REVISITING AN EVENTFUL LIFE
WHERE MEMORY LEADS
Author : Saul Friedlander
Publisher : Other Press
The miracle of Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Holocaust scholar Saul Friedlander, now 84, is that after losing his beloved parents to the Auschwitz death camps while he was hidden in a convent on the outskirts of France, his heart did not close. But it never fully opened either. Friedlander was left in the care of nuns when he was only 10. He embraced Catholicism wholeheartedly and was baptized. He was about to prepare to become a Jesuit priest when, at age 16, he was told the truth about his parents’ deaths and his Jewish heritage. His parents were educated and assimilated secular Jews who were born in Prague. They fled to France to escape the Nazis, only to become trapped again. After securing his placement at the convent school, they attempted to flee to Switzerland, but never made it and were deported to Auschwitz. He fled the convent for Israel, where he became an ardent Zionist and a member of Betar, the youth movement of the right-wing Irgun that was led by Menachem Begin. Except for his time at the convent, he has never been religious. He struggles now to remember his parents. His most prominent memory is of being alone in the world.
Friedlander’s first memoir, “When Memory Comes,” was written in 1979. It focused on his early life, his escape to Israel and his attempts to find his place in the world. Forty years later, Friedlander has produced a sequel, “Where Memory Leads: My Life,” in which he confesses that his first memoir painted a far rosier picture of his shaky survival than was the case. One senses that young Friedlander was often uncertain about the authentic essence of his core self. So much of his energy was thrust into creating a false persona of competence to mask the trauma that lay beneath it.
Friedlander has spent most of his life taking medications not only for crippling anxiety and depression, but also for other conditions such as claustrophobia, agoraphobia and debilitating panic attacks. He has suffered as well from a bleeding ulcer that required surgeries and other treatments.
The greatest cost, however, has been his inability to deal comfortably with those closest to him. He married and had children, but he has repeatedly been told that he is emotionally cut off and that his soul is damaged. He finds it far easier to connect with music, cinema or a political cause.
During his years in Israel, he held many jobs that placed him at the center of Israel’s vital beginnings. He worked for the Foreign Ministry, at the Israeli embassy in Paris, and the military attaché’s office where he was privy to top secret dealings between Israel and France as they joined forces against Egypt. In 1958, he worked in Manhattan for Nahum Goldmann, then president of the World Jewish Congress. In New York he met his wife, Hagith Meiry, a pianist whose parents had immigrated to Israel where her father held a prestigious post in the Israeli government. He was working on the problem of a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Most of them, including Friedlander, supported a binational state.
Although these jobs placed him in the center of Israeli political life, Friedlander felt unmoored. He was never completely comfortable as an Israeli or able to embrace the Hebrew language as his own. He wrote his books in English, but insists he has always thought in French, a language he reveres along with French literature.
In spite of a lifetime exploring the Nazi tragedy, Friedlander has not succumbed to nationalist or paranoid impulses. He remains committed to speaking out about injustice wherever he sees it, and Israel is often the target of his attacks. He admits to taking part in the exultation following the Six-Day War, but regrets his past behavior as woefully ignorant. He is ashamed that “I, who of all people should have understood what occupation does to the occupied and the occupier, didn’t see any ‘writing on the wall’ embarrasses me from hindsight. How didn’t I perceive that notwithstanding the economic benefits enjoyed by many Palestinians (the term was not yet commonly used), humiliation was lurking and it was just a matter of time for humiliation to turn into a thirst for revenge, a need to inflict pain on the occupier by any available means? It would lead to repression that would intensify the anger and turn into rage. This is, as we know, the disastrous course that events were to follow. The only thing I perceived soon enough was the danger of moral degradation that the occupation would foster within Israeli society.”
With this new memoir, he seems to have no trouble finding his voice. We are immediately riveted by his fierce intelligence and candor as he reflects upon his long life, finally willing to share his deepest regrets and sorrows. He worries that perhaps he could have been a better and more demonstrative father. He laments the losing of old friends for reasons he did not always understand. He remains troubled by his emotional obtuseness, particularly with those closest to him. One senses he takes the most pride in what he has written about the Holocaust. He feels his work has helped the world understand the pain and suffering of the victims of the Shoah in a way few other historians were able to.
There is a resilience about Saul Friedlander that shouts out to us from each page as he continues to struggle with the turbulence of the world he was born into, and his own, still fragile place in it.