Wednesday, December 19, 2018


Anita Lasker-Wallfisch
Jewish humor:

Question from the audience: How is it you were able to play the cello under those horrible conditions in Auschwitz?

Anita Wallfisch: What was I supposed to say, “I don’t play here; I only play in Carnegie Hall?”

I want to follow up on my blog entry the other day on how I began to recognize in my mother’s family some justification for defining them as “refugees,” and not simply as “immigrants.” I didn’t see it growing up, because by the time I came along, they had established themselves through grit and very hard work, and I had none of the fears and disequilibrium one associates with refugees today like the ones we see pouring into Germany from Syria or into the United States from Guatemala and El Salvador. I was “poor” in comparison to many in the town where I grew up, but compared to most in the larger world I was far too privileged to claim any right to apply that adjective to our family situation. I didn’t have to go into debt, as many Americans do now, to get a good college education. I was born when FDR was president and got to grow up when America still embraced the goal of equitable wealth distribution, unlike today, when we’ve surrendered “a more compassionate America” to the goal of wealth generation instead.
Anita Lasker in 1945

 Because of American social policies in the era of FDR, the time into which I was born, although both my parents worked in factories, a fact which I guess marked me as “working class”, we went as a family from economic refugee status to upper middle class status in two generations. I have a direct personal knowledge of that more compassionate America politicians speak of. I know it's within reach, if we put our minds to it. And as many of the Vietnamese refugees with whom I am familiar were able to do in the 1970s, thanks to LBJ’s Great Society policies which extended the dream of FDR, refugees from poverty were not treated as “invaders.” They were not handed life on a silver platter, but they were understood to have a right to access the American dream as much as the locals already here.

The distinction between "refugee" and "immigrant" is an important one, to be sure, when you're trying to deal with the emergency situation of people flooding your borders. Europeans have both a moral and a legal obligation to give priority to people seeking asylum and access to the few resources that government programs set aside for dealing with outsiders coming in to the country.  But while we fuss over this distinction, at the same time there is something seriously sinister going on among the tribal nationalists among us. And among those using tribal fears of the "other" to whip up fear and loathing of people outside the tribe to the point where they can be conceived of as invaders.

Scapegoating is one of the most vicious practices a thuggish authoritarian leader can come up with. And one of the most common markers of a fascist mindset.  Hitler did it with the Jews. Trump has done it with Mexicans and Middle Easterners. To stop his policies we need to ignore the cynics who worry about "truth decay" and the right-wing propensity to label the media the enemy of the people, and bear down harder in separating facts from political propaganda.

The questions we should be asking are questions like: "Who are these people? How can we help build an orderly system for taking them in? We know the pull factors - the many advantages of living and working in a country with a strong economy. We know less about (or pay much less attention to) the push factors - who or what caused the conditions to make people risk so much to leave their homes?

We would do well to place more emphasis on strengthening oversight of the agencies we have in place - USCIS, ICE and CBP (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection) - to make sure they are working as they should. Less emphasis on such questions as "How do we build a wall to keep them out and who do we get to pay for it?" and recognizing the insanity of asking whether it is OK to shoot at immigrants trying to climb the wall to enter the country illegally.

What I'm after is getting people to agree that scapegoating only takes us back to the days of the Holocaust and fascist states, and that calling immigrants "invaders" is a cruel use of language. 

Then, perhaps, we can move on to the next set of questions such as the psychological toll on those same people. My sister, my cousins and I lucked out. Our parents were able to smooth the way for us. By the third and fourth generations, most of our family haven’t a clue that their grandparents and great grandparents might possibly have been classed as refugees. The result of such ignorance is that many in our large extended family are perfectly content to listen to Donald Trump when he defines refugees as “invaders,” and support his closing the door on the needy now that we are all safely inside.

Because one of my long term interests is the integration of refugees in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, and because the current political situation has me looking out for good-news stories when I can find them, a news item about a man named Simon Wallfisch caught my attention the other day. Grandson of a German-Jewish Auschwitz concentration camp survivor who swore she would never set foot in Germany again, Simon Wallfisch has just given up his British citizenship and taken German citizenship. Not so much out of love for Germany, although he is comfortable there. Or out of a desire to escape the land of his birth. But because of Brexit and the fear that as a Brit he will find too many doors closed to him on the Continent. He wants unhindered access to jobs singing in its opera houses. An ironic turn of events – "Jew embraces Germany" still makes a catchy headline. 

Catchy perhaps. But also simple-minded. It wasn’t long before I was digging out videos and newspaper articles about the Wallfisch family. What I found was a much more dramatic refugee story than mine, and I found myself suddenly focused not so much on Simon, but on his aunt Maya and on the question of keeping the story of the Holocaust alive, on the one hand, and how the lasting effects on the scapegoated Jews extends beyond those who faced the Nazis directly.

Maya grew up in a family in which everybody around her seemed to be a star. Her mother, Anita Lasker Wallfisch, survived Auschwitz because when they came to get her for the ovens, somebody identified her as “that cellist” they might be useful in the camp’s orchestra. She thanks her cello for her survival. Her father, Anita's husband, Peter Wallfisch, was an accomplished pianist. Her brother, Rafael, takes after their mother, and has become a well-known cellist in his own right. With 70 CDs to his name, he’s one of the most recorded classical artists in the world today. Rafael is married to Australian Baroque violinist, Elizabeth Hunt Wallfisch and they have two sons, Benjamin and Simon. Benjamin is an English composer, conductor and pianist who has contributed the music to 60 feature films.  Simon studied singing, violincello and conducting and settled on singing. His baritone voice has been heard on opera stages all over Europe. Simon has an especially close personal and professional relationship with his grandmother, Anita, who pushes herself hard, even at 90, to show up at his performances. Together they have taken up the fight against anti-semitism by addressing kids in schools and appearing on talk shows and in other public places in Britain and on the continent. Simon is also known for bringing to audiences the music of composers suppressed by the Nazis.

And the tale of talent and intimidating accomplishments by extended family doesn’t stop here. Simon is married to baroque musician Kathleen Ross of the London-based musical group, Mediaeval Baebes, a group which has sold half a million records worldwide. They sing in Latin, Middle English, French, Italian, Swedish, Scottish English, German, Manx Gaelic, Spanish, Welsh, Bavarian, Provençal, Irish, modern English and Cornish, thank you very much, backed by medieval instruments, including the recorder and cittern, played by the singers or fellow musicians.

And there’s still more. Simon and Benjamin have a younger sister, Joanna, who is a singer and songwriter. And through their mother, Elizabeth, they go back another generation to professional oboist Tamara Sydonie Coates, whose father was conductor Albert Coates, whom the Soviet government appointed “President of all the opera houses in Russia” following the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Anita's psyche survived some of the most unimaginable horrors humans ever experience. She has witnessed the human race at its most degrading; she has watched people gassed and thrown alive into fires and in some cases seen them cannibalizing their fellow inmates in order to survive. It shouldn't surprise anybody (and Anita is the first to admit this weakness) that she was not exactly the most sensitive of parents. Life was especially hard for Maya, who had to put up with, “You don’t need that! Why do you want that?  You’re so materialistic. You don’t need luxury. Why are you putting on make-up?  It’s not surprising that she became a seriously troubled young woman. She pulled herself together eventually, became a psychoanalyst and devotes herself now to studying the effect of trauma across generations.

Here's an interview Maya and her mother gave at the Celebrate Life Festival in August of last year. Anita, and others of the Wallfisch family found their way out of trauma and disorientation through music. Maya took a more directly spiritual route.

There's also this video,  in which Anita appears with her son Rafael, speaking to keep remembrance of the Holocaust alive. The music is quite haunting.

I followed this interest in the Wallfisch family, as I said, because I was seeking an antidote to the cruelty on display in the current Trump administration, trying to shake that word “invader” from my consciousness. As with an awareness of the Holocaust, there is no hiding from reality. We have to face the fact that we have a narcissist for a president whose personal goals include making the most of the latent tribal consciousness that lies just beneath the surface in the American soul, with its willingness to turn opponents into terrorists and invaders (sorry - I know I'm banging too long on this drum, but the word just gets under my skin). 

Seriously. It’s bad enough when you slander a political rival. We’ve come to expect that from politicians. But to slander the downtrodden, those you might expect Trump’s Catholic, Mormon and Evangelical supporters to recognize as “the most vulnerable of God’s children” – that reveals a real vileness of character, it seems to me.

We live in an age of refugees. More than sixty-five and a half million, by UN count. 

We will not be able to solve this problem with a quick fix. But we can be on the right side of history. We can remember the Holocaust. We can meditate on how much poorer the world would be without Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and that remarkable storehouse of talent her family is. And how much other talent went up in smoke because of the scapegoating of the Jews and the lack of a more effective resistance to those who "other" and defame. We can recognize refugees as people and look beyond the 65.6 million figure to see babies taken from the arms of their mothers, who are then made (along with the fathers) to take the blame for “subjecting their infants” to such hardships as trekking through the desert without food and water. Go back, they are told. Go back to where you are raped and threatened, to where your boys are pressed into youth gangs, to where you don’t know where the next meal is coming from.

Framing is everything. If you succeed in labeling somebody as an invader, it doesn't take a whole lot of justification to shoot at them, to keep them from climbing the wall you put in their path. To "defend" your homeland from "invaders," of course you are going to have to kill.

We’ve seen worse evil. The Holocaust was more inhuman, arguably.

But only in degree, if even that. Not in kind.

We weren’t always on the wrong side of history.

photo credits:

No comments: