L'Chaim- to Life
As my father always said
“How odd of God to choose the Jews.
Ahh, so be it, let the goyem enjoy em.”
“How odd of God to choose the Jews.
Ahh, so be it, let the goyem enjoy em.”
I recognise Lana as one of my own. In the smallest of gestures perhaps imperceptible to another she walks, breaths and talks like a European Jew. As she enters a room she hesitates, smiles and searches with eyes and ears and senses. Is it safe? We are both remnants of a ravaged people, part of the Diaspora. I understand her watchfulness.
Thirty-five years ago we met at university. Twenty-seven years ago Lana helped unpack my cutlery into these kitchen drawers, so to say she knows this house as I do is no exaggeration.
Within these walls we have laughed and cried and fought our way to friendship. It was here we rehearsed a seminar on Frankl’s “Meaning of life.” Here we laughed and tussled with Ruby-Jo about who would be the hairdresser, because everyone knows that stylists listen and knew more about their clients lives than any psychologist. In this room Lana sat as silent companion while I fought for my sense of self after an exhausting session with a hauntingly lovely young mother, a refugee who lost her mind on hearing that she and her children were to be repatriated. She knew return meant prison or death.
These walls know also the sorrows of our parents lost, children gone feral and the joy of babies born as we have told and retold stories of love and faith and remembering. Our task at each telling to find anew how each of us can “keep our heads when all about us are losing theirs and blaming it on us.” Each of us lives an ordinary and yet extraordinary life as we carry in every bone of our bodies the histories of our parents and their parents' parents to the third and fourth generation.
Lana’s mum and dad escaped Vienna, where they were respected and respectable, because of Hitler. They sailed the world on a “ship of fools” seeking safe harbour with other fleeing Jews and finally found temporary refuge in Shanghai. Here they struggled through years of deprivation before finally coming to Australia. Her family roamed the country unable to settle. Lana and her brother called the back of a car home. No wonder Lana longs for security.
I too am always a refugee. My parents fled Hitler but found in South Africa another country riven by the politics of division. Apartheid dominated my growing years, exacerbated my brother’s mental illness and fuelled my flight to Australia. Here with David and our children I built a life. This gracious country welcomed our difference and encouraged us to stay connected to our heritage. Our home is filled with my history. A history that connects Lana and me.
Portraits, by an artist who bears Lana’s maiden name, hang in my house, are my inheritance but capture her history and mine. Painted by one of Germany’s burnt artists they are stark, sombre paintings of a terrified generation. Each portrait stares through tortured eyes. They watch as we live. These, the Persian rugged floors and the walls of books hold a crucible of our culture. When I add Mozart's Requiem to the mix we could almost be in far off Europe, the home from which our families fled.
For many years Lana and I have shared culture but not belief. Lana has felt estranged from her God and I, not able to find fit with the Jewish template, have long since been “born again” into the Christian faith.
About a year ago this changed. Lana asked if I would watch with her a screened series on spirituality, taught by her youngest brother, a Jewish rabbi who lives his life for HaShem in Jerusalem. Not able to find time together I agreed to listen and learn with my David how to find G-d’s light and love.
With this David and I invited Rabbi Doniel into our home as he spoke to us from a softly lit, ancient room with two-foot-thick stone-walls and domed ceiling in the heart of Jerusalem. At first we were sceptical but slowly, week by week, we became steeped in the reverie. With Rabbi Doniel, his roomful of students and the world wide cebora we learned to sit in the light of Hashem’s love
For many years Lana and I and our men have celebrated birthdays over an evening meal.
Tonight it was my turn so David and I planned for Lana a sumptuous meal. Lana offered to fulfil a request of mine to make this meal the Friday Seder so she brought the yarmulkes, sherry, candles and challah, sprinkled salt and read
Blessed are you, lord our G-d, king of the universe, who has commanded us to kindle the Sabbath light
Blessed are you, lord our G-d, king of the universe, Who created the fruit of the vine
Blessed are you, lord our G-d, king of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.
The Seder was wonderful. Simple and holy.
The memory that came with tasting the challah was overwhelming and extraordinary. We have often had sweet knitted bread in Australia, but this was different. The golden brown, chewy crust and stringy soft centre of Glick’s challah transported me back, perhaps sixty five years. Here my grandmother, who barely spoke English, ran her fingers through my silky curls as I stood eating bread on the red polished entrance step. I could feel the warm dry sun on my skin, smell the bread and the rose scented air and almost sense the patch of lawn between house and rondavel of my childhood home. I could see Grandma’s deckchair and, ahh, there was Russell’s wet nose against my leg, his gentle growl and the flick of his tail as he begged to share.
Grandma had longed to share her G-d with me but in my parents atheist home this was “verboten.”
I could not stop eating. I knew we had a delicious meal to follow but I could not resist this forbidden link with HaShem.
As the evening progressed we ate and drank and reminisced. Lana spoke of burying her Mum, of her sadness at a life hardly shared and of her struggle to stay connected to her brother Benny because of their mother’s abandonment. We spoke of our grandchildren and their struggles wrought by our children's life concerns. We alluded to but did not uncover the torment our grandchildren faced in their daily lives as their parents were overcome by the angst of living.
David spoke “Mika holds his Tinkertoy space ship and talks about flying away, and we remember that Peter started his madness by climbing into a make believe aeroplane and closing the door.” I could weep. Lana and Laurie nod. We all know this agony.
“Another cup of tea please and then we must leave.”
We have wined and dined and celebrated well, our guests have left, so now the obligatory wind down of a half hours TV and then to bed.
We have crept together through the dark. For minutes, stretched out to hours, we have clung to the shadows as I, with a dreamed-up torque-wrench, move slowly, hunch and am ready to pounce.
Then, knowing that we can no longer run or hide, we enter the light of a seedy pub and sit. Ah! This is a place we have been before and there he sits, that overblown horror from whom we hide, and he is surely ready to kill.
For a moment I freeze and then, exhausted with waiting, I shrug off my fear walk up, grab him and hurl this unsuspecting giant to the ground. Once there, I sit astride his writhing body, bring my face close to his cheek, his ear, his mouth and threaten to grind myself against his body. “Is this what it was like and this and this? Is it out of these horrors that you must haunt us still? Is there any escape from you, for Lana or me, or must we always run to escape you, our past?
What will I make of this in the morning light?
We woke late and I began writing, then we walked into the city. The day was cold but cloudless and Melbourne as beautiful as ever. I was excited. For four years now I have stood with my friends locked up in detention, but today for the first time I would witness almost first hand what it was like to live locked up on Manus.
For an hour and a half I sat spellbound.
When I came out of the cinema I could not speak so we walked to the tram where I sat and wrote on my phone to Behrouz.
I have just walked out of your excruciating film Chauka and need to let you know how deeply affected I am.
I can hardly breath. I have spent many hours listening, reading and reflecting on Manus but never before have I felt that I am locked in there with you guys as you try to hang on to hope that one day your banishment from life will end.
Your film captures perfectly the banality and evil of my government's behaviour. It is colonialism run rampant. We have no respect for any of you, for Papua New Guinea or for those who try to keep our world civilized.
Your film was so potent that I could hardly force myself to sit for an hour and a half without trying to escape.
I am so ashamed, so sorry and so grateful that your work holds Australia to account.
Congratulations and the deepest respect.
Congratulations and the deepest respect.
On getting home, I had a warm bath and read a couple of messages from friends on Manus
“I just sit in my room without light just listening to music. Every day is the same. Nothing changes. When I try to think about life my mind flies away to nice place.”
“I didn't do anything any more. I want to die, to kill myself. I think about it very often.”
Strait after bathing climbed into bed.
I walk endlessly along the fences. They are five meters high. Beyond them is the sea. Mile upon mile of beautiful ocean. The wind whispers, the water laps and the sun blazes down on parched earth and the Chauka sings of the endless beatings, lack of water, soiled floors, contaminated food, endless surveillance and inhuman guards. She heralds my death. If only I could get beyond these endless seas.
I turn to the compound where a robot man cocooned in protective clothing sprays a suffocating mist of repellent underneath and into the giant iron boxes that are our prison. We have no masks to protect us. All our clothing and bedding cloys with its smell, an endless reminder that we, like the cockroaches, cannot leave and will eventually die of suffocation.
Now I move forward silently and eavesdrop on a one-sided conversation. “Please listen I cannot leave let me hear for a moment my baby’s breath. . . No there is nothing I can do. I am locked away. I cannot escape. I can’t come to you, so please, please let me speak to my father before he passes. . . . . What is it? Is he dead? What do you hide from me. Please. . . . . .
And then the nightmare flips to a smirking face. I cannot be sure if it is Dutton or Morrison or Turnbull but the eyes are dead. They have lost their souls.
I woke early
It being a Sunday Dave and I went to a meeting with our local Friends.
In Quaker Explorations after silent meeting we heard about the Quakers in Germany leading up to World War II. They were few in number, middle class including teachers librarians and other professions, and included a couple of Jews as members.
There were under 200 Quakers in the whole of Germany yet between 1933 and 1939 they assisted 1174 people to emigrate, were part of an effort that resulted in 10,000 children and 6,000 refugees being evacuated to the United Kingdom.
In 1935 their General Yearly Meeting rejected “participation in war or its preparation.”
For me this exploration was a timely reminder. In Germany leading up to World War II a few people made a small but constructive contribution to resistance against an all consuming enemy.
Our number in Australia is proportionate to theirs. How can we seed change?
My weekend had now come full circle.
No pictures tonight only sounds. I hear the distressed voices. At first they come to me in Yiddish and German but slowly these are joined by other unknown languages. These rise above the sounds of crashing waves and howling winds then fade again and rise in a beautiful full throated swelling choir accompanied by an orchestra with crashing timpani. I recognise the timbre of the voices and the music that they sing. These resonant baritones bear the full-throated longing of my banished Manus friends.
To begin with the sounds are strong, angry, strident, but as I lean forward and try to understand the meaning of their words the sounds of the wind and the sea intervene and the voices are swallowed and fade to small whispers of despair. "How long must we suffer? How long must we be here?”
As I turn in my sleep and try to approach, the shrinking voices rise again to a clashing cacophony of strangled sounds before being totally drowned out by the pounding of the waves. I understand these sounds, which are not words. The fading cries sing out “We are not illegal. Save our souls. Help us please.”
I feel absolutely helpless as the sounds diffuse then fade, leaving only the whistling of the wind.
Finally, a single voice cries out “I want to die please help me.”
Will we wait until they are totally voiceless or dead?
How can I, a refugee and a survivor, turn away.