Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Arendt and Refugees

Attended a very good seminar by colleague LS on Hannah Arendt's short piece of 1943, 'We Refugees'. We note the quality of irony and bitterness, we note the treatment of refugees and think about statelessness: Arendt's condition at the time she wrote the essay. Naturally, since she was a Jew, we think about the Jews, about what it must have been like to want to assimilate, to aim to lose your Jewishness by conversion or by simple, contrived, and continued neglect, and then for all that to go out of the window, and have the world decide, the cosmopolitan dream of Europe decide, that it is not in your hands, that blood will out, and you must be what they tell you your blood must be. Scum. Poison. Pollution. Death. But that too goes by, and people get on to what they are really interested in, the matter that will put them indubitably in the right, which is to say international law, and the generalised support for refugees in general.

In the essay Arendt is deeply bitter about being treated as 'a refugee' despite the great desire of Jews to be more patriotic than the patriots, to be more willing to assume the identity that will bring them into a larger community. She loathes the term 'refugee'. Given all this, and given the restrictions on freedom, the distrust, the unwillingness to absorb and regard as purely human, the Jews smile and joke and commit suicide.

I remark that by 1944 most Jews would have given anything to be refugees and allowed to suffer a few minor deprivations. Arendt, of course, was never interned in a concentration camp. She did not personally know that level of dehumanisation. Being treated as 'a refugee' is a slur on her human dignity. I also remark that Imre Kertész who won the Nobel Prize in 2002 and who was actually interned in Auschwitz at the age of fifteen, wrote his book Fatelessness, (a good rhyme for statelessness) about his experiences there and has spent his life since writing books in which he seeks a language that would not be a betrayal. But no one there has read Kertész.

I don't know why I mention any of these things. One woman refers to the case of people who discover late that they are Jews, because that fact had been kept from them.

I say nothing by now. For all kinds of, no doubt, irrational reasons I feel my life is being torn from me strip by strip, like bits of Velcro. In any case there is a serious disturbance about the heart. When, as LS mentions, Virginia Woolf suggests in 1938 that it doesn't matter whether women support liberal democracy or fascism because middle class women like her are having such a dreadful time, I feel a rising hatred for her. Privileged and racist, I think. But then I reason she didn't know what was happening, how could she have known?

The fact is, I think the camps are now treated as an old horror story, something of a bore. Let us move on to other matters. By all means let us move on to other matters.


dana said...

Gods, I don't even know. This fiction/memoir sounds amazing. But I read Anne Frank as a kid. I saw Schindler's List (with a rabbi in training -- he could hardly walk out of the theater). And I've heard Elie Wiesel speak. Must I read this? I can say all of the above are outstanding works of art. But I never want to see or read or hear them again.

My parents may just be perfect for one another. They are both supremely uninterested in family history. They are scientists. I'm finding myself having to remember the stories my grandparents told by myself. And doing a fairly poor job.

Fortunately, my family and my husband's Jewish ones, made it to the US before the war. I'm old enough that for me as a kid, it was always "the war."

There's something here about one's past, connections and disengagements. You can't help but to have both at the same time, maybe. And even if you cut it off, or someone cuts it off for you, it's still there.

Thanks. Hope you're feeling enough settled to get some sleep or some good writing in. one or the other.

George S said...

Kertész's book is more than a Holocaust memoir, Dana. It is, I think, on a par with Primo Levi's books as an attempt to give shape to the whole via a thorough literary consciousness. Dates and events there are, but there is much more. It is not a straight account. And Tim Wilkinson's translation of Fatelessness is very good.

Kertész understands that there is a real set of events before 'the Holocaust' is named, and that naking is a form of diminishing and consigning. It is the pre-named condition he is excavating, beautifully, lightly, faintly ironically, not in the way Arendt is being ironic.

Of course, this does not apply only to the Holocaust but to anything. But it has a real importance when it comes to a crime of this magnitude.