So I have a confession to make: For the last few weeks I have been sleeping with Bram Presser. Literally. He is in bed with me now as a type. Or at least, his book is in my bed and the book contains so much that is true to Bram that it is hard to separate him from the book and the book from him.
I first read this novel when it was in raw manuscript form, unedited, filled with long beautiful passages that existed because Bram thought they had music. And they did. Reading this original version was like being on an archaeological excavation, finding some gems along the way but also getting covered in lots of dust that never seemed to disappear and then finding pebbles stuck between the indentations of your shoes, pebbles that ultimately became part of the shoes themselves.
Reading it a second time with much more focus because now I know the characters and I am familiar with the overall narrative story and some of the nuances that are buried between metaphors and objects, I can focus on the magic that Bram tries to bring to this story. It’s hard not to be captured from the opening epigraph:
“Within a few generations almost all of us will have been forgotten. Those who are not will have no bearing on how we are remembered, who we once were. We will not be there to protest, to correct. In the end we might exist only as a prop in someone else’s story: a plot device, a golem.”
There is so much that Bram is trying to achieve in this book and I was humbled by his revelation that his “grandfather and Vera had survived two different Theresienstadts, on parallel but competing plains in the multiverse that was the Holocaust. No matter what evidence I put forward, his experience would always seem fanciful to her.” This, Bram describes as “the great Perspex wall of Holocaust ownership, the barrier encountered by every member of the second and third generation who tries to make sense of what happened to their family.” Presser’s book is an account of what happens when these children and grandchildren of survivors try and bear witness to honour the memory of those who suffered before them. And the reality, as he recounts, is that there is much that we will never know. This doesn’t stop Presser from trying to gather the various strands of his ancestors’ narratives and he goes to great lengths to make his retelling as accurate as possible – letters to Yad Vashem and other memorial organisations, visits to sites, interviews and photographs and letters from grandparents. It’s a mammoth effort which clearly consumed him for many years.
The legacy of the experience resonates throughout this book – Presser holds his grandmother’s ring –
“In the camps, she carried a small gold ring ...
… I held it just once, this witness to her ordeal. It was the touchstone of her legend – stories of courage, of strength, of devotion – and yet, it seemed to insignificant, resting there in my hand. I rolled it between my fingers, hoping it would reveal her secrets. So much of what we’d come to believe seemed impossible but, as one survivor told me, survival itself was impossible.”
The weight of the sorrow in this book is breath-taking. And where there are strands that Presser cannot verify, he acknowledges it and when there is just no way of knowing, he pays homage to these people long gone by reimagining them – a boy, a name, a family, neighbours … “all of whom will disappear.” This is how Presser shows his “gratitude, recognition, for their lives, for (his) own” … he writes them, he gives them names, his gives them voices. So we come to know Bohus, Gusta, Murmelstein and all the others, as echoes of themselves.
But Presser is not just testifying on behalf of those without voices; he is also raising some profound concerns about Holocaust memorialisation in general. How do we really account for everything and everyone? Who owns the papers, the stories, the photographs and the artefacts? Who is responsible to deal with the many requests for information?
“Most who look back see the Holocaust as some great monolith. We’ve lost the ability to make out the contours, the cracks, the individual shapes. Who still cares about a bunch of books in any one camp? What difference does it make that there was a Central Library in Terezin, a Central Jewish Museum in Prague and, quite separately, a dedicated group, all sorting obscure Jewish books? Distinctions like this no longer matter. The horror has outgrown them.”
It is authors like Presser who seek to find “the forgotten spaces” between the memorials and museums, the relics and artefacts. It is books like these that remind us that in the midst of the horror, people lived.
I have read many Holocaust related books – memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, accounts, fiction based on research, non-fiction. Each of them has added a layer to my understanding and appreciation of this horrific period in human history. While there is value in all these different approaches, very rarely does one find a work that is so rich and majestic in its account. Presser’s book is just this type of book. Despite the fact that at times I was confused by the characters, that I had to pause to remind myself of the connections between people or to catch my breath at the mythical and mystical qualities that lurk behind the text, I was always carried away by unique way that Presser has of capturing a reality that is so unreal… like his description of Auschwitz.
“Its name was a cancer that spread in the soil, sprouting new tumours in the surrounding towns … I walk the rail line through the gaping brick maw that once hungered for human flesh. I could turn around, walk away, but I continue. They are waiting.
It is the vastness that strikes me. The ruins stretch on to the distant forest. One hundred and forty-seven acres. An entire city. To imagine it full, pulsating – I simply cannot. And yet I have seen the mounds of shoes, of glasses, of hair, of dolls. I have searched for familiar names on suitcases. I have witnessed what little remains of their lives. The last gasps of hope. But for me, my generation, it can only be this: an eleventh plague, emptiness.”
And more – “this place swallows name, lives, memories … Thirty-two wooden barracks, four latrine blocks, two kitchen halls. A shit-soaked shrine to cynicism, to arrogance, in this wasteland of the damned. Yet, viewed from the heavens, it is a small tract of dirt. Here, where reason left the world, the impossible flourished.”
So Presser tries to reconstruct his Grandfather as a way to say I love you and in the process he finds himself behind the foundations of Block 31, crouched down on the ground, picking at the blades of grass and digging his fingers in to the mud.
“It is here their story ends, here where I must find peace in not knowing. There will be names – Schwarzheide, Sachsenhausen, Merzdorf – but nothing more. It is too late. What’s left to fill the silence is no longer theirs. This is my story, woven from the threads of rumour and legend, post-memory.
I lie down in the dirt and stare at the crooked red fingers. I try to see the horror but it grows distant, blurring into the autumn sky. A cool drizzle begins to fall. My eyes have grown heavy. The stillness is broken by birds; a great flock, circling the chimneys.”
They chose not to speak and we can easily understand why. But what they have taken with them to their graves has left us, the second and third generations, bereft. Bram Presser, in this magnificent ode to all that is lost, has tried to fill the hole that not knowing leaves.
There will be a hollow, cold space in my bed now that I have finished this second reading. But my mind is filled with a renewed sense of sadness for that rich chorus of millions of voices that I never had the pleasure of hearing.
I invite you all to join me in hearing Bram Presser talk about the journey of writing this book at the Shalom | Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on Sunday 27th August at Waverley Library, Bondi Junction. Tickets available at http://www.shalom.edu.au