|CONTES et NOUVELLES
Encounters in the Museums of Oblivion
“When are you leaving for Washington?” Ellen asks me, genuinely interested in the journey I have just announced.
“In two days,” I reply.
We are sitting in the garden of the Ambassador’s residence on the lower slopes of Vodno, having drinks with lots of ice in the glasses.
“Do you like the cocktail?” our host suddenly appears on the veranda. “It’s my own recipe. Actually, it has three ingredients and I only ‘invented’ the rum in it. I should try it with your yellow rakija. It might prove a more creative combination,” the Ambassador is laughing.
“Definitely, Ambassador,” I reply in the same tone. “After all, we are not in the Caribbean.”
He looks at me, still smiling, making no comment on my statement, but asks if we would like refills and goes in to get some more of his cocktail.
“Would you like to see the Holocaust Centre?” Ellen Goldbaum asks me, declining the cigarette I offer her.
Ellen has been in Macedonia for three years now; she works with the World Bank and she is here with her husband, a discreet Frenchman from Martinique. They are kind people, and now I’m considering whether my comment about the Caribbean may have been a little clumsy. Absent-mindedly I ask permission to have a cigarette and being given it I light one. Is Martinique in the Caribbean, I wonder. I can’t remember. Is rum their national drink? Nowadays people in other parts of the world have become as sensitive to ethnic themes as the Americans are to cigarette smoke. But then, when weren’t they? And so I hope that the national drink in Martinique is martini.
“Yes, indeed,” I reply, blowing the smoke as far away from her as possible. “But it’ll probably be difficult to get a ticket. I think the Centre opened only recently, and there’s enormous interest in it. It must be swarming with visitors.”
“That’s right, but I could arrange a special visit for you,” says Ellen, whose family lives in New York. I don’t have to ask more about them because I already know they are Ashkenazi from Central Europe, probably from Poland.
“You know quite a lot about Jewish culture,” says she at one point. “You wouldn’t by any chance be Jewish by origin?”
In March 1939 Agatha Goldblum will be forty-seven. When she reflects on her age it vexes her to think that she’s approaching fifty. It is like a crossing a border into a different world, far from her first prime. For some years now she has worn glasses when reading music; they are round, with thin metal rims, and add to her age. This lady, who even in her youth had started to wear her hair in a bun, lives in a three-room flat her father left her, in an old building with a secessionist facade in Adam Mickiewicz Street in Warsaw, making her living by giving flute lessons. Until a few years ago her name could be found in the cultural sections of the national press, as she was still performing in chamber concerts, generally with small ensembles of three to five musicians, which were usually well and sometimes more than well attended.
In fact the newspapers have never devoted any longer articles to Agatha Goldblum. They have published the main items of news about her and, less often, some more detailed information about forthcoming concerts by the ensembles she performs with, quite often as a soloist. Agatha does not buy newspapers, that being taken care of by her mother. In her turn, Agatha takes care of their existence, which is becoming increasingly dependent on her music lessons as the pension her father left them grows more modest as the years go by.
Agatha very seldom performs any more and rarely goes to concerts; instead, she increasingly enjoys leafing through the big, heavy album with embossed leather covers filled with newspaper cuttings of news and photographs of her concerts. The compilation of this album, in which several pages are left empty, is in the charge of her mother. Agatha puts on her glasses with the thin gold rims and focuses on two brief press reports, one accompanied by a drawing of her youthful face and the other with a more recent photograph of herself where she poses, smiling mildly, with the flute in her hands; these two articles she cherishes as especially important in the album which is always in the drawing-room, as a decoration on the table but also as a silent invitation to visitors to this room to turn its pages. Agatha often leaves it open. It is only in the evening, on her way to the kitchen for her dose of valerian, that her mother closes the embossed covers of the album in her pedantic and perhaps slightly superstitiou habit of taking care that this important collection of her daughter’s musical memories and values does not remain unprotected during the night.
When her mother retires to sleep Agatha remains in the drawing-room. In her small nightly ritual she takes a schnapps glass from one of the drawing-room cupboards, then a bottle of cognac, and reads for as long as it takes to sip three small glasses of the cognac. Then her eyes start scanning the big room. The drawing-room where Agatha and her students play music contains the furniture inherited from her father: several cabinets, two heavy armchairs, two linen cupboards; on one side of the room is an upright piano with two Jugendstil candlesticks, and opposite it a dark oak table and six chairs upholstered in heavy red velvet with floral marquetry and lion-paw legs. Her father had been given them as a wedding present from his parents, soon after the family moved into this flat. She is used to this furniture. This is the drawing-room she grew up in, here she reached adulthood, here she practised her music day and night, and today she still plays music here, though less and less her own, and more and more othe people’s. In the evenings, as she slowly sips her cognac, she thinks of the past when there were the three of them: herself, her mother and her now deceased father, a former cattle-feed merchant in Gdansk and then a hotel owner here, in Warsaw.
I enter the Holocaust Centre from the rear, through the employees’ entrance, where I go through a thorough identity check. The uniformed doorkeeper calls my official host. I am waiting. He looks at me while he talks. I feel uneasy. Turning my eyes, I look through the glass entrance doors. Somewhere nearby must be the Washington obelisk, the tallest edifice in the American metropolis, a symbol of power from distant lands raised here thanks to the pompous spirit of the urban planning ideas of L’Enfant, the 18th century French architect and American revolutionary, and to Robert Mills, who built the Washington obelisk in the second half of the 19th century – that lofty focus of supremacy, conveying the spirit of the most ancient structures of what are now dead cities of the pharaohs’ Egypt in Africa, via the Paris of the Empire, the Napoleonic grandiosity, and axiometrically positioned buildings to which the broad boulevards lead.
Between the Washington Monument and the Holocaust Centre stretches the vast Independence Avenue, and on the far side, behind the obelisk, is Constitution Avenue, throbbing with busy traffic. With its imposing dimensions and its sharply foreboding form manifesting a striving for power and domination similar to that which the mythical Moses observed in Ramses’ Egypt, it has been re-created, here and now, on a third continent, and symbolically placed in the area within the three bourgeois ideals: Independence, Constitution, and Parliamentarianism, the last being represented in the House of Congress, set between them on Capitol Hill. The three ideal elements, the three symbols of the political religion of modern western democracy.
If I could, the thought crosses my mind, I would organize a town where the streets would be named after plants and natural things. The Avenue of Rainbows. The Bridge of Good Hope. The Fountain of Dew. The Square of Humanity. . . I smile with a self-ironical smile: there is a hidden adherent of non-conformity in me, a surviving hippy and an aroused “green” globalist.
“You may go in, sir,” the uniformed doorkeeper says, retaining, in spite of my unexpected smile, the same cold, official tone and look.
Leon Goldblum moved to Warsaw from Gdansk, or Danzig, as the Germans call it, almost immediately after he married Hanna Goldblum née Minzer. Miss Agatha Goldblum’s mother was the daughter of a kiosk owner, an invalid with a pale wooden prosthesis in place of his right leg. The kiosk, which kept them and which made it possible for Hanna, her elder sister and her younger brother to dream, sold a selection of newspapers and colour magazines, tobacco, which earned them most, and postcards showing pale coloured buildings, town roofs, port facilities and seaside scenes from the neighbouring region, with ’Memento from Gdansk’ and ‘Souvenir from Danzig’ written in Polish and in German at the top and bottom. Agatha and her brother and sister used to pass the time they had to spend in the kiosk by leafing through the illustrated magazines and looking at stars from American films, but more often from German Kammerspiel films and the talkies produced by the booming UFA Company.
So it was that, after a brief conversation with her sister, Hanna determinedly left the family; she was in love with Leon’s black eyes, his deep voice and his thick hair that she liked to run through the fingers of her thin graceful hand whenever he looked intently into her bright blue eyes and at the freckles scattered on her shapely face.
He loved those freckles, calling them cinnamon spots, and kissing them tenderly with the tips of his lips, as though tasting the finest and most expensive spices, before feasting on her red, outstretched lips. He would caress the bright silk of her short hair worn in waves, as was the fashion of the time. Hanna Minzer loved the Judaic passion in him, which reminded her of far away lands and exotic seas of warm blue water with seagulls calling above, so very unlike the cold sea and the leaden sky of Danzig under which she had been born, like several generations of her German ancestors.
What Leon loved in her was precisely her inclination to fantasize, which was so lacking in his own family, her bright blonde hair, her small straight nose, her neat German look. And her body. Her slim burning body which craved for his Levantine breath and passion and for Mediterranean waves and foam, for warm winds blowing over deserts, the bazaars and warm seas of the Near East, in a word, for the passion with which Leon avidly caressed her, overwhelmed her and then plunged deeply into. This oriental story was a fantasy of their own, their private film like Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheikh, created in the head of the little shop girl in the Danzig kiosk and the young heir to the cattle-feed company, as they built cities in clouds and in parts of this world that were better and more enchanting than the streets and quarters of this grey port.
At their first meeting his eyes had found her as he peered through the window of the kiosk where Hanna was standing in for her father, and he was buying the local daily for the latest prices of cattle-feed. When he saw her, he forgot what he had come for. His eyes could not leave the face of this girl some ten years younger than he was, and different not only because of her age. From that day on, they would meet to fall into passionate embraces and then talk at length about themselves and the things that stood in the way of their relationship. They belonged to two different communities which never mixed but had lived their distanced and parallel lives for generations. It was not that life had never known relationships like theirs, the point was that they were doomed to failure, for reasons ranging from persecution from the ethnic and religious communities to which they belonged, to the frustrations they experienced every time they looked into their shared future, to the need for constant concealment and theever bigger lies which both she and he had to tell their families if they wanted to be together to live out their private fantasy and their ever more passionate love.
Maybe their relationship would have dissipated like a wave broken against a rock, Miss Agatha Goldblum was thinking, book in one hand, as she quietly sipped her evening cognac, had not her mother Hanna Minzer, then twenty years old, discovered one day that a new life was growing inside her, that she was already two months with child, with her, Agatha, that noble fruit of her love for Leon. “It might be that this circumstance, my creation, was decisive in their relationship,” Agatha thought as she played solo parts on her flute and kept making mistakes because of the anxiety the thought aroused in her, especially if her mother was there in the drawing-room.
Faithful to these values that she had set above all others in the course of her life and despite her mother’s insistence, she herself had not taken any of the few decent chances of marriage she had in her life. Her father’s sudden death ten years earlier had hit them hard, both herself and her mother. Leon Goldblum was exceptionally tender with his only child, showering his parental love on her all his life. He whole-heartedly supported her ambition to study music, knowing that this part of his daughter’s spiritual life was as important as religion was in certain other families. He did not want to introduce religious rituals into their living-room. Unlike his ancestors, Leon Blum had decided that religion and religious rituals had no place in his home. He knew that religious affiliation might tear the members of his small family apart and endanger its internal cohesion. But music, and Agatha’s love for music, united them. Mixed or minority families always crave for integration. Thus Leon and Hanna gave their daughter a name common among the Poles, respecting the community in which they lived. They never touched on the question of their daughter’s religion. It was merely an element of her administrative identity, whereas her personality belonged to both her Jewish and to her German Protestant identity, but not less also to the Catholic majority amidst which they lived. They believed that Agatha would be protected by the muses of spirit and talent more strongly than by religious affiliation. Leon bought Agatha her first instrument, the new piano ordered from Vienna, as soon as she showed the first signs of interest in music and, later on, her first flute too. Thus a bond of strong and mutual affection was formed in the Goldblum family which, as is usually the case, continued between the two of them even after Leon’s death. Fighting insomnia, her mother had started taking valerian, on her doctor’s advice, and Agatha, using her own judgment, created the ritual of the three nightly glasses of cognac.
In this conjunction of circumstances and particularly since time, held captive in their relationship and their established habits, was running slowly past, her chances of marriage were losing their romantic strength even without comparison with the relationship between Hanna and Leon that her mother used to tell her about. Thus Agatha came to be both the fruit and the guardian of her parents’ love and passion. She lived for her music and she lived their life. Despite her mother’s genuine regret, in her forty-seventh year Agatha Goldblum was still single.
I find the door in the administrational wing of the Centre and stop in front of it. The name of the man I have been directed to, Radu Asterid, is written on a metal plate, and the name is followed by a title: Ph.D. I knock on the door, and hearing ‘Come in,’ I enter the small office of one of the five sector managers of the Centre. I am met by the kind smile of a man in his fifties, wearing an impeccably-ironed white shirt and a tie in subdued colours. Doctor Asterid is a slim man of average height, with receding hair. His physiognomy is that of the Balkans, so I feel closer to him.
“Your President,” he says when we are seated, “was to have been a guest at our opening a little while ago. Unfortunately, responsibilities in your country prevented his coming.”
I was not sure if this was a rebuke or if he was simply commenting on the fact, so I nodded in understanding. My kind host offered me filter coffee. We joked about this European, and particularly Balkan, custom and it was then that I learned that Dr Asterid was a descendant of surviving Jews who had come to the States from Romania after the fall of the Ceausescu regime and gained his Ph.D. in history and this prestigious position in the Museum, having long ago decided to start a definitively new life on the new continent.
What made this elderly gentleman take such a radical step I thought, but immediately reminded myself that almost all this century now coming to its end, during which Dr Astrid had left the Old Continent, had been one of unprecedented, agonizing wars, hostilities, conflicts and torture, mass liquidation and human suffering. After the experience of such a century, what promises did the new one hold for the old continent? A final peace in Europe? In the Caribbean, in the Balkans?
So Leon and Hanna left for Warsaw immediately after their wedding in the Gdansk synagogue attended by the bridegroom’s closest relatives, in a ritual during which his yarmulka, the skullcap worn at all solemn moments in the life of a Jew, twice fell off his head, which added anxiety to the already over-wrought atmosphere prevailing both before and during the wedding ceremony. The ritual itself was only possible after Hanna Goldblum, nee Minzer, had converted to the Jewish religion, as was meticulously recorded in her documents where ‘nationality’ was left unfilled, with only a dash, while under ‘religion’, ‘Mosaic’ was inscribed in a calligraphic hand.
The wedding took place in a hurry, as soon as the blessing was finally obtained from Leon’s parents, who could never have dreamt of such a relationship, particularly because they were people born in one of the Polish shtetels, villages with a Jewish population, a family whom fate had separated from the life of their ancestors, and trade in cattle-feed had brought to Gdansk and made them decently well off, making it possible for them to rise from the village community to the merchant class, and change from rough homespun to fine city clothes. Yet they had never abandoned the traditions, values and rituals of the Hasidic way of life. Except for Leon, the clothes and appearance of the members of his family were traditional, the male members wearing shtraimels, fur hats, with long locks hanging down their cheeks and bearded faces. Shabat and all the annual holidays were strictly observed, and food was prepared following simple and modest recipes, as was done in the village.
The tension at the wedding was generated by all this; on the one hand, Hanna worried about how she would cope with the customs of her new community, while on the other she felt frustrated by her disloyalty to her parents; Leon, in turn, worried about how their relationship would function, and finally, there were his parents and relatives, silently wary about how the newcomer would fit into their strict and humble way of life. In a word, the tension arose from the general acknowledgement looming in the Danzig synagogue with its wedding decorations that the newlyweds would definitely have to leave for some other place.
That same night, his wife holding the candle above his head, old Goldblum dressed in his padded dressing-gown and spitting on his fingers, counted the big banknotes stacked on the bed, preparing them, together with several bonds, as practical support for the proposal he was about to present when talking to his son the following day.
“Come,” Dr. Asterid said. “I’d like to show you something in one of the rooms. Then I’ll leave you to finish the tour of the museum on your own.”
He takes me out of the office area and into one of the big rooms in the new building.
“You see,” he says pointing at an impressive marble staircase, obviously still full of the impressions of the recent opening of the Holocaust Centre which had been attended by important representatives of a great number of countries, “This is where the chiefs of states came down, and where we are at the moment is where our other guests were, concentration camp survivors, their descendants, representatives of the Jewish communities from America and from almost all the European countries, with their families. Do you know what happened to the President of one of your former republics? He was booed.”
He waited for my reaction, and having received only a questioning look instead, he added:
“It would not have happened to your president.”
“I think you should start charging your students regularly every week,” Hanna says to her daughter, bringing in the tea served in two porcelain cups with a floral design, while Agatha is practising a score in the drawing room.
“Do we need money?” Agatha stops playing.
Hanna glances at her, wondering where, in what world her daughter lives.
“There’s going to be a war soon,” Hannah says finally.
“Nonsense! My new concert’s going to be soon. Those people in Berlin are just striking attitudes. They wouldn’t dare do anything more specific. The eyes of the whole world are on them.”
“We should get all the money we can, Agatha. Your father, you and I have already undergone one great war. You do remember the last war, don’t you Agatha?” Hanna replies calmly. “We ought to buy tins, honey, provisions that will keep. Everyone has started storing food, my darling.”
“I cannot introduce a new system of payment for these young people, they can hardly scrape together the monthly payments for classes as it is. You know it yourself, there's a crisis.”
Agatha continues her practice. She makes a mistake and stops. She gives her mother an angry look and goes to her room. Hanna loves that look in her daughter. It is the only living trace of Leon.
Samuel Aroesti was awakened by a loud banging on the doors and knew immediately what it was. Deportation had been the whisper for days in all the Jewish homes in Skopje: that one of these days they would be rounded up and taken to forced labour abroad. Yesterday he overheard the conversation of two of the clients in his pharmacy. Thanks to these rumours many had tried to escape. Some had managed it, some had been caught. There is no time now to think. Downstairs they are banging so fiercely that unless he opens the door they will most certainly break it down. And maybe they want something else. A fugitive? It might even be a mistake. His daughters are coming out of their rooms. Samuel looks towards them but does not see them. He goes down the stairs, absent-mindedly putting his coat on over his nightshirt. And he opens the door. Uniformed men burst into the house. They ask him his name and surname. He cannot hear them. They are shouting at him. He does not understand what they want. The shouting confuses him even more.
They are shouting and dashing around the drawing-room. Hanna is trying to speak to them. Nobody is listening to her. “Lieutenant, sir,” she shouts in her mother tongue at the leader of the group in Wehrmacht uniforms. He pays her no attention, goes into her room. Standing in the drawing room she hears the sound of a mirror breaking. The soldiers are opening the cupboards of old Goldblum’s furniture, throwing the contents of drawers to the ground. Miss Goldblum’s bottle of cognac falls to the floor.
Doctor Asterid takes me to a large darkened room with a genuine cattle-truck placed on authentic railway lines with wooden sleepers, invoking the traumatic mass transportations of the Jews whom the Nazis took from all parts of Europe to the German-Polish death camps. Documentary films of the days of the holocaust are being projected onto a big screen hung above it. We watch silently: columns of people marching through the streets of known and unknown European cities, boarding cattle-trucks, soldiers directing them, uniforms running around, SS, nyilases, ustashas, traumatic documents in live images filmed in different countries during the morbid endeavour to wipe an entire people off the face of the earth. The monstrous idea of destroying a people, any people, is fiercely evidenced by these documents of human faces lost in thought, frightened, horrified, engrossed faces….
“Just a moment, please wait a little longer…. ” Dr Asterid says.
“What are you looking for? Tell me, what you’re looking for?” Hanna Goldblum cries out in the middle of her father-in-law’s red drawing-room. Agatha watches in dismay.
A soldier goes to the table, picks up the album and throws it to the other end of the room. In doing so he lets fall Agatha’s glasses, and they lie on the floor with one lens cracked diagonally. Pages from the album fly all around the room, photographs of Agatha’s performances, newspaper clippings writhe on the floor.
Aghast, Agatha looks at her mother. Hanna sees the silent terror in her daughter’s face, and feels she has just seen the greatest horror a mother can live to see. . .
“And now, watch this!” Doctor Asterid says to me.
Live images of a round-up carried out in some European city start rolling across the screen in the big room with the cattle-truck.
“Do you know where this was taken?” he glances at me.
“No,” I shake my head.
“This is Skopje, the Jewish Quarter,” Asterid says, and looks at me again inquiringly through his thin metal-rimmed glasses.
I watch the shots. The Jewish quarter. I do not recognize it. Only a part of a street can be seen. Policemen jump out of a lorry, rifles in their hands. The camera is in the back of the lorry, shooting from behind the tarpaulin that flaps open and closed as one after another the policemen jump down from the lorry. Then they bring the people in. Just out of their beds. Old people, young people, children. . . The camera shakes, and suddenly there is the old theatre on the bank of Vardar. Then it is gone from the scene in which the mass drama is taking place under the open sky.
“This is a film taken by a Bulgarian feldwebel,” Asterid explains, “a documentary on the holocaust in your lands.”
“Yes, yes,” he finally answers, “My name is Aroesti Samuel, pharmacist.”
They push him aside, and give them five minutes to get ready.
“For where?” asks Samuel, used to a pharmacist’s precision and caution.
“For a long journey,” they reply vaguely.
It is only then that he looks up and sees his wife and their two daughters at the top of the staircase. He cannot believe that they are already completely ready. He looks at them, composed, combed and dressed for colder weather, as though they had been sleeping dressed. There are small suitcases on the floor by their feet. He looks at himself in the mirror of the coat-stand: an unknown face stares back at him, eyes extinguished and underlined with deep shadows, his dishevelled hair gone suddenly white. From the troubled sleep of the past few months, from the restless tossing and turning in bed this past week, from the sudden jump out of his bed at dawn today.
The Holocaust Centre is a traumatic building, designed to resemble a concentration camp. Brick dominates, along with the colour grey and a chilly atmosphere. It is a four-storey exhibition intended to agitate and disturb, organized on the principle of a theme park, only the themes of this park are persecution, fear, disappearance, terror, death camps, death. Nothing like the houses of fear at a fair, but rather a museum of the horror that happened to millions of people who had a life before that, a past, professional and private lives, loves, expectations, disappointments, hopes and dreams. This is a theme park devoted to the horror of mass extermination, of total disappearance, of a genocide of the members of entire social groups: Jews, members of nearly all the Slav nations, Romanies and Sintis, communists, anarchists, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Freemasons. . . This theme park achieves its objectives in a specific way, by evoking a life before. Like, for instance, “Daniel’s Story”, the sequence in one of the museum exhibits which takes place right there before your eyes and ears, as you enter the room of an ordinary child. At first, Daniel’s room shows all the signs of an ordinary child’s life filled with school work and childhood joys. An open notebook, some half-written homework. The open window lets in the sounds of an ordinary happy working day. In the next “picture” his room has changed, the sounds of Nazi propaganda stream in from outside. And thus from one picture to another you re-enter one and the same space as it undergoes a morbid transformation, arriving finally at the picture of the room with all Daniel’s things thrown about. Everywhere are signs of a savage intrusion. The fate of the unseen protagonist, whose presence we have felt all through the story, becomes unambiguously clear to the spectator: the child and his entire family have been taken brutally from their home. Throughout the story, Daniel is nowhere to be seen, there are only the signs of him. And this confirms that tragic ellipsis is a far more powerful testimony than any direct speech about the events. Unlike the California Disneyland of worldly joy, the Centre is the home of signs, shadows and memories of a nonexistent former life that causes a lump in the throat and stinging at the corners of the eyes.
Samuel Aroesti watches through the tobacco factory fence. His daughter catches a loaf someone has thrown over the fence. The Bulgarian policemen start rushing about. They are shouting at somebody.
His wife glances at him. Samuel looks back with tired eyes.
“This should be shared with the others.”
His daughter looks at him in silence.
“Keep one half for us. And share the rest out among the neighbours.”
A locomotive whistles nearby. Steam hisses.
The lifts in the Holocaust Centre are designed to evoke an association with gas chambers. Thus, like the cars in the science fiction adventure in “Back to the Future” in Universal Theme Park l, they take you back to the past. Each floor takes you deeper into history. The top floor is where the origin of the evil is: the birth of Nazism. The visitor feels claustrophobic. On entering the lift the visitor is given a randomly picked “passport”, the ID of a real person, which by the strange mechanisms of identification gradually becomes your own identity. The passport has as many pages as there are floors in the Holocaust Centre building. You turn the pages of your person’s passport and learn about what happened to him or her, following from one period of history to another. The passport I was given was that of Agatha Goldblum, musician. Born in Warsaw in 1892. To a German mother and a Jewish father.
Seeing the silent terror on her daughter’s face, and feeling as though she has just seen the greatest horror a mother can live to see, Hanna goes to the table, gathers all her strength and overturns it with a great noise.
The German soldiers freeze. There is a moment’s silence.
“What kind of behaviour is this, gentlemen? I feel ashamed to be a German.”
The lieutenant comes out of her room.
“Oh, so you are German?”
“As you can see.”
“And your daughter?”
“My daughter is a musician, sir. You could have seen who my daughter is in the album that one of your men has just hurled at the wall and broken to pieces…”
I take the lift down to the ground floor, having read Agatha Goldblum’s lot in ‘my’ passport. The footage taken in the Skopje Jewish quarter flashes in front of my eyes. Leaving the lift I go back to the room with the cattle-truck. I stand there waiting for the Skopje episode on the documentary film and then watch: the future victims of Treblinka are boarding the cattle-trucks. At one moment my eyes meet the look of a pair of eyes from the screen: frightened, terrified, lost. The encounter in this virtual space of history lasts for only a few seconds. Then my gaze wanders again somewhere into the historic reality of March 1943, into the agonizing reality of the special transport from Skopje to northern Europe. Sequences roll on and I wait to watch the Skopje episode again. And once again my eyes meet that same horrified look. It is the look of Samuel Aroesti, my maternal grandfather. Beside him, forced into a run, are his wife, my grandmother, their two daughters, my aunts I never met, and other, unknown people, transformed into eternally living film shadows.
The lieutenant looks with disgust at Hanna Goldblum, standing so straight among the soldiers that to her daughter she appears suddenly and powerfully towering and stately in her long dressing gown, slim and tall as in the best years of her life.
“. . . and she’s not a Jew then, like it says here?” the lieutenant taps his Mauser against the papers he takes from his leather officer’s bag.
“My daughter is my pride and joy.”
“Your pride and joy is of Jewish origin. Her father was Juden.”
“Her father, sir, was my greatest love. He loved as no one will love again, regardless of race. He loved tenderly and warmly, as a human being. He loved, sir. Never hated.”
The deafening shot from the Mauser cuts her speech short.
Hanna grasps her breast. She looks at her daughter staring speechlessly at her.
“Don’t be afraid!” Hanna whispers to her, and slowly drops to the carpet with its Jewish design, her Aryan blood gushing over it, while she hears the sound of the warm seas of the Orient and the breath of Leon Goldblum who, she can feel, is approaching her, tender, radiant and passionate after all these years. . .
Photographs. Piles of men’s and women’s shoes. Postcards. Piles of them, some among them with the inscriptions ’Memento from Gdansk’ and ‘Souvenir from Danzig’. Like those once sold in Hanna Minzer’s kiosk. And an enormous pile of glasses: metal and horn-rimmed, pince-nez, monocles, some binoculars, in many different dioptres. Countless spectacles, some of them with one of the lenses cracked diagonally and with frames like those belonging to Agatha Goldblum. Musician, flute player, citizen of Warsaw, tenant of the three-room flat in Adam Mickiewicz Street . . . “Died of starvation and exhaustion towards the end of the war, just before the Russian forces arrived” – as I read in her ‘passport’ – in the death camp of Oswiecim, as she would say, or Auschwitz, as her mother would have said.
When I got back to Skopje I learned that Ellen Goldbaum had left for Martinique soon after our meeting and been transferred to the World Bank Office in an Asian country in the Caucasus. I had no means of contacting her, and could not thank her for her assistance in my visit to the Centre in Washington and ask her whether, considering her similar family name, she was perhaps somehow related to Agatha Goldblum. Had she ever heard of this modest musician? And about her mother? Though Ellen’s family name is Goldbaum. The difference is that between a flower and a tree. But then, there may be some deeper connection. After all, a tree is a former flower . . . I wanted to show Ellen Goldbaum the passport of the unknown person whose identification and life story I came across in a third, quite unexpected place. In the Museum of Tragic Memories, sited beside the great Monument of Power. There might be a hidden symbolism in this geometry. Nobody notices it, but human impotence and human omnipotence are so close to each other there.
I still see my friend the Ambassador I met in Skopje, in international news programmes. He is building a splendid career as a high-ranking diplomat in whom his country has vested its trust, and I am happy and proud to have known him. He left the Vodno residence a long time ago, at the time when the smell of gunpowder spread here and we found ourselves on the threshold of a limited but still threatening ethnic war. Now he is building his career on a fourth continent.
In a part of this great world where even after the holocaust violence has never ceased, with the old wall in Berlin and now new ones raised in Cyprus and in Israel. The Holocaust of the Tutsi by the Hutu tribe. The clashes between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno Karabakh. The mutual killing of Indians and Pakistanis in Kashmir. The genocide of the Boshniaks. The conflicts between Serbs and Albanians. The Taliban. The Beslan tragedy. Terrorist attacks on America. The intervention in Afghanistan. The Iraqi civil war. The Sunnites and the Shiites. The Muslims and the Christians. Unrest sparked off in Holland by the caricatures mocking Mohammed and in France by the dark-skinned Maghreb French who feel they are treated as second-class citizens. New instances of violence across the world. The same massive quantities of unhappiness, inhumanity, humiliation, terror, rape, measureless quantities of pain and death. Death accompanied by oblivion, whether in mass graves or in the mills of the media, ever grinding new instances of grand-scale violence. For these there are not, nor will there ever be, museums. Only a living pain for as long as those who suffer it are in this world, meeting the shadows and remembering.