It was around this time of the year, perhaps a week earlier, but much colder than today in Prague, from where I write. It’s Auschwitz 1945, and my grandfather and namesake, Karel Weiss, a gentle 42 year-old violinist, is summoned from his bunk. The Russian army is advancing like a steady drumbeat to liberate the camp. The Nazi's are anxious to hide their crimes. The world would soon add another word to its lexicon, that of genocide.
The great Italian novelist Primo Levi describes this moment, a decision point. While the camps' guards mustered 56,000 prisoners for the dead-Winter march further behind German lines, and the beastly ovens were dynamited, some like Levi feigned typhus. These thousands of living dead were abandoned by the Germans as too ill to move. Levi would survive the contagion around him and live to write If This Is A Man, his brilliant, relentless, black and white, sober account of the Nazi death machine, their Final Solution in which my grandfather was caught. Unlike Levi, Karel joined the road with his damned fellows.
When the war ended in May, the Europe imagined as the Third Reich lay dazed, ruined, and famished. People in Prague were hungry not just for food but for word of their loved ones. Each day that summer and into the autumn, my 15 year-old father and his mother took turns to stand at the crossroads at the bottom of Wenceslaus Square. Today it’s one of the most glamorous tourist spots in this glittering city. Then, the ragged, beaten, tortured, and horrified, those who had survived the inferno of cruelty, the ovens and the gas chambers, trudged from all over Europe, hoping that at journey’s end they would find others of their families who had not perished.
My father at war's end with his mother
One day my father skipped the wait. When his mother returned home that day she said simply to him, “Son, your father won’t be coming home.” By truck, cart, and foot, a cousin who had marched with my grandfather and survived past the German defeat had made it back to his home in Prague, and to that crossroads to deliver the grim news. He reported that Karel had simply run out of energy and fallen by the roadside into a snowy bank. I hope he slipped peacefully into his early death, but he was probably shot where he lay as was the habit of his gaolers.
My father died six months ago in Australia, in a bed of white sheets and a bank of pillows, surrounded by the people who loved him. As a 17 year-old refugee from war in Sydney, my father told me that for the first years of his new life he would be startled by the face of his father in the crowds in Martin Place, or on a bus. He couldn’t shake the habit of searching crowds for Karel’s face. He must have seen him many times, for Australia was brimful of the flotsam of war in those days, skinny Jews and haggard Slavs with hope in their wide eyes. My father told me that he thought of his father every day for the rest of his life.
When I was a small boy of four or so, my father gave me a gold watch. He pointed out the inscription of grandfather’s name, and told me that I bore the same moniker – Gordon Karel Weiss. It had been his watch, and now it was mine. At that young age, somehow, I was inducted into that tribe we have come to learn more about, the children of 'survivors,' epigenetic products of that flotsam who washed up on the shores of Australia, Canada, Argentina, and the U.S. after the war (and after many wars since), marked in a strange unconscious rite by the experience of our parents.
My father, at 5 or so with Karel, around 1934
My father swore that he would never forgive the Germans. While I had a German girlfriend and many German friends who courageously bore their national sorrow, and I held a love for Berlin that came easily, and for the music, literature, and great civility of that nation, my father pronounced that the Germans were “marked with blood for seven generations.” Forever unforgiving, as he died over those months, my usually mild father thundered to me and circles of his friends that his stone marker should bear the words “Here lies Zdenek Weiss who survived the Germans when 57 of his family did not.” I don’t know if graves use exclamation marks, but it was there in those Ozymandian words.
I have never identified especially as a Jew, but I have always identified with the shadow that hovered over the life that my grandfather's fate decreed for me. When I wrote my own book on human cruelty and dedicated it to Karel, my favourite review (of the many great reviews ;-) said that the book was a “parable of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.” Indeed, it was a work driven by my view of life, the thin membrane between civility and barbarity, borne out by my travels into war and conflict, but even more mundanely by the experience of ordinary work where, too often, I had to forgive the bullying and the human urge to dominate and diminish others with the words, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
In hospital, there was one fussy nurse who wouldn’t let my father alone. A beer-truck of a woman with bottle-top glasses, she hushed and tucked, and gently pressed the tablets into my father’s mouth, and told us how she adored my father and his solicitous manners, never in a foul mood. “You know she’s German don’t you?” my father said to me one day shortly before he died. Then, “I was wrong you know. I’ve taught people to hate them all my life, but she had nothing to do with it. She was a child. I’m so ashamed.”
With my old man in Barcelona, around 2002
I’ve been writing this thousand words all my life, and yet it wasn’t really the story I wanted to write. I wanted to be an actor and a singer, a musician like Karel and to make films, and to laugh beyond the shadow. I chose an odd path, and often the more difficult road instead of the easier. I didn’t intend to, but I hurt people en route, even those I loved most, too often and despite my own essential nature. I’ve been silly, and conceited, and defensive, and greedy, and I seem to have amassed a large repertoire of human frailties, despite my earnest desire otherwise.
My father’s final lessons were a mixed repertoire too. He died bravely, but he committed subterfuge that denied his daughters their rightful inheritance. He was a confounding man, but for me among his best moments was his last, when he chose to stop blaming those people innocent of his father’s death, to look himself square in the face, and to confront his own sense of shame. After all, many of his fellow survivors, beautiful women with tattoos on their wrists who raised me into the air as an infant while their successful or ruined husbands looked on, had made the choice decades ago not to burden themselves with that hate. My father slipped in under the wire, just.
When I undertook my own modest 'death' march this summer on the Camino de Santiago to expiate my sins and absorb my father's death, I stopped one day in a country road in the middle of Spain and I was flooded with the desire to sing of the other life that I had missed, that road not taken. Then, in the golden sunset of that plain, with sunflowers to my left and vineyards to my right, I danced the syrtaki, Zorba’s dance, spontaneously and ecstatically with just an audience of goats and dogs. I remembered the Cretan’s immortal line: “Life is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.” That, I have managed well. But – I like to think – I did so with the hum of my grandfather’s violin in my heart, the song he would have played if trouble had not found him.
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