Monday, November 3, 2014

The Golem

I know a lot of people who throw out their old journals. The reasons they give are genuinely inspiring and boil down to the sentiment Let's unburden ourselves: Disengage from a dead past so that we may go forth lightly. Implicit here is the idea of moving forward without dragging around the corpses of all our previous, failed incarnations. We change, and naturally we're embarrassed by our discarded personas. 

          Yes, embarrassed. An acquaintance of mine allowed me to see a few pages of her old journal before she trashed the entirety. I had to beg her—not only because I don't know her well, but because she no longer identified with the person she had been decades before. She found her other self a little boring and self-preoccupied—"embarrassing," she told me—and gave me several random pages only after I promised to destroy them when I was finished.

          Reading those pages I entered an exciting city I've never lived in. I was beautiful and young, a daring, free spirit, whose worries, observations, ways of thinking and being, so far from my own experience, were now mine to live. What a tremendous gift!

          However, as someone who used to keep a journal for many years myself, I found something unsettling about my acquaintance's relationship with her reader. It was not the same relationship I had with myself in journals. She confided, it seemed to me, in a mysterious being other than herself—a being who would bear witness, who was selflessly interested and invested in her life and well-being, but who offered no comment and asked nothing in return. What the being did offer was silent, unconditional acceptance. Rather like a golem, the creature from Jewish folklore who is made out of inanimate material, like a lump of mud (or wood pulp pressed into paper), and brought to life by sacred magic and the recitation of the alphabet. The golem has no voice; its sole purpose is to protect its master by any means necessary. This is what their relationship felt like to me, my acquaintance and the mysterious being she had been addressing, except her own inner strength was such that the golem need never have intervened on her behalf. My acquaintance needed no defending.

          This had not been my experience of journal writing—and may not even have been hers. That relationship remains secret, perhaps even unknown to the author. But in all configurations, each of us is more than a voyeur. Immensely troubling questions began to assemble as a result of this love triangle.

          To whom are we writing when we write a journal? This question is the mud that shapes the muscles of the question that follows, Who do we address all day long in our private thoughts? We already know what we're thinking before we put it into words, otherwise we wouldn't be able to put it into words—so why put into words for ourselves what we already know? To whom do we silently tell our life story all day? Who is our narrator? Then the muscles sprout a question with wings, If I'm always in a relationship with myself then one of us is an impostor. Which one is the fabrication? 

I've been disinclined to write lately. My mother's birthday just came and went and now, as the one-year anniversary of her death looms, I'm distracted by our mortality—hers, mine, all of us. This is not encouraging. On the contrary, facing futility is tiresome and embarrassing and thoroughly contraindicated for positive forward movement through life. But writing is a way of seizing time—freezing it, reliving it, sharing it—so I keep trying. 

          After my mother's surgery, she had no recollection of having awakened, wide-eyed and thrashing, frantic to free herself from the breathing tube that was lodged in her throat, she began to turn blue with panic. Another time, after the breathing tube had been removed, she woke up briefly and when I kissed her she smiled at me as if beholding a miracle.  She said only one word to me, hoarsely because her throat was sore from the ventillator. She whispered "Beautiful" and fell asleep again. 

           For a long time I was troubled by this amnesia, which the doctors had said was to be expected. For her, these two significant events in her life had never occurred. But they happened for me, in some limbo where the boundary between reality and unreality is unclear.

          With her gone, this troubling territory has expanded exponentially, in every direction, and I seem to have lost my bearings for good.
© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited
Among my father's belongings, my sisters and I recently found a large manilla envelope labeled, in my father's spidery handwriting, Camping Diary. I nearly threw it out because camping interests me even less, if possible, than it interested my father. But that in itself provided the first clue that the contents were worthy of my curiosity.

          The folder contained documents from my father's internment during World War II. During this period, Churchill's mandate to "collar the lot" made being German—even if one was fleeing Nazi Germany—a punishable offense. My father got as far as England before being herded with hundreds of other prisoners of war onto the SS Ettrick, which headed for Camp Farnham in southern Quebec. Just a few days earlier, the sinking of the Arandora Star, a ship that had been torpedoed en route to another Canadian internment camp, killed 800 aboard. 

          Included among the pages of my father's Camping Diary was a small, blue, handmade book titled, Prison Scrapbook. I don't recall ever seeing it before. Now, 15 years after his death, I feel I'm traveling deep into my father's secret life. Not the man I knew, who was already in his late 50s when I was born, but a young stranger who was being held captive in a foreign country.   
© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited

          Would Wilhelm Heckscher's prison scrapbook interest anyone else in the world? Why did he keep it, and for whom? And why didn't he share it with us? I would like to share it, as a historical document and as a testament on survival, on how to find beauty, meaning, and hope under the most repressive circumstances, as a manual on remaking the world in one's own image. My father didn't defend himself or the other internees by physical force. Instead he founded a prison school from which young men were able to take entry exams and matriculate at Canadian universities. He gave prisoners a purpose and a future. Neither of which I feel particularly able to provide myself at the moment, despite my privileged circumstances. There is shame in this lack of resilience, in the incapacity to adapt, that all depressives share. My father was never depressed.

          I want to find comfort in the appearance of the scrapbook. It endured—my father didn't, we won't, even the stars won't. Now 70 years after his release from the camp and an as-yet undetermined amount of time before the demise of our solar system, here is Heckscher's prison scrapbook. Ta-da. For now, it's here, as we are, and the future where we don't exist does not wipe out the past. Without a map or a golem, this must do.

© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited
© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited
© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited 
© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited 
© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited
© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited
I'll post the entire scrapbook after I've scanned all of it: this was just a little preview.

1 comment:

  1. Dearworthy Charlotte,
    Your father told me of this around the card catalogue in Firestone, that he had been imprisoned by the British, that he had had to cut down a suicide. He told me of his education in Hamburg, of his declaration as an atheist and his father hiring a priest and a rabbi to teach him, of being so hungry that he couldn't see and clinging to the iron railings because he was so weak. The reparations payments Germany had to make. How wonderful that telegramme. I loved his friendship.