Renia Spiegel’s Diary III

All I can say–selfish and immature though it sounds–with whom I share a special friendship like Renia shared with her beloved Zygu. For years after her death, Zygu could not part with the diary, keeping a photocopied version of it as a shroud in his basement, writing his notes back to his beloved,

Another month of May is coming, the month of love… Today is 23 April 1989. I’m with Renusia’s sister–Jarusia. This blood link is all I have left. It’s been 47 years since I have lost Renusia. When I think after about her, I feel so small and unimportant. I owe her so much. Thanks to Renia I fell in love for the first time in my life, deeply and sincerely. And I was loved back by her in an extraordinary, unearthly, incredibly passionate way. It was an amazing, delicate emotion. our love grew and developed thanks to her. And it will never change until the end… [Zygmunt]

Despite its tragic end, this is the perfect book to read when you are in love. I ought to know: I am in love with my Zygmunt. His name is Vlad. He is everything a “tall, dark, and handsome” can be and more: he has a genuinely honest and brave heart. When I look at him I see “everything I want to be.” And I will include the words of Renia’s after “God saved Zygu”:

June night


with dense darkness

night… stretches

above my head.

Night of solitude

Came. The irresistible one stood

at the end of the bed

with a tormenting face

dug its claws

into the sticky brain

and I dream…

My naked thoughts

stripped of clothing

stretch under my skull

in silence

and for mercilessly long

the night goes on.

Heavy black shroud

dropped and clings

to the body

silent and stubborn

I shuddered.

The flower opens

in quid

open lips

whisper words

fragrance of jasmine

of maturing buds.


exasperating slowly easing

sense sigh with relief

sweet fantasy


I hope that unlike Renia my love’s sun turns out to be a rising and not a setting sun.

How to Take a Rest

I had an elderly Jew at my synagogue read his grandson’s bar-mitzvah’s speech to us, telling us how though larger society has now adopted the Jewish notion that a person needs days off from work, it “has yet to recognize the importance of how it keeps its rests.” Though not always a fan of the particular Jew who read this speech, I do totally believe that to work hard enough during the week to justify a day or two off, so that those two days include one religious day and one day to relax only, has been a great service to my life. Anyway, it turned out this week things are not going exactly as planned. The Cantor at my shul is having a class based on a book This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, a book roughly 300 pages long. More, I want to finish Renia’s Diary. So it will be next week when I turn to The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History. Yet I am thinking before The Napoleonic Wars I will do some “fun” reading: The Last Unicorn and Thomas the Rhymer. At some point I plan to read The Dog Master and The Overstory. Yet I plan to finish The Napoleonic Wars and Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts before getting back to The Dog Master.

Without going into my next “research” book, my friend Cynthia is always dogging me that I need a “rest” book. She is always getting on me about reading only historical books and classics which are widely known. Or at least, that is her perception. I tend to think history is particularly important when I research for novels because I want to get the time and place right in my descriptions and commentary on the times. The ideal writer about Russia speaks Russian, the second order of novelist researches. A person should never assume that because things work a certain way in America, in Russia it is the same story. More, I have researched Russia’s folklore, and I am convinced that it is as central to understanding of the Russian Heart as Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekov, and Solzhenitsyn. More, it is the only literature which could in part have been written by Russian women. To study Russia it is necessary to study A.N. Afanas’ev.

Anyway, my “break” from researching for Tales of the Land of the Firebird Part I represents a “break” of sort… perhaps not the kind of break the grandson of my fellow synagogue congregant member had in mind.

Renia Spiegel’s Diary II

I have put down Renia’s Diary, a Holocaust diary, having read to page 220. I read to page 167 yesterday. I am somewhat embarrassed: I pride myself on being able to read 100 pages a day, 50 pages in the morning and 50 pages in the evening. However, I shall finish it tomorrow (the diary portion itself is a mere 273 pages itself, though the Afterwards is contained in pages 277-289 and the Notes are held in pages 293-310). I am sure of it. This is despite the fact that my reading of Renia’s Diary and The Napoleonic Wars is being interrupted by a book my cantor is having us read for a book talk: This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. This last book is one I still don’t have–a bad thing since tomorrow is our first book talk.

As for Renia… since I talked to you last. Renia and Zygu are very much in love, but a reader has to be aware of the signs that their world is shrinking around them. For Renia this is only because she cannot always see Zygu as often as she would like to, but the why occurs to adult readers aware of her ultimate fate. The reader does wonder how she is going to avoid pregnancy; she has–I believe–had sex with Zygu though she is trying heroically to avoid his advances without giving up on him as a boyfriend. They do intend to get married, and given what I know, I think they would have married if she had lived in real life. Her emotions–and I assume his–were very strong.

Despite being moved by Renia’s story, I have a confession to make: I have never had a Zygu. There never was that romantic obsession with a man who reciprocated in my life… There is a man in my life at the moment, but I fear he may never really understand my feelings for him. No, all too often, unrequited love is what I have… By contrast, I want to believe that Renia and Zygu were right for each other, and that their love would have lasted if they had married. Of course, first love always burns to last in the mind of the person who feels it… Yet Zygu kept Renia’s Diary and it was a relic that the Smithsonian says Zygu’s post-Holocaust wife was jealous of.

The Man I Love, A Revision

I have been told that my last version of “The Man I Love” was excessive, fulsome, and too extreme in its expectations. Therefore I shall try again to put together an ideal man who I might acquire. He must, as I said, be brave. A soldier or a man with a soldier’s virtues is what he must be. He must be honest, a man who never steals and seldom lies. He must be soft-hearted, the type of person that takes in stray cats. He must support me in my dreams, as I hope he also has aspirations of his own worth supporting. And he must read books, whether Don Quixote, Little Dorrit or Jane Eyre. He must appreciate fine poetry, whether written by the Brownings or Emily Dickinson. He must possess imagination.

I have been told that I ask for the moon in the men I want. I am not down to earth or realistic. Yet I hold onto this Gershwin song expressing all that love is for me,

Some day he’ll come along
The man I love
And he’ll be big and strong
The man I love
And when he comes my way
I’ll do my best to make him stay

He’ll look at me and smile
I’ll understand
And in a little while
He’ll take my hand
And though it seems absurd
I know we both won’t say a word

Maybe I shall meet him Sunday
Maybe Monday, maybe not
Still I’m sure to meet him one day
Maybe Tuesday will be my good news day…

And so all else above
I’m dreaming of the man I love

The Man I Love

I decided for a blog I would do something I always prided myself in NEVER doing. I would write about my perfect man, the kind I hope to marry. I want to believe that it would not matter “if he wasn’t what some girls think of as handsome,” but I want him to be “big and strong,” brave and able to say, (like Galahad in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King) “my strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.” He must be a faithful lover, and he must be a tender one, too. He is not a Lancelot with all his complications (sleeping with his best friend’s wife). Perhaps he is a Galahad, winner of Holy Grails, the prizes which no other can aspire to. He must have a heart which beats for me, but also for larger causes like Ukraine. They are the Camelot which he would die to defend.

In the Arthurian legends, Lancelot had a liaison with the saintly Elaine, who knows that despite his relationship to Guinevere he is incomplete without a son. Despite what happens, Lancelot swears he cannot marry Elaine. Yet perhaps Elaine honored their son Galahad all the more for the boy missing a father. Perhaps if the Oedipal Complex will be allowed, I can be Elaine to my Galahad. I don’t want to say I will be “the power behind the throne,” but perhaps I shall be the one who believes in my Prince Charming as though I were his own mother. After all, perhaps at my age it is not unlikely that his mother will be gone soon–as I sometimes fear my own mother may not have many years to live.

I wonder if my beloved–my Galahad–is like Israel’s Lord “a Man of War.” The royal house of Britain is said, after all, to be descended from King David. Yet I cannot really claim my Galahad from the line of Kings. It is only virtue that made him good, just as Lancelot entered the Kingdom as a stranger supposedly. My beloved is a man of the Earth, like Abraham was according to Thomas Mann in Joseph and his Brothers. Like Abraham he is a dreamer, and like Jacob he climbs from the role of being an ordinary man to a man “who wrestles with God and man and prevails.” Jacob’s ladder shined bright the night he was born. Of course, my beloved must be a Jew, and not just any Jew. He must be From. He must be kind. He must be good. He must be more faithful than Hamlet’s Polonius in the words,

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

All of this and more he must be to be my beloved Bashert: kind, honest, loyal, fair, just and brave.

Renia Spiegel’s Diary I

I am on page 156 of Renia’s Diary, the diary which Holocaust victim Renia Spiegel kept until she was shot by the Nazis. I hope to read up to page 200 tonight and finish it tomorrow. It is, at heart, a tragic love story. Why? Because in its pages Renia falls in love with Zygu (Zygmunt) whom she hopes to marry and who was the one who managed to save the diary and send it to America before getting sent to Auschwitz himself. Miraculously, he lived, and he got the diary back in America. Her sister also lived, and after Zygmunt’s death she received the diary. It was, however, Renia’s niece who published it and then translated it into English and other languages so people could read it who did not read Polish. And so I am reading it. The happy days Renia spent with her Zygu are best recalled in her words,

I’m in love, which is my explanation for writing all this nonsense.  You forgive a person in love, you forgive them everything, and the apropos the sad party I escape.

This encapsulates my view on love… and my view on the guy I love, though I am not sure I have the courage to mention his name. This diary, despite its tragedy, is the perfect book to read if you are in love. Why? Because Renia and Zygu were so perfectly in love, and because their love’s end was because of the outside world and not flaws intrinsic to the relationship. I admit that ordinarily I am not big on love stories. Yet this one moves me as though it were Romeo and Juliet, or Jane Eyre. The only difference is that at the current moment in the book Zygu is graduating from high school, and Renia is worries about the fact that they are now all wearing armbands with a Star of David on them. I admit that Renia is–unlike Anne Frank–largely oblivious to the outside world till now, because she does not even question the why she had to move to her grandmother’s house. I am not putting her down. Anne Frank was a special sort of person, but so is she. Both of them added so much to the world just by writing their diaries down on paper to be preserved by people who loved them and then handed to people who although they did not know them personally preserve them as a part of what was lost.

Reading Days

Right now I am almost finished with my first reading of The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History and 50 pages into Renia’s Diary: A Journal of the Holocaust. This weekend and Monday I shall finish Renia’s Diary, but after I complete The Napoleonic Wars, I shall put it aside and reread it later. Why? Because the history in it is dense, and difficult to understand (though I am embarrassed to admit that), and because of this difficult to remember once understood. So I shall do something I habitually did in high school: read the textbook (it was an Honors textbook) three times before the test. I shall buy Napoleon: A Biography by Andrew Roberts for a better understanding of the man behind the battles and Alexander I: The Tsar Who Defeated Napoleon by Marie-Pierre Rey, because part of my reading has to do with the book I am working on.

The reasons I want to understand the Napoleonic Wars is for a book about Russia and the Western block of countries in its orbit: Tales from the Land of the Firebird Part I. I hope to read more for Tales from the Land of the Firebird Part II, but it will be about the Balkans and Central Asia. I need to look around for my books on the Baltic region. Tales from the Land of the Firebird Part II will be a later book, however. For now I am working my way through the materials for Part I, which needs to be done so hurriedly because I want the book out in time to do Ukraine some good–if a mere book like mine can be said to do good. I believe Dickens novels did good in the way I hope to. Yet I don’t exactly have a sales record like Dickens. Still, the only way to achieve greatness is to aspire to it.

As for Renia’s Diary, I am reading it over the weekend until Monday. Though I am reading only books for Tales of the Land of the Firebird Part I during the week, on weekends (and occasionally Mondays) I have a lengthy list of Holocaust books to read. I am hoping to either teach a class, lead a seminar or lead a group based on my Holocaust reading in the fall. When I finish with them I shall pick up my books of Swedish history and literature for a separate project, A History of Frances Westin Williams. Frances Williams was my beloved Grandma, the one who was the child of Swedish pioneers; graduated valedictorian from High School; was the first female editor of the Washburn School Journal; and worked as a Social Worker before marrying my Grandpa. Alas, during her generation–she was in college in the twenties–it wasn’t feasible for her to be more than a housewife as a married woman–but even there she shown, as the parent of three college graduates and one mentally handicapped son, whom she doted on.

Wallenberg II

Raoul Wallenberg is a double enigma. The first enigma is how any man could be so good. The second is how his life’s end could be so tragic. He is both a perfect saint and a perfect martyr. More, he acted in the presence of the evil of Adolf Hitler to save Jews, only to be caught in the equal evil of Joseph Stalin and eventually be–so it appears–shot. In Stalin’s shadow, in fact, no statue honoring him could be risen in Hungary.

Wallenberg–I mentioned this last night–saved 100,000 Jews from death at the hands of the Gestapo, playing fast and loose with the rules he was supposed to follow to save them in order to save more Jews than a meticulous obeying of bureaucratic protocol would have justified. However, his life, especially how it ended, is enough to convince a person that such bureaucratic protocol might as well be counted as evil at the beginning, being–as it was–inimical to both Hitler’s destruction of the Jews and Stalin’s destruction of his own people. Perhaps when C.S. Lewis claimed that the demons in hell might as well be compared to one great bureaucracy he might have guessed truly: cold bloodedly handing down orders to do evil is what Hitler’s and Stalin’s bureaucrats are best known for doing. Even today’s social welfare agencies, good though the people’s intentions are who set them up were, are sometimes only there to mirror the gridlock of the Congress we have now with its 50-50 split in terms of how it achieves its work. Luckily, however, they at least are not known for murdering the poor outright.

Anyway, Wallenberg was one of those rare souls that working for the most rigid bureaucracies could not stem his desire to do good. Alas, it was his naïve faith that the Russians would help him survive once the Germans were just barely being driven from Budapest that led to his cruel death. Despite the fact that the U.S.S.R. was supposed to allied the United States–who had called upon Wallenberg to do his work–and his Swedish homeland being a neutral power–he was arrested by Stalin’s henchmen, and tortured for information, which he would not give them. Ultimately his value was seen as minimal–the people Sweden could have traded for him were not traded–and he was shot. Yes, I hate to record it: his immediate superiors were too spineless to save Wallenberg from a forced labor system as equal as the Gestapo. They thought that it was dishonorable to trade other prisoners for him.

Apparently the succeeding governments under Khrushchev and Brezhnev did not want to reveal the perfidy committed in the name of Communism. And so, despite credible evidence the Swedes had, claimed that Wallenberg had died of a heart attack. It was not until the post-Communist era that the truth came out, how this brave hero for humankind was murdered.

In my book Tales of the Land of the Firebird Part I, I hope to write a story: “In Search of Raoul Wallenberg” about a spy who slips into Russia hoping to find the courageous hero whom the West cannot admit is dead. I hope to quote Solzhenitsyn about human beings being half angel and half devil, but also mentioning a film I saw years ago about a Roman official sent to Israel to find Jesus’ body. The idea of that film sounds a little bizarre–and in fact it really wasn’t a good film even if you were Christian and devout (Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments were much better even as art)– but the fact that this one soldier meets people like Pilot and his wife searching for a man everybody recognized as “good” but who is also presumed dead reminds one of Raoul Wallenberg–save that the poor man really was dead all that time, and the faceless hypocrites would not admit how he died only prolonged the agony of his friends and family.

Before I write it I will read another biography of Raoul Wallenberg and some more books on the Gulag in books like The Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest and The Red Famine by Anne Applebaum.

Wallenberg, Part I

Right now I am 150 pages into the book Wallenberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Who Saved the Jews of Budapest by Kati Marton. Raoul Wallenberg was the Swedish diplomat who traveled to Hungary during World War II and saved 100,000 Jews before being picked up by the KGB… and I have not read his fate yet, but it is grim. Yet what I am struck by, besides the tragic probability that he died in Stalin’s death camps, is his inscrutable goodness. I remember hearing a fellow classmate in High School say of Mother Teresa, “There are some people who are too darn good.” I feel that way about him, and it is because he had no private life, or if he did it only got the surface treatment. Oskar Schindler besides being a Holocaust rescuer was essentially playing a con game with the Nazis. Janusz Korczak who died with the Jewish children in one of two orphanages he ran (the other orphanage being for Polish children), was mentally ill and found children more easily understood than adults. Yet Raoul Wallenberg, without being nobler, was a man without complexity: he grew up in privilege and put off his private ambitions in order to save Jews from being killed by Hitler.

I noticed in my reading of him that he was very obdurate as a boy, and thought a “serious” girl was one whom he could talk to seriously–not the other way around. He loved hiking. Yet before he was asked to help save Jews, he was not really that easily recognized for the greatness he would show. As it turned out, he went above and beyond expectations in saving Jewish people, giving out Swedish passports to every Jew he could, including those for whom there was no “justification” for letting them go to Sweden. It was his kindness for which he deserved to be remembered–that and the fact that form him caution was not the better part of valor. To the end he showed courage and tenacity for that single goal: getting Jews out of Hungary so they could not be sent to Auschwitz or other concentration camps.

I will write my last thoughts about him tomorrow on-line. In the meantime, though, I will say that I was pleased to read that Franklin Roosevelt himself was involved in the scheme which Wallenberg was picked for. Though it was perhaps too late for comfort, it justifies some of the hero-worship I had of Franklin Roosevelt as a girl, and still do now. I have always felt that Franklin Roosevelt’s personal life often disappoints, but his love for the American people his love was real. I feel this way because my Grandma Williams lived through the Great Depression and idolized both Franklin and Elinore Roosevelt. I also learned about Wallenberg because of Grandma Williams. I was at Lindsborg, a Swedish tourist trap my family used to frequent, when I saw the book Wallenberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Who Saved the Jews of Budapest. I simply had not read it until now.

The Common People and Literature

Right now Mom and I are having are roof redone. I have not spoken to the roofers, although I will admit that in our neighborhood people who are more social do speak to people who do that kind of work for them as friendly acquaintances. I have, however, invited our handyman, Al, to Christmas dinner a couple of times. Though I only know the name of a few of my neighbors, I am reminded of something Harry Truman said. He was visiting an acquaintance in a rich neighborhood out of town. He knocked on the door of the house which turned out to be next door to the person he was looking for. “Does so-and-so live next door to you?” he asked. “I don’t know who lives next door to me,” was the reply. Harry wrote about it, “That would never have happened in Independence!” Independence was Harry’s home town, and in Harry’s hometown everyone knew everyone.

As for those roofers… I want to believe I write for people like those roofers… In books like Poor Folk (though I suspect the roofers are middle class) and Discovering Wonderland (who despite the strangeness of the little girl and her father, are Middle Class only).  I really believe that the books people like when they start out reading are books about them.  More, I believe the people who loved Dickens were “the people” and the same is true of Twain.  Perhaps is also true about the Brontë sisters and Elizabeth Gaskell (neglected though the latter is as literature). And perhaps that is the kind of literature I prefer.  And it is not just prose: I believe as disparate poets as the Brownings, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickenson wrote about popular causes or in their own way for or about “the people.” 

Don’t get me wrong: there are some “upper class books” I like: I like F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance.  This Side of Paradise; The Great Gatsby; and Tender is the Night, are favorites of mine.  Despite his being a friend to Edith Wharton and leaving America, I like Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady.  I would list T.S. Eliot except I am not sure he was actually rich.  Yet having read one or two poems of Dorothy Parker, and having read The New Yorker for one year, I can’t say I like them.  And I always felt that H.L. Mencken deserved to be what he was called in the 1950’s “the most hated man in America.”

That leads to a book which I probably hated too much to be reasonable at the time in high school, but which even today I regard with mild distaste: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I have never truly felt sorry for Newland Archer. I admit, Dickens did it: he dumped his wife for another woman (what Newland wanted to do but couldn’t). But at least there was more to Dickens’ life and work than being an adulterer or justifying adultery. I did not get that Newland’s problems ever went deeper than wanting a girl he couldn’t have–and I have had a similar problem: there have been lots of times when I was in love with somebody who didn’t love me. The truth is, the reason I didn’t feel for Newland was not just that, though: I didn’t get the feeling that besides being married to May and in love with Ellen wasn’t the only problem he ever had. He was so rich and spoiled in every other way. And I just couldn’t care.

In my heart I would rather write about “the common man,” the person I knew in school as a kid.  I don’t know why the plight of being “ordinary” moves me more than the plight of being “intellectual” but it does… and that is even though I have always wanted to be “intellectual” myself. I have wanted to think deeply about themes like the nature of God, the nature of morality, and the nature of art. Yet frankly as subjects for my work I am always drawn by people who “live lives of quiet desperation” as Thoreau put it. They want “more” but they barely know what it is. What I like about my character Mike Bannock is that he aspires to be more, in the end, than he is “supposed” to be… he finds God in a trailer park and not in a mansion. As Lincoln put it: “The Lord must have loved the common man, he made so many of them.”