Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Grateful for Catastrophes...

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

...that Never Happened

Finishing *The Septembers of Shiraz* this morning, and seeing "Inglourious Basterds" last night, I think about survival and how easy mine has been relative to, say, that of Iranian Jews in post-Shah Iran or French Jews in Nazi-occupied France.

"Why, on a gorgeous, pure-vacation day am I wanting to think about catastrophes that never happened?" This morning, shortly after waking up, I wrote this question in my journal.

For one thing, it makes me even more grateful for the relatively luscious life I lead, and for another, I have survivor's guilt.

In a previous blog-entry, I'm pretty certain I wrote about Sofia, a Russian woman I tutored in English in 1987, when I lived in Chicago. It struck me that if my grandparents on my dad's side and great-great-grandparents on my mom's side had not left Russia by 1917, I could have been in Sofia's place -- a new, U.S. immigrant from Russia, needing literacy help and all sorts of other aid as well, if my ancestors had remained in Russia and had made it through further pogroms and the Holocaust...and if I would have existed at all. We were the same age and though I did not yet have a good job, my prospects were far greater than hers when we worked together.

Iran and Spanish Harlem Circa 1982

The same there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I sensation comes to me about the Iranian story, which was written by an Iranian- Jewish woman, just seven years younger than I. And this I believe I've written about prior as well: In 1973, my dad was on the verge of taking a job to build a toy factory in Iran that would have required our family to move to Tehran. Thank God, it fell through. I recall looking at a picture of the shah in our encyclopedia, with his white military uniform and dark hair and mustache (salted a bit with white) and thinking how elegant my new leader looked.

Had we been there, just six years later, my dad might have been imprisoned when the shah fell, under suspicion of being a spy for Israel, simply because his parents and sister lived there. Spoiler Alert: At least, that's what happened to the father in the novel I just read, who simply had some relatives in Israel.

Now, as I think of it, in real-life, the author's father was imprisoned for a time, and they really did have to escape from Iran in 1982, but her luck was that to this day, she still had a father in real-life, whereas by November of 1982, my dad of blessed memory had died of bile-duct cancer at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in Spanish Harlem. As a result, I've lived most of my life so far with just one parent.

Which was harder? Both were excruciating. I've read that kids who were separated from their well-meaning parents during the Holocaust would rather have remained with their parents and undergone whatever trauma doing so required than to have been separated from them, even if they were reunited over time.

France Circa 1944

To my knowledge, none of my relatives ever lived in France. I hadn't wanted to see "Inglourious Basterds," as I feared it would be somehow disrespectful, since in my experience with Quentin Tarantino's films, human-life is not all that sacred, but I really valued it, to my complete surprise.

Spoiler Alert for "Inglourious Basterds:" Most chilling of all was the monologue, where the "Jew Hunter" spoke of Jews as rats; I'm paraphrasing: "What is it about rats? I mean, they've never done anything to you, and yet you simply find them repulsive and you want to be rid of them."

Talking with my mom about it, before either of us saw it, but since we already knew the premise, my mother said, "Sarah, I've talked to survivors and the ones who got revenge were not made happier by it. It did not make them feel good." Sitting in the audience last night, Tarantino managed to make me feel blood-thirsty and ashamed all within seconds.

It was powerful how I, who've grown up, being taught that during the Holocaust, people had a choice and did not need to be an agent of Jews' destruction, found myself easily becoming part of a mob for the opposing side, i.e., I wanted to justify hurting Nazis for their inhumanity....Just as they did not see Jews as human, I wanted to see them as animals, too.

That's the thing about escalation: It makes me resort to my visceral version.

What a luxury that I get to conclude this entry and enjoy another warm, sunny, Maine-day. Wish my dad were here.


Bernie said...

Sarah, have you seen "Persepolis"?

Sarah Siegel said...

Not yet. Pat doesn't love animated films. I think I need to, having read this book. Thanks for the reminder.