Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Memory Book

The Professor and I would meet almost everyday while he was in Budapest at the Odeon café. It is in one of the town’s Jewish quarters, though not in any way a Jewish place itself, managers, its employees, customers not Jewish for the most part. Across the street on the corner was the Broadway ticket office, made famous earlier in the year. A member of a neo-Nazi group went in to buy a ticket to a concert, and was told the concert was sold out. He believed the Jewish owners of the agency wouldn’t sell to him because he wasn’t Jewish. He or someone else returned at night to smash the shop’s window, and began organizing on the internet a demonstration against Jews to be held outside the shop. A counter demonstration was organized, the police themselves made a demonstration of force blocking the street with barricades. There were thousands of agitated people on the street. On that day the professor and I were both meeting with the women in our life at the Odeon, and all four of us found ourselves standing outside the café looking on at this stupidity, asking ourselves what we were doing there, two Jews, what we were doing there with these women, two avowed anti-Semites. Later the professor asked me,

- Why do you think we both have gotten involved with anti-Semitic lovers? Are we self destructive?

- I think the women chose us, and we accepted.

- Why did they choose us if not because they could sense that we were self destructive? That we would accept them?

- They chose us because they love us. They love us because they admire what they think Jews are doing, and they wish they could do themselves. We accepted them because we love being loved.

- Loved for bad reasons. We really are self-destructive.

- Sometimes when I am sitting here drinking coffee, reading, one of the café managers passes by and says softly to himself in a stage whisper, “the Jew is back”. He is enjoying himself.

You haven’t read the essay yet I sent you? On Plato’s Republic? No, of course not. I wrote that I thought the book was saying that a perfect society is unlivable because a perfect society establishes its order on what is visible to strangers - public roles - and this leaves out almost everything that makes life good, our love for individuals, our creating something new, our freedom in other words.

Theorists of religion say society is imperfect because there would be no free will in a perfect society. Unlimited freedom is open to us in trying to make a perfect society, but there is a problem for the those who look ahead to living in perfect fellowship with others: how can they reconcile the good fellowship aimed at in the perfect world with the obviously intolerant destructiveness used to make that world? Usually the makers of the future perfect society lie to themselves, work at forgetting what they are doing, cover up what they are doing with vague, official sounding formulas.

The anti-Semite envies the Jew for escaping from this dilema, for in his view the Jew has already achieved, in his successful international conspiracy, a society perfectly ordered and perfectly functioning, and all the while enjoys preying on non-Jews, in this separate realm of activity expressing his individual freedom; his private social life with his own people is kept pure from the antagonism inflicted on strangers.

Anti-Semitism is a program to imitate what is imagined as the Jewish perfection of life strategy. So it seemed to me, I explained to the Professor.

He expressed his doubts. What did my wife say?

My wife had in fact told me she admired Jews for their having a close community, unlike the Hungarians, and also they get to break all the rules. If she could hear me talking now, she would say that just like a Jew I am stealing her ideas, to be used for my own Jewish purposes.

- You really think that these women are with us because they want to be like us?

- Why do they hate us too, then? That's your question?

- Yes.

- When they convince themselves that they are being treated by us as outside of the family. That we act towards them as Jews to non-Jews. They respond with anti-Semitism.

- You and me are playing a dangerous game with them.

He was prophetic. For shortly afterwards his lover, who was a 38 year old student taking one of his classes in Human Rights Law, was accusing him to the newspapers and television News Programs of destroying her life, misusing his power as a teacher. And my wife had sent the Budapest police after me, accusing me of attempted trespassing on the apartment where we lived together.

I had been to the Police station with a Canadian-born Budapest practicing criminal lawyer, who pointed out to the investigating officer that a husband trying to go home to the place where he lived with his wife was not a crime. The officer agreed, but said, “we’re investigating.” She wanted to know how much money I made, whether or not I had a driver’s license, if I was a teacher of English. She looked to be no more than 20 years old. Showed no expression on her face at all. Her lunch was in a paper bag sitting on her desk. Soon after, three policemen delivered a letter at the hotel I was staying, in which new charges were made against me, including impersonating government officials, and ordering me to appear at another interrogation. I had no intention of going. I sent the Professor a message asking him to meet me at the Odeon.

I was getting out, not knowing where exactly I was going, and wanted to hand over to him for safe-keeping my manuscripts, but especially the Book of Memories I had found outside the café a few nights before.

It was the semi-annual “store-room clearing day”, on which larger unwanted things could be left on the street outside your house to be picked up without charge. On this rainy night the street was lined on both sides with piles of beds, tables, chairs, televisions, lamps, overcoats, and much else. Just down the block from the café entrance I saw a crate filled with plastic video cassette boxes, but sitting on top an old cloth bound notebook, large rains drops staining the cover in widening circles.

This it turned out was a young girl’s “memory book”, which she had taken around to friends, family, teachers for them to write down advice, encouragement, quotations, and unusually, paint pictures in and ornament with professional attention. The entries dated from 1938 to, the last, in 1941. The dates spoke louder than anything else.

My guess was that the book’s owner had left the book behind, and she had fled Budapest in a hurry just as now I had to flee, -- though of course my circumstances were a joke compared to what she faced at those times.

I left the memory book and manuscripts with the Professor. But when he returned home to England, he found the the news media camped on the lawn outside his house in Stratford, Shakespeare country. He had become an unwilling celebrity thanks to his student-love. He went into hiding. I got worried about the memory book, my e-mail to him wasn’t being answered. Finally he surfaced, explained the circumstances of his persecution. I gave the details of mine: I was safe back in the United States, but the Budapest police has issued a warrant for my arrest.

The memory book was at the office of a Hungarian publisher of books of Jewish interest. Unfortunately they were going bankrupt, according to their editor in Israel whom I contacted asking for information: they didn’t answer e-mail, answer their telephone, answer their door.

Months passed. Finally last week the Professor had his research assistant in Budapest retrieve the book from the office of the publisher, and it arrived safely by express currier here in Los Angeles and its temporary home at the Library of the Simon Wisenthal Center.