could not really describe him. She remembered a scar on his right hand in the shape of a sickle; she remembered the filth under his fingernails, one of which was broken and black; she remembered the red triangle, and its bloody brightness.
The lover was shot just weeks before the camp’s liberation. In his myopia he had stumbled against something impermissible—or at least that is how, rather vaguely, Rozsi now describes it—and was executed on the spot. Other inmates, knowing of the romance, conspired to keep the news secret so that it was days before Rozsi, by then desperate to see him, finally learned of the death. (When she knew she still kept a look-out in case they had made a mistake. And years later, she said, she still occasionally found herself staring at young men wearing glasses.)
After liberation there was a period which, like life in the camp, neither Rozsi nor Leo wishes to describe. We know that they learned of the extermination of relatives and friends, and seeing themselves in the mirror, blurred and unrecognisable, learnt as well that even loneliness had a new degree zero. They were both dull shadows; they were shades of their former selves.
What world was it they had stumbled into, so depopulated and wasted, so heavy with remembrances, so camouflaged, pre-emptively, by exhaustion and loss? Did they feel themselves figuren, or know too painfully their humanity?
Rozsi Levi met Leo Heller, her second true love, when they were both patients, six months later, in a refugee camp infirmary.
(It was a miracle, said Leo, as he leant across the table to take up and kiss his wife’s hand.)
Rozsi was in bed with double pneumonia; her lungs, sick of everything, did not want to breathe any more. She was simply clogging up; she was drowning in sorrow. Nurses with red crosses took her temperature and sighed. Leo, nearby, was in care because of extensive burning to his chest and arms. In a fit of self-mutilation, anguished beyond measure, he had tried to burn away his tattoo by setting fire to his own body. Rozsi tells of wandering, mistakenly, into the ward of male patients, and seeing this burned young man, sedated and white-bandaged, sleeping with his finger in his mouth as though he were stopping a bottle. I knew I could save him, Rozsi explained. He was waiting for me. He was incomplete.
She gave him back, kiss by kiss, some of his own lost dimensions.
I suppose I knew, even then, that my feelings for David were unreciprocated. But such feelings were complex; one could not easily unmake them. So I stayed longer than was sensible, an artist’s dark-haired mistress, the drunk, the second fiddle, the woman at parties and exhibitions, jagged in her speech, pathetic, rude, waiting to be conferred some order of substantiality. Esther and I had a brief affair, but we both felt guilty. Rozsi and Leo waiting for grandchildren, were completely dismayed.
You must be patient, said Rozsi, consoling herself at the same time.
It was something in their obstinate refusal to speak that made David fix obsessively on his parents’ experiences. Not knowing exactly what they had suffered, he imagined illimitable suffering. Not gaining access to details, he arbitrarily generalised. He read books on the Holocaust and saw his parents on every page. They inhabited every single story and had survived every camp. The word shoah, catastrophe, was their secret middle name. So it was, I realise now, an excess of imagining that rendered everyone, except his parents, the simulations of a lost real.
But what world was it David inhabited, with those supernumerous Adolph Hitlers, all larger-than-life and scarred with cut-and-paste words? And what enduring inheritance carried the name “desolation”?
What he called the Carmelite affair was our final undoing. In 1979 the Polish pope visited Auschwitz, and in his footsteps came a group of Carmelite nuns who founded a convent in a building at the site of Birkenau. This was no less than offensive triumphalist appropriation: the convent was described as a spiritual fortress which historically guaranteed the conversion of strayed brothers and signified a desire to erase the outrages done to the Vicar of Christ. Thereafter followed years of acrimonious quarrels in which first crosses, then Stars of David, were erected and re-erected, so that eventually, in 1987, crosses and stars were scattered everywhere, in mean competition, a battle of symbols, a contest of histories. David had followed this controversy from the very beginning, and found in it some version of my love for his family. He said I was the cross. He was the star. We were, in the end, incommensurable.
We could not figure this out; we were star-crossed, he joked bitterly.
There are two things I remember Rozsi saying to me.
When I saw Leo, lying there, bandaged and burned, I thought of my lost red triangle. Then I thought of triangle and triangle: together we make a star.
My son, alas, has not yet learned. The shadow of Auschwitz is not art; the shadow of Auschwitz is love.
David may have been right. Perhaps, after all, I was like those pious Carmelite nuns, wanting to claim the suffering of the Hellers as my own special suffering, attracted by their extremity, aroused by their secretive silence. Perhaps desolation was the shape of my desire. Or perhaps, more simply, I could not face up to the ignominy of my own blank lack of meaning.
Yet on our last day together—I must tell you this now—I saw you standing trouserless in a white shirt, selecting a pullover, and you were vulnerable and cold—it was another mid-winter—and the pale skin at the back of your legs made me quake and tremble. Just that. Your skin. In those tenderest parts.
Perhaps—consider this—what I wanted was what Leo and Rozsi still have. That which lives beyond images. That miraculous restitution.
Gail Jones’ essays and short fiction appear in HEAT Series 1.Read more