History: Death in Lifeby Max TeichmannNews Weekly
, May 5, 2001
Max Teichmann, a sometime patron of the CafŽ Scheherazade in Melbourne, looks at Arnold Zable's new book about the establishment which reveals the burden of memories of Eastern Europe 50 years ago.
This a story about Memory; revolving around a cafŽ, the Scheherazade, in Acland Street, St Kilda; its owners and the people, mainly Jewish, who come there, sometimes daily, to eat, to drink coffee, read newspapers, watch the other diners, examine passers by in the street outside, play cards, and, in a few cases, trade diamonds. From memory, it sometimes seemed as though everyone was besotted with politics, everyone talking and arguing about the affairs of the day. But, underneath it all, they were remembering. The old ones, from the War, are dying out remorselessly. Their children and grandchildren can try and pass on their memories, but they are already distanced from the source.
Arnold Zable has gone to the source, before the faltering springs stop flowing. He has related the life stories of the owners of this little cafŽ, Avram and Masha Zeleznikov, and those of some of their old customers, and friends. It took our author three years to assemble this collection of episodes. Some of the characters are composite figures.
It has been a worthwhile enterprise, though I felt the narrative flagging a little near the end. Perhaps the sheer weight of evil recalled, of sadness, the injustice, and irreparable loss - the terrible, terrible waste of human life, and the permanent extinction for many of our survivors, of hope, and optimism, qualities which should be our birthright - conspired to produce a sensation of numbness, a certain kind of hopelessness, in the mind of at least this reader. You start to yearn for the end of the story, although you know that there are hundreds of other tales rather like these, demanding to be told. They wait, behind the eyes of every second person you meet from that doomed War generation.
These chronicles are about what happened to people unlucky enough to be born in certain plague spots - wartime central and Eastern Europe, the Baltic States, and Russia/Ukraine, who were singled out for humiliation, incarceration, torture, and destruction. The survivors live in many places, some in Melbourne, and Zable recounts the life and death experiences of some of these Scheherazade Jews.
I should add that I have gone to Scheherazade for many years, on and off. One should not expect the customers there to be buttonholing you with their stories - on the contrary - it obviously took the author a long time to win the confidence and extract the memories of his subjects. It is all so painful, yet once the tongues loosen, then his survivors talk freely - indeed you sometimes sense that Zable had trouble in stopping the flow, once it started.
The action begins in Vilna, or Wilno, as the Poles called it, for it was made part of the new Poland between the Wars. The Tsarists had held it before 1914; and it only reverted to being Lithuania's main city after the Russian and then German invasions at the beginning of World War II. Its inhabitants had to survive Communist occupation and deportations, then Nazi occupation, persecution and deportation, then the triumphant Russia return, with revenge and more deportations. After which time the Baltic countries remained under Communist occupation for almost 50 years. As countries they seemed virtually ruined, with Estonia now perhaps faring better than the rest because of its connections with Finland.
It is difficult to put a figure on how many Balts were removed, by death, or deportations, to Siberia and the Gulags, or who fled, to become exiles throughout the world. Perhaps as many as three millions out of seven. Very few Jews remained in the Baltic States by war's end, any more then they did in Poland. They were dead or gone - mainly dead.
Most of the action in this book takes place in Poland and Russia, but there is one extraordinary account of the Jews, and others, who finished up in Shanghai, survived under the Japanese, but had to scatter when the Chinese Communists turned up.
Many of these Polish and even Baltic Jews were Bundists - that is, Jewish socialists - whose political philosophy was more social-democrat or Trotskyist than Stalinist. They fought in the Partisan groups against the Germans, they willingly obeyed orders from Moscow and the NKVD, and only at or near the war's end did they realise that they too were politically incorrect, so enemies of the state, just like the Polish nationalists. It was then that many of them fled to Palestine, or the West. Others remained under the new Communist Government of Poland, and helped it. But the Kielce pogrom in 1946 convinced many of these Polish Jews that Poland would never be free of anti-Semitism; so, they would never be welcome, or feel safe. So they left too.
There is a kind of story line running through this book - the romance between Avram and Masha, who unlike so many others, survived to live happily ever after, in St Kilda, of all places, where they turned a milk bar into the CafŽ Scheherazade. It became a magnet for lonely men, those who had often lost all their families; a little piece of old Europe, where they could imagine, for a brief time, that they were back in Vilna, or Warsaw.
Many of the men who survived were more or less ordered to leave by their families, before the trap shut - told by their parents, sometimes even by wives with children. Why should everyone have to die - and a young fit man had at least a chance. Anyway, hopefully, those left would survive, and they would all be reunited. Few really believed it, but urged their sons and lovers to take off anyway.
The subsequent guilt and grief remains, forever, in the hearts of such survivors. The faces of loved ones, the little houses they had left, the final goodbyes, would appear, unbidden and unwanted, in sleep, in repose, or in the middle of conflict.
Readers will doubtless remember the film and novel Sophie's Choice when the mother, with two young children, is told by the SS man that she can only keep one - the other will be taken away. She has five minutes to choose. I hadn't realised that this practice was quite widespread, and one surviving woman said that the men who did this, appeared to be enjoying their role. Many of the women forced so to choose, subsequently went insane.
In the fighting between partisans and Germans, Poles and Ukrainians, even among different sections of the Resistance, none of the rules of morality or of war seemed to have been observed by anyone - no distinctions between men, women or children, combatants or non-combatants.
There is a description of a Partisan attack upon a village which refused to take sides, just wanted to be left alone, but which was prepared to kill anyone, Partisans, Germans, or whatever, who came into their demesne. Moscow sent orders to punish these peasants, as a lesson to the others. Avram describes the complete destruction of that village, men, women, children, even the farm animals, by his unit. I'm afraid barbarism was not confined to one side, anymore than the slaughter of collaborators, informers or suspected sympathisers. The Baltic States, Poland, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine descended into an abyss of cruelty and evil, which marked, and changed everyone who lived there.
It sometimes seemed as though the Nazis only provided the catalyst, the pretext, for local bastardries. And the NKVD legitimised its own variety of wiping out enemies of the people, i.e. of the Party, for people wanting to pay off old scores, or simply to act out their cruelty.
So Zable's survivors have stared into Hell. There's a saying somewhere that if you stare into an abyss long enough, you'll fall into it. Maybe the time has come for us to stop staring, and stop telling our children they have a duty to keep staring.
Meanwhile, the Scheherazade still stands, an island in a sea of takeaways and shops with no connection with Eastern Europe, or Yiddishkeit. The owners have retired, after 41 years, but you can still eat Jewish food, and some of the old clients will be there when I lunch, in a week's time, with a couple of fellow Goyim.