|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen||
In my pilgrimage through the many phases of monochromes and polychromes, the color green would cause me to pause, even the lush greenness of summer filled me with a disquieting unease. And yet, the green of summer, its sense of peace and leisure may well attract the summer visitor to the Berkshires of Massachusetts, with its various cultural attractions - music at Tanglewood, dance at Jacob's Pillow, Shakespeare on the Mount, theater and art in Williamstown, and more to entice and delight the visitor.
Into this bucolic place, August 1982, Rennie and I came - as we had many summers before - to camp on October Mountain. Camping had always constituted our periodic need to return to basics, close to earth and open to sky and air, and in whichever form or manner nature presented herself. I needed this occasional retreat from more "civilized" norms - out to where I could sense the rhythm and harmony of “my world”. On October Mountain, there were trails to hike, wild flowers to pick, birds to watch, and clear, star-filled night skies. Beyond home and responsibilities, between more far reaching, often traumatic journeys, our usual two weeks of camping represented our yearly “down to earth” vacation.
In 1982 - a year after returning from Japan - I had, however, also taken along my notes to "Three Journeys", the chronicle of tour and dreams through Japan, and attempt to explain and possibly exorcise these dreams. It had gone surprisingly better than expected: I became intrigued how much like painting and especially collage (cutting, transposing) a memoir could be, though appearing in reverse perspective - the distant past becoming increasingly clearer than more recent events. Clue after clue to the strange dreams in Japan began to emerge pointing, possibly, to the trauma of the incident in Central Park in 1936, though more than four decades had passed. No matter how desperately I had tried to bury the incident, it refused to stay buried
I had composed draft after draft of this ongoing Memoir, but I could not bring myself to even hint at what had happened during the summer of 1936. Page by page, Rennie was typing out and beginning to learn her husband's past, but I could not bring myself to tell her what had been my worst nightmare. Sooner or later, however, I knew I would have to drop the last of my covers and pretensions: to stand revealed in all my scarred and scared nakedness. In all the 44 years we had known each other, Rennie, I realized, had never really known her husband. Had I, in fact, deceived her - not telling her of my past? All these 44 years of intimacy, had I been a stranger? No matter how intimate, are most couples strangers to one another? These questions nagged and grew insistent until they took on a voice which grew too loud.
But by the summer of 1982, I had made up my mind: After more than four decades I must tell Rennie what happened during the summer of 1936; "she must know!" Day after day, week after week, I tried to talk "before this day is out, certainly first thing tomorrow morning". However, day after day, the time came and passed, but I could not talk. What would she think of me now, if I confessed to what happened but never told her? I could not face Rennie or myself. "I'll tell her, on October Mountain, definitely before we leave!" I told myself, with absolute finality. I was getting increasingly irritated, even panic stricken, as time and time again, I almost began to talk only to lose my nerve at the last moment. I kept clearing my throat but nothing would emerge. "What's the matter", Rennie had asked several times; she felt that something terrible was troubling her husband. "It's nothing, nothing", I lied, again and again.
But finally one morning, with only a few days left before we were to leave October Mountain, busy on my notes and Rennie reading - I suddenly spoke up: "Rennie, there is something I must tell you." She looked up, and I knew that this time I had to go on; there was no stopping or pretending that there was nothing. Rennie set aside her book and looked at me expectantly. "There is something I must tell you", I began again. I could not go on, but I knew that now I had to: "There is something you should know, something that happened a long time ago, before we ever met. It happened in 1936, the year after I arrived in America; I've never been able to tell you." And then, step by step, slowly regaining a measure of courage, I recalled the fateful day: "One Sunday afternoon” I began “in the summer of l936, I had gone to visit, once again, the Metropolitan Museum, crossing Central Park, and on my way back rested on a bench near the lake. It reminded me of the Krumme Lanke, the lake in the Grunewald, the forest not far from where I had lived near Berlin. The birds, I thought, seemed to sing sweeter in Central Park. Watching them, I drew comparisons: some sparrows appeared similar to the ones I had known; most other birds, however, were markedly different. And how different the coloration of squirrels: here ¬gray; the ones in Grunewald were brown. After all, there was the Atlantic, that great ocean between Europe and America.
Rennie looked at me expectantly; evidently, this was not the dreadful past I had finally decided to reveal. I tried to draw out the introduction as long as possible: "From the bench I watched other strollers and people in boats on the lake. The sun-dappled and peaceful happy scene reminded me of so many Impressionist paintings, but especially Seurat’s "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte" which, the Sunday scene before me appeared almost like its reflection. But why, I wondered, did Seurat get 'hung up' on his ‘Pointillism’, painstakingly setting dot to dot, wasting time in his short life? And yet, his paintings become shimmering evocations, reflecting not a material but a spiritual world. I tried to dwell as long as I could on all the lovelier recollections from that afternoon in Central Park, trying to postpone, as long as possible, what I knew could not be postponed. "Of the various figures in Seurat's painting", I continued, "there are some Gendarmes who, even though attired in uniform, seem to dissolve and blend into the total atmosphere of 'La Grande Jatte'. The New York police officer, I had been observing, relaxing in his boat at the shore, also had that same quality of blending in with the carefree scene around him, a far cry from the stern, authoritarian appearance of a Berlin police officer, all buttoned up, black booted, and helmeted.:
“Sitting by the shore, taking in the peaceful scene, I took no notice when a man sat down on the same bench, but annoyed when he started talking to me, interrupting my reverie. I was relieved when he asked me for the time - ‘it’s getting late, I better get home’ I told him and got up. At this point, the police officer in the boat motioned me over: ’what did the man want?’ he asked. ‘I really don’t know, except ‘what time it was.’ Noting, no doubt, my foreign accent ‘where are you from’ he asked. ‘From Germany’ I answered ‘I am a German refugee’, self-conscious with the accent of my origin. I understood when he asked for some identification, which as a European, a foreigner to America, I thought quite proper. From my wallet I produced two cards: one, my membership card in the YMHA, the Young Men's Hebrew Association, and one from the American Artists Union which I had shortly before joined. 'Simon Jesaia Lewin - an artist', the officer said, with a touch of amusement, I thought. 'Jesaia?' he repeated.”
"The police officer, rising to his full, tall height, studied me for a moment and then motioned me to get into his boat. As he shoved off from shore and began rowing toward the center of the lake I was not sure how proper that was. Perhaps, he was only trying to be nice to a German refugee, I tried to reassure myself. There was a frown about his face, or perhaps I was only imagining this. I did not like what was happening. The carefree voices and laughter of people on shore were fading away and even the brilliant sunshine, Seurat's shimmering atmosphere of a moment ago, seemed to be turning into an oppressive, graying silence.”
"In the middle of the lake the police officer stopped rowing and demanded my wallet. From it he extracted my membership cards. 'Simon Jesaia Lewin', he repeated once again. He replaced the cards, extracted and pocketed the money in it and handed back the wallet. This certainly did not seem right. He ordered me to empty my pockets, and then scooped up the change he demanded to place on the bench beside me. I became frightened and began staring at his shield number, trying to memorize 17770. I must remember ¬17770 - 17770 ! Someone must be told about this, this can't be, I kept telling myself in growing fear and confusion as I tried to fix 17770 into my memory.
"What are you doing here? What did you come here for? What's this Artist Union? Once again, I was being interrogated. I repeated that I was a German refugee, that I had to flee from Nazi Germany. Surely, I thought, this would evoke a New York policeman's sympathy. ‘You Jew bastard - you damned Jew bastard!' he suddenly burst out, repeating it several times 'You Jew bastard!' He spoke each word slowly, deliberately, distinctly, as if to make sure that I fully understood. I understood. There was now not only utter contempt but rage in his bearing, as he reached back and produced his blackjack which he tapped a few times into the palm of his hand and then lashed out and struck me across the neck. Again and again and again he hit me, and I cried out and screamed in pain and in terror. 'Please don't, please don't hit me - please, please' I begged and screamed. Help - someone help me! Please help.' But he kept hitting me, and then my head twisted back and the sky grew dark, bright spots twirled and spun within the whole spinning and darkening sky into which I screamed my agony."
Finally, telling Rennie what, in our many years together, I could never talk about, my voice broke again and again; I thought I could not go on. But I knew that I had to continue or I would never be able to resume, and again and again I cleared my throat and went on. But now, once again, as I relived and tried to recall that day, my head began to spin, my throat closed up, I broke into sobs, I could not go on. Rennie rushed forward, ready to fold me into her arms. I held out my hand: "no, please don't". There was more. I knew that once in Rennie's arms I would not be able to continue. I could not bear to even look at Rennie - equally pale and horror stricken. I finally stifled my sobs, cleared my throat and mind and went on:
"Eventually, the police officer must have stopped beating me, and as the night seemed to lighten and my head slowly cleared and my cries subsided, he replaced his blackjack. On the far shore, a cluster of people had gathered and some were pointing in my direction. ’ I’ve been heard - surely I would be saved!' I thought, but no one came to my rescue. Even the people in the boats on the lake seemed to make a hasty, frantic dash away from the assault and my screams. No one cared to get involved.”
"The policeman studied me for a while and asked where I lived. Frightened and numb, I told him. Then, to my utter horror, too terror stricken now for any further outcries, he pulled his gun from its holster and pointed it at me and I heard something click. He kept the gun pointing at me. I was sure he would pull the trigger. I closed my eyes; it seemed like forever. 'If you ever say anything to anyone, I will find and kill you'! I will kill you! Do you understand? I will kill you!’ he kept repeating. Again something clicked and he returned the gun to its holster. When he landed the boat at the far shore of the lake two other policemen were waiting; perhaps they had been summoned. The three officers had, what appeared, a quiet and friendly conversation, and then one of them said 'go on home”.
“I don’t know how I got home; my legs were shaking and I felt faint. A woman tried to stop me ‘what happened?’ I shook my head and ran on. ‘I will kill you if you ever say anything to anyone’ kept ringing in my ears, following me all the way home. Isaac and Mother took one look at me - ‘what happened’ they demanded to know. I could not talk. But they kept insisting, and finally I broke down and told them what had happened. The next morning, in spite of my fears, Isaac accompanied me to the Committee for German Refugees which immediately put me in touch with a lawyer; he appeared uneasy and mbarrassed. Eventually there was a Police Department inquiry. I no longer cared to learn the outcome; I only wanted to forget. I saw no other way to forget - I tried to commit suicide; there was no place else to go."
There was more, but Rennie rushed forward and folded her husband into her arms as both broke down and sobbed: "My darling - oh, my darling", Rennie repeated over and over as we sat clinging to one another for most of that summer morning on October Mountain. There was more, more than I could bear to reveal that one day, but which, bit by bit, Rennie would learn during the summer of 1982 on October Mountain - almost 46 years after what happened during the summer of 1936. What Rennie learned - bit by bit - was that after the assault, my fears grew to the point where I became afraid to leave the apartment and I trembled every time the doorbell rang. "If you ever say anything to anyone, I'll kill you", kept ringing and echoing in my ears - louder and ever louder, day and night in the weeks that followed. "I'll kill you, I'll kill you" - it was torture.
It was thought best for me to move to my father who was living at the far end of New York's Bronx. But even there the fears followed. I could not sleep and when at rare moments I dozed off, it was only into nightmares. An occasional sleeping pill my father offered provided the only respite; it seemed almost bliss. "If only I could sleep forever", I began to think with ever greater urgency, "never to wake again, never!" It appeared, increasingly, as the only way out, the only escape left out of a life which was no longer livable. Once I had made up my mind, a strange calm seemed to come over me; I was no longer scared. Even my father remarked how quickly I had gotten over the experience. The wrenching, almost suffocating, depression which had seemed to overwhelm me after the assault not only appeared to lift but provoked moments of almost giddiness, perhaps even a strange euphoria I had last experienced on my way to America. I was now going on - beyond America.
Calmly, almost methodically, I set about the suicide. Its acceptance as my ultimate escape even brought a renewed sense of creativity - fantasizing various possibilities: I played with but ruled out drowning in the nearby reservoir, or jumping from a roof, or hanging. Two methods tantalized me: making a bonfire of myself and all my work, or better yet to slash my wrists and with my own blood paint my final picture. But in the end I returned to the least creative means: I was going to go to sleep - forever. I stopped asking my father for any more sleeping pills; I would need them all, at the right time.
My father had mentioned that he would have to go into the city to deliver some manuscript to a newspaper. This would be the day. He left early that day; said he would be gone for most of the day. As soon as he was out of the door, I set about writing my note: asking to be cremated together with everything I had ever painted; nothing was to remain. My hand did not even shake; I was amazed how calm I was. The note finished, I took a thorough shower and shampoo and cut my fingernails; I wanted to be absolutely clean when found.
My hand was shaking just a little when I opened the door to the cabinet to get the sleeping pills. But I could not find them; they were gone. I became panic stricken. I rummaged everywhere - no, the pills were gone. I came across various other bottles and containers - "Poison" imprinted with bold letters - cleaning fluids, Iodine, drainage cleaners. For a moment it must have struck me as funny - to die totally cleansed.
As I began to gulp down one bottle after another my throat began to burn, then my insides. I felt as if I was burning up. It was my throat, especially my throat - burning, seemingly tearing apart and then closing up. I could not breathe, I was burning, consumed by a fire deep inside and yet reaching further and further back. For an instant, a long ago dream in Switzerland suddenly came back - a monster ready to pounce at my throat amid fiery mountains. "My throat, always my throat!” I didn’t want to die this way. I tried to scream but couldn’t. The light faded and I felt myself falling.
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