|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen||
When we left Paris for the farms of the Loire Valley, I had some notion of country life, retained from my earlier years in Fichtengrund. While Isaac was assigned to a farmer in the village of Montliveau, I found work in a nearby village. I exchanged city clothes for rough denim and my shoes for a pair of “sabots”, wooden clogs, ideal for the mud of farmyard and fields, but causing immediate blisters on feet which were not used to anything rougher than soft cotton and leather. My hands fared no better as soon as I was handed a hoe. In less than two months my employer realized that, evidently, his new farmhand was not fit to be a farmer. Made to sleep in the stable, working from the first light to dark and unable to keep up with other farmhands, I was told to leave. Perhaps, refusing to eat chicken, horse or rabbit meat, let alone “these worms” (escargot), must have marked me as too odd. Isaac’s “patron” invited me to rejoin Isaac until another farmer had work for me.
Eventually, calluses began to build on hands which had never held anything more arduous than a pencil or brush. Hard, dirty labor, I thought, might well have been just retribution for my sins. Henceforth, I was determined to remain above all temptation. The Catholic Church might have been proud of me. The church had one powerful attraction - Confession; why hadn’t the Jews thought of this. My “terrible sin” in Paris (she was old enough to be my mother) kept following and nagging, despite all attempts to lose it by hard work. I had to confess to someone, anyone: Isaac, my brother, would have to hear my confession. I told him. Isaac’s, at first, wide-eyed puzzled look, slowly turned into a smile. He, too, had been “consoled” by our hostess, on several occasions. And her husband, he informed his younger brother, knew and condoned it. I was shocked and confused. “Why - how could he?” “Because he loved her”, Isaac answered, and I knew that I would never understand Love.
Years later, I might question “comprehension” - of love or anything - to be of less importance than appreciation. Recalling the constant and agitated discussions in my parent’s home on no matter what topic, but all aiming at “trying to understand”. What did they accomplish? All the discussions, debates and resolutions proved meaningless, and in the end futile, in preventing the triumph of Nazi Stormtroopers. Perhaps, the only benefit of “discussion” (as well as learning) may be to sharpen wits and provoke brain and mind into greater convolutions. The news from home turned increasingly bleak with the nightmare spreading over Germany. Outside, the debates continued. The Democracies passed resolutions, but then permitted the rearming of Germany, its remiliterization of the Rhineland, its denunciation of the Versaille Peace Treaty and later still, the occupation of Austria and Czechoslovakia, all in the (mistaken) belief that Hitler’s ambitions were aimed only toward the East (his proclaimed “Drang nach Osten”), Russia, the “cradle of Communism”.
As 1933 turned into 1934, the letters from my mother, however, spoke ever more painfully of my father’s estrangement and final separation. Miles from home there was nothing we two brothers could do to help, feeling frustrated and increasingly angry. Stuck in hard labor far from home, each letter from my mother added to my growing resentment of my father. The diary I began on the train ride from Berlin became filled with ever greater anguish with every new letter until its pages began to resemble the moaning and groaning of a latter day Job. Four years later, in New York, I threw this diary into an incinerator - no more recollections, no more revelations!
There may be a heavy price paid for “self revelation”. Share it, reveal yourself, and you are no longer the same person. Those who know you in all your bared nakedness now have part of you. “Primitive” people and cultures have some such fear of “revelation”, whether of ceremonies or themselves. Even their fear of being photographed may stem from the same anxiety: some part of themselves being captured and taken away. There is a loss with every privacy and secret shed and shared, and therein lies a dilemma. One may, indeed, feel lighter and freer when unburdened, especially of one’s most awful secrets. But giving up something so essential, one may now be the lesser and poorer for it. Secrets have substance which revelation can never quite compensate. And those who now have your secrets may want no further part of you.
If not for this eventual groping through almost rotting memories, I could not (as only one instance) have made peace with my father, after his death. At the time (1933 -‘34), however, increasingly aware of his abandonment of my mother, I swore that I would never marry. “No artist has a right to marry”, I wrote into my diary. The artist may, indeed, already be married. To his muse? Years later, married for more than four decades to Rennie, I would affix to my studio door: “Private! Menage a trois - with muse.” I never forgot my original resolve. When in the summer of 1938, I first met Rennie, I had the sudden sensation that I was meeting my future wife, and I drew back in fear. It took Rennie four gently patient years to ease and transform my erstwhile resolution and anxieties. Apparently, even the most adamant resolution can be forfeited to circumstances beyond expectation or self control; sometimes for the better.
But in 1933, farmhands in a foreign land, after the experience in Paris and innocence lost, we concluded that marital fidelity was probably not in man’s bones. It may be all right for geese - strutting about the farmyards - and perhaps a few other birdbrained creatures. But not for man, capable of higher thought, roving eye, insatiable appetite, curiosity and fancy fantasies. Sunday was a day of rest, when we two brothers could meet, often bicycling to the Loire. Stretched out on the river bank, I might sketch, Isaac would read and both compare notes and thoughts. Far from the livelier and heated discussions at home, we tried to carry on the tradition sporadically: comparing not only thoughts and ideas, but now also our hardening calluses on hands and feet as the summer of 1933 moved into fall, then winter and eventually into the spring of 1934.
There were some aspects to life on the farm which I learned to appreciate, especially the various farm animals. Horses and dogs I came to see as kindred spirits, convinced that they possessed sensibilities which went far beyond mine, perhaps even knew me better than I could hope to understand myself. The various, mostly small fields were scattered, sometimes many kilometers from the farm and from each other, for reasons going back to the French Revolution when large estates were broken up and distributed to the peasants. There were fields of grape, asparagus, potatoes and wheat. While work itself was back-breaking, the slow ride atop the two-wheeled horse wagon to and from the distant fields was a happy respite. I loved the rides back at nightfall when, stretched out on top of a wagonload of hay, suffused with the aroma of it all, I would watch the nightsky unfold. During several nights of August the night seemed alive and ablaze with shooting stars. Without home or homeland I found myself at home lost in the immensity of the nightsky above, not beneath but surrounded, floating among stars, planets and galaxies.
We became increasingly aware, not only of the tragedy unfolding in Germany but of the far more personal pain of our mother. Eventually, our father came to visit his two sons in Montlivault, and to “explain”, but it did little to reestablish what had been broken. He was visibly shaken by the life of farmhands his sons had fallen into, and he succeeded in making other arrangements. Soon after, Isaac and I left farmwork to enter the Ecole Vaucanson near Grenoble. We were to learn mechanics, again to prepare for a life in Palestine. A course in drafting, the closest approximation to art and design, was what interested me. The mechanical precision may have been of some benefit to discipline an otherwise loose hand. In fact, the almost mechanical precision of some of my later collages may well be traced back to my training in Grenoble (rather than Cubism).
One Sunday, sketching from one of the hills overlooking Grenoble, a young woman stopped and watched. It made me nervous; being watched always had. She asked whether I would make a sketch of her. Reluctantly, I agreed. She scrutinized the finished sketch carefully and critically; she did not seem pleased. I did, indeed, have some difficulty with the shading; I had never before tried to do a portrait of a dark skinned person. As I learned later, she was from Algeria and while not very dark, her skin had the tone and color of burned gold and I became fascinated. She invited me to try again.
In her tiny room she sat on the edge of her bed facing a window while I tried to catch her head in the traditional three-quarter view. I felt flattered but increasingly anxious - being so close, far too close. I needed, always, a certain distance. It seemed that we were both watching each other. She was, indeed, beautiful, a little older, I thought, than my fifteen years. The more I studied her, the more nervous but also fascinated I became, especially as the sun, outside her window, began to mellow and add more gold to her skin. “It’s hot in here”, she said and began to unbutton her blouse - only the top button, but after a pause, another and then another and another. I noticed, with some shock, that she wore no bra and one of her breasts came into full view and my hand began to tremble as I tried to concentrate on her face but couldn’t. She smiled and leaned over and reached out to steady my trembling hand, but then eased it to rest on her breast. I recoiled in panic. She stared at me with large, dark, but uncomprehending eyes. I closed my eyes, unable to face the reality of the moment but then, after a long, almost unendurable silence, I began to tell her of my experience upon coming to Paris. Not only my hands trembled as I talked of how I was a refugee (as though this could explain everything). “I’m a refugee too”, she said and spoke of the poverty in Algeria she had fled. She took my hands into hers, stroking them gently and then, I didn’t know why, I reached a hand up to her face and then slowly let it fall on her breast.
She was a most patient teacher. As it turned out, she was a professional - a prostitute, as she smilingly told me eventually. I didn’t care; I knew that I loved her. It was a love born, perhaps, of desperation and gratitude. “You’re a strange fellow”, she said. When I confessed my love, she only smiled: “What do you know of love? You’ll learn: we all only use one another. You’ll leave when you have no further use for me”. When I told her that my father was a writer, she said that that was what she would like to be. She was enrolled, at the time, at the University of Grenoble, writing poetry and as she put it, working her way through college; prostitution was her only means. Increasingly jealous of possibly other students under her tutelage, I began to argue against prostitution as a “terrible way to make a living”. “Love should be priceless”. She patted my cheek and smiled: “What do you think you artists are?” What indeed.
It was sometime in 1934, before my 16th birthday, but the pat and rebuke “what do you think you artists are”, would continue to sting each time I’d be asked the price - for one of my paintings. Almost all of my drawings and paintings from this period found their way into the possession of my “love”. But again, unable to keep a secret, I told Isaac and perhaps also some fellow students about “the most wonderful girl” I had found, and then soon discovered that I was not her only lover. Unwittingly, (and before I learned its meaning) I had become my love’s procurer, a pimp.
The love I found in Grenoble may have been one of desperation but easing my fading dream of ever entering the land of my dreams - America. There was some news about what came to be known as the “Stavisky affair”. Ugly references to the former anti-Semitic Dreyfus affair began surfacing, as well as stirrings of French Fascism - emboldened by German Nazism to the North and Italian Fascism to the South. The atmosphere became increasingly charged, a harbinger of things to come, and, possibly, no future anywhere in Europe. As a last resort I was willing to go to Palestine, but the British quota system thwarted several attempts to join an “Alyah” into the Promised Land. I did not know it at the time, but America also had a strict quota system, evidently aimed specifically to keep out East European Jews. The original weeks of waiting had turned into 18 months, and when school ended, Isaac and I went to work in an aluminum smeltery in the mountains near Grenoble.
I continued to wait, growing increasingly desperate of ever getting to America. But then, almost as if out of the proverbial “blue sky”, we received notice that our immigration visas into the United States of America were approved. It was a gray winter day, shortly after New Year 1935, but immediately, the dark sky seemed to light up and dance in brilliant colors. “I’m going to America! I’m going to America!” I announced to anyone. It seemed like a miracle.
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