Posts Tagged ‘Holocaust’

Book Review and Reflection: Disturbance of the Inner Ear

June 6, 2017

disturbanceWhen a best-selling author recommends someone else’s book, you listen. That’s what happened to me recently, and I’m glad it did.

The book is Disturbance of the Inner Ear by Joyce Hackett. I was surprised to learn that it was Hackett’s first book; it’s so beautifully written and masterfully crafted. I enjoyed Hackett’s writing style and learned a great deal about music, about human nature, and about a subject that’s of particular interest to me, The Holocaust. Hackett is both a gifted writer and a thorough, meticulous researcher.  This book won her the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize when it appeared in 2002.

The author who made the recommendation to me was Jacky Collis Harvey, whose smashing debut book Red: A History of the Redhead, came out two years ago. My review of that book is here. Jacky, with whom I’m connected on Facebook, made the suggestion after learning of my interest in The Holocaust.

Jacky didn’t know that I’ve also been trying to learn a little bit more about music – its history, its techniques, its people. I’m totally ignorant about all things musical, but even I know how important that music has always been and will always be to humanity. Disturbance gives deep and informed insight into the motivations and mindset of the musically gifted and into the instruments that they play.

Joyce Hackett

Author Joyce Hackett

The protagonist of Disturbance is Isabel Masurovsky, daughter of Yuri, who was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. That camp was smaller and somewhat less well known than the giant complexes like Auschwitz, Dachau, and Buchenwald. It was a Potemkin Village, a “model ghetto” that the Nazis spiffed up on the surface for visits by the International Red Cross. The Nazis had promoted the place as a resort or spa; they even conned many elderly Jews into paying large sums of money for “lakefront” locations that did not exist. Yuri’s parents were among those that paid up in this manner.

Yuri makes it out of the camp, aided by his musical talent and by the several favorable twists and turns of fate that we hear in many survivors’ stories.  He settles in Brooklyn, where Isabella is born. She becomes a child prodigy on the cello, making her debut at Carnegie Hall at age 14. But her parents get killed in a car accident and she gives up playing.

Ten years later, she’s adrift in Milan, Italy.  The elderly Signor Perso, her teacher, guardian, and the last person on earth who knows her story, suddenly dies.  Isabel takes up with the smooth and seductive Giulio Salvagente, a surgeon and a part-time male prostitute who is carrying his own heavy load of emotional baggage.  She also gets a gig teaching the viola to the American teenager Clayton Pettyward, whose father happens to own a priceless cello that she calls The Savant.

In an article in Bella Online, Hackett said that she interviewed about 400 cellists before writing.  She also visited the city of Terezin, where Theresiendstadt is located, and spoke with many Holocaust survivors. That’s the type of research that I imagine is done by another of my favorite fiction writers, Jodi Picoult. An author who works that hard obviously has great respect for her readers as well as for her subject.  Hackett, who doesn’t play an instrument, stated

“I think research is mostly about, not being ‘right,’ but about being ‘not wrong.’ So often it introduces a vocabulary for a life and a set of concerns and a way of perceiving, but once a writer knows everything, she is able to write very little on a topic.

“…While I was doing my research, at a certain point a cellist I was interviewing, Gary Hoffman, quoted a sentence to me almost word for word that I had written the week before in the voice of my narrator. He said: ‘When you are playing in that perfect zone, the notes come in slow motion, like a series of home run pitches you can smack–one after the other.’ Well, my narrator knew nothing about baseball, but I’d written in a line about how in a perfect performance the notes come in slow motion, and time stops.”

Giulio and Isabel need each other, but it takes a while for them and us to realize it. Hackett’s descriptions of their erotic encounters are alone worth the price of the book. They’re refresher courses in the facts of life, imparting new insights into lovemaking while giving the reader palmar hyperhidrosis and tachycardia.

Isabel neatly links Giulio’s sexual performances with her own musical performances, musing, “I wondered about the sex he had with the women he hung around with. Having to sweep away one rich, dead-bored woman after another seemed to me like having to perform the same program, over and over, to one tone-deaf music hater at a time.”

She brings in another musician-analogy when she jumps into the driver’s seat of Giulio’s new standard-shift automobile and teaches herself, on the spot, to drive it so that she can make a climactic escape to Theresienstadt with the precious cello:

“But I was not about to hand myself over to Giulio. Driving a car, I told myself, could hardly be more difficult than playing the Rococo Variations. I occurred to me to listen for the sound I wanted, the smooth, rhythmic groan from the groin of the engine that Giulio had made, and work back toward the movements. This was the secret: in second, my limbs had molded themselves to the needs of the machine. I managed to circle the parking lot without chugging, and then I was coasting up the exit ramp as if I’d always known how.”

We see more of Hackett’s elegant descriptions in Isabel’s climactic escape. She steals Giulio’s car and dashes from Italy through Austria and Germany into Czechoslovakia. She has no papers or passport, but manages to get through the border crossings with luck and guile. With the tension of the chase building, she approaches the Brenner Pass into Austria and says

“I was approaching the border with no passport but Clayton’s…There was no break in the rail, no exit to make a U-turn.  The slopes beside the highway were thickly covered with sharp, spiky evergreens that looked as if they’d impale you if you pulled over and jumped. “

But she makes it to Czechoslovakia. In the grimy town of Litomerice, adjacent to Terezin, she muses,

“I wandered around the won for what seemed like hours. Litomerice looked as if it had aspired to charm for fifteen minutes during the Hapsburg reign, then gotten drunk and let its face go to hell. Most of the buildings were decrepit and peeling: a few had been refaced in gooey apricot. There was not one tree in town.”

This is great writing. It not only paints pictures; it evokes strong, visceral reactions. You’re there, and you feel what she must have felt.  Hackett’s style here reminded me of Catherine Marenghi’s elegant yet gripping descriptions of everyday phenomena in her superb 2016 memoir Glad Farm – which, like Disturbance of the Inner Ear, was also its author’s first book.

Isabel and Giulio do exorcise their respective demons. She makes peace with her past. As she does so, Hackett gives the reader much food for thought about The Holocaust, about the people who survived it, and about their descendants who keep memories alive.

Of her own experience in the research and writing of the book, Hackett later wrote in Boston Review,

“More than anything else my book turned out to be about the task of living after trauma, about accepting that there is no mastery of the past, or another’s experience, while also facing the stark ethical imperative that is adulthood: to extricate ourselves from the warped narratives we inherit in order to avoid doing damage to others in the present. I wrote my way out of a past that was not my own by hurling myself back into its reality…”

She cites Holocaust survivor/author Imre Kertesz’s writing of the prisoners’ greatest fear, that the truth of history would not be told and recorded.  She also points out that when she took her trip to Terezin, “Still, all over Europe, the battle for the story was still being waged.”

That would have been close to 20 years ago, and I’m afraid that the battle for the story of The Holocaust is still being waged. Maybe the battle will never be over. That’s why books like this will always be important.

Media Bias – and a Book Review, Sort Of

July 29, 2016

city roomDo you suppose that “media bias” is a new thing in America? It’s a familiar topic nowadays, so familiar that it’s almost a throwaway line in what passes for political discourse. Whatever side you’re on, there’s “media bias” against your candidate. Right?

Now that that’s out of the way, let me retell a story on that topic. I just read it in “City Room,” a memoir by Arthur Gelb, the former managing editor of the New York Times.

I haven’t finished the book yet. There’s no need to, in order to make the point that I hope to make. But I will say it’s been an enjoyable and informative read thus far, especially for someone like me who is interested in history and who has seen his own byline in print.

I hope that Mr. Gelb’s story gives you, dear reader, a little more food for thought. Before I do, though, two items for digression and full disclosure.

I Bring My Own Biases to this Post

The Times: I once wrote for the New York Times. For seven years, I was a correspondent on the college hockey beat, usually filing short pieces for the Sunday paper. I loved the affiliation. I reveled in being “the gentleman from The Times.” Everybody returned my calls – pronto.

NYT-logoOnce I overdid the schtick when covering a national tournament in Detroit. I wore my best business suit with a bright red tie and matching handkerchief sticking out of my breast pocket. Reporters just don’t dress that way – but what the hell.

When my gig ended, the editor explained that staff reporters had been complaining that there were too many stories being assigned to stringers. One of those who didn’t complain, I’m sure, was the late William N. Wallace.

Bill took over all of the college hockey coverage and was sheepish and apologetic to me. I loved the man. He’d been a contact and mentor, and we stayed friends until his death. Bill had been a college baseball buddy (and drinking pal) of George H.W. “Pepper” Bush at Yale.

So I’m not totally objective about The New York Times – especially about what it used to be, the national paper of record. That was before the Internet changed everything.

The Holocaust: I’m not objective about the Holocaust either. How could anyone be? It was the largest and most methodical organized crime in history. I never had an inkling of it until reading Primo Levi in college. Almost everything I’ve learned about it, I’ve had to learn on my own. Even today, it is downplayed, short-shrifted, and still denied by some.

Arthur Gelb

Arthur Gelb

I’m one of those people who believes that we must continue to tell the story of the Holocaust and its survivors “unto the Tenth Generation,” as Deuteronomy warns. If we don’t, and if we don’t remember the larger lessons of history, then Winston Churchill’s immortal words may well come true. He said, as Britain took up the battle against Adolf Hitler,

“…if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

I don’t think that’s overstating it. If I’m biased on the subject of The Holocaust, so be it.

Burying and Bowdlerizing

Arthur Gelb began working as a copyboy at The Times during World War II. When Germany finally fell, and the stories of concentration camp atrocities began to trickle in, the paper all but ignored them. That was serious business.

If something was not in the national paper of record, either it didn’t happen, or it wasn’t important. Every newspaper in America emulated The New York Times.

Some excerpts from Chapter Six of Gelb’s book. They are worth quoting at some length:

Arthur Hays Sulzberger

Arthur Hays Sulzberger

On when the Russians liberated Majdanek and Auschwitz in 1944, Gelb writes, “while the Jews were predominant among the inmates, they weren’t singled out until the story jumped to an inside page.”

Notice this technique – “burying” the important details. Sound familiar? There’s more.

More from Gelb, on the coverage in April of 1945 when American soldiers liberated Buchenwald:

“…descriptions of barbarism trickled out day by day, one horrifying revelation following upon another. Many Americans began to feel that they had not been adequately informed over the years by their newspapers about the torture and slaughter of innocent people who, as it turned out, were mostly Jews.”

“Unfortunately, the country’s mainstream press generally followed the Times’ lead. To my dismay and that of many of my colleagues, the stories about the American liberation…were not displayed on the front page. And there was scarcely any attempt early on to put into perspective what was emerging as the genocidal epic of modern times.”

“Among the most egregious examples of news misjudgment by The Times was the story it ran on April 13 that American troops had freed the inmates at Buchenwald. The Times used only three brief paragraphs from the AP dispatch, which was placed at the bottom of page 11 among several other short items, including one headed ‘War Dog Honored Here.’”

Arthur Ochs "Punch" Sulzberger

Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger

“It was as though the top editors, in the beginning at least, simply could not bring themselves to entirely accept the reports filed by seasoned war correspondents. Since the stories tended to describe the liberated inmates as “victims” and “prisoners,” rarely as “Jews,” many of us in the city room simply couldn’t fathom what was on the minds of the editors.”

The editors finally began moving coverage to page one in response to readers’ outrage, but even then they fudged and obfuscated. Details about Buchenwald, such as gallows, torture rooms, and crematoria made it into a page one story – below the fold, so rendered less important – and none of the victims were identified as Jews until, far down in the story, it told of a nine-year-old boy who had survived a medical experiment.

One more distressing example. Again, Gelb’s words:

“What I found incomprehensible was…the hollow editorial, third in sequence on the page, with no mention of Jewish victims…Equally disturbing was the reserved manner in which the paper, two weeks later (April 26) handled its second account of Nazi extermination tactics at Buchenwald…The gruesome facts obviously belonged on page one, but they appeared instead under a constrained single-column headline on page six that read, “Buchenwald Worse Than Battlefield.”

“As the Twig is Bent…”

Adolph Ochs

Adolph Ochs

What the devil was going on here? The paper’s publisher was Arthur Hays Sulzberger. His father-in-law Adolph Ochs had been publisher before him.  Why did the paper under the second-generation Jew who was running it do such a shameful job with such an important story?

Gelb tells of his conversation with the third-generation publisher Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger, in 1993, shortly after the opening of the National Holocaust Museum.  In this telling – which sounds most plausible – Arthur Hays Sulzberger had been following the lead of his father-in-law who had been adamantly determined that The Times never be regarded as a  “Jewish paper.”  And why was that?

Well, Adolph Ochs had once suffered a nervous breakdown over the issue. He had always been wary of “calling attention to his ethnic origins” anyway, believing that it would undermine the paper’s image of objectivity as a source of news.

But there was one instance when he let The Times take a stand. In 1913, there was a murder trial in Atlanta that became a cause célèbre. The accused was a Jewish factory manager named Leo Frank. Frank was convicted and sentenced to death.

Ochs thought Frank had been railroaded, and he used The Times’s influence to advocate for an appeal. Georgia’s governor commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, and Frank was subsequently hanged by a lynch mob. According to Gelb,

“Ochs’s worst nightmare became reality. The Times was widely accused of taking up Frank’s cause because he was Jewish and because The Times, indeed, was a ‘Jewish paper.’ Clearly, Arthur Hays Sulzberger wanted no such reprise.”

Fear of “What They’ll Think”

So there you have it. I believe this account, and Gelb’s take on it.

One little incident, followed by one barrage of criticism many years in the past, turned the world’s greatest newspaper into a quaking, fearful rag.  The New York Times choked on one of the most important stories of all time, and all because one man couldn’t take the heat.

The consequences of Holocaust non-coverage were tragic then, and we’re still feeling them today.

Two takeaways:

  • History so often turns on seemingly insignificant happenings. What would have happened if the author of the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler, had not been twice rejected for admission to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna?

In the “whole vast configuration of things,” the Ochs position on the Atlanta murder trial was just one more sad little incident. What followed from that position was enormous.

  • Adolph Ochs didn’t have the courage of his convictions. Nor did his son-in-law. Or maybe they had no convictions. Or they had the wrong ones. Whatever, it was fear that drove them. Fear of being labeled. Fear of being accused of bias. Fear of doing something that was right – in this case, using the enormous power of the New York Times – to print “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

Fear of being labeled. Fear of being accused of bias. Now does any of that sound familiar?

I suggest that we still feel, and see, and experience, the consequences of such fear today.