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The Banality of Evil Redux

My cousin, Lily Sobotka, murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was a performer.



Who somebody really was. That was the Zone of interest.

― Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest




I woke in the night in the midst of a seminar inside a dream about The Zone of Interest, not the award-winning movie, but the 2014 book by the British writer, Martin Amis. In this dream, the participants were gathered around a large circular table in The Hague, and we had an assigned task: to determine if the film was a viable book-to-film adaptation, and to assess its impact on our deadened psyches as we teetered towards fascism in the United States and tolerated atrocity in Gaza, one atrocity compounding another. There was no food, no water, in the wasteland of my dream, only men and women of varying ages, sizes and nationalities taking turns in an unknown pecking order to expound their theories. But the discussion was not theoretical; our lives were at stake.


I was not surprised to have had a complex dream about the movie, which continues to haunt me in the daylight hours as I sit down to write about it. The opening sequence—a black screen with the hum of the crematoria revving up, screams, clattering shovels and guns, is so unsettling that I almost stopped breathing. When an image finally emerged, I could hardly concentrate. Was this a garden? A walled-in garden with children playing and flowers in abundance?  But once "the Commandant" appeared, I knew what I was looking at: his home behind the wall of the death camp, killing on an industrial scale, the graveyard of my grandparents and many other relatives.


For years, whenever I saw the grainy photos or newsreels of Auschwitz, I feared recognizing my grandmother Nanette's face. I imagined that I heard her screams. Now I am certain that I did hear them in the soundtrack of Glazer's astounding film.


Sometimes a friend or relative will mention they are going to visit Auschwitz on the way to or from somewhere else, perhaps Paris, the city of light, or Rome, or Barcelona, equally beautiful. I can't say, "Have an enjoyable journey," or "I hope the sun shines brightly on the day you are at Auschwitz."  I might think, silently, "Please don't show me any photographs when you return." And, these days, "Please don't post anything on Facebook or Instagram." And, now, this film in my living room, piercing my heart.


My husband had suggested we watch it early in the evening to create a buffer before bedtime with something lighthearted—a comedy, perhaps? But as the film wound down and we were left with the echo of the crematoria's efficient engines in our ears, we were both distraught. I made some tea and we talked. I had already decided that the film was a masterpiece, an evocation of the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt described it. I was therefore surprised when my husband did not agree. His reaction was visceral and strong: "We should not be shown murderous monsters as normal or happy without juxtaposing them with images of the horrors inside the death camp."


This assessment gave me pause; it has merit. But, for me, the smoke, the rooftops, the gunshots, the screams and the dissonant blue summer sky was enough. More than enough. As Naomi Klein wrote in a review of the film for The Guardian, "The concentration camp and the family home are not separate entities; they are conjoined." Indeed, it is their historic fate. So, too, Israel and Palestine; they are conjoined.


In the dream I had after watching the movie, we had  entered the infamous gate to the death camp, a windswept, gray day, ashes underfoot swirling around us. And my parents were forcing me to stand in the ashes and to look at the barracks and the crematoria in the distance, the barbed wire around us. In this dream, as in life, unless I witnessed what my family had endured and survived, I would no longer exist myself, I would be worthless to them, and to myself. 




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The Books Inside Us

 My Bookworm is having a grand time protecting some of my publications. He has an appetite for books but refuses to cull or devour any of them. He likes the way they look on the shelf. It's cozy there.  photo © Carol Bergman 2024




Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves.

 Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader


Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It's like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture's books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.


― Susan Orlean,  The Library Book





Once again, I have been culling books. I'm not moving again, but over the years I have stored books on my daughter's shelves for safe keeping, or to pass them along. "This is a good one," I'd say, usually about a novel. But I also have enjoyed reading biographies of writers and artists, and I read a lot of history. Some of the books are in hard cover, some in paper, the pages of many browned and brittle with age, others in good condition. The books I have stored on my Kindle are safe in cyberspace, but they are only a miniscule sampling of what I have read over many years. My libraries—electronic and paper—are a personal canon, which is no more than a list of preferences and judgments about a book's value—to me. I follow my interests and curiosity, keep wish lists and read all the time, mostly to deepen and expand my knowledge base, to experience a fiction writer's gifts, or a poet's narrative voice. But books—the tangible objects—are heavy, too, and require culling, especially when one moves overseas, or from one side of the United States to the other. No move this time but my daughter has been renovating her house and asked if I would oblige.


I had not expected so many piles, but there they were, accumulated, dusty, sticky, awaiting my decisions about where each book should go: to the dump, to a library, to a friend, but hopefully not to my still overflowing shelves and TBR stacks. Fortunately, three libraries in my 'hood accept donations and host celebratory book sales once a year to raise revenue. But some books are ready for the recycle bin. And that's hard. I turn them round and round, flip the pages, and say goodbye. It's strange to be so attached in this way, to feel aggrieved at a book's departure, and to savor those still lined up neatly by subject and author at home as I sit down at my long table to write early each morning. Every book I have kept is worthy of rereading, I tell myself.


Oddly, I was not a reader as a child or even a young teen. I have no memories of being read to at bedtime—my mother was always working. Maybe I was drawing, or practicing dance steps to music on the radio. And, of course, there was television, street games with friends, and homework; I always did my homework.  I never understand how boring homework had anything to do with the books on my mother and stepfather's shelves—some in English, some in French and some in German. They were refugees having arrived in the United States without material possessions except a few photographs, clothes, bits and pieces of memorabilia if it could fit into their suitcases—and  their lives, the most precious possession of all. My mother's books became a synecdoche of her survival and she became anxious whenever I borrowed one and forgot to tell her. The space of the missing book felt like an amputation—or  even worse—a death. Maybe books were so weighted with emotion in our household that I avoided them.


So, I've answered my own question, I suppose:  Why did it take so long for me to become a reader? Books and what they contained—the whole world, an ancestry, and a future, a sense of safety and belonging—came into my life so late, beyond high school and into my first year of college, or the summer before to be precise. My first boyfriend was smart, musical, politically engaged, and read constantly. His family owned a chicken farm in Tom's River, NJ and I'd go down there to see him, or he would travel to see me. To my surprise, he read books, lots of them. Books spilled onto my lap and the floor whenever I climbed into the puttering, orange tin can he called a car. It was his car; he'd worked for it, earning money as a troubadour at café's and clubs. The proceeds were putting him through college and buying his books. They became my first library, a portal beyond the borders of my nuclear family.


He did a laisser tomber, as the French say—a dump—and I never could find out what happened to him after college. But, Steve, I have to thank you here for sharing your books at a formative time in my life. They live inside me.










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War Child

Kyiv on a quiet night in wartime.  Photo © Peter Zalmayev 2024 with permission.



In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.


-Bertolt Brecht




Judging a poetry competition in 1927, a time, like ours, of ascendant fascism, Bertolt Brecht  decided not to award a prize, considering all the entries "useless." This is exactly how I felt watching the Oscars on Sunday night. How is it possible that songs about dolls amuse us? How is it possible that a story about Oppenheimer's afflicted conscience is subsumed in cinematic tricks without accurate dialogue to contextualize the powerful images? Protected, at the moment, from the specter of war, those of us living in North America are free to indulge in such decadent chicanery, and may even find it entertaining and transformative.  I do not.  I am a child of war, raised in what my parents assumed would always be a safe haven. They are roiling in their graves.


A few years ago I went back to the same street where I lived alone with my mother from the ages of 1-4 years old. Even though she had casually mentioned the address to me during one of our oral history sessions, I had suppressed it. I wrote it down and kept the notation but there was only a blank space in my mind; I could not remember that I had lived there, only that I  had been told I had lived there. Also, there was a photograph of an empty room; all the walls were blank and the furniture was nondescript and minimal. A small couch, a small easy chair, a side table, one lamp. The photograph was an artifact, nothing more; it meant nothing to me. Now, for some reason, perhaps because I was preparing to move out of the city again, I decided to visit the street and record my findings, or observations. I pretended I was a detective researching the scene of a crime which gave me the emotional distance I required.


The apartment building dated back to the Art Deco period and the exterior was ornate. It was on 84th Street between West End Avenue and Broadway in Manhattan on the south side of the street. The entrance was on 84th Street and it had a red canopy and a doorman in a uniform standing outside. I wondered if there had always been a doorman, or if the building had "gone co-op" and therefore had become gentrified and exclusive. It was certainly not exclusive when I lived there with my mother. She was a refugee, a single parent, and her resources were limited. She held a low paying job as a nurse's aide having arrived in the United States without any English and a foreign medical license; her specialty was obstetrics and gynecology. An only child from what was once a large extended family before they were murdered in the Nazi genocide, she loved babies, and she loved me. During the day she worked with babies and old people. Though she was overqualified, she did not complain. Refugees become adept at new complex identities and these become characteristics known and understood by all who encounter them, especially their children—when their children grow into awareness. My mother did not complain, she worked hard, and expected me to do the same in school. That I knew from an early age.


Leaning against a low wall, I took out my phone to check my emails, a distraction from my unsettled mood. Whatever upset me was buried deep in my psyche, what the Buddhists call "store consciousness." On that particular day, I left it there. But I have been thinking about my mother a lot these past months as the war in the Middle East has intensified, and the war in Ukraine grinds on with no end in sight. And I have been thinking about the children in those particular war zones, and other war zones, how they are endangered from morning to night and even at night, and how I was spared bombs, flight, famine, murderous gangs, kidnapping, and death camps because I was born in America.


It is said that we walk behind our mothers, not in their shadows exactly, but in their wake. Recently I dreamt I was walking up a long stone staircase behind my mother and her small dog. She had on a taupe silk suit that matched her permed gray hair and the dog's fur. Someone said, "She likes dogs." I knew that was correct, but it wasn't me that said it. I remained silent.  Slowly, I followed my mother up the stairs. She did not know I was there because I had not as yet been born. 


In daylight I have continuing rhetorical questions: On what day did my mother receive news of our murdered relatives? What year was it? Did she receive a telegram, a letter, or a knock on the door from the International Red Cross? Did she collapse? Was she stoical? Did she go to work the next day, and the one after that? Did her English falter whenever she tried to ask a question? How did my mother hold her grief, or express it? Who was there when she opened the telegram from the International Red Cross, or was it a letter, or was she called into their office?  If so, who did she talk to? Did she recognize anyone in the waiting room? Did she talk to anyone in the waiting room? Or was it an ante room where they served coffee? Did she have a coffee but have difficulty swallowing the coffee? Who was there to console her?


    Dedicated to all the children in war zones. May they survive and prosper.

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Truth and Reconciliation on Historic Huguenot Street

A sideview of the Hasbrouck House on Historic Huguenot Street with a view of the windows venting the dirt floor cellar where the slaves worked and lived. photo © Carol Bergman 2024



The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.

― George Orwell




I've often wondered what it must have been like to have lived in New Paltz, NY if I had been born enslaved, or emancipated in 1827 and remained indentured until the age of 25, or born free only to be out of work and forced to end my days in the Poor House.  I drove through the town for more than a decade to visit my daughter and son-in-law in Kerhonkson on the west side of the Minnewaska Ridge, famous for its rock face climbers call "The Gunks," short for the Munsee word Shawangunk, the language of the indigenous Esopus people. All those years I was oblivious to local history. I'd never stopped to read the signage in front of the library, or walked on Historic Huguenot Street past the old stone houses with their dirt floor cellars.  It was not until I moved to New Paltz in 2018 that I began to wander the town with intention and learn the history of its Dutch, English and French Huguenot settlers, all of them enslavers. Once the indigenous Esopus people were killed, infected with European diseases, or fled north and west, the African slaves provided the town of New Paltz with a constant supply of labor for use in farms, mills, and homes during the town's first 150 years. Indeed, most families in Colonial America, including our Founding Fathers, succumbed to the temptation of free labor, rationalized it, and participated in slavery's long sordid history. All of this is well documented. Yet the signage in the town and the tours I went on before Covid hardly mentioned its enslaved population. I also began to ask, "Where were the descendants of those enslaved people? Why is this town so White?" According to the latest census, less than 7% of  a population of 15,000 are Black, and they are mostly migrants from other areas or students and professors on the SUNY college campus. "Jim Crow," my friend Jerrie Stewart mumbled one day at lunch. Jerrie is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. She runs a blog about her family's history, and is active in the ongoing efforts at Monticello, together with the Martha Jefferson descendants, to update the narration of the tours and protect The Burial Ground for Enslaved People on the property, among other projects.



But it was the day I met Jennifer DuBois Bruntil in the women's locker room at the pool where we both swim that I began my local education in earnest. Jennifer lives in New Paltz with her family, not in the original farmhouse—they  were dairy farmers—but  in a house her grandfather built when he retired. However, to say she "lives," in New Paltz is not accurate; her family has been anchored here for generations. The DuBois name is everywhere in town, as are the names of  the twelve "patentees," from the seven Huguenot settler families who arrived after the Dutch and the English during the colonial period.


Jennifer Dubois Bruntil was working at Historic Huguenot Street in 2018 and had written a sweet children's book called Hugo the Huguenot which depicts the Esopus People, but does not mention enslavement. I wondered why not, but didn't ask as Jennifer is as sweet-natured as the Hugo she created for her book. But it was around this time that the campus began a process of self-examination: some of the dormitories were named after the colonial settler families. After several months of "testimony," the names were changed.  Facebook exploded with vituperative comments.


I wrote an article about this "dormitory controversy," for the Poughkeepsie Journal as the decision making process and its backlash reminded me of the International Center for Transitional Justice's truth and reconciliation work in South Africa and Bosnia which I had studied when I was working on my book—Another Day in Paradise—about  humanitarian workers. It occurred to me that the Town of New Paltz, and probably many other towns across America, north and south, might benefit from a similar process.


I do not claim to be an historian but rather a journalist and educator.  I have studied what others have researched about the town's history and opined on my blog and for local newspapers. More than once I have received emails prevailing upon me not to tell lies about the town; one demanded a public apology. What this would entail I dared not ask.  I have kept in touch with the programming on Historic Huguenot Street and  been impressed with ongoing efforts to make changes, including exhibitions researched and designed by Josephine Bloodgood, the Director of Curatorial and Preservation Affairs. She has been expanding and deepening the work of two previous onsite historians, Eric Roth and Susan Stessin-Cohn—currently  the Town of New Paltz Historian.  I am certain that not all the patentee families, who still live in the town, would be pleased with these ongoing efforts to intensify research and correct narration. Nonetheless, and to their credit, the Board of Historic Huguenot Street hired Eddie Moran in 2022 as another, more visible bridge from past obfuscation to present-day reinterpretation and redemption. Tall and lean with bright attentive eyes, a steady gaze, and a well enunciated speaking voice, Moran is a 25-year-old colonial settler descendant who knows his history and has the generous and patient persona of a seasoned professor to convey it. His official title is Tour and Interpretation Manager, but he's also an enthusiastic tour guide, and intrepid researcher.


I met him on a grey Saturday afternoon on one of his newly designed Black History Month tours. We were standing in the living quarters of the Deyo house refurbished and expanded in the 1890s to demonstrate the Deyo family's "ascendancy" as prosperous citizens of New Paltz. "Ascendancy," is Moran's word and I had never heard a settler descendant utter it before. The Deyo family's enslaved workers lived in the attic or the cellar of the house, Moran told us, but their history—where they were from, who their ancestors were—is  mostly lost. "Unlike my history," Moran says ruefully. "Mine is not lost."  That's because he has access to family trees  and learned early in life that he is descended from settler colonial families.  He often refers to them as relatives while, at the same time, and almost in the same paragraph, he introduces damning information about the treatment of their chattel property and the intentional erasure of the enslaved's history by "my organization," meaning Historic Huguenot Street.  Moran brought copies of documents, laminated in plastic, to be passed around.  The audience was rapt. It was as if the Deyo family's enslaved laborers were within proximity, standing as shadows behind us, waiting to be understood, and acknowledged.


 "We just don't know about so much," Moran says, and continues with the admission that "my organization contributed to the historical erasure."  By "my organization" he means Historic Huguenot Street, his employer. This is an unequivocal admission, and a turning point for Historic Huguenot Street and the town. Some of the elliptical signage is now also amplified by explanatory paper "markers," he explained, and some of it will be replaced, an expensive and slow process.


Moran also volunteers for the History Committee at the Margaret Wade-Lewis Center, founded to preserve the  Black experience in the Hudson Valley through the lens of free and enslaved lives. It's currently running offsite programming while a donated historic building, the Ann Oliver House, begins renovation this summer. Moran hopes that the tours of both organizations will inform one another, and that all the historians and curators will work together—in a process of truth and reconciliation—to  build a complete and unedited history of New Paltz.

Historic Huguenot Street will re-open 5-days a week for tours after Memorial Day:




The Margaret Wade-Lewis Center will be celebrating Juneteenth on June 19th:






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