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They Changed the Locks

 

A liar has many points to his favour,—but he has this against him, that unless he devote more time to the management of his lies than life will generally allow, he cannot make them tally.

― Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (1875)`

 

When Fascism came into power, most people were unprepared, both theoretically and practically. They were unable to believe that man could exhibit such propensities for evil, such lust for power, such disregard for the rights of the weak, or such yearning for submission. Only a few had been aware of the rumbling of the volcano preceding the outbreak."

― Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (1941)

 

My historian husband reassures me that left wing-right wing surges are cyclical, and that Planet Earth and the Universe, now protected by NASA from asteroid collision, will right itself. But in the 20-odd days I have not written a regular blog post, at least two fascist leaning leaders (small or capital F, your choice) have ascended to the Parliaments of Sweden and Italy respectively, and Masha Amini was  killed by the "morality" police in Iran. What the American Senate looks and feels like to me, a child of refugees from fascism is, in some ways, much worse: it is a clear and present danger to the fabric of American life which so many in emerging democracies or autocratic tyrannies still regard as their beacon of hope. Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale vision is no longer a vision, it's a reality in America. Our Supreme Court is our morality police. How many women will die as a consequence of their rulings?

 

So. let me proceed with the thought expressed in the title of this post: It feels as though I've been on vacation, had a wonderful time, and returned to find strangers in the house and the locks changed. Is that too dramatic? I don't think so. Were we not paying attention? Were our expectations of peace and prosperity and personal freedom delusional? Are these rhetorical questions?

 

Years ago, when I was in college, my not yet husband worked for AP at the Republican Convention in San Francisco. It was before digital photography and he was tasked with running film back to the main office. At the photographer's side, he mingled with all the politicians, including Richard Nixon. All he can remember from that encounter was Nixon's make-up, more than any other politician facing the cameras that day. What was Nixon hiding under all that make-up? A lot, as it turns out.

 

Who goes into American politics these days anyway? Good people, ambitious people, smart people. Many want to "serve their country." Up here in Ulster County we have a new Congressman, Pat Ryan, two tours in Iraq, he was an excellent Ulster County Executive. I interviewed him for the local paper, HV1, in the presence of his campaign manager, which troubled me, not the interview, just the attempt to control the flow of information, as I have written here before. Ryan withstood the scrutiny and I was more than pleased he won. But watching him introduce legislation this week to guarantee medical abortion pills through the mail, I cheered him, but also felt dismayed; he didn't sound authentic, he sounded scripted, even more scripted than on the day I had interviewed him. As a citizen and a writer, I protest at the celebrity packaging of our honest, well- meaning, albeit ambitious politicians. I want them to feel real to me.  

 

This post is dedicated to Masha Amini, the brave people of Iran, and the Ukrainians, all of whom are fighting to the death for their freedoms.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 96

Into nature for a much-needed break from the virtual classroom and Zoom meetings. 

 

Photo ©copyright Carol Bergman 2022

    

In Person

 

 

We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.
         

― Marshall McLuhan

 

 

I remember the last day in March 2020 I taught a workshop at NYU in person, a Wednesday, mid-week, the first week of the month. I'd taken the Trailways bus into Port Authority, as usual, and stopped into my favorite café to review my students' manuscripts and the reading I had assigned. This last pre-Zoom class is embedded in me, an iconic memento of "before Covid," though even that last class was disrupted by news of a strange as yet un-named ailment that had afflicted at least one member of the workshop who had traveled overseas on business in the days between one class and another. I felt uneasy, more so when I listened to the news about a strange virus in Wuhan when I got home that night.

 

I am the child of two doctors and know as much as any lay person of my generation wants to know about viruses. My sister and I were out of the city every polio summer and the first in line to get both the Salk and then the Sabine vaccines. Windows were open in our apartment summer and winter. Anyone who had trained to be a physician before the cause and cure for tuberculosis was discovered—and beyond—understood the importance of ventilation and resisted sealed windows and interior ventilation systems when they became the architectural fashion.

 

I called the Chair of my department the next morning and said I was feeling uneasy, something was going on. When I asked if I could teach my class online the following week, I was told I'd be terminated—terminated, what a word—if I didn't finish out the term in person. That was interesting. Apparently admin had been getting a lot of similar phone calls and had already decided on their policy—threaten termination.

 

As an active ACT-UAW union member, the adjuncts union at NYU where more than 75% of the faculty is adjunct, I called the shop steward who, in turn, called the union lawyer. I am sure many adjuncts also put in a call; by Tuesday of the week of March 8, the university had gone remote.

 

So that was the first chapter of my Zoom classroom experience, which continued to just this past week when I taught my first in-person class since that fateful month of March, 2020. I organized a "new" booster and got to work planning a "new" writing workshop in celebration, something I have never taught before: Haiku.  

 

A haiku is three simple lines. It distills emotion, sharpens the mind, and creates a sensation of mindfulness and serenity. When Covid lockdown began, I returned to Haiku in my morning journaling, adapting the form to suit each day's mood and challenge. When lockdown eased, I continued the practice, as I still do today. So, I thought, why not teach something life-affirming as we re-enter life, not as we once knew it, but as it has become.

 

Last Tuesday was our first "Haiku Circle" get together, sitting—albeit  still distanced—in  a community room in a local library. How I'd missed the three dimensional contact, the unexpected gesture, the tone of voice, a bashful smile. Is there any way to tell if a person is sad or bashful on Zoom if we have never met before? I don't think so.

 

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Tibor Spitz, The Holocaust, and Me

Tibor & Noemi Spitz photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2022

 

TIBOR SPITZ, THE HOLOCAUST, AND ME

 

 

Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it.

-Primo Levi 

 

The wound is the place where the Light enters you.

 

-Rumi 

 

 

I first met Tibor Spitz at the opening of his retrospective at the Unison Arts and Learning Center in New Paltz, NY in late August, 2022. One of the co-founders of the center, Helene Bigley, and my Covid walking partner all those difficult months, insisted I meet him. The gallery had re-opened, a celebration. But when she told me that Tibor is a Holocaust survivor from Slovakia, I resisted. Over the years, as Second Generation, I've written a lot about the Holocaust, my own family's story, in particular, and done what Helen Epstein in her book, Children of the Holocaust, calls the "emotion work" for the family. As Epstein writes, many of the survivors kept their stories hidden from their children and from themselves. When the Second Generation began to ask questions, and were met with silence or denial, the family dynamics often shifted. Mine certainly did. Once I found out the truth about my murdered relatives, particularly my maternal grandmother, Nanette, who was killed at Auschwitz in her fifties, I became enraged.

 

I read and wrote nonstop for many years about the Holocaust, or the Holocaust surfaced in my work unexpectedly as I was writing about other things. I felt it was my mandate, as a writer, to bear witness and document the genocide in a way my parents could not. Eventually, after a lot of writing and therapy, my rage eased and I became interested in international peace-making, truth and reconciliation, conflict resolution and human rights initiatives.

 

Now older, I am protective of my equilibrium and do not read or write much about the Holocaust anymore, though, oddly, I enjoy German films and contemporary German authors, such as Jenny Erpenbeck,  in which there is a reckoning with the fascist and communist past. (She is East German). Indeed, this is my first foray back into the subject for many years. It's not that the killing fields have faded from memory, only that I can manage the specter of the atrocities and my personal losses if I remain somewhat distanced and self-protective. So, I told my friend Helene that I wouldn't come to Tibor's opening. But then I went anyway, not for fear of disappointing her, but because my curiosity was peaked when I looked Tibor Spitz up online, and saw his paintings. If Chagall had been a pointillist, he would have painted like Tibor Spitz.  I write about art and artists a lot. Why had I never heard of Tibor as an artist before? His canvases and ceramics are masterpieces. Indeed, he is a renowned artist in New York State's mid-Hudson Valley, and beyond. Not to mention, that he is probably one of the only living Holocaust survivors in the mid-Hudson Valley. As is his wife, Noemi. How could I not meet them?

 

The room was crowded, just about everyone unmasked, except for me and one or two others, as they are these days. Helene spotted me and dragged me over to meet Tibor, a short, muscular man who reminded me both of Picasso and my Austrian- born father. At 93-years-old, Tibor could be my father. And it wasn't only his body, but the shape of his head, the shape of my head, the fulness of the lips, which resembles the Egyptian reliefs of Akhenaten, visually confirming DNA ancestry analysis: we are North African.

 

Tibor pointed at my mask aggressively and said, "Why are you hiding behind that?" and pulled me towards him in a big bear hug.

 

Hiding. It was the perfect description of my mood.

 

I decided to leave, only to return a few days later when Tibor and Noemi were scheduled to do a "gallery sit." I was determined to face his complicated survival story, and to listen to it without interruption;  he and his family had lived for seven months underground in a forest dug-out, no more than  a mound of reinforced earth, overlooking  Dolný Kubín, a mountainous region of northern Slovakia, near the Polish border. They subsisted largely on frozen berries and edible roots, dodging Nazi police patrols. Although he didn't become an artist until he retired as an chemical engineer for IBM in 1968,  he'd always wanted to be an artist, and repeated and stored the mystical stories his cantor father told him when he was a boy, even more so in hiding. "If I hadn't been able to imagine something else, I would have gone insane," he says.

 

This time the gallery was not crowded. I stood back, notebook in hand, and listened to Tibor talking to a woman about a ceramic image of horses she was interested in buying and heard him say, "To help people feel good is the only thing worth doing. Horses are serene creatures and they are vegetarian."  That gave me pause. Tibor Spitz has found happiness in his work and in sharing his work with admirers. Plus, his remark was humorous. He is neither bitter, nor enraged. I want to get to that peaceful place as I age, I thought.

 

Eventually, everyone in the gallery left, and there was still some time before closing, so I suggested to Tibor and Noemi that we sit in a circle a bit distanced so I could take off my mask. One of my hearing aids failed, and Noemi offered to put in a new battery, then instructed me on prolonging its life. 

 

It was now a family gathering. We sat alone, surrounded by Tibor's powerful work talking about painting, writing practice, and the redemptive power of making art. Tibor's work exudes more strength than pain, even a bit of whimsy at times. And the ceramics, in their two dimensionality, bring the faces and bodies from Tibor's memory and imagination to eternal life. 

 

Tibor Spitz: A Retrospective: Stories, Remembrances," curated by Simon Draper and Faheem Haider, at the Unison Art Gallery in New Paltz, NY will run through September 18.  Call to make an appointment: (845) 255-1559

 

 

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