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Ivan Klima’s Memoir: Where Are the Jews?

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September 18, 2013
by Elaine Margolin Discussed in this essay: My Crazy Century by Ivan Klima. Grove Press, November, 2013, 576 pages. 6a00d8341bfb1653ef0147e1b50541970b-500wiUpon first glance, 83-year-old Czech author and former political dissident Ivan Klima seems a bundle of contradictions. He has been known to be both feisty and impish in interviews, but also cynical and introspective and sometimes sad. He has overcome unthinkable personal hardships, but chooses not to dwell upon the disastrous luck that landed him in the Terezin concentration camp between the tender ages of 9 and 13. Klima is not a religious man, nor prone to spiritual musing like his old friend, the late Vaclav Havel, but he still seems invested in leading an authentic and moral life and readily acknowledging his enduring flaws. He has indulged in countless affairs with women throughout his long marriage to his resilient wife, who is the mother of his two children, but he writes about women without the misogyny and jadedness of MIlan Kundera, whom he once befriended before Kundera fled to Paris in 1975 after his books were banned by the Communists. Ivan Klima never seems to have considered leaving Czechoslovakia, not after Nazism nor during the four-decade-long Communist regime that came after it, not even when he had the opportunity to do so. His compelling new memoir of his long and adventuresome life attempts to explain his fierce connection to both his homeland and the Czechoslovakian language in which he writes. Klima admits to still sleeping with a few slices of apple tucked discreetly into his pajama bottoms and with a scarf over part of his face at night — but he seems somehow to have emerged from Terezin an energetic adolescent, stronger and more sure-footed than he was before arriving there. He has written numerous novels, plays, and essays that all seem to speak to his desire to explore the turbulence that has surrounded him and his efforts to create a better world. Like what you're reading?Klima’s father was attracted to the Communist Party and joined it in 1946 shortly after he, his wife, and their two sons were liberated from Terezin by the Red Army. An engineer who had tremendous expertise in operating machinery, he began zealously spouting the party rhetoric and became intolerant of anyone who challenged his assumptions. Klima idolized his father, who represented for him power and certainty. He recalls an early vivid memory of watching his father prepare to shave with a childlike sense of wonder: “My father seemed larger than life to me. He was strong, with a magnificent thatch of black hair. Each morning he shaved with a straight razor, which I was not allowed to touch. Once, to impress upon me how sharp it was, he took a breakfast roll from the table and very gently flicked it with the blade. The top half of the roll toppled onto the floor.” Klima’s mother was more wary and remained fearful after the war, a trait he admits he projected on to all other women, whether they warranted it or not. His parents hadn’t told him he was Jewish until the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. They had even had him baptized years earlier. After the war, his mother distanced herself further from association with anything remotely Jewish — a trait Ivan Klima also adopted. Although he never makes any concrete assertions about the reasons for this, the reader senses that perhaps his father had been drawn to the heady promises of socialism, with its blurred boundaries, as a sanctuary for Jews like themselves who felt very little connection to their religion or ancient traditions. What remains puzzling however, is Klima’s lifelong disinterest in the particularity of the Jewish tragedy and its predominantly devastating impact on the Jews of Czechosklovakia. Shortly after World War II, Klima suffered a bout of the measles and immersed himself in reading while recovering slowly. After finishing Tolstoy’s War and Peace, he devised his own theory about what constitutes a meaningful existence. He recognized early “that greatness that cannot be measured in terms of good and evil is worthless. It is possible to be happy in life, but whether one manages to or not depends primarily on one’s ability to detach himself from his own suffering and one’s concern for things and property . . .” Klima never possessed the fanatical fervor for Communism his father had, but he found himself caught up with it, and admits that by the 1960’s “we were still not convinced that socialism was an unrecognizable utopia.” His ability to deny certain glaring realities was commonplace among his peers. Even Vaclav Havel, who eventually became the first freely elected president of Czechoslovakia after 1989, struggled to explain to the West the initial excitement many of them felt in trying to create a new world order under the Communists. Havel asked “How, for example, do you recognize the moment when a set of ideas becomes a dead ideology? How do you know when a serious interest in truth about the world is replaced by a mere interest in prestige and by an inordinate pride that does not allow one to alter one’s opinion in the slightest, once it is uttered?” Still, it became clear, soon enough, that things were deteriorating rapidly. Klima’s memoir allows us to feel, alongside him, what it must have felt like to watch your world grow smaller each day as paranoia and suspicion escalated. When Klima’s father was arrested on bogus charges for sabotage related to his activities at the factory where he worked, any remaining illusions about the tyranny they were living under were completely shattered. His father was kept in solitary for nine months, threatened with a twenty-year prison sentence, and then mysteriously freed without explanation. Publishing houses were disappearing, and journalism was no longer a legitimate course of study at the university. Klima had recently married and was a new father, preparing to begin his first novel, when his hopes were temporarily lifted by Khruschev's denuniciation of Stalin in 1956. This encouraged Klima to write a piece for a small publication in which he proclaimed, “Our education has run wild and our thinking has ossified. We have clipped the wings of our own spirit; we have eradicated from the world of philosophy, literature, and art everything that does not correspond to the compartment in which the world was supposed to fit.” These comments promptly got him fired and caused him to resign from the Communist Party. By 1963, Klima had re-joined the Party hoping to make changes from within. He was sent to rural regions in Czechoslovakia, where he was flabbergasted by the ineptitude of the state apparatus. He witnessed massive corruption and the daily lives of party functionaries who pretended to work while spending their days grossly intoxicated. By this time, Poland and Hungary were up in arms against their own Communist regimes, and the vaguest feelings of optimism were once again spreading amidst his friends. Vaclav Havel’s The Garden Party, which parodies the emptiness of official thinking and speech, was published. Klima received permission to travel to the West, where he was overcome by the luxuries so many people had. He was once again ousted from the Communist Party after writing a public letter in support of Ludvik Vaculik, who had attacked the ineptitude of the Communist regime with biting words. Vaculik asserted boldly, “It is obvious that in twenty years no human problem has been solved in this country — from such fundamental necessities as housing, schools, or a flourishing economy to more insubstantial necessities that nondemocratic regimes cannot satisfy, such as the sense of one’s value in society. . . .” By 1968, when Soviet troops invaded Prague, Klima was in the United States and had the opportunity to remain there and teach, but felt compelled to return home. He would spend the next twenty years living in Communist-run Czechoslovakia under harsh conditions, and was forced to take menial jobs in order to survive. The Writer’s Union, which had offered him cultural sustenance in the past, had been banned, but Klima and his compatriots like Vaclav Havel and Josef Skvorecky formed their own informal groups. Their secret meetings were fueled by their combined sense of mission and their hunger for literary and intellectual stimulation. They shared their work, which was illegally printed by hand and passed around among those sympathetic to their cause. These illegal writings became known as samizdat. Some of it was smuggled out of the country and published abroad in Canada, France, and the U.S., which allowed the world an intimate view of the true nature of the Communist regime. One of Klima’s most beloved novels, Love and Garbage, was written during this period, and eventually published abroad. Autobiographical in nature, it tells the story of a man who is forced to give up writing his thesis on Kafka in order to work as a road sweeper who spends his working hours thinking seriously about love and liberty and justice and creative freedom. Klima’s protagonist proudly exclaims, “I still believe that literature has something in common with hope, with a free life outside the fortress walls which, often unnoticed by us, surround us, with which moreover we surround ourselves. I am not greatly attracted to books whose authors merely portray the hopelessness of our existence, despairing of man, of our conditions, despairing over poverty and riches, over the finiteness of life and the transience of feelings. A writer who doesn’t know anything else had better keep silent.” We can hear this same exuberant voice rippling throughout the pages of his memoir. Klima seems to feel most alive when fighting external forces; his creativity blossoms against imposed restraints, and yet he still manages to hold on to his fallible humanity and maintain compassion for others. He also doesn’t shy away from ugly truths, such as the complicity of so many who were forced to compromise their values to survive under the Communists, including himself, and the toll this exacted on the national psyche. In another of his distinguished works, Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light, his hero Pavel tries to get out of Czechoslovakia but is captured and sent to prison. When he gets out, Pavel begins working for a television station and cooperates with the state propaganda machine. He still dreams of being able to freely create programs for television, and finds himself anxiously acquiescing to what is expected of him while still harboring fantasies of revolt. Klima describes Pavel’s predicament as “wretchedness," which was "the lot of those who hadn’t the strength to be honorable nor the courage to be dishonorable.” When capitalism finally arrives in his country, Pavel disintegrates and begins making pornographic movies. He seems even more lost inside himself. He finds himself longing for the days of solidarity when he and his friends dreamed of a better life. Klima’s memoir about his life similarly resonates with the strong vibrations of a man who feels that his best days were the ones he spent in heady conflict with a regime that grew more dangerous as time progressed. Another novel, Judges on Trial, was written in 1978 when interrogations and house searches were growing more commonplace for those under suspicion. Klima’s character, Adam Kindl, is a judge who is opposed to the death penalty and given a case that seems to call out for capital punishment. He believes he is being tested by the regime. He spent his childhood in a Nazi-patrolled Jewish ghetto. His marriage is currently in shreds. He is coming to terms with the depths of the duplicity of the regime for which he had once harbored flickers of hope. “Beneath the veil of time-honored justice," Kindl sees, "the mask of redemptive faith and the smile of holy compassion, was hidden the face of the self same beast as ever . . .” Klima’s characters often find no pleasure in forgetting or escaping; they remain attached to their suffering and sensitive to others. In The Ultimate Intimacy, Protestant minister Daniel Vedra is forced to practice his faith in a small, isolated, rural village. After the revolution, he returns to Prague and becomes famous for his televised sermons. He finds himself pulled away from his faith by temptation and begins an affair that starts to shatter his world. Klima spends a significant portion of his autobiography considering the freedoms 1989 brought, but also what it took from people. He is disturbed by the contemporary cultural shift towards glitzy popular entertainment, and troubled by the intellectual abyss that permeates most lives. The work is compelling, but is missing something vital: Klima seems to forget not only his Jewish heritage, but the Jews as well. He allows them to metaphorically disappear on the page, and this strikes the reader as a brutal, late-life act of self-obliteration, an unforgivable omission that is worthy of examination. The Nazi assault killed more than 300,000 Czechoslovakians, of whom more than 260,000 were Jews, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The people of the Czechoslovakian lands, like the Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, and French, did not attempt to save their Jews, but Klima overlooks this reality. The Terezin camp where Klima was interned for four years along with his family held 140,000 prisoners between 1941 and 1945; 88,000 were sent to death in Auschwitz, the majority of them Jews. The Jews of Central Europe suffered an unimaginable loss, and among the dead were some of the most gifted artists, musicians, composers, and writers who had contributed significantly to the creation of European art and thought. Klima glosses over this. When, early in the memoir, he briefly discusses his internment in the Terezin camp and his learning about Hitler, he adopts an eerie, almost out-of-body voice that stands in stark contrast to the rest of his finely wrought narrative. In 1990, Janet Malcolm wrote a lengthy nonfiction piece in The New Yorker that described her return to Prague in 1990 for Havel’s inauguration. Malcolm, a Czech-American whose family escaped before the Holocaust to America, was excited to return but was still haunted by her own complicated Jewish identity, which she described as tinged with shame and doubt and fear, and occupying “a darker, less accessible, region of my psyche.” Upon arriving in Prague, she befriended Daniel Kumermann, who in 1990 was almost 40 and lived on the outskirts of the city. Kumermann was embarking on a new career as a foreign journalist after spending the past decade as a window washer due to his participation in the dissident movement and his signing of the 1978 Charter, which demanded human rights from Czech authorities for all citizens. In addition to Kumermann’s new career as a foreign correspondent, he had re-embraced Judaism, gotten circumcised, and become a bar mitsve. He told Janet Malcolm about the difficulties of the past years, and how irritated he was by Milan Kundera’s famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which chronicles the times of a window washer in Communist Czechoslovakia who gets to bed many of the women whose windows he washes. Kumermann told Malcolm bluntly that “The women you wash windows for usually regard you as the lowest scum.” He resented Kundera’s attempt to describe, from the safety of Paris, what Kumermann had really endured for over a decade. He took Malcolm to the tiny Jewish Town Hall, which in 1990 was the only place in Prague that served kosher food. Membership at the Jewish Center, he told Malcolm, was nearly 1,000, and there wer approximately 3,000 Jews, mostly secular, left in Prague. There had been 45,000 before the war. Kumermann explained that he was happy finally to be part of this Jewish minority. His father had escaped from Czechoslovakia before the Holocaust and had gone to Palestine, but returned after the war when he found conditions in Palestine too harsh. When the Communists seized power, Kumermann's family suffered, and he recalled his father telling him “It’s not safe. In every generation, there is some problem with being Jewish.” He resented but understood his father’s timidity, and was glad to be able finally to become a Jew who no longer had to hide. Kumermann explained that the Communists had a special Jewish department called the Anti-Zionist Department. Jews were often brought in by the secret police and accused of working with the C.I.A. and the Israeli Mossad. They were harassed and badgered and told during lengthy interrogations that the Communists knew that America was run by Jews. When Kumermann’s father died, he found endless books on the concentration camps and began to read them. He also found out that his paternal grandmother had been murdered at Treblinka. The magnitude of the Holocaust had slowly swept over him, he told Malcolm. His father had always hid his Jewishness; Kumermann no longer wanted to. Kumermann’s story is the necessary and vital subtext missing from Klima’s entire book — not only missing, but ignored. Perhaps an explanation for such a glaring omission can be found in a book of essays, The Spirit of Prague, written by Klima when he was a younger man. In it Klima confesses that as a result of Terezin he recognizes he has built a wall around himself, the “kind of wall behind which you conceal what is fragile in yourself. . . . This is the only way to bear the repeated, despairing, and inevitable partings.” Still, one can’t help hoping that somehow, sometime, somewhere along the line, he might have bumped into his own Kumermann, and found a missing part of himself. Elaine Margolin is a freelance writer and critic whose work has appeared frequently in the Jerusalem Post, Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Forward, and many other papers and journals.