Daniel visits Auschwitz

17 July 2010 

Dear Daniel — 

I have never been to Auschwitz, nor even Poland, and I hope to learn from you when you return. You take a difficult journey into the great darkness of your people’s "Arbeit Macht Frei"past. You will read for yourself perhaps the most infamous sign in human history, “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” at the entrance to the camp. “Work brings freedom.” 

The camp commander, Rudolf Hess, reportedly intended the words without irony or cynicism. He believed his experience doing menial work during his imprisonment under the Weimar Republic helped him. But the words are etched in history as three of the most cynical ever employed. Jewish prisoners, with ultimate mordant wit, whispered “arbeit macht frei durch den Schornstein” (work brings freedom through the chimney).

I can’t speak to whether work brings freedom. I’m unemployed. But I do know reading brings freedom. In fact, reading brought you into being. 

Your great-grandfather Berthold Levy was a successful pediatrician in Berlin. As the Nazis acquired increasing power in the 1930s, it happened that some of Berthold’s patients were Nazis. “Don’t worry Dr. Levy,” they told him, “you’re a good Jew and we’ll protect you.” Berthold left Germany for British Palestine in 1933. We all know now that Dr. Levy’s Nazi patients would not have protected him. But he had the foresight even then because he had read Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Reading that book saved your great-grandfather’s life, and brought him to Israel, where he met your wonderful great-grandmother Miriam. Their ever inspirational daughter Jael married the unfailingly generous son of Eastern European escapees from the Holocaust, Chaim, and their beautiful daughter Michal bore you in Rockville, Maryland 17-1/2 years ago — all made possible by reading a terrifying book. 

It is among my greatest privileges in life that I was able to enjoy a few wonderful conversations with Berthold Levy before he died, and that, before her death several years later, I was the beneficiary of so much kindness from Miriam, who was an excellent Scrabble player in her fourth language. You never knew Berthold and likely have little or no memory of Miriam. It will be good for you to remember them as a counterpoint to the horror you must confront in Poland. 

I want you to know about another Miriam as well, a Miriam you’ve never heard of. Miriam Novitch was the first curator at Beit Lochamei Haghetaot (Ghetto Fighters Museum), the gem of a museum located at the kibbutz where I landed by happenstance when I traveled to Israel from Kenya in 1984. I arrived at Kibbutz Lochamei Haghetaot on August 2, and I met Miriam on August 4, when I took my own tour of the museum. I don’t recall anyone else being there.

Miriam Novitch

 Miriam was short, intense, passionate, and a remarkable force of memory and humanity. I was a gangly, wide-eyed, 25-year-old Gentile thinking the museum was pretty cool. She specialized in the art of the Holocaust, the multiple testaments in secreted scribblings, drawings, and paintings to the horror and the transcendence of horror. 

Miriam had published a few years earlier one of her many books, Spiritual Resistance: 1940-1945, which promptly inspired Spiritual Resistance: Art from Concentration Camps. I have both books, with kind inscriptions from Miriam in very careful handwriting. I did not learn until much later that Miriam had coined the term “spiritual resistance.” She would not have told me. As tough and assertive as she was, she was never self-aggrandizing. The books catalogued art produced in camps, under siege, and on the run. 

I became her assistant, and to this day, because the impact on me was so profound, I still put on my resumé, “Assistant to the Arts Curator of Ghetto Fighters Museum — 1984,” though the job had nothing to do with anything I have done since. Mostly, I performed menial labors, of the sort that must have comforted Rudolf Hess. I can’t say the work brought me freedom, but it certainly brought me consciousness.
Consciousness of genocide, of the human spirit tested beyond endurance, of brutality beyond imagination, of art under duress, of the possibility of preserving beauty amidst horror, of children — like you my child — slaughtered because you were Jewish. 

Of the children, Miriam said to me in her accented English when we were looking at pictures of Jewish children, “to me these little children are as beautiful as the most beautiful Madonnas of the Italian painters. And they were killed.” Kilt, in her word. 

Through Miriam, I was also a naive witness to the tension in Israel at the time between the determination to remember and the weariness, the exhaustion, with Holocaust memories. Miriam said to me once, “I’m not popular in the kibbutz. They say I talk too high things about the Holocaust… I understand, it was too horrible, it left a mark, left a mark on me, I talk about it too much, maybe I am wrong and they are right.” I do not believe I have ever experienced a more profound instance of strength and self-effacement. 

Miriam insisted on writing me a letter of recommendation. I did not understand at the time why this would matter (and part of me still doesn’t), but she understood that I had been privileged to be with a great woman. I was inconsequential, but she wanted to be generous. I am proud like a little boy of this letter, and that’s why I put it on display. 

Around the time I met Miriam Novitch, I met your mother. I saw her dancing Israeli folk dances in the kibbutz dining room. She danced like a poem. And then you happened many years later. 

Remember (and I can’t think of a more important verb), knowledge of history has consequences. I don’t mean history has consequences, which belabors the obvious. I mean knowledge of history — thoroughly internalized and nuanced understanding of what has happened — has consequences. The history of the Holocaust will always be under siege, and not only by Iranian theocratic thugs. Many people for many reasons wish to diminish the significance of the Holocaust or to distort its implications for political designs. You are part of a critical continuity in the story of the Jewish people — the community of all who remember. 

Continue that tradition with integrity my dear son. And don’t let me hear anything more about mediocre grades in history. 

I love you and I am so proud of you. Safe travels. 



One Response to Daniel visits Auschwitz

  1. Ela Macdowell says:

    I’ve reread this. It’s powerful and so meaningful, especially for those of us in the family.

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