The Pains of Memory

by Theodore Dalrymple (June 2008)


We are enjoined, when we suffer or feel unhappy (which are not necessarily quite the same thing, of course), to consider those who are yet worse off than ourselves. This is supposed to relieve and console us, but it rarely does. The most that it achieves is to make us feel guilty that we are so miserable over comparative trifles when others have so many worse travails than ours; and this in turn makes us feel more wretched than ever. Moreover, there is a curious moral asymmetry at work: while the thought that there are always people worse off than ourselves is supposed to be edifying, the thought that there are always people better off than ourselves is not. Indeed, it is the very reverse, a powerful stimulus to resentment, the longest-lived, most gratifying and most harmful of all emotions.

As children, many of us were told to finish what was on our plate because there were so many hungry people in the world who would have been grateful for what we left. I confess that, at a very early age, I was puzzled by this line of moral reasoning: I did not see how the hungry people of Africa would be helped if I stuffed food I really did not want down my protesting gullet. But a home is not a parliament, and I did, more or less, what I was told.

Youth, it is often said, is a generous age, fully of pity and compassion. I do not agree: I think it is mainly an age of self-pity, when one is inclined to imagine that the problems of growing up are the greatest problems in the world. 1968 in Paris, for example, was all about self-pity, not about making the world a better place. You can see from the photographs that the student rioters were spoilt and narcissistic children, posing carefully for the photographers.

In France, there has been a huge 40th anniversary outpouring of books devoted to the events of 1968, and one in particular caught my eye and angered me: a book of posters and caricatures by the student participants. I opened it, and there was a caricature of de Gaulle, his face revealed as a mask behind which was his real face, that of Hitler. I slammed the book shut in disgust. What whippersnappers the soixante-huitards were!

Shortly afterwards I was taught physiology by a woman called Gerta Vrbova, later a professor. She was very distinguished in her field, neuro-muscular physiology, and world-famous in it: though, of course, you could go a very long way on an average street before you met anyone who knew anything of her subject, or even of its existence.

I regret to say that I was not a very good student, not being gifted in the right fashion and, to be honest, not very conscientious either. I wish now that I had been more attentive, but at the time I was only intellectually aware, not emotionally aware, that time's arrow flew in one direction only. I still thought my life was so long that there would be time for everything, and that no omission on my part would have lasting or irrecoverable consequences.

Everyone in the department knew that Dr Vrbova had suffered greatly in the war, but she never spoke of it. On the contrary, her work appeared far more important to her than her past; most of us were too young, too callow and too spoilt to appreciate the depth of the kind of suffering that she had endured. And so it was with great interest that I recently came across her memoir, Trust and Deceit, quite by chance. It starts with a moving explanation of why she wrote it (in 2006):

   I should like to explain why I now feel the need to extract

   from my memory people, places and events that have

   been buried there for half a century. After all, 'forgetting'

   them was what helped me to live a normal life, pursue my

   career as a scientist and bring up my children, with what I

   hope was minimal damage.

      Yet the burden of my past, the memories of my loving

   family who perished in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany

   and the story of my own survival are now haunting me and

   demanding that they be written down so that they should

   not be irretrievably lost.

Dr Vrbova was born in Slovakia of bourgeois Jewish parentage, speaking German at home and Slovak at school. Her father was a businessman who trusted to the fundamental goodness of his neighbours and fellow citizens, and in the protection of the law, refusing to emigrate despite all the signs of trouble to come, until it was too late. (One of his employees, whom he had always treated well, joyfully took over his business without a qualm when the opportunity arose as  result of anti-semitic legislation, and of course ran it into the ground, just as the new African owners did when Idi Amin confiscated Indian-owned businesses in Uganda.)

The last occasion Dr Vrbova saw her father was in Budapest, whither the family had fled because of the comparatively mild regime of Admiral Horthy. But Horthy was replaced by Hitler because he was not anti-semitic enough, and the subsequent regime grew much more murderous. The last time Dr Vrbova saw her father, he said to her, 'You must forgive me that I have always made the wrong decisions, and brought you into danger. Your mother wanted us to emigrate, but I had too much trust in my fellow citizens...' With dignified poignancy, Dr Vrbova, who was 17 when this happened, writes, 'Somehow I knew that this was the last time I would see him.' And it was.

She and her mother were arrested by the Gestapo, but on the sixth day of her interrogation, Dr Vrbova managed to escape by jumping out of a window while the guard's back was turned. She wanted her mother to go with her, but her mother could not face the danger of escape and stayed behind; she did not really want to live any longer and was deported to Auschwitz where she was gassed.

Remaining at large, Dr Vrbova met up with some young men on the run. One of them fell in love with her and wanted her to sleep with him, but she was not attracted to him and refused. Neither of them had ever had sexual relations; he was killed the next day, and she felt deeply sad for the rest of her life that she had not agreed to give him his moment of ecstasy before he died.

To have made a distinguished career after such experiences (and many others that I have omitted), to have found life still to be worthwhile, to have been able to deal equably with spoilt young middle class students who had experienced nothing remotely comparable to all that she had suffered by the age of 17, and whose idea of conflict and suffering was not being allowed by their parents to stay out after ten o'clock at night, was admirable.

It was her forgetfulness – a very different thing from amnesia – that made it possible. By forgetfulness I mean the decision to put these terribly painful things to the back of her mind. She must have understood that dwelling on them was of no use if she were to live a tolerable life; that if she were not forgetful in that sense, she would never smile or enjoy anything again; but that now that she was approaching the end of her life, things were different:

    I owe those who did not survive the Holocaust, as well as

    those who might benefit from my experience, an account of

    my observations of certain events that took place in Europe

    during those terrible years when a highly sophisticated society

    perpetrated the most horrible crimes in history.  

It was not only because Dr Vrbova taught (or rather, tried to teach) me that I found her book so moving. My mother died in 2005 aged 85. She came to England from Nazi Germany in 1939. Her father was a doctor who evidently had also not seen the writing on the wall, just like Dr Vrbova's father had not. A major in the German army in the First World War, he was a German patriot who had won two iron crosses.

After my mother's death, I found a cache of letters from her father, some from Nazi Germany and the rest (after July 1939) from Shanghai, where he managed to reach with his wife and older daughter. The language in which these letters were written changed abruptly from German to English on 4 September 1939.

The letters from Germany describe, without commentary, his journeys to all the embassies and consulates in search of a visa. It came as a surprise to me, for example, that Haiti maintained a consulate in Nazi Germany. No South American country would accept him; eventually, China did.

In 1942, from Shanghai, he wrote:

   It is a beautiful spring day and the sun is shining brightly. But

   there is no sun bright enough to penetrate the dark clouds

   that are covering the whole earth.


My mother was 21 at the time.

In 1945, she received a letter from her sister asking her in what language she wanted the gravestones of her two parents: German or English?

There was another cache of letters, tied up still in red ribbon. It was of letters from her first fiancé, a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force. Among them was the telegram from the War Office, telling her that he had gone missing in the defence of Malta, and another saying, after an interval of a few weeks, he must be presumed dead. There was also a love letter from Malta, written by him on the very day before he went missing; and a letter from his wing-commander giving an eye-witness account of the shooting down of his aircraft.

I discovered many other things from these letters: for example, that my mother had entered domestic service when she arrived in England in order to survive financially. There are other things too painful to disclose.

Now my mother spoke very little of her past, right up to her death. Her memories died with her. She would speak of her childhood up to 30th January 1933 – that of a bourgeois girl growing up – but there was a complete blank (except that she had seen Hitler in the stadium in the 1936 Olympics) until such time as she had found her feet in England. She gave every appearance of having enjoyed the war.

Most of my mother's suffering was unknown to me. Of course, there were people who suffered much worse than she: she never saw the inside of a concentration or extermination camp, for example. But yet, never to have seen her parents again, to have emigrated, friendless and penniless, to another country at the age of 17, and to have lost her fiancé killed in a war: that is enough for any human being.

She dealt with it by silence. When the Mayor of Berlin invited her back to Berlin towards the end of her life, she accepted, much to my surprise; and she pored over a map of the city, pointing out to me were she lived and where she went to school. When she got there, the streets were there, but she recognised nothing; bombs had razed everything to the ground.

I offered to go with her, but she went on her own. It is an unfashionable truth in these times of psychobabble and emotional intelligence, but a trouble shared is often a trouble doubled. She wanted all that she had seen, and all that she suffered, to go with her to the grave, for she was of the pessimistic view that man never learns, at least from the experience of others. I do not entirely agree, and wish she had said more; but she had earned the right to silence.     

   


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