|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen||
On a bright Spring morning in 1933, the two brothers, Isaac and I , with one small suitcase between us, accompanied by our parents and Jerry, our younger brother, stood at the Berlin railroad station as the Warsaw to Paris Express came to a halt. Mother choked down her tears as her two eldest sons boarded the train, and a shrill whistle announced our departure.
Isaac and I settled into our seats and nothing was said as we both became lost in our own thoughts. It was obvious that Isaac was not happy to be on this train. He would rather have stayed in Berlin to continue his studies. It took persuasion to convince him to end his schooling and accompany his younger brother into a foreign land. He was the conscientious student, whereas I would readily have left by myself. This is what I had threatened - to run off - as I had done on previous occasions. Isaac, from the very beginning, must have been convinced that he had to protect his younger and more delicately balanced younger brother. And so, when Isaac had to choose between staying in Berlin to pursue his studies and let his younger brother go off to Paris alone, he went along on this journey into the unknown.
This was a very different train ride from the many others we had taken together, beginning with that journey to Switzerland. Since then, most every summer, we two had been sent off to various camps: Wyk auf Foer, an island in the North Sea, or Heeringsdorf on the Baltic - the sea air was meant to be "good for nerves". Once, as happened often, I began "acting up" - after I ran off and hid in the nearby dunes. I'd be sent home, I was warned, if I didn't behave. When I didn't, I was restrained on a table to be "bundled up in wrapping paper and rope and sent home". In yet another camp, after I began "misbehaving" once too often, I was locked in a dark cellar. It was always Isaac who managed to calm his brother's temper tantrums. But now, traveling into an unknown, we had become "refugees", each wrapped into our own thoughts, and we sat silent. I, at fourteen, and Isaac but two years older, we suddenly found ourselves orphaned.
I looked about my fellow passengers: where did they come from and where were they headed? Curious, as well as suspicious always, my eye roamed from one to another and then overhead to scrutinize baggage and valises: what could they contain, what secrets could they hold? I was always fascinated by bags and baggage, perhaps at times even intimidated by their possible mysteries and secrets. Years later, this would become a recurring theme in paintings of packages and parcels, tied up to contain - what? The artist invents nothing; he discovers and recalls, sometimes without knowing its origin.
My attention, on this trainride, however, kept coming back to one woman - attired in black, even her stockings. She kept staring out the window. "Probably in mourning", I thought, but then felt ashamed, digressing from sympathy to try imagine her underwear - in lacy transparent black. The lady in black turned and looked at me through reddened eyes; she smiled, and I must have turned crimson red. Years later, I would wonder about a possible connection between compassion and passion, sheathed in seductive black.
Embarrassed, I closed my eyes, my mind going back - to that last year in Germany, when I had been encouraged to join Kadima, young "pioneers" who some day were expected to help build Israel. It was not only the ideology which attracted me but the group's love of nature, hikes and travel. My parents had probably concluded that for the sake of "stability", it would be wise for me to join a group of Jewish boys and girls. I had no idea how to act in an environment of companionship. Confronted by a friendly, smiling girl, I only felt confused. Accustomed to too many years as a "Polish Jewboy", a "sissy" and a "moron", loathing myself as a "misfit", I could not see what any girl could possibly see in me. Scrutinizing every mirror, trying to discover in its reflection one redeeming feature, I found none. Ashamed and afraid to ever smile back, I would play "aloof, cold and non-caring", while I would yearn and burn with a terrible desire. Aloofness - or rather the pretension of aloofness - would accompany me throughout my life, easily mistaken as arrogance, which however hid nothing but a sense of worthlessness. I was fired with dreams and yearnings which, I felt so "gross" I would not think of discussing with anyone.
Once, recognizing his adolescent son’s growing pains, father had asked me into his study to "talk", but, sensing each other's embarrassment, our talk got nowhere. How could I remind my father of the time when, as a child in Fichtengrund, I "found love", playing doctor with a neighbor girl, or explain the strange delight on discovering the difference between us, or feeling sorry for her "wound". How could I admit that I had never been able to get this "discovery" out of my mind, or the subsequent shame when we were discovered. Children then, but growing older, I continued to dream of my playmate. Feeling only shame, I could confide them to no one. I had many "heart to heart" talks with Isaac, but what would he think of feelings "so low and vile?" Alone together, I would have loved to confide in him but I could not bring myself to breach the subject. We both sat silent, wrapped in our own thoughts as the train to Paris was speeding toward an uncertain goal..
When I began reading and illustrating the Bible, I was dumb struck to discover passages which excited me, as much for their religious as what I saw as their erotic fervor. Perhaps, I began to see more than what had been intended, and not for a pubescent boy with an overly active imagination. My illustrations of these, I thought erotic passages, became ever more explicit until they turned into plain pornography. Afraid that they might be discovered, I burned them in the nearby park and scattered the ashes.
An overly agile mind, I realized, could evoke pleasures and visions, perhaps more vivid than any reality might provide. It did not take much - ¬the mere shape of a pretty girls earlobe, the curl of lips, a certain look from a passing eye. Not only the sight of any girl or woman (of no matter what age) would arouse, but also the sight of a tree's crotch, cleavage or knot-hole, a crack in a sidewalk pavement or wall, rock crevices, even forests or dunes, sunsets and especially fires. Sometimes I walked about as if in a fever where most everything appeared as some erotic manifestation, beckoning, and I did not know what to make of it. I became studious, searching through encyclopedias and dictionaries for "dirty" words and their description. Imagining numbers arranged as if in a rainbow of colors, "O" took on a very special tint - a pink glow shading into an ever more fiery crimson. Long past this fevered adolescence, seeing pornography all about and acceptable, I would eventually wonder about delicate lines beyond which one should perhaps not venture. There may be a line between "private" and "public"; a delicate, precarious line which perhaps should not be breached, no matter what the prevailing "freedom".
And yet, it was “freedom” which always beckoned, ultimately even to be free of the past. But the past refused to stay behind. On that train ride, my thoughts went back: to the summer of 1932, when I had gone on a trip with Kadima - along the Elbe River, into Czechoslovakia, to Prague and ending in a jamboree in the Tatra Mountains. While in Prague, it was decided to visit its ancient synagogue and cemetery. Starting out from the Youth Hostel, the group was soon lost in a maze of narrow and twisting streets. Suddenly, a strange sensation came over me - I was certain that I knew where I was: "I've been here before"! Turning one corner and another, I led the group directly to the old synagogue, which I recognized immediately.
Returning to Berlin, I was told that what I had experienced in Prague was not as mysterious as I had thought and, in fact, had a scientific name -"deja vue". "You must have seen, or heard, perhaps years before, descriptions or pictures of the scene", I was advised. No, it could not account for the overwhelming sense of "having been there before". The experience, as well as the explanations, left me with increasing suspicion of "expert and scholarly" explanations, convinced that there lay more, much more, beyond acceptable reality. I had experienced "something" and felt that there was more, much more than what seemed obvious and acceptable.
Increasingly conscious of things which remain unknown and inexplicable, the unknown future I was heading for filled me less and less with euphoria than foreboding. The train to Paris rumbled on through the darkening night as I watched my reflection in the train window speeding past the changing scenery and reflecting on a past and not knowing what might be waiting. My mind went back and forth through past recollections, afraid now to face the future, and I began to feel homesick, and guilty for having abandoned my mother. I realized that I had left her at a most painful moment. Among those who, increasingly, had come to participate in the family's discussions had been Hannes and Miriam Hammerschmidt. He was a graphic artist, and she a social worker. Father began to see more and more of Miriam Hammerschmidt, and then became increasingly estranged from mother, then separated, and eventually in New York, after a divorce, he married Miriam who had divorced her husband. "These things happen", my father tried to explain, but I did not understand. In my father's unrelenting need to become "European", he evidently had to abandon all that reminded him of his past, finally also abandoning the mother of their children.
Many years later, I would try to understand and arrive at some modus vivendi with the idea of a stepmother, when I saw her obvious devotion to my father and, especially, his literary endeavors. But within a year after he died in 1959, I and my brothers were notified by a Berlin court that an affidavit had been filed by Miriam Lewin: to declare her late husband's children "illegitimate", that is - without rights of inheritance. Apparently, there had been some question whether my parents' perfunctory religious marriage in a small town in Poland in the midst of war, should be considered legal and binding. I was outraged that a German court should have been petitioned to determine whether or not I was "legitimate". But by that time, in 1961, I had learned to accept myself for what I was, or thought I was - an "unacceptable misfit". Faced with the possibility to be declared "illegitimate" did not really add or subtract much to the way I saw myself. My legitimacy, I had by then determined, was based only on the way I lived and worked. Turning more tolerant, over the years, I eventually forgave my stepmother - she did have a hard life, and her mother had perished in Auschwitz.
This episode, however, was not to emerge until many years after my trainride from Berlin. Sometimes it is better not to know what the future has in wait; to know the past is traumatic enough. But in the Spring of 1933, speeding away from Germany and home, I had to acknowledge that I also had abandoned my mother, and at her most anguished moment. Recalling more and still more, I recalled that there had, indeed, been growing friction between my parents. Not only when mother thought her husband "too nice" to his admirers and patrons, but also for the way, she thought, he "fawned" on anyone who could be of help or service - whether a publisher, critic, fellow writer or anyone "important". Once, father was almost in tears: "What would you have me do?" he had cried out "tell them what I really think of them? I need them; without them I am nothing!" Father was painfully aware of the many compromises he had to make as the price for "recognition". "Must this then turn every artist into a groveling, grasping opportunist?" I, ultimately, had to ask myself. Society does not bestow its largess of recognition without a high price in return.
It would take many years before I fully understood the truth and depth of my father's anguish, and probably of every artist: the need to try and please anyone important to one's career. Many more years would pass before - faced with a similar dilemma - I would wash my hands of "this whole damn business", including recognition, even career. Mercifully, on this train ride, I only knew the past and not what lay ahead. What also echoed from the receding past were not only my parents' arguments about father's “friendships”, but just as vehemently growing arguments about money - father demanding accounting of "how and where all the household money had gone". Mother had no talent for balancing the family's accounts, and I did not help matters by my habit of keeping some shopping change. Witnessing the increasingly agitated bickering about "money" must have left me with a lingering sense of embarrassment for all things monetary, and it surely had some bearing on my eventual decision not to accept money for my art. The very idea of "money" would ultimately prove distasteful, but with a certain ambivalence: I would want to have "just enough", so as not to have to think about money.
Step by step events fall into place, possible reasons follow, seemingly explaining one thing or another, the mind shuttling back and forth and weaving together, word by word, a recollection, call it a self-portrait, including a long sleepless train ride, on a journey begun long before. I may have thought it a strange coincidence to be on a train which had started in Poland. My ruminations of the past suddenly shifted, as the Warsaw to Paris Express crossed a wide river (the Rhine), reminded me of that other, my first flight - from Poland to Germany, but far more precarious - numbed with a vodka soaked gag, cradled in my mother's arms. It was only thirteen years earlier, but it seemed, at the moment, a lifetime ago as one event followed another in a long succession of recollections on this train ride which began to appear endless. At times, it seemed less a ride into some hazy future than a journey back through an ever clearer past.
At some more wakeful moment, I opened the diary father had given me as a farewell present, and I began recording what I could not share otherwise. "It'll be a good companion" father had said. Mother had presented me with a necktie "now that you will be a man, always look neat!" Neat and well dressed I never was - at first, because I owned mostly worn hand-me-downs and later because I no longer cared. At the first chance, on the train to Paris, I tore off the necktie; it was choking me, I felt, and for the rest of my life I would resist wearing this tradition bound adornment of Western man's attire. Eventually, I would not tolerate anything that bound me, not only around my neck, but even on wrists or fingers - no wristwatch or rings, not even a wedding ring.
Sometime during that long night, the train stopped at the frontier as German and then French inspectors came aboard demanding passports. This time, it was all very legal, so unlike the crossing thirteen years earlier from Poland into Germany. The woman in black, noticing my Polish passport (we were never permitted to become German citizens), started talking in Polish. "I don't understand, I'm not Polish", I answered in German. She seemed puzzled. "What are you then?", she asked in broken German. I really did not care what I was - at that moment, before or ever after. The slow, gray dawn began to reveal passing signs which I tried, not very successfully, to decipher with the little French I had learned in Gymnasium. I was traveling into a foreign, strange land, I realized, alone but for my brother, not knowing where or what I was headed for. The long, sleepless journey, my second "flight to freedom" had left me numb.
Had I tried to recall - upon my arrival in Paris - this trainride from Berlin, I probably would have remembered little, despite having committed every sight and thought into my newly begun diary. Within a few years - soon after our subsequent arrival in America - I would throw the diary down an incinerator - to dispatch and forget all I no longer cared to remember. More than half a century later, I now try to prod a reluctant memory to resurrect a past: At first, this train ride from Berlin to Paris was given bare mention. Ultimately, however, I had to recognize that this ride (if time is indeed relative) was far longer than 24 hours; it was a crucial turning point in my life. I had started it as a child in my parent's home and ended a stranger without a home, and I was no longer what I was the day before, or thought I was. Trying to recollect the fragments of those hours - murky at first, memory appeared to gather clarity and even insight with every subsequent draft - one recall triggering another and yet another and establishing connections to subsequent events which, in turn, would shed light on original sources. Ultimately, however, the troubling question of "authenticity" emerges (once again): How authentic can memory and recall be after all these many years?" Probably, as authentic as only memory can be, viewed through the many facets of the reflective prism of time.
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