Friday, September 30, 2016

Chapter 10

“OK,” I told Lady, “so today’s problem is what to do about Poland….”

She snorts, since yesterday was her birthday, but today? She is sweeping out the store, which is normally attended to by one woman (this week on vacation) and another woman (today on sick leave). So Lady is moving furniture and pouncing with a broom on any hapless speck of dust she might encounter.

“Speck,” she roars. “I’ve found dust bunnies the size of elephants! Dinosaurs! Planetary systems!”

Indeed she has, and I tell her: make sure you photograph everything, in order to establish a historical record. She laughs, and shows me her phone: it’s all right there!

“Anyway,” she tells me, “ I hardly see what you need to worry about Poland for. Presumably, it’s going around and about, just like the rest of us. Why worry about it?”

“Well, no one ever told me anything about Poland,” I told her. “Which is odd, because it’s by no means a small country, and it’s right smack in the middle of Europe. I wonder if it wasn’t because of the Cold War? We got British, French, and German history, along with a bit of Italian and Spanish—but the rest of Europe? Russian, or the Far East? Well, we had just enough Russian history to explain her involvement in World War II, and then the subsequent partitioning of Europe. But that was it….”

“Well, why worry about Poland,” says Lady. “If it’s gotten along without you, all these years…”

“I can quite get my head around it,” I told her. “It’s one of those countries that goes back and forth: at one point it’s carved up between Russia and Austria or Germany, and at another point it’s its own nation again. And then, what’s the big connection between Poland and France? At some point, all of the Polish intelligentsia seemed to go into exile in France. Think Chopin….”

“I often do,” said Lady, “when not doing such lofty things as sweeping behind the sofas…and am I the only one who can move a sofa?”

She’s right: the dust bunny looks infinitely more comfortable than a Posturepedic mattress….

“Then there’s the whole paradox of the war,” I told her. “The poor Poles seem to have been sure that the moment Hitler walked in the door, the French and British would come running to their aid. So they fought defensively, trying to stall and buy time, and what did the French and the Germans do? They said ‘tsk-tsk’, and then realized that they were way behind, in military preparedness. So the Poles were left to fend for themselves, if I read the book correctly….”

“And that book would be?”

No Greater Ally,” I told her, “and I just ran over to Amazon to refresh my memory. Anyway, here’s the blurb:”

There is a chapter of World War 2 history that remains largely untold: the story of the fourth largest Allied military of the war, and the only nation to have fought in the battles of Leningrad, Arnhem, Tobruk and Normandy. This is the story of the Polish forces during the Second World War, the story of millions of young men and women who gave everything for freedom and in the final victory lost all. In a cruel twist of history, the monumental struggles of an entire nation have been largely forgotten, and even intentionally obscured.

“Wow,” she said, “who knew?”

“I think I sort of did,” I told her, since we often watch the History Channel, and when we do, I usually have a glass of wine in my hand. So things get to be a bit confused, especially towards the end of the evening. “Anyway, as I remember reading the book—I only got halfway through it—the Poles went around and helped various allied forces. So they lost their own country, then helped defeat Germany, and then what happened? The Communists walked in, and the Allies, who had been perfectly happy to accept their help, cheerfully tossed Poland to the wolves….”

“Nice,” said Lady, “they wouldn’t be some of my employees, by any chance?”

“I think all that dust has gone to your brain,” I told her, “or maybe to your spirit. Anyway, according to No Greater Ally, which comes from a reputable press, the Poles were heroes, and treated shamefully….”

“Well, good to know,” said Lady. “Shame about what happened to them….”

“Right,” I told her, “but then we come to the sticky question: what about Polish anti-Semitism? Because I had a Jewish friend in High School who swore that the Poles were vicious anti-Semites. But is that true? Anyway, what I didn’t know was that the Jewish population of Warsaw was the second largest in the world, following New York. There were over three million Jews in Poland before the war, and it was the largest population of Jews in Europe. And then, according to Anne Karpf, after the war there were only 5,000. Which means that the eradication of the Jewish population in Poland was virtually complete. So what was the role of the Poles, if any, in all of this?”

“Probably mixed,” said Lady, “it always is. History spawns its share of heroes and villains, alike.”

“As well as that worst type of all, the huge majority of people who stand gaping on, with their mouths open and their vacant eyes comprehending nothing,” I told her. “Consider Irene Sendler, who along with her friends saved nearly 2500 children from the ghetto in Warsaw. Tremendous woman: she used to sneak babies out in packages, and put them on buses, wrapped as packages under the seats, before the bus began its route. Then, someone outside the ghetto would collect the child. Amazing, when you think of it….”

“Wow,” said Lady, “Like Nicholas Winton, though he only clocked in at saving 700 children, or so. But still, that’s huge….”

“Well, that’s one side of the picture,” I told her. “Though it’s certainly true that Poland had welcomed the Jews in earlier centuries, which is why they had so many of them. But it all got a little gunky in the 30’s, with the Depression. And though there were lots of Jews, they weren’t terribly well assimilated. So they stuck out, which made making the ghetto easier….”

“OK—I get that….”

“Anyway, the Depression hit, and Hitler was stirring things up, generally, and many of the Jews had done well. So for those people who weren’t doing well….”

“Ah,” said Lady, “the old story…..”

“Anyway, the whole question cropped up in the 80’s, when a Polish intellectual, Jan Blonski, wrote an article called ‘A Poor Pole Looks at the Ghetto’….”

“So were they, or weren’t they, or were they somewhere in between?”

“Who knows,” I told her. “Though Anne Karpf seems to think so….”

“And she would be?”

“The daughter of Natalia Karp!”

Lady looks at me with exasperation. And also with the broom, which looks increasing less like a utensil, and more like a weapon. At least potentially….

“Just listen,” I tell her, and we do….   


Thursday, September 29, 2016

Chapter Nine

“So isn’t this story supposed to be about a Polish archbishop,” asked Lady, “but all I seem to be getting is the long, involved story of a pianist? What’s up?”

“What’s up, indeed,” I told her. “I had no idea that I’d have to grapple with the most serious event of the last century. Though really, historically, I didn’t have to. Wesolowski was actually born a few years after World War II; I suppose I could skip the thing entirely, if I wanted….”

“Well, why drag it in?”

“You have a point,” I said. “The Holocaust was horrific, make no mistake about it. And from a writer’s point of view, it’s both a fertile minefield and an absolute swamp. I mean, after you get done detailing the horrors of Auschwitz, what else has the heft, the weight? The swinging 60’s? Rock ‘n Roll? No, for a novelist, the slogan over the gates to Auschwitz isn’t ‘Arbeit Macht Frei, or ‘Work Makes You Free,’ but rather ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.’ Though come to think of it, ‘Abandon Hope’ was also a lot more appropriate for all those Jews, dissidents, Communists, Gays and Gypsies than ‘Arbeit…..’”

“Dissidents, Communists, Gays and Gypsies?”

“They got herded up as well. Oh, and the mentally defective. But there’s no denying the suffering of the Jews, and the fact that it really was intended to be the actual extermination of an entire people. Oh, and the top Nazis were quite clear—if they could make it happen, they could also ensure that it would never be known. An entire people wiped out, and no mention made. A page lost to history. Or rather, a chapter, or one of its many tomes….”

“Did they think they could get away with it?”

“Why not? To my mind, it’s extraordinary what they did get away with. And still are, in fact. Has anyone ever talked about complicity? Let’s start with the Germans, though the same could be said with any of the populations—Poles, Czechs, Austrians—who had concentration camps built around them. Look, let’s face it: everybody knew. It was no secret: here’s Wikipedia on the subject:”

The press announcement said that "the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with an accommodation for 5,000 persons. All Communists and – where necessary – Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries who endanger state security are to be concentrated there, as in the long run it is not possible to keep individual functionaries in the state prisons without overburdening these prisons."[10] Dachau was the first regular concentration camp established by the German coalition government of National Socialist Workers' Party (Nazi Party) and the Nationalist People's Party (dissolved on 6 July 1933). Heinrich Himmler, then Chief of Police of Munich, officially described the camp as "the first concentration camp for political prisoners."[10]  

“Press announcements? Official statements by Himmler?”

“Right—it was no secret. True, to my knowledge, no Nazi came out and said that they were gassing Jews. No, it was the old story: there was a real fear of Communists, and Hitler used that fear. So once it became OK to throw the ‘political prisoners’ into a camp, then it was easier to start down the list of public prejudice. Gay people, or as they were known, sexual deviants. Do you want those around your kids? And what about mentally retarded, or developmentally disabled, or intellectually challenged, or whatever I’m supposed to call them this year? Anyway, do you really want them to be having children? And then the Gypsies—well, they were thieves, most of them! Or so the story went, and that was the point. And it was a reign of terror, at that point, because Hitler very quickly squelched dissent. So it’s easy for me to say that I’d write a blistering post in my blog if anyone built a concentration camp in neighboring Cataño….”

“…come to think of it….”

“Please stifle that thought,” I told her.

“I didn’t mean that there should be one, only that in fact it is one….”

“Here’s the point—if I write about it, will anything happen to me? My Cuban boss once put it neatly: if you can hear footsteps at 3 AM outside your house, and then roll over and go back to sleep, well, you live in a free society. But what if you can’t? What if you’ve packed your bag, put it next to the back door, and planned in whose house you would seek shelter? And what about your wife, your children? The baby? Surely they will be safe: it’s only you they seek…. Or is it? Because your wife, too—well, at university she attended some meetings. She signed some petitions. And so the baby will come too, and you’d better hope she’s sleeping soundly, as you scuttle down the streets to your safe house….”

“Marc, that’s ghastly….”

“Absolutely. So in Nazi Germany you had an entire infrastructure being built, because it wasn’t just the camps. Though even so, it’s a little hard to wrap your head around it: those barracks didn’t get built by elves working overnight. And what about the camp victims who were forced to work in the factories, and then herded back to the camps for the night? Oh—and the trains that rolled in, jammed with people, and then rolled out, empty? And then, most horrifically, well….have you ever burned a chicken bone, at a barbecue?”

“I can’t say that I have….”

“Raf, for reasons I’ve never understood, used to do it. And I can tell you, the stench is vile….”

“Can we please,” she said, “I mean, I know where you’re going.”

“That was it,” I said. “You and I are complicit, too. That’s the thing about the Holocaust—it brings just as much shame and guilt to everyone as it brought horror to its victims….”

“Well, I don’t know about that….”

“The German people told us, ‘we didn’t know,’ and the world judged them as mendacious. But we also knew, outside of Germany. There were reports of the camps, and there was discussion: should we bomb the camps? We were bombing cities, bombing factories, shouldn’t we bomb the camps? Look, even Wikipedia gets into the question:

Michael Berenbaum has argued that it is not only a historical question, but "a moral question emblematic of the Allied response to the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust."[1] David Wyman has asked: "How could it be that the governments of the two great Western democracies knew that a place existed where 2,000 helpless human beings could be killed every 30 minutes, knew that such killings actually did occur over and over again, and yet did not feel driven to search for some way to wipe such a scourge from the earth?"[2]

“So it was out there: by 1942, the UN had declared a Joint Declaration by Members of the United Nations Against Extermination of the Jews. And that was picked up on the front page of The New York Times. So as from that moment on, the world had a responsibility. We were all on record. And you could argue that people like my parents, good Midwesterners buying their Liberty bonds and feeling patriotic, were more guilty than the Germans themselves. It’s called ‘moral proximity,’ and does it exist? Especially now, when the world is so much smaller?”

“Moral what?”

“If a little kid gets lost in your store, do you have the moral responsibility to comfort her, and look for her parents?”

“Of course!”

“If a little kid gets lost in a store in China….”

“Don’t be ridiculous!”

“OK—that feels black and white, right? That’s easy. Now then, if a little kid loses an arm in a Nike factory in China, where he and all the other little kids are working as virtually slave labor….”

“I get the picture….”

“So we in the West knew, but did anyone force the debate? The whole point was to win the war—understandable, but it was never about the concentration camps. And in fact, would the United States ever have entered the war without Pearl Harbor being bombed? So it was OK that the Nazis were committing atrocities all over Europe, but it was only until the Japanese attacked us that it was time to act? Another question of moral proximity….”

“Well, I still don’t see why your parents were guiltier than the Germans at the time….”

“Because sticking your neck out in Nazi Germany was a lot harder than sticking your neck out in Madison, Wisconsin. Oh, and another question: if my parents were going to stick their neck out and shout about anything, what about the internment of Japanese-Americans? After all, we rounded up over a 100,000 people and put them in camps? Or they could have given a shout out to Franz Biebl, a German prisoner of war who got interned at Fort Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. He got stuck there for two years, from 1944 to 1946….”

“Marc? Aren’t we a little digressive today? Anyway, who was Biebl?”

“A choral composer, chiefly known for his ravishingly beautiful Ave Maria. But here’s the point: as somebody once said, anti-Semitism is a very light sleeper. Which means that while the average Briton or American would never themselves have thrown Jewish babies into the ovens, they never raised their eyebrows at jokes about the Jews, or at expressions like, ’Jewed me out of….’”


“To bargain hard, or even to cheat. So there was always the sense of the Jew being the ‘other,’ and in Britain, as well as in many other parts of the world, to be a ‘good Jew’ was to be as invisible as possible. Be as British or American as possible, don’t wear anything distinctively Jewish or act distinctively Jewish. Pretend that going to the synagogue is no more different than attending the Methodist, rather than Anglican, church.”

“And is that so bad?”

“Ah,” I said, “the old question. We gay people get it every June, when our friends ask us, ‘look, why don’t you do something about the drag queens in the outrageous costumes with the feathers and the sequins at the Pride March? Not to mention all those leather guys with the whips and chains! I mean, I don’t have a problem with it, but other people…..”

“Well, they have a point, don’t they?”

“Maybe,” I told her. “But then again, it was the drag queens that started the whole movement, when they fought the cops at Stonewall. And really, if we had just all played by the rules, worn our nice Sunday best, and played bridge during the week and golf on the weekends, do you really think anything would have changed? You know the old joke: when does a gay man become a fag?”


“When he leaves the room. So there had been a lot of mostly latent anti-Semitism for centuries before the war, and then when the Holocaust occurred, well, the focus was on winning the war, and not on the horrors of the concentration camps. And then, there were people walking around with numbers tattooed on their forearms: as a writer, I wonder about that. For the survivors, it must have been a daily question: cover it up? Single yourself out as a victim? Wear it as a reminder of something you’d like to forget? Wear it as a visual reminder or challenge to others: this was done to me, let none of us forget or pretend that it didn’t. And the people who saw it, as I did, once or twice in my life….”

“You saw people with Nazi tattoos?”

“Yes, and one of them was a prominent rabbi in the town I grew up in. He was elderly, and I met him in a hospital, so his tattoo was quite clear, though it was blurry and had always been of poor quality. That, of course, was hardly the point. But no, it was there, and I was helping him to the bathroom, and there the number was, blue ink on his forearm. And yes, I felt guilty, even though I was an American, and born more than a decade after the war had ended….”

“But why, Marc, why?”

“It was an assault on humanity, and humanity failed,” I told her. “Was Hitler evil? Undoubtedly. Did the Germans commit atrocities? Unquestionably. But to put the blame on Germany and Hitler is too easy. Even today, the Holocaust keeps challenging us.”

“Well,” said Lady, “do you really believe that we should have bombed the camps? Marc, those were people in there!”

“People who had no idea whether they would be alive the next day,” I told her. “If 2000 people could be killed in 30 minutes, well, wouldn’t it be better to ask the question: shouldn’t we put that death machine out of order? If we had bombed Auschwitz, wouldn’t we ultimately have saved more lives that we had sacrificed? Wouldn’t it be like amputating an infected limb, rather than killing the patient?”

“OK, I get that,” said Lady. “Geez, Marc, do you have to be so morbid? It is, after all, my birthday!”

And so it is! Happy birthday, Lady!

And was that why, from somewhere dark and sweet and primordial, from the death camps and the wounded and the dead, and the hungry on all sides and the frightened…somewhere, I tell you, we heard the Ave Maria, of Biebl, and were the questions answered?


But were we soothed?


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Chasing Sainthood

“Well, well—it’s really tremendous news,” I told Lady, “since it now develops that I can become a saint. Of course, I may have to systemize a thing or two: just because I always give $5 to Gail, every time I see her, doesn’t really count. Oh, the buck I give to the man trying to get a new liver for his sister—that’s by the wayside, too. No, I really have to start an orphanage, and then a shelter for the dying destitute. Which, by the way, is exactly what she called it, and imagine what that must have felt like, to anyone being taken to it! I mean, many people must have felt that it was just their life: they were born into the slums of Calcutta—sorry, that’s Kolkata, or something or other else now—and they lived in the slums of Calcutta.”


“There’s actually something nice about it, in the way that she refuses to sugarcoat it. She could, I suppose have come up with something way more euphemistic, or even poetic: The Fading Light Shelter for those in the Twilight of Life! You know, something Evelyn Waugh might have come put with….”

“Is it the long weekend, Marc? Because really, I have no idea…”

“Well, you must have seen the news,” I told her. “And for once, I agree with this very disagreeable pope: I will indeed have trouble referring to her as St. Teresa. Actually, even calling her “Mother” Teresa is a stretch. Even before Christopher Hitchens trashed her, I thought she was a phony….”

“What! Mother Teresa?”

“Well, Hitchens does have a point, though given that he made his atheism into his religion, it might have been more interesting if he had adulated Mother Teresa. But she never really did anything with the destitute dying other than round ‘em up, give them a roof over their head, feed them, dispense the occasional aspirin or two, and confess them before they died. There was the woman’s room—holding fifty or sixty cots placed next to each other in long rows. The men’s room-sorry if it has a lavoratorial sound to it—that was just the same. And oddly, it was remarkably tidy. Have you ever been in a hospital room? For some reason, they have an uncanny ability to clutter up with things: wash basins, urinals, bedpans, books, flowers, cards from people to cheap to send flowers….you know, all that stuff! But as you can see in the video below, the wards are utterly uncluttered. Beautiful, in a Zen sort of way. Until you realize that nobody had, or perhaps was allowed to have, anything.  So there you were, destitute and dying in Calcutta, India, and all you had was your cot, and your death awaiting you….”

“But surely she must have helped….”

“Well, she did. I mean, if it were a choice between dying in the Calcutta gutter or in the Home for the Destitute Dying, of course I’d take the home. Especially since I’d know that I wouldn’t have to see her: she’d be off hobnobbing with Margaret Thatcher, and getting the US Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan. Wonderful, how much we know about freedom, isn’t it?”

“But there she was, this pious, hunched-over figure….”

“You know, I often wonder what a real saint would be like, if I were to meet one. And I think, really, that he or she would be utterly impossible. Imagine having that much God in you! You would—however hard the saint tried to hide it—feel completely worthless in comparison. And I think that a saint would have to have huge amounts of anger. I mean, how could they help it? If I were a saint in Calcutta, I’d be snorting fire and brimstone out of every orifice from dawn till dusk. How can any society treat its members in such a fashion? And the first rich person I came across, I’d take him by arm and lead him down the worst alley of the slum. I’d show him every boil and wound and broken bone, and I’d demand to know: how could he, a Christian, live with himself? And what was he going to do about it? In short, I think most saints would be total pains in the ass….”

“Well, didn’t she shake down more than a few people and organizations? I mean, she did win the Nobel Prize, which must have been a pretty penny….”

“It was,” I told her, “but nothing got much better for the destitute dying. I mean, she could have invested in those ugly screens, so that the dying could have done so in relative private. But no, she plowed the money back into establishing more missions in more countries. Interesting question, though—is it better to establish a lot of missions with minimal care all over the world, or focus on only a few, but have top-notch facilities? Well, well, fodder for philosophers, if not theologians….”

“Well, I don’t think you’re quite on the pathway to sainthood,” said Lady, “though you are a good person. And by no means a pain in the ass….”

“Well, I tell you that I can be a saint because my spiritual life exactly mirrors dear Mother Teresa. Which is to say, that neither of us had one. Or rather, she had one, but do you know the amazing thing about our day and age? It’s all, completely all, about marketing. Because probably only one atheist in ten know the real truth about Mother Teresa. And only one in a hundred Catholics know, as well.”

“Why would more atheists know than Catholics?”

“Studies show,” I told her, “that atheists tend to do better on tests of religious knowledge than believers. And that may be true, since I scored 29 out of 30 on the last one I took, by the Pew Foundation. Funny name, when you think of it….”

“OK—so what’s all this about?”

“Well, for the last 25 years of her life, Mother Teresa was in a state of spiritual dryness. She no longer felt the presence of God. She said stuff like this:”

I utter words of Community prayers–and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give–But my prayer of union is not there any longer–I no longer pray. 

“Or this:”

Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself–for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.'

“Interesting, isn’t it,” I told her. “You have to wonder: she reported that Jesus had spoken to her. Here she is about it:”

You are I know the most incapable person–weak and sinful but just because you are that–I want to use You for My glory. Wilt thou refuse?

“Anyway, you can be sure that’s the real deal, because all of that archaic usage. Which is why, when I receive the message, ‘thou art bidden, most unclean and sinning of men, to bide among the presence of Santana, there to beg, Unholy Wretch, two chocolate cookies’…well, what do I do? I’m right there, reporting the message to Santana. Of course, he’s gotten a message, too….”

“And that is?”


“What! For two cookies???”

“Plus the coffee….”

“Well, back to Mother Teresa…”

“You know, I really wonder whether she isn’t a hell of a lot more interesting than we give her credit for. Because the saintly figure does sort of induce the dry heaves. But I think she knew that she had fucked up. She was going around and sucking up to one repressive regime after the other: she got down to Haiti and told the Duvaliers that they were peaches! She spent 25 years becoming a brand name, and the more time she spent at it, the more Jesus and God receded. Interesting to think: if she had stayed a poor nun, ministering to the sick and dying in obscurity, would she have suffered the spiritual desert she was lost in, the last third of her life? And which would have been better, to have died in obscurity but spiritually fulfilled, or to have died having raised millions of dollars for the poor? And spiritually unfulfilled? More fodder for philosophers….”

“How do we know she died spiritually dead,” asked Lady. “Maybe, in the end, she found His presence once more.”

“Who knows,” I told her. “Anyway, I think you and I should do a joint venture into sainthood. You can contribute, as you already do, the site. Norman is sitting, by the way, on a different chair in the Sala Poética, but he’s still very much asleep. So you are sheltering the homeless, and providing every bit as much material goods as Mother Teresa. True, it’s a chair and not a cot, but it’s a very nice chair!”

“Wonderful,” said Lady. “And you? What’s your contribution to the whole affair?”

“Spiritual dryness,” I told her. “And I’ve got Mother Teresa beat like a rug on spring cleaning! Twenty-five years? Hah! I’ve got half a century!”


“I’m writing to the pope,” I told her, “since after all, as he said so famously, who is he to judge? Well, I thought, of course, that the pope was the person to judge. But if he’s going to be so laissez-faire about homosexuality, well, he can be the same way with sainthood! So we’re shoo-ins! Bam, the only twin saints in history! Saints Lady and Marc. Though, since I thought of the idea, I am pressing for Saints Marc and Lady.”

“You seem to have forgotten,” she told me, “that we’re going to have to cook up two miracles. Oh, and we’re supposed to have to be dead ten years before any of this can happen, though the last three popes have cheated on that. Anyway, who wants to be dead before being declared a saint? And I can’t think of a possible miracle we could do.”

“Easy,” I told her. “Every Tuesday night is a miracle. Somebody gets up, heart racing, palms sweating, mouth dry. And they recite their poetry. Good, bad—who knows? But it touches somebody’s heart, and they applaud, and the poet sits back down. Heart still pounding, but changed. Perhaps miraculously…..”

“And the second miracle?”

I think for a moment.

Does she know?

I tell her.

“That God might speak to me!”