|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen||
It would be easy to account for sins and dreams of riches, even to rationalize greed and crime, all of which may go hand in hand. I could readily point to a childhood of poverty and deprivation. The poverty stricken child knows poverty not only in comparison to others but in the very pit of his guts. My response, as my mother recalled, was with screams bordering on fury, echoing through our dismal bare quarters. Poverty is humiliating; even the smallest infant must sense it, and it is never forgotten or forgiven. The very air reverberates with a sullen, sordid ugliness of little substance or color but a certain foul odor. My early bout with TB, no doubt, was caused by malnutrition as well as dank living conditions. Might religious faith in the sublime ease a child's sense of poverty stricken degradation and humiliation? Perhaps. But from the very beginning there was nothing but bare reality.
In my first so called home in Berlin, after arriving from Poland, dawn would light a barely furnished room of cracked, graying walls. During the long winters it was freezing cold, and the air reflected my breath. Bare windows without curtains looked out on grimy, gray walls which I would try to obliterate by steaming up the window panes with my thin breath and, trying to transform a frost bitten world into one of misty enchantment. The unframed pictures on the walls did not so much hide but accentuate their bareness. My well remembered crib of white arabesques was a gift of charity. My clothes were patched hand-me-downs, not from richer but equally poor children who had outgrown and often outworn them and from children who had died too young. Most meals were in a municipal soup kitchen.
There was one incident in the soup kitchen - not long after the death of my sister Miriam - ¬when perhaps some slight was one insult too much for my father: He and his family had been waiting for their bowl of soup, patiently at first, but then increasingly dismayed at being ignored, no doubt, for being "foreigners". Outraged, my father, finally, rose to his feet and in one long swoop sent a platter of soup bowls flying which an attendant had been distributing. There was a hasty exit and some very hungry days, but family pride was restored momentarily. One ugly aspects of early poverty may well be the loss of self respect, which can dog an entire life. Hating to beg, despising charity, embarrassed to ask for even a small favor, a later career can be thwarted; it starts early. It would be prudent if society would not bestow poverty on its too observant children - they may grow into stunted, all consuming monsters or revolutionaries, forever hungry, baring their teeth.
After the incident in the Berlin soup kitchen, to ease her two sons' hunger pains (these are real pains), their mother would wrap some sugar, sprinkled with vinegar, into a piece of cloth to suck on. When our situation finally began to ease, there was a gastronomic game I learned to play with the occasional wurst sandwich. "Schiebewurst" consisted of one thin slice of wurst, sniffed but then pushed on while a bite of dry bread was consumed. This charade continued until the last bite which, finally, included the eagerly awaited bit of wurst.
Only many years later, would I try to look back with some philosophical detachment: could it be that this one slice of wurst tasted better in anticipation than when finally consumed? Candy, for instance, I knew only by watching others and in store windows. I tasted my first piece of candy (Swiss chocolate) in Switzerland, presented in return for one of my pictures. What if - I eventually had the luxury to speculate - the sweetest piece of candy may be the one which is never consumed. The longing may be more delicious, just as the finest box of candies may be one which is never opened. Extreme deprivation, however, at an early age - and undiminished by philosophical rational - remains in one's guts, eventually manifested in later attitudes too easily dismissed as frugality, or more bluntly, as miserliness.
For the rest of my life, I could not tolerate waste, of any kind, but especially of food - “it's criminal”. Among the earliest lessons I tried to teach my daughters, was never to waste anything, no matter whether it was only water ("turn it off when you no longer need it"), or even a small length of string or a piece of paper with one still usable side. Most laboriously, I carefully squeezed and flattened any tube (whether of paint or toothpaste) so as not to lose one single drop. Any old, bent nail had to be hammered straight and used again, and I scavenged the local garbage dump in New Paltz for any still usable lumber. I became fanatical, almost religious, about waste on one hand and its reuse on the other. "Recycling" would eventually find its way into my art, and enlighten my universe.
However, not all poor must turn into misers. My brother Isaac's response was different. When he was perhaps six, he befriended an older boy who apparently enjoyed reading as much as he. Isaac brought him his greatest treasure - his books, all of them. He never saw his books or his "friend" again, which however, did not seem to trouble him. Years later, as an oncologist in America, he would decline all fees from patients who came to him for consultation, considering his salaried positions (as director of various cancer institutes) "sufficient". The day before he died (of cancer), a day before Thanksgiving of 1976, Isaac told the nurses anxiously hovering about him: "Please go and see what you can do for patients who may need you more." He died as he had lived - an example I knew I could only aspire to.
Early impressions leave deep and indelible marks. Among those earliest childhood impressions - clinging to my mother's hand through the streets of Berlin - were of people in rags foraging through garbage cans for scraps of perhaps still edible food. "How terrible, how awful" my mother might remark, and it would continue to echo and pursue her son. When shopping, I remember my mother with a bag full of money - millions, perhaps billions of Marks of almost worthless paper; it was in the midst of inflation. It left a profound mistrust of all money ("worthless paper!"), and the fear that "it can all happen again".
The fear of history repeating itself continued to pursue me throughout a fear-ridden life. "Those who won't remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (Santayana's warning) is what I recalled into the Visitor's Book of the Museum commemorating Nagasaki's nuclear destruction. That was during the memorable journey through Japan in the Fall of 1981. But in all the intervening years and after, it would be fear of, especially, the "good, common” but mindless people who had learned nothing. Perhaps, remembering too much, too early and too vividly, may impose often crippling inhibitions where one may walk as if in a limbo of fear, and where even "innocent" games may turn deadly:
The attic, which was home, was overrun with mice and rats. Fear and revulsion, no doubt, must have been triggered by my parent's example. They hunted and trapped the rodents mercilessly. At some point, however, I and Isaac discovered "fun" - ¬dropping dead mice through a hole in the floor to the tenant below, and also from a window upon some unsuspecting pedestrian. Our marksmanship was getting better when father discovered what his sons were up to. There was the inevitable lecture of "right and wrong" and "how would you feel in place of your victim?" "Fun and excitement", I eventually had to acknowledge, was often achieved at the expense of others, some victim, and in "always exciting" warfare can lead to terrible ends.
During my childhood in Berlin, my favorite toy, however, consisted of a shoe box and a wooden spoon, turning them into a succession of imagined things and creatures. When I could get hold of more boxes, they in turn became towers and castles. Bed sheets draped around a table with a "pilot's chair" on top (my parents were very tolerant) would turn into a boat or train, journeying to distant places. Anyone present had to come along, sitting alongside the table and I would be captain, as well as guide, explaining the "passing scenery". I would traverse jungles, deserts, go through high mountain passes, plow through ocean storms and ice fields to reach distant shores which usually would be somewhere in America.
Imagination had to transform a poverty stricken, unacceptable reality. Imagination was everything, superior even to “real” toys. Once, after we had moved from Berlin to Fichtengrund, my parents presented me, one birthday, with a real toy train. But no sooner was it unpacked than it was rewrapped to be given to a boy of one of my father's wealthy patrons. Evidently, he felt obligated and, I think, more upset over what he felt he had to do than his son. The new recipient of that toy train took one look at the present and disdainfully went back to his own fancier toys, leaving me with a lingering wariness about children who have "everything". Even though that toy train was my first real toy, I really did not care being restricted by something which was nothing but a toy train. It did not permit imagination and dreams to roam.
The days of utter poverty, after settling in Berlin, were temporary. My father's literary works began being published, translated from Yiddish into German and later into still other languages. The family's fortunes would wax and wane with the publication dates of father's literary output. During the low points in the family's fortunes, the "patron" system would spring into action, a historic relationship between the arts and its wealthy patrons. Perhaps this is what father meant when he insisted, still in Poland, that only in the West, especially in Germany, would he find "Kultur", real culture. When two of my uncles who had emigrated to America began urging us to follow, father dismissed "this place of cowboys and Indians". It only fired my dreams of “America” ¬to find, and perhaps join, these very cowboys and Indians. But in Germany an artist would, indeed, not be permitted to languish and starve (for too long). German "Kultur" saw to it.
There were moments when my father might have appeared a bit cynical at what, often, seemed more like patronizing charity, but he kept it to himself and his immediate family. To his wealthy patrons - mostly wives or widows of the rich - he was charming and worldly. There were times of whispered but intense talks between my parents, which as often as I could overhear, dealt with father being, perhaps, overly attentive to his lady patrons. His, as well as his family's, relationship to his wealthy patrons was an uneasy one.
There was, for instance, one incident, shortly before I fled Germany in 1933: father had asked me to deliver a book to one of his wealthy patrons. I bicycled to the palatial villa of Mrs Berger, where she lived with her son Hans and daughter Ingeborg. Mrs. Berger, heir to what was at the time Europe's largest tie manufacture, was known as a most generous patron of the arts. Often before, I had been taken to one of her literary or musical soirees, but had eyes only for Ingeborg, who with her flaming red braids, I thought most beautiful. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of Ingeborg, but there was no sign of her. When I left, Mrs Berger handed me a package to take home - "butter." There was nothing I considered a greater delicacy (probably since my days of dry bread) than a piece of fresh bread with butter, lots of butter. Mrs. Berger knew my fondness for butter. I thanked her politely and set off, bicycling back home, but then passing through some woods, I threw the package of butter far from me. Realizing that my parents would, no doubt, hear about the butter, I told them what I had done. They said nothing; they understood.
As irony would have it, I was to meet Ingeborg again five years later - in New York and in a very different and somewhat reverse relationship. It was mother who saw her sitting on a Central Park bench, forlorn and lost. Following the Nazi triumph in Germany, her mother's fortune and factories had been expropriated. Mrs. Berger, an ardent Zionist, had gone to Palestine and Ingeborg had come to New York, working as governess for wealthy families. She had just lost her last job with no place to go when mother discovered and invited her to stay in our small apartment - temporarily. After Ingeborg found a new job as governess to the child of a dentist (with a penthouse), she, eventually, married her new employer after he divorced his wife. One way or another - the once wealthy do not remain deprived for long.
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