My Father and the Shadows of the Holocaust

Chagall, white-crucifixion

[Last month was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. This essay is based on old taped interviews I did with my father who died in 2007. My collective karma via my German and Russian ancestries is much tied up with that of the Jewish people. Many of my important intellectual mentors, or ‘elders of the book’, were Jewish. The sources of historical information I quote below in square brackets and italics are from Davies’ history of Europe, Hosking’s history of Russia, the 15th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the second volume of Emma Goldman’s autobiography My Life. The image is by Belorussian Jewish painter Marc Chagall.]

The outbreak of the World War in 1914 finds my grandfather Arkady (artillery colonel in the Tsarist army) and family stationed in Kamenets-Podolsky in the Ukraine. What does my father Oleg remember about something the history books call ‘The First World War’? Playing in the yard little five year-old Oleg already fears overflying Austrian planes. Anxiously, he sees one in difficulties. It later turns out to be a Russian plane hit by friendly (Russian) fire. Then, for the first time, he sees a massed marching column of uniformed men; it takes a whole hour to pass him by.

As Arkady’s lung issue keeps him from the front, he is sent to the local HQ of the Ukrainian front in Berdichev. The HQ is perched up on a hill overlooking the predominantly Jewish town. Lydia fears going into the dirty town full of orthodox Hasidic Jews, there are rumours of ritual murders of Christian children…

Press Stop.

History intrudes once more, this time with considerable force, and darkly. A welling ocean of lean hungry ghosts and confused voices. Is this finding all the oppressive weight of history within the most personal, a dark macrocosm within the microcosm of a conversation between father and son? Reflect the reflection, tread warily and carry that anti-Medusan shield, Perseus, for here are monsters indeed.

The Shadows of the Holocaust, or: My Father as a Mask of History.

My father is an extremely kind, gentle person. And, although he would probably reject the term as another example of ‘Jewish intolerance’ of critique, my father’s unexamined memories here are clearly anti-Semitic. My father was no authoritarian character, never fanatical, hateful, or even angry, about anything and vaguely social democratic by political temperament. At this point in his narrative, my father expresses various theories about Jews that are stereotypical, logically incoherent and even delusional, that are, undoubtedly, anti-Semitic.

And so, at this moment, between us falls the shadow of history, the long shadow of European anti-semitism, the deep shadow of the Holocaust, the dark tenebrae of the 20th century that will forever painfully link the histories of Germany, Russia and Poland. In a sudden jolt of alienation I feel my father move out of personal uniqueness and become a historical character. The irony is that even as he expresses what he feels are his personal, reasonable opinions (the genesis of which are doubtless here in the parental and social context of his childhood), he becomes de-personalised, a persona, a mask, a mere mouthpiece of historical forces beyond his awareness…

I struggle with a double reality that will not jell into coherence: my father is a kind, gentle, compassionate man who would not hurt a fly and my father voices anti-Semitic propaganda. Is this a form of the ‘banality of evil’ Hanna Arendt famously diagnosed in the case of Eichmann? Is this how otherwise kind, gentle, good people can blindly uphold a state terror structure like fascism? Our conversational dance is broken, made dys-kinetic by the shadow of history. At this moment he and I seem to exist dys-synchronistically, as it were, i.e. in radically differing mental and temporal dimensions. I think of Ernst Bloch’s subtle analysis of German fascism: ‘Nicht alle sind im selben Jetzt da’: not all inhabit the same Now. My father was born in the 20th century and some of my father is also stuck in the 12th century. I listen with growing unease as my father’s persona, the mask, aware of my discomfort and irritated dismay, intones with increasing defensiveness…

Press Play.

‘Jews are not liked in the whole world…so they are careful and fearful and they look at everything as anti-Semitic. If you say a Jew murdered someone, they say: ‘Why Jew?’ If a Pole, no-one cares, but if it’s a Jew, it’s anti-Semitic.’

[Pogrom was an old Russian word meaning ‘round-up’ or ‘lynching’. It was used to denote a coordinated assault by one ethnic group against another, and had been applied to many sorts of victims, including Armenians and Tartars. After 1881 it gained the special connotation of assaults on Jews.

The crisis [in Russia] of 1878-82 had suggested that both Panslavism and revolutionary Populism had failed as strategies for reknitting the torn ethnic fabric, for bringing state and people closer together. The wave of anti-Jewish pogroms which followed the assassination of Alexander II encouraged the idea that a more successful way of generating patriotism among the masses might be to play upon anti-Jewish prejudice.

The church and the tsarist authorities went so far as to condone, and even encourage, the violent pogroms that were perpetrated against the Jews in 1881-82 and again in 1905.]

Press Play.

‘Secondly, in every religion people were starved or tortured for religious reasons and they were made saints. Why shouldn’t there be such things in Judaism? I can imagine they’re concerned about that and want to keep it secret because they’re disliked anyway, but that something like that is possible – that for me is indisputable. I have read, by the way, a book about ritual murders…’

[The ritual murder canard, or blood libel – i.e. the alleged sacrifice of Christian children at Passover – was first made in the 12th century. The legend was revived sporadically in eastern Europe and Poland and, in the 1930s, became part of Nazi anti-semitic propaganda, as did another instrument of 12th century anti-semitism – the compulsory yellow badge, which identified the wearer as a Jew.

Russian Orthodoxy was active as well in spreading the so-called blood libel, a superstitious belief in Jewish ritual murder which had re-emerged even in the 19th century (…). The most infamous recurrence of the blood libel in modern times, however, was the Beilis case of 1911-13, in which the tsarist government, with church complicity, sought unsuccessfully to convict a Jewish bookkeeper in Odessa of ritual murder.

Press Play.

‘The book no longer exists. If it isn’t true, why did they buy up all the books and destroy them, just like they did with the Protocols?’

I: ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying.’

Father: ‘They could just prove that it [ritual murder] is all just lies, then they wouldn’t have to buy up all the books or try to ridicule them.’

[Successive Ministers of the Interior, especially V.K. Pleve (1902-04), warned that [Finance Minister] Witte’s [modernising] measures were encouraging Jews (…) to tighten their grip on the country’s economy, to gain control(…). Witte’s opponents persistently characterized him as a ‘state socialist’ and ‘friend of the Jews’.

The anti-Witte campaign reached its climax in a document forged inside the Police Department of the Minister of the Interior. The so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion purported to be the verbatim record of a meeting of leaders of international Jewry, planning the final stage in their campaign to take over the world, a stage in which the Russian autocracy would be the chief target as the most serious obstacle remaining in their path after Western Europe and North America had fallen to them. It recorded how the slogans of liberalism and of the French Revolution had been launched by Jews to undermine legitimate monarchy all over Europe, how they had used industry and finance to destroy the landed aristocracy, had exploited schools and universities to weaken morality, and had preached atheism to turn people away from the church. ]

Press Play.

‘I remember as a child, there was a trial in the Ukraine, the Yushinski case. A boy had been found murdered with his blood let in the way Jewish butchers do it. They couldn’t do anything according to the law at the time because the suspects, visiting Hasidic Jews, had disappeared. (…) The interesting thing was that the Jews also sent their experts, but there was a Catholic priest who was a Talmud expert. And they said: ‘Our religion forbids us from using any blood’. (The Hasidic Jews allegedly ate the blood in their matzoth). ‘Yes’, said the priest, ‘but look at this,’ pointing to words in the Talmud. ‘That means ‘wine’”, said the Jews. ‘Maybe,’ said the priest, ‘but isn’t it the same word for ‘blood of a Christian’?’ (My father aggressively spits like a triumphant prosecutor who has nailed a point… QED!) ‘Anyway, everything petered out. (…) Anyway, that was in the newspapers at the time.’

I: ‘Which newspapers?’

(My father ignores the question.)

[After bloody pogroms linked to the murder of an adolescent boy in Kishinev in 1903] The principal Bessarabian newspaper (…) persistently denigrated Jews for disloyalty and subversion, and for exploiting other nationalities economically. (…) The prosecutor were lenient to anti-Jewish protestors (…) Besides, the Tsar himself supported the formation of the [anti-Semitic and violent] Union of the Russian People, accepted the insignia of the movement and ordered that it be publicly subsidized. (…) [After a series of pogroms during the revolution of 1905-06] he wrote to his mother: “(…) evil elements boldly raised their heads, but then a strong reaction set in and the whole mass of loyal people took heart. The result, as is natural and usual with us, was that the narod [the people] became enraged by the insolence and audacity of the revolutionaries and socialists; and because nine-tenths of them are Yids, the people’s whole wrath has turned against them. That is how the pogroms happened.]

Press Play.

I: ‘Were you afraid of the Hasidic orthodox Jews as a boy? They did look quite strange…’

Father: ‘No. Later in Zhytomyr my playmate was a Jewish son of a local shopkeeper. I went to visit the synagogue out of curiosity. I wasn’t afraid and didn’t have any prejudices.’

[The third wave [of pogroms, P.L-N], in 1917-21, far exceeded all previous horrors. An initial massacre at Novgorod Severski was perpetrated by the Red Army, which had invented the slogan ‘Beat the bourgeoisie and the Jews’. Ukrainian nationalist and Russian ‘White’ forces proved themselves still more merciless. Denikin’s army flaunted the slogan Biy zhyda, spassiy Rossiyu, ‘Thrash a Jew and save Russia’. 1, 700 were killed at Proskirov (1919), 1, 500 at Fastov (September 1919) and 4, 000 at Tetiev. Total Jewish casualties exceeded 60, 000. How far they were victims of civil war, or exclusively of anti-semitism, is another matter.

(…) the pogrom organized in 1919 by Denikin [in Fastov, P.L-N] had been the most fiendish one. It had lasted a whole week and had taken the lives of four thousand persons outright and of several thousand more that had perished while escaping to Kiev. But death had not been the worst infliction, the rabbi said in a broken voice. Far more harrowing had been the violation of the women, regardless of age, the young among them repeatedly and in the presence of their male kin, whom the soldiers held pinioned. Old Jews were trapped in the synagogue, tortured, and killed, while their sons were driven to the market square to meet similar fates.(…) When the Denikin hordes tired of their blood orgy, they pilfered every home, demolished the things they could not carry away, and set the houses on fire.(…) In the Jewish hospital [in Kiev, PL-N…] we came upon the victims of the Denikin outrages in Fastov. Though considerable time had elapsed since the last pogrom in that city, many of the women and girls were still very ill, some of them crippled for life as a result of their injuries. The most fearful cases were those of children suffering from the shock of having been forced to witness the torture and violent death of their parents.(…) In the whole gruesome picture of Fastov two redeeming features stood out. The Gentiles of the town had had no share in the massacres. And no pogroms had taken place since the Bolshevik forces had entered the district.(…) One Gentile was pointed out to us as a physician who had done heroic rescue work during the Denikin pogrom. Repeatedly he had braved grave danger to save Jewish lives.

Arkady is an officer in General Denikin’s army. Was he in Proskirov, Tetiev, Fastov? If not, surely he at least would have known about all this? Did he condone it? If not, where was his notorious anger and sense of justice then? Uncomfortable questions. Father, you never told me any of this. Do you plead ignorance, too? Biy zhyda, spassiy Rossiyu? You do not thrash Jews, and you do not save Russia. But (and, father, why do you not see the irony?) Jews save you…Fast forward the story. A screenplay:

Flight alone with father’s orderly after Red attack on the White troop train at sidings. Bullets whizzing, ricocheting off the train. Father/mother at a dim-lit Jewish café in town. Running, running, lost, separated from parents. Dreamlike fragmented images of birch and alder woods, bogs, small rivers, distant gun shots, small artillery. Suddenly, as if by a miracle, found again at a crossing in the woods. Jubilation. (Ten minutes later and Oleg may never have seen his parents again…). No possessions with them at all, no food, no water, just the clothes on their backs. Reduced to nothing, to the human archetype of bare survival in the wild. A whole day of wandering without direction through the countryside. A trek into the unknown. What is ten year old Oleg feeling?

Nightfall. They are hungry and exhausted. They have no shelter for the night. Suddenly, a poor Jewish village in the darkness, a few dilapidated huts.

(His narration is inevitably over-layered in my imagination with the well-known Vitebsk images by Marc Chagall, Belorussian Jewry’s contribution to 20th century painting: Hasidic Jews carrying walking cane and bag over shoulder or dancing with violins on roads or roofs, huge cow and rooster heads, colourful elongated lovers floating above landscapes of church steeples and brown villages…Or else Isaac Babel’s depictions of peasant anti-Semitism and Jewish villagers during the Civil War in his Red Cavalry. Imagined imaginings…).

Father, even (or especially?) in his nineties, most clearly remembered the beauty of the still moonlit night, the fresh clean air, the sound of frogs. Arkady knocks on the shutters. An old Hasidic Jew with the traditional flowing beard and long curled sidelocks appears at the window, his wife and little children in their nightgowns anxiously peering over his shoulder.

Welcome, pan. Make room for the three Russian gentiles, move over, make room on the straw bedding on the floor.

In this orthodox Jewish household, there is room at the inn for the strangers, for the Gentile father, mother and son fleeing persecution. This ethos was laid down around two thousand years ago to remind Jews of their own first persecution and exile from their homeland: ‘Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 22:21). For ye were strangers. The memory of exile kept over the millennia. An empathy with the stranger is shown that is rarely shown to themselves, the perennial strangers, the wandering exiles. Just as one thousand nineteen hundred and eighteen years previously another couple fleeing persecution, the woman pregnant with a famous only child, were given refuge among the animals in the stable of an inn.

Saved. Saved by a Jew and his family. Without the compassion of that old oppressed Hasidic peasant you, father, may not have survived, or at least, if caught, never have left Russia. And, as you were always pregnant with me, in that sense I may also owe my own existence to that old compassionate Jew and the warm milk of his human kindness.

The Good Jew saves, the Bad Jew threatens. Father figures, God and Satan, good daddy/bad daddy, the simple polarised dualism of the infant and small child. The small child we all still carry within, for better or for worse. Abraham is willing to sacrifice Isaac. The ultimate mystery of universal sacrifice or, more simply, just infantile fear of threatening Big Bad Daddy? Psychoanalytically, he may be the Oedipal rival, the castrator, the tyrant, the punisher. This individual psycho-dynamic can easily become collective, psycho-historical trauma. Especially at times of social and demographic upheaval, ‘bad daddy’s’ threatening power and demonic intent can be projected by both the socially powerful and the collusive socially powerless onto some ‘other’, weaker, marginal group or nation. In the case of Christians this has often been The Jew, ‘the killer of God’s Son’ (conveniently ‘forgetting’ that this son of God was of course himself a Jew). A projection, an image arises among the smoke and mirrors.

Anti-Semitism and Infantile Castration Anxiety

My father’s infantile anti-semitism and its unconscious dimensions are perhaps visually represented in a typical Renaissance woodcut of an imagined ‘Jewish ritual murder’ of a Christian boy. It is possibly a depiction of the purported death of a Simon of Trent in 1476 . In this anti-Semitic image a naked five or six year old boy is standing on a table and held by three Jewish men who also stick knives in his arm and chest. Two Jews are at his feet. One of them is sticking a knife in his genitals while the other catches the resulting blood in a dish, presumably to incorporate into ritual food. Two other men and, interestingly, a woman, a mother figure, look on as the phallic torture and castration proceeds. Psychoanalytic, Christian and social data, projections and deformities here seem to blend into a potent, darkly psychotic brew.

Anti-Jewish pogroms and massacres go back centuries, particularly and fatally in the three European nations I find myself born into: Germany, Poland and Russia. The Holocaust was geographically and spiritually centred on the death camps of Poland, original land of my paternal ancestors and perpetrated by Germans, countrymen of my maternal ancestors. Anti-semitism is thus a collective psycho-historical shadow that I cannot escape from, its collective ‘karma’ a part of my own. It will play a significant role in our inter-generational conflict of the sixties over the painful question of responsibility for the Nazi Holocaust. Conversely, the multi-facetted and rich legacies of the Jewish diaspora and its millennial and dissenting traditions will have a lasting influence on the development of my own philosophical and political mindset through the mediation of my overwhelmingly Jewish personal ‘elders of the book’: Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Gustav Landauer, Herbert Marcuse, T.W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Ernst Bloch, Günther Anders, Murray Bookchin.

Can it be that father, five to ten years old, in the ‘medieval’ phase of his development as it were, simply needing his ‘bad bogey man’, unconsciously transfers his repressed Oedipal fears and resentment of all-powerful daddy Arkady onto those black-garbed Hasidic Jews?

Psycho-history and history, little world and big world, seem inextricably interwoven in most subtle and complex ways. Who can unravel these fatal threads of transference, displacement, projection? Who can follow the blood-red thread through the shadowy labyrinths that may lead from the abandoned darkness of a child’s chamber, a Renaissance woodcut or a Grimm fairy tale to the gas chambers of Auschwitz? And yet, if we do not try, could not such unconscious threads again lead to new historical horrors?


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on February 16, 2015.

7 Responses to “My Father and the Shadows of the Holocaust”

  1. When speaking with young people today, I often find myself cautioning against excess unity, Having no memory ( and given no in-depth perspective) of the first half of the twentieth century, they do not understand my concern about the ideological roots of totalitarianism or fascism.

    In my first novel I have a character who is a German of your generation (modeled loosely on my step-mother) who never asks her father those questions and is haunted by them.

    I know you are not a Zizek fan but he does explore these psych-social questions you open up so beautifully here. Some of his work is bullshit but some also very provocative and I believe necessary.

    • Thanks Dave. You’re probably the only reader of this who digs it. So I gather your stepmother was German? I reckon the questioning of our parents about their role/collusion in the Third Reich really heavily influenced, even formed, our generational struggle in the 60s in Germany and gave the political student/youth rebellions there a more emotional, often bitter, character than elsewhere.

      Happy to follow up on Zizek since always interested in psycho-history (though find post-structuralist stuff usually not worth trying to penetrate for the kernel of truth), could you give me some pointers to some of his essays I should look at?

      Hope you’re not totally snow-bound there in Montana? Or does that just give you more pleasurable time to indulge in theoretical reading/writing/thinking?

  2. You must not tell anybody!…but it is warmer here than it is in North Carolina. But yes, it is a seasonal existence; run like mad in the short summer and contemplate through the long winter.
    Yes, my step-mother is Bavarian, born in 45, so not much older than myself. I lived in WGermany (as a civilian hippie) from 71 to 75 and felt the strange tension of so many US soldiers, (many just returned from Viet Nam) the guest workers, the brand new infrastructure, the clean, punctual, order of it all etc. The name of my novel is That Left Unsaid and it applies equally to the Palestinian and American characters.

    Rather than a specific essay, I just want to point to his general project of re-invigorating the psychoanalytical dimension, in his case Lacanian, which is sorely missing in my oh-so-rational left activist circles. The symbolic realm is well understood by Capital, yes? All this focus now on religion and none on the philosophy of religion.

  3. damn peter…this makes me want to go talk more family history with my folks before they pass…german, norwegian, swedish, irish mutt that i am…
    i’ve aways harbored kind of a sense of guilt over my german heritage…but it’s all relative (no pun intended) when you get right down to it…persecution of the “others” is certainly not limited to a particular heritage or lineage…nor to particular “others” for that matter…

    where you wrote….”The wave of anti-Jewish pogroms which followed the assassination of Alexander II encouraged the idea that a more successful way of generating patriotism among the masses might be to play upon anti-Jewish prejudice.”

    have they traded jews, blacks, native americans for muslims now ?
    is there no end ??

    • I’d recommend doing those family history conversations…Interesting that you’ve got a bit of German background there, Kristi, another connection we have. Have you got a smattering of any other language as well (Norwegian, Swedish)? And yes, I think scapegoating and bogeymanning is an ancient tool of domination by the ruling elites, and Muslims are the new Jews and Communists. Has always worked like a charm for the most part, infantile fears, tribalism and xenophobia being part of the general genetic heritage too. That’s why I think the long counter-tradition of universalism, cosmopolitanism, world citizenship, the brother- and sisterhood of Man since at least Christian and Islamic universalism, Greek stoicism (e.g. Seneca) to the French Revolution, internationalist socialism and anarchism, the UN Declaration of Human Rights are so important to make people aware of as a counter-ideal. The right-wing always thrives on tribalism, nationalism, xenophobia and has many working class people caught by the balls on that score. Capitalism, however, couldn’t give a shit about any nations, that’s partly its progressive function in globalizing and commodifying and knocking down the walls of patriarchy and religion with soaps, ads and the irresistible propaganda of the commodity form, as Marx so strongly argued in the Communist Manifesto. .

  4. makes one wonder if it’s not all the “natural” progression or evolution of humans…
    unfortunately, i don’t even speak a smattering of any of the languages of my ancestors, another arrogant american trait…
    interestingly, my norwegian grandmother often told of how after they came over on the boat, with the exception of my great-grandmother, they couldn’t learn english fast enuf…couldn’t wait to fit in…never spoke norwegian outside the home…
    humans, were all such odd ducks…

    • Yeah, in contrast to Italians, Greeks, the northern Europeans in general always seemed to most quickly ditch their roots and assimilate, the Amish notwithstanding. Germans in Oz also. Because of the war, my mother always told Anglos we were Dutch or Scandinavian. But forced me to speak German at home, God bless her. Pity your great-granny’s Norwegian at home didn’t survive via your grandmother.

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