|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen||
"You didn't just cry, you screamed,” my mother often reminded me. It is from its mother that an infant hears its first cooing and lullabies, but I remember none of these. My first recollection is of being confined to a crib of white arabesques, before I could talk or crawl or understand. When I began to understand, I understood that when my mother was still a young girl, the house she lived in burst into flames one night. It had been set on fire during one of the recurring pogroms in the small town of Pulavi in Poland where she grew up. "Oh, the smoke, the smoke was terrible", she would recall, especially years later when I would come home from school in Germany with complaints of beatings and insults. "They called me a 'dirty little Polish Jewboy". "It was worse, much worse in Poland", mother would try to ease her son’s pain and recall once again the pogroms in their native land they had left behind.
My mother's often repeated description of the burning of her home might explain my first pictures; at least those I most vividly remembered. Arriving in Switzerland, I announced that I wanted to become a painter. At age 5, the youngest in the Sanitarium in Davos, a "pet" to the nurses and staff, my wishes for paper and paints were quickly fulfilled and I set to being a painter. Perhaps the magic of the train ride from a winter begrimed Berlin, and arriving amid the pure white snow covered mountains may have triggered my decision to become a painter. Actually, I had always painted, from the very beginning, at first with what my mother delicately defined as "not exactly paint". My first pictures in Davos were not, however, of white, snow covered mountains. My mountains were on fire. Out of the many pictures from the months I spent in the Sanitarium only one picture remained, a small watercolor. It was Isaac, my older brother, who had insisted to preserve this particular picture.
Some years back I discovered, or rediscovered, the small watercolor done in the winter of 1924 in the Swiss sanitarium. It is a typical child's picture, but like some strange procession it appears almost a premonition of events to come. Reading from right to left, there appears a boat on a high, mountainous sea; a man, a wanderer (walking stick in hand), evidently disembarked from the boat, sets off on a journey - past a house on fire, belching smoke and blackened birds, and on towards a mountain in flames. One decade later, I would indeed sail the high seas to America and, in another decade, sail back to a Europe engulfed in the fires of war. My subsequent work would reflect these fires, first imagined in snow-covered mountains, and then witnessed as a soldier, passing through the fires of war and holocaust.
From those first pictures of mountains on fire, burned and charred pigments would remain reflected in image after image of a holocaust I tried but never succeeded to banish. Why, indeed, while a soldier did I have to see Buchenwald, especially its ovens, still begrimed with ashes, and years later, Nagasaki? It was a compulsion originally burned into the still delicate texture of a young and unset mind. Reinforced, again and again, especially by the experience of war, a mind thus scorched must find a means to try and free itself from those marks - to transform them into art. Eventually, charcoal became one of my preferred media - this residue and reminder of scorched wood. Still not satisfied, I would mix ashes into other media and finally scorch whole canvasses, a gesture not only at "ultimate realism" but possibly also to exorcise scorch marks from long ago. The young, impressionable mind absorbs everything, but especially tales of horror. The terror filled fears which pursued me must have begun perhaps long before I was born. Fear may be built into our very genes, present already when we swung as apes through primeval forests howling at saber-toothed tigers.
Fear and terror, certainly, were present among my earliest ancestor's captivity in Egypt and in Babylon, their desert wanderings, in and out of Israel, their dispersal and more wanderings, eventually to Europe, Poland and Russia. The marauding Cossack, Tartar and Mongol hordes into Russia certainly left their mark. Within my family I could see not only Slavic features, but Mongolian reminders as well. Slavic or oriental featured, I preferred anything than to look Jewish. Growing up in Germany, I would have given anything to look "echt Deutsch", true German or Aryan - anything but Jewish.
"Unfortunately", I felt, I was born a Jew, of Jewish parents: Scheindele, my mother, (in Germany turning into Charlotte and later in America, into Suzanne) Minkus, and my father, Schmuel (later Samuel) Lewin. Their second son, born (officially) November 8, 1918 in Lublin as Yeshaya, later germanized into Jesaja, turning into Isai in France and Isaia in America, I could live with none of them. As soon as I learned to argue, I added the more comfortable Simon to my name, which finally turned into Si. After changing Lewin to Lewen, I considered my transformation complete. Uprooted, the roots I might have had with a traditional Jewish upbringing were not mine, and so I (or Si) was left spinning and drifting in the currents of a no-man's land.
Rebellion against my origins probably was absorbed already from my parents. They first met as rebellious youngsters - my mother from a long prestigious line of rabbis and scholars which, however, permitted her, as a girl, no real education. Most of what she eventually learned came to her clandestinely, during forbidden trysts with my future father. He came from a family of poor laborers from the nearby village of Konskavola. They met, commiserated with each other and fell in love. Marriages were arranged, brokered by a Chadken, the traditional match maker. Bride and groom might not meet until the wedding day, or so it was ordained. However, now and then and here and there, some overly passionate boys and girls defied tradition. It must have been a shock and scandal when the secret love and the clandestine meetings between my future father and mother were discovered. He had to run off to Argentina, but, love (or guilt) made him return. Soon after, the Russian Army drafted him into military service. Being a soldier in the Czarist Army (Poland was part of Imperial Russia) was for a Jew the greatest calamity ¬outside of pogroms. A young Jew facing conscription would do anything to avoid it - even cripple himself, or develop some chronic disease.
Discharged from the army, just before the World War broke out, my father returned to his native town, and he and my mother - who had been pining away, it was said - were finally permitted to marry. Perhaps it was time to make peace in the midst of the war that had just begun. My mother's mother, ¬said to have been a "virtual saint" - probably persuaded the rest of her family to forget the past and disregard status for the happiness of her youngest daughter. She was willing to sacrifice anything, even her life, for her child or anyone else. Not long after, she did. With the outbreak of war came cholera. She ran to help an aunt, caught cholera herself and died together with my mother's father. I never knew any of my grandparents.
Caught between the Russian and Austrian armies, my parents were given 24 hours to leave Pulavi and they fled to Lublin, where my brother Isaac was born in 1916 and I 18 months later - "about the time of the Armistice." In subsequent years, when irked by my "stubbornness", my mother would remind me how my "big, stubborn head" had almost killed her. "Your head was too large and hard, and, oh how you screamed, but", she would add "at least you brought peace". Faced with civil wars and more pogroms, the family fled to Warsaw. Recognizing that there was neither peace, safety nor future anywhere in Poland, my parents decided to flee to the West.
To live in Germany had become my father's obsession. He started to have some success in Warsaw: short stories and poems had been published, a play staged. But it was Germany and the West which, to him, meant "Kultur" - real culture and enlightenment. The West had not seen serious massacres of Jews since the Middle Ages and Crusades. The West had become civilized. Germany was the land of Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Nietzche, Schoppenhaur, Hegel, and especially Marx. Germany, my father decided, was the place to be, to become recognized and bring up his family in "peace and enlightenment".
In the Spring of l920, first my father left Poland and made his way to Germany: to reconnoiter the route and make arrangements along the way, especially at the border crossing, and finally to find a place in Berlin. Then the rest of the family followed: my mother with her two sons - Isaak, and myself still suckling my mother's milk. Although tiny and delicate, mother was made of stern stuff. Bundled in my mother's arms, Isaak clutching her skirt, she made her way, first to the German frontier, which not long after the World War and civil wars, was still officially closed. Without official permits, the only way to enter Germany was to smuggle across the border.
Arriving at the frontier, we were to wait for nightfall and our guide, a “professional smuggler”. There was a substantial fee for this service. Night came, but not the guide and, I, "forever a crybaby" could no longer be appeased nursing a dry breast. "I had no more milk", mother recalled. But we had to be quiet because of the Polish frontier guards all around. Some of them were supposed to have been paid off by the guide, but one could never be sure. "I had no choice but to tear a piece from my petticoat and stuff it into your mouth" mother always apologized. "I had no choice - we all had to keep quiet or it could have been the end of us." Eventually, the guide arrived, added some Vodka to the gag in my mouth, took a long hard drink himself (he was drunk, mother insisted), and proceeded to guide the trio across the forbidden frontier - a bridge barricaded with barbed wire. I, anaesthetized in my mother's arms, the smuggler carrying Isaac, and holding on to the outside girders of the bridge, we made our way, step by unsteady step, along a narrow ledge at the side of the bridge. Shouts came out of the moonless night and some shots, but - a few more steps, and we were on the other side, in Germany. We were led to a barn, and at daybreak to a nearby town where we boarded the train for Berlin. Mother shook and slapped my face to rouse me and, as she recalled, became panicky when I would not wake up: "Cry, cry, you can cry now all you want!" I finally obliged her and for ever after.
"Crybaby, crybaby!", I would later be taunted by my German schoolmates. How could I explain how it all began: fleeing from Poland and smuggled across the German border with a Vodka soaked gag in my mouth. The flight from Poland, as an infant, was my initiation into a life of flights, escapes and escapades, forever restless and incapable to ever settle down, even in my art.
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