European Diary: 4:30 p.m.; Sunday, June 6, 2004; Rīga, Latvia

Latvia has a crazy mix of people: blond Latvians, Russian cabdrivers who look like nothing so much as great lumps of fat with golf tees for eyes, Asians from the Russian Far East, Poles, German tourists moving in great, slow groups like camera-toting glaciers or ham-drunk re-enactors of the barbarian migrations of the 1st century, Swedes, Estonians, people who look like they bought their clothes at Prada in Paris, others who look like Oregonians in town from their berry farms, still others who look fresh from a shopping spree at the Cuban Slut Superstore.

The women here are unholy. I figured out why they’re so sexy – from puberty to death they are trying to look appealing to men; they’re trying to look sexy and they’re succeeding. As S. said, “I don’t think there are many lesbians here.” They all wear low-cut pants or short skirts. One of the most popular pieces of “clothing” are white pants made out of window sheers. Their racks wobble like Superballs thrown into a shower stall, regardless of size, and some are frankly stupendous. Perhaps this is due to walking on cobbled streets in high heels, each step setting off the pechugonal reckoning. And their dumpers have the quaking heft of black girls at the prom.


We have separated somewhat from this useless group of addled and self-absorbed geriatrics we have taken to calling “The S- S- Show,” after its leader. It culminated with a dinner last night at the Otto Schwarz, after an interminable day yukking it up in the killing fields. The long and short of it is that this is S- S-‘s private club, a septuagenarian sock-hop, an old people’s caravan holding up traffic on the intellectual and emotional freeway, every Volaré signaling a left turn never to be taken. This group combines the social sophistication of a high school lunchroom with the self-righteousness of the victim. Even though the overwhelming majority of the 107 people here did not survive the Holocaust, they still seem to seek the admiration they imagine draping themselves in its mantle will bring them.

I think it was the third time I heard S- S- announce to the nodding crowd of Q-Tips that the Second Generation had a “solemn duty” to his generation that drove me to throw in the towel. It seems perfectly appropriate to this cave full of graying fruit bats that they should harrumph about the duties of young people while acting, as nearly all of these had, either embarrassed or inconvenienced and irritated every time we asked them for information on the fate of S.’s family. They have all the social skills of the old and the fact that most are East Coasters and therefore have the taste of mobsters adds to the effect.

At any rate, to hell with them all. The ones who survived the Holocaust are bitter, half-crazy, running to the bar for vodka, or doddering and rambling. The majority of them are coasting on the coat-tails of the Holocaust. All of them are vulgar and greedy for the little pleasures of gobbling and gulping, and can’t be bothered to help a poor girl reconstruct the narrative of her past. To hell with them.

As to this “solemn duty” to the men and women whose generation endured the Holocaust, so be it. I acknowledge and accept this responsibility. My wife has been aware of it long before she ever came here, as her father was a survivor. Although I am no Jew, I felt the responsibility to that history for these simple reasons: because I am a man, because I am a husband and because I am an American, and our history, as much as any European, is bound up in all this.

All very well and good. But what does that mean? For my wife and I, it means first thing first. We are here for only one reason: that very duty that has been spoken of so frequently. In the last four years, despite the pain of it, my wife has put together as complete a history of the life of her father and the life and death his parents as she has been able. It has been a good start, reclaiming the very thing the nazis hoped to destroy: the memory, the identity, the beliefs and the history of the Jews, of these specific Jews, these individual humans, everything that says, “I was here.” We are here in an attempt to further integrate that still-fractured and incomplete history. And, frankly, we have had little luck doing it.

“We have asked dozens of you people if you knew S.’s father, born and raised in Riga, survivor of the ghetto, Stuffhof, Buchenwald, Mittelbau Rora; or her grandfather or grandmother. The discomfort, the blank stares, the backs turned, have not helped us. If you wish for this group to end when you die, and in the meantime for it to be a dining club of old Latvian Jews, I do not fault you for it. It is yours and it is your choice. If you wish it to be a private, family affair, I have no criticism of you I wish to make. How could I? However, when you speak, over and over and over and over again, of my wife’s generation’s duty, to you, then I fault you. If you do not, or cannot, tell your stories, if you are unwilling to free your memories, to answer questions, then there is no future for this and we cannot and will not be able to do this duty of ours.

“I do not presume to judge the difficulty of what you went through, or the strain of living with it. But facts are facts: without your help we cannot do our duty. If you are unwilling, or unable, to do your part in transmitting the message, stop requiring it of us. If this is going to continue on into the future as something of import, something that will outlive you, something more enduring than a midnight cruise down the Daugava with your bittersweet memories, then consider when you plan the next Reunion: Where are the lectures on history? The workshops? Where are the life-histories gathered and published and distributed? Where are the Latvian language classes? Where are the Shabbat candles? Where are the genealogy seminars and the roundtables of survivors and specialists? It doesn’t sound as fun as dinners and dancing and receptions and cruises, does it? It sounds more unpleasant. It sounds like your duty.”

[When I wrote this, right after it happened, I was furious. Although I am no longer as upset at the situation, which has receded in time, and although I admit it is not very charitable to excoriate those involved so resoundingly, I still mean now what I said then. And I think it is important to remember that not only was I speaking about a specific group of people in a certain situation but that these are Morpheme Tales, subject to no editor and therefore to no censors. I have tried to not even impose self-censorship on these writings — a task more difficult than I had anticipated. There is enough mealy-mouthedness about. I take responsibility for thinking my own thoughts and expressing them with reason, but without endless qualification. If that snits some people off, I think it’s worth it.]

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