Monday, May 31, 2010

Israel, Gaza, Flotilla, News Coverage

Robert Spencer argues at Jihad Watch that news coverage of the Gaza flotilla is leaving out key details.

Memorial Day. "Best Years of Our Lives"

Do yourself a favor and see the eight-Academy-Award-winning, 1946 masterpiece, "THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES." One of the best films ever made; certainly among the five or so best films ever made about veterans.

Favorite scene: wizened old geezer Roman Bohnen and his worn-out wife Gladys George are the parents of Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a returned World-War-Two fighter pilot who can't seem to escape his destiny as a guy from the wrong side of the tracks. In frustration, Derry runs away from his hometown, ready to hitch to any location he can get free transportation to. After he leaves, Bohnen and George find and read Derry's commendation letter. This guy who couldn't handle the phoniness and strictures of polite, civilian life was a savior, a hero, in battle. For anyone lucky enough to know a veteran, that scene says so much.

Fred Derry has a combat flashback

A character, coded as anti-Semitic, disses veteran Harold Russell

BP Gulf Oil Catastrophe

I've been asking myself why the outrage and heartbreak I feel over the BP Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe is not more widespread, or expressed. Why aren't we protesting? Demanding? Mourning? Is the Gulf of Mexico, its flora and fauna, so cheap to us? Do we care so little for the coastal culture of Cajuns and others that goes back generations and that this may wipe out?

If it were proven, as is rumored among conspiracy theorists, that Muslim terrorists caused this oil flow, or North Korea, we WOULD be outraged. We might even bomb the perpetrators.

But THEY didn't do this to us. WE did this to us. So we continue to sleepwalk to poisoning the planet that supports our life.

I donate to half a dozen environmental organizations. None has my full respect. They all work from an elitist paradigm. Their goal is to save this or that capsule of pristine hideaway for elite adventure travelers.

I'll probably never make it to Glacier National Park. I live in an American slum where people throw their garbage in the street as a matter of custom and culture. Paterson, New Jersey's garbage flows into the Atlantic Ocean, to be swallowed by ocean going birds, to poison them to death. The Sierra Club does not speak my language. Saving refuges for elite backpackers won't save the planet. The mindset of a peasant will: we depend on this soil, the soil beneath our feet, this water, this air, for our biological life.

"Prince of Persia" and "Letters to Juliet"

This weekend's movies: "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time" and "Letters to Juliet."

"PRINCE OF PERSIA SANDS OF TIME" ain't no "300." The ancient Greeks win again. In the opening scene, before you've had any chance to learn who anyone is or why you should care about anything that happens, the film's "heroes" commit a massacre and invasion of an innocent, spiritually advanced civilization. Hard to care about these characters.

Jake Gyllenhaal is sexy and appealing, almost Errol-Flynn-like. Ben Kingsley could not give a bad performance if he tried. Campy Alfred Molina has some laugh-out-loud funny lines as an anti-tax "entrepreneur" and ostrich race organizer. Steve Toussaint is impressive as a Sudanese knife-thrower. But that's it. Their best bits add up to about five minutes. Otherwise the movie is cluttered, meaningless, and boring.

"PRINCE OF PERSIA" is orientalist in a way that feels unacceptable for 2010, even in a movie based on a video game. Every cliché of the Middle East is piled into the movie, junkyard style – whirling dervishes, sand dunes, camels, women for sale, the Hashshashin, Arabic – whether these items fit in sixth-century Persia or not. Do we really need to gratuitously toy with others' histories and cultures at a time when the current leader of Persia, or Iran, is talking about getting nukes to wipe Israel off the map?

"LETTERS TO JULIET" is a sweet, nice, mildly enjoyable movie with absolutely no magic or spark. Sophie, an aspiring New Yorker writer, travels to Verona, Italy and discovers the charming custom of lovelorn women writing letters to Juliet, of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." She has a life-changing encounter with Vanessa Redgrave. How could you go wrong with this plot? This should have been a classic. The script and direction merely plod, where they should sparkle and glow.

Amanda Seyfried and Christopher Egan, the film's leads, are stunningly good looking, healthy, young, blonds, with perfect teeth. They are also both completely without charisma here. I actually found both irritating to look at. If this had been a zombie film, these are the ones you would root for to be eaten first.

Vanessa Redgrave is beatific. You bask in her performance, wishing the rest of the film could live up to her gift. Gael Barcia Bernal is brilliant as a very annoying man. From the first second he's onscreen, he let's you know exactly who he is, and why you will relish his ultimate fate. *That's* acting! Italy's picturesque tourist spots are indeed picturesque, but not filmed with any penetration or grace. I've seen postcards that capture Italy better.

Friday, May 28, 2010

"Lisa" 1962 v. "Everything is Illuminated" 2005

Comparison of two Holocaust-themed films. "Lisa" aka "The Inspector," 1962.
Starring: Stephen Boyd, most famous as the ruggedly handsome, flamboyantly evil Messala in "Ben Hur."

Dolores Hart, most famous as the first to kiss Elvis onscreen, subsequently left Hollywood to become a cloistered nun. (Perhaps he'd just eaten a fried peanut-butter-banana-bacon sandwich.)

"Lisa" is an old, creaky, cheesy, politically incorrect film. It sexualizes the Holocaust and titillates; Lisa has no Jewish-coded traits; she isn't even an obvious survivor. She's perky as a surfer girl.

"Everything is Illuminated" was made in 2005, after we all became enlightened. It's based on a book that was embraced and celebrated by the elite as the greatest thing since sliced rye bread.

"Lisa" is the better film.

"Everything is Illuminated" sucks. And it plays the Bieganski card.

Amazon reviews:

I saw "Lisa" exactly one time, many decades ago, when I was a kid. I watched it on a black and white TV, late at night, interrupted by many annoying commercials. I've never forgotten "Lisa": Dolores Hart played a Holocaust survivor determined, by any means necessary, to get to Palestine at a time when the British were interdicting such arrivals. Ruggedly handsome Stephen Boyd was Inspector Jongman. He began by hindering Lisa's pilgrimage and ended up helping her. For comic relief, there was Hugh Griffith, a smuggler who used a tennis racket in his ongoing battle with the bats that invaded his exotic Tangiers apartment at dusk.
Most importantly, I never shook the feeling that the film aroused in me - this film literally made me sick, and terrified, but it also moved and inspired me.

In the intervening years, I read somewhere that "Lisa" was an early attempt to depict the Holocaust in a mainstream Hollywood movie. That just increased my curiosity. Some kind soul has finally posted "Lisa" on youtube and I watched it there.

The title sequence appears over train tracks, rushing rapidly beneath the camera. This allusion to trains rushing to concentration camps felt heavy-handed. The film opens in 1946. Lisa is the pouty, passive cargo of a Nazi white slaver. There's some implausible cloak and dagger stuff - the daggers are SS, engraved "blood and honor" - and for sale by the Nazi white slaver, a villain with obviously dyed blonde hair and an obviously fake German accent. The Nazi dies; Lisa escapes via a fire escape; investigators suspect that Inspector Jongman murdered the Nazi. The chase / road movie is on. Lisa and Jongman begin a cat-and-mouse odyssey, via Dutch canal barge and smuggler ship, to Palestine.

After my decades-long wait to see "Lisa" again, these opening scenes disappointed me. I thought, "Gee, we've come a long way since 1962. This ain't no "Schindler's List." Lisa is merely an object. The Nazi controls her; the good Dutch man wants her. She volunteered to go with the Nazi, stupidly falling for his lie that he would smuggle her to Palestine. And Lisa is obviously NOT Jewish. Dolores Hart was famously Catholic; she's got bright blue eyes and blond hair. English, Irish, and American actors try, or don't, to speak with slipping and sliding Dutch, German, or Arabic accents.

Lisa is a survivor of medical experimentation at Auschwitz. She had been used "Like a cadaver" in gynecological training. Jongman wants to help Lisa because he had failed to help Rachel, his Jewish fiancee. The Holocaust is translated from genocide into a titillating morals charge or the plot twist in a risque romance novel. Though the center of this crime against women is a woman, Lisa, the film is really all about the men around her: Jongman, the Nazi, the police chasing them, the colorful smugglers aiding them, exploiting them, or ripping them off.

I kept watching, though, and in spite of all the problems, I rediscovered the movie that had so moved me years ago. Lisa's blondeness and American style add to the horror, in the same way that Jeanne Crain's whiteness added to the impact of "Pinky." Casting a white woman as a victim of Jim Crow, or a Catholic as a Jew, emphasizes that there is no logic nor justice to racism. We humans really ARE one race, and none of us can rely on our putative racial identity, or our physical features, for immunity.

As Bowsley Crowther pointed out in his New York Times review, the film's "Lurid" advertisements are not representational of the film's "decent" and "asexual" content. In any case, Lisa's intimate victimization, and her literal sterility, economically and powerfully communicate the Nazis' sadism and nihilism.

There is a scene in this movie that I have never forgotten. Though, in the intervening years, I've seen too much graphic violence, I was afraid to re-watch this scene. Lisa describes how she was used as a medical display. In her flashback, all you see is what Lisa saw: the overheard medical lamps, and doctors' eyes staring at her clinically, as if she were, indeed, a cadaver. Lisa concludes her flashback by saying, "I wanted to say to them, we are people, we are human beings." The scene includes no special effects. It is one of the most high-impact Holocaust scenes, or depictions of dehumanization, that I've ever seen.

Lisa has been betrayed by the world. She survives by telling herself that Palestine is that somewhere-over-the-rainbow that can restore her will to live. Her goal and her intensity are palpable, both poignant and steely.

Dolores Hart is something to behold. She radiates rare beauty and depth. She and Boyd develop genuine chemistry; you come to care about their fate. Robert Stephens, in a small part as an Englishman who is, alternately, oafish, cloying, threatening, and moving, punctuates the final act of the film. There is an ideological smuggler, Brown, who wants to use Lisa to his own purposes; this subplot underlines how sometimes the highest ideals can inspire exploitative behavior. The theme of noble sacrifice is believable and moving.

"Lisa" is based on Jan de Hartog's novel. He was the son of a Dutch minister and a convert to Quakerism. As a child he ran away, and lived on barges. During the war he aided in the hiding of Jewish babies; he hid from the Nazis disguised as a woman. Dolores Hart, who plays Lisa, left Hollywood at the height of her career to become a cloistered nun.

*** *** ***

"Everything is Illuminated" is an embarrassingly bad stinker on almost every count, with two exceptions: Eugene Hutz is weirdly, wildly charismatic as Alex, a goofy young Ukrainian who imagines himself a hip-hop star.
And "Everything Is Illuminated"'s score is excellent, consisting, as it does, of authentic Eastern European folk music.

The first half of "Everything is Illuminated" consists of g-rated versions of "Borat" jokes. Ukrainians are funny because they try to be cool like Americans. Ukrainians are laughable because they speak English in a simple-minded pidgin, calling "African Americans" "Negroes," for example, and saying "repose" for "sleep." Ukrainians are funny because of their sex lives. Ukrainians are also dirty, irrationally and by nature violent, they hate Jews, they wear unattractive clothing; the men are ready to beat up any newcomer to their town naïve enough to ask for driving directions; the women are either cowed housewives married to husbands and fathers who lead with their fists, or slatternly, sullen, obese waitresses; goat-herding Ukrainian children engage in mindless vandalism like flattening car tires. These folks are so debased that even their dogs are ugly, stupid, and vicious. Yup, there's even a creepy household pet. Of course these comically stupid, ugly, crude yokels are responsible for the Holocaust. At one point, Elijah Wood, as Jonathan Safran Foer, insists that the Ukraine was as bad as Nazi Germany.

This nasty stereotype is not the invention of Liev Schreiber, the director and script writer. Schreiber and Safran Foer, the author of the book on which the film is based, are merely exploiting, not inventing, hateful ethnic stereotypes. The image of the brutal Eastern European peasant has been around for centuries. Americans are most familiar with this stereotype from Polak jokes and the film "Borat."

Eugene Hutz is genuinely funny in his thankless, Eastern European "Amos-and-Andy" -style role. He acts the Ukrainian dunce with as much grace and dignity as possible, and is the only thing worth watching in the film. Some scenes are laugh out loud funny, especially when Wood lectures Hutz on the use of the term "African American." But "Amos and Andy" was funny, too.

After about an hour of Bohunk jokes, "Everything is Illuminated" abruptly turns off the comedy tap and turns into a turgid, static Holocaust film. What little action there was in the film, provided by Hutz's kinetic mugging, shuffling, and jiving, or by Ukrainians punching other Ukrainians, stops. Characters stand still and offer speeches about horrible things that happened in the past. Jonathan and Alex arrive at the one pleasant house, with the one dignified resident, in all of Ukraine. The colorful cottage is out of a Disney fairy tale. Clean laundry snaps on the line. Orderly rows of sunflowers surround the home. The peasant woman living in the cottage is gracious and lovely. Aha. She's not really Ukrainian. She's Jewish.

On the other hand, Elijah Wood, as Jonathan Safran Foer, a modern American Jew, comes off no better than the stereotyped Ukrainians. He, too, is a stereotype: the uptight, obsessional, neurotic, socially backward, weak, frightened, passive Jew. Wood, as Jonathan, is so stiff he could be playing a corpse. A writer and director should have a very sound aesthetic reason for making the Jewish character in a film about the Holocaust a passive Jew. Schreiber has no good reason. He's just playing two stereotypes against each other, insisting that one needn't learn anything from one of the most horrendous crimes in history in order to make a film about it. Given that there is a very self-destructive death of another Jewish character in the movie, Wood's passivity is even more troubling.

The Holocaust is never honored by "Everything Is Illuminated." In the unlikely event that this is the only Holocaust film the viewer ever sees, that viewer would have no idea what the Holocaust was. As slow, pretentious, and ponderous as this film is, it never for one moment manages to convey the monumental horror and heartbreak of the Holocaust.

Again, I'd love to see Eugene Hutz in just about any new film; meanwhile, I've been watching youtube videos of his band, "Gogol Bordello." Hutz sings and dances like a man who has vowed to live fast, play hard, die young, and leave a good looking corpse.

Monday, May 24, 2010

First post: TL;DNR

I began this blog to talk about the book, "Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype."

I wanted to tell a story about Polish-Jewish relations by way of an anecdote about running into my student Jorelle Baker on a snowy February road. In my head, this anecdote took about six sentences to tell.

On the page … it is much longer.

I know blog posts are supposed to be short.

That's why I've entitled this blog post "TL: DNR."

I can't afford wheels, so I walk. Rodgers and Hammerstein were right; you really never will walk alone. Nowadays, walkers everywhere, even in wooded spots, are accompanied by roadside garbage; previous passersby have flung their Dunkin' Donuts plastic cups out their car windows, no doubt certain that Dunkin' Donuts plastic cups, once flung out car windows, transmogrify into butterfly farts. Not so; someday our trashy indulgences will rise so high they smother us. Thanks to this roadside garbage, you always know who passed here, and what junk food hardened his arteries and pimpled his butt. You can't expect the garbage-tossers to treat the earth, or their own grandchildren who will inherit their garbage, better than they treat their own guts.

Along the road there are also, in spite of the garbage, flowers. "The garbage and the flowers": Leonard Cohen was right, as well. Walkers witness the confident blossoming of the first crocus from snow, the first yellow walls of strident forsythia, the first redbud, whose buds are really magenta, not red, and then lilacs, the sweetest scent, and then dogwood; walkers hear the first cicadas hammer, a message translated into human speech thus, both: "Summer is truly here" and "Summer is almost over." Walkers mark the first fired sassafras leaf to fall in early autumn, and follow the first snowflake on its slow trail down from downy early winter sky.

Walkers are also never alone because drivers get lost. The very same people who would not slow their cars if I were to stick out my thumb and attempt to hitchhike stop me as if I were a human Garmin Nuvi stationed roadside expressly for their service. "Miss, is this the way to ______?" I have a lousy sense of direction, but I have worked on it over the years exactly to be able to answer these demands, they come so frequently. I mark the name of the road I left, the road I'm walking to, exactly so that I can say, "No. Make a U turn. Go back five miles, turn left at the light on Broadway."

And you're never alone because of the ever-present birds who know who and where and what your intentions are better than you do. Existentially lost? You don't need a shrink. You need a bird.

Listen: by the species, and their calls, you know you are in a city, or a swamp, north or south of the equator, and what accompanies you. That jay screech records both the speed and the location of a stray cat you never even saw; the chickadees celebrate finds of grubs; hornbills never shut up on red laterite roads in central Africa; wagtails staff every Himalayan stream.

I once saw a turkey on Route 4 in urban Paterson, New Jersey, and a beaver outside a fourteen-story apartment complex in Bloomington, Indiana, where, on a busy street corner, I once, breathless, spied a fierce and hungry Cooper's hawk chase a terrified, but clever and rapid songbird through thick privet hedge. The birds were negotiating life and death in a ten foot square mathematical maze of manicured urban landscape.

Cooper's hawks' bodies and moves are sharp and slender, designed to catch and kill quick prey in dense foliage. But the songbird wanted to live, or maybe it just wanted to have some fun with this aerial Godzilla several times its size. Neither darted outside the confines of the ten feet the furious battery of their wings circumscribed. Neither "made a break for it" – to leave the hedge or cross the street or attempt to pass by mingling with a crowd of pedestrians. The songbird plunged into the hedge; the hawk followed; the songbird zigzagged; the hawk did the same; the songbird rose up; the hawk followed. And well-dressed businessmen and buskers and students walked hither and thither and never saw the twisting, feathered bullet of hawk, the beating, bright, shot of song, the attempted song-i-cide. I won't tell you who won. Go for a walk yourself and find out.

And the walker is never alone because of weather. Don't laugh. Weather is our most palpable, most voluble, most constant and all-enveloping companion. If you've ever been so untutored as to forget your water bottle on a dry-season road in equatorial Africa, or if you've climbed from rice paddies, palms and parrots up to eleven thousand feet in Asia and it begins to snow, you know exactly what I mean. Before you can do anything else you have to breathe, and there are winds that can and do, utterly without conscience, steal your breath away.

The first thing I want to know when I wake up in the morning is that day's weather. I've already got a good idea from yesterdays' signs: the ring around the sun, or the moon. Whether or not the moon has horns. A red moon. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors' delight. Leaves showing their backs. Mare's tails in the sky. The way the dirt smells. The way the wind tastes. The snow's crunch. Whether or not you can make snowballs from it. The size of the flakes; their speed. The seconds' count between lightening and thunder. What tale the wooly bear caterpillar's wool tells. Chimney smoke's path: "If smoke goes up the day is clear; if smoke goes down rain is near." Old folks' joints. Most terrifying: mammatus – yes, from the word for "breast" – mammatus clouds and green sky: a tornado; you shouldn't be looking at the sky, but ducking and covering!

Jesus knew; Luke, 12:54: "When you see clouds rising in the west you say immediately that it is going to rain – and so it does; and when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south you say that it is going to be hot – and so it is." My favorite: morel mushrooms sprout at that moment in spring "when oak leaves are the size of a mouse's ear."

I know I live in the city because the local NPR station is contemptuous of weather reports, which they offer casually, as afterthoughts.

Not so in Indiana. I remember, year after year, the alarm: "The state's agricultural secretary reported today that the year has been exceptionally dry and there is worry that the corn and soybeans will not be able to weather the drought."

And then the next year the report would be, "This year's excessive rains have flooded the fields and many farmers worry that the corn and soybeans will not be able to survive the floods."

And the next year a new alarm would arise: "The weather has been perfect. Farmers worry that prices will sink so low that they won't be able to make a profit."

An Indiana joke: "Did you hear about the farmer who won the lottery? When asked what he would do with all the money, he replied, 'Oh, I guess I'll just keep farming until it's all gone.'"

People who don't walk ask me about it. A young African American man in a drugstore. "I've seen you walk. Is it a religious vow?" I should have said "Yes," and added some fascinating backstory.

People assume that cold is the walker's worst enemy. Au, contraire. My favorite: single-digit subzero, bright blue sky. Few people. Laughing kids testing out Christmas sleds. Snow crunches with acoustic perfection. Air in your lungs snaps like an invigorating menthol massage at an exclusive spa. Everything is so Currier and Ives, for that one day, before the temps climb upward, and the snow loses its voice, and the indulgent emerge from their hideouts, and dogs pee on the snow, and garbage, again, accumulates.

The scariest weather? Just between me and you? Cold rain. Yup. That same meteorological package delivered by every April, the month that T. S. Eliot dubbed the cruelest. I'll go farther – cold rain is scarier than black mambas or green mambas or even wolves.

Don't laugh. Hypothermia will down you, before the rare snakes you'd be lucky to so much as see, as they slither in fear away, scarier than the imagined roadside stalkers, hominid or canine. In 1980, sixteen shipwrecked Danish sailors were rescued after an hour and a half in North Sea water that was well above freezing. They thanked their rescuers, walked across the deck of the ship, reported below for hot drinks, and promptly died. One website claims that water sucks heat out of the human body twenty-six times faster than air. That number sounds made up, but I guarantee you that I will quote it, whenever anyone asks me the toughest weather condition I've faced.

There are those days best captured by that notorious sybarite, Henry David Thoreau: "This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore."

So, yes. I walk. In weather.


One dark day in February, 2010, I was walking along a tree-lined road frequented by turkeys, deer, and red-tailed hawks. It was a dark day in a dark winter. I have to wonder if statistics don't reflect that the shrouded sun of winter 2010 here in Jersey contributed to … something. If not an increase in the suicide rate, maybe there was a mass outbreak of Russian-novel-reading along the New Jersey Turnpike.

Snow was falling thick and fast. Life in a snow globe: I lose my tenuous hold on a sense of "up" and "down." There's something anti-gravity about a thick snowfall. A dark form approached: my student. He was hatless; snow sprinkled his fluffy black hair. He had his arms outstretched, as if to catch snowflakes on his dark sleeves, to check if there really are no two alike.



"You're not wearing a hat!"

"I know."

I chided him. "You lose ninety percent of your heat through your head," another made up statistic.

But Jorelle seemed, really, to be enjoying the weather.

I liked that moment. Encountering another walker, someone else who is aware of weather.

Jorelle likes animals. One day, in reference to Freudian dream analysis, Jorelle told us one of his dreams. It was as thick with various fur and fins as the Bronx Zoo. Every student bears a gift without which the world would be less. I loved Jorelle's sense of whimsy.


That day a handful of students dramatized the Golem legend.

Rachel Greenspan was the impresario-cum-narrator and sound engineer: she played klezmer. Azur Sehovic, a Muslim from Bosnia, was Rabbi Loew; he wore a paper beard and a derby. Liz Bacon, despite her un-kosher last name, in her paper beard and yarmulke, handed in a Tony-award-worthy performance as "Unnamed Kabbalist # 2." Tall and strapping, Russian-American baseball player Scott Zirul was unmistakable as the Golem, especially since he had a sign on his chest. There were paper trees for the golem to tear up, and paper villagers for the golem to assault.


One day Azur – who had been so good as Rabbi Loew – and I were sitting in the office talking and Jorelle was sitting behind us, kneading a wad of freshly-purchased Silly Putty. When he arrived in class with the Silly Putty, someone made a crack, and Jorelle said, "Yeah, people tease me for it, but they all want to play with it!" Usually I try to finish up quickly with one student when another student is waiting, but Jorelle seemed so focused on his Silly Putty, I forgot about him, and focused on Azur.

Azur told me that one day his dad came home to his house with many windows. He wanted a smoke. He walked to the table to get his cigarettes and a man with an automatic weapon began to spray the house with gunfire. Azur's dad hid under the stairs for the next several hours. He had no weapon. Azur told me that, when running from Serbs, his dad favored cemeteries. He knew that the Serbs were too superstitious to pursue him there.

Once, when Azur was a kid, a child near him dropped an ice cream cone. Azur squatted down and began to eat it. His mother began to cry. Azur was hungry.

Around that same time, eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred by Serbs in Srebrenica.

Azur mentioned the name of his hometown to me. I turned from him, to the office computer, and did a Google image search of Azur's hometown's name. I expected to see photos of picturesque villages and mountains. Instead, there were photographs of crushed and bloodied corpses, some stretched out and arranged in rows on morgue slabs, some crumpled, random.

There was a photo of two men on a sunny street. The men have their backs to the camera. The closest man is wearing a blue shirt, a belt, and grey pants. The man in front of him is wearing a red sweater and blue jeans. The man closest is holding what looks like an automatic weapon up to the head of the man in the red sweater; that man is cringing, as if to protect himself from heavy rain or a falling branch. In a subsequent photo, both men are lying on the ground, streams of dried blood clot about their heads.

Azur said to me, very casually, "You know, I would never indicate the number three by holding up these fingers" and he pointed to the fingers he meant. "Because the Serbs, when they were massacring us, used to hold up those three fingers, to indicate 'Father, son, and Holy Ghost' and after they massacred us, they would chop off our three fingers."

And then he said, "My goal in life is to become a forensic anthropologist, so I can return to my country, and identify corpses. One of my family members was just identified after sixteen years."

Azur, without my prodding, insisted, "If this had happened in Paris, in Western Europe, there would have been protests. But we are Eastern Europeans, Slavs, so it doesn't matter."

As Azur spoke, my head wanted to explode.

One of the rewards of old age is being able to share important lessons with younger people. "You don't know how to do that? Here. I'll show you. Voila! Problem solved!"

In writing my book on Polish-Jewish relations, I had been focused on the past. What really did happen 1918-1939? 1944? 1968? I met men who, their heads suspended between hunched shoulders, books stuffed under their arms – appeared never to enter the twenty-first century, to be always lurking outside its doors, aggressive with their assertion that they had the inside scoop on exactly what went down in 1648.

There was a humanitarian justification for this obsession with the past: "Never again." We had to understand the Holocaust, so it would never happen again. So we had to read the next book, the next thousand books, attend the next debate between the usual combatants. Each pugilist might merely repeat exactly what he had stated in his previous debate performance, but he might place the semi-colon in a new spot; we had to be present for that.

"We must understand the Holocaust to guarantee a better future": That was the justification for obsession with the past, but a Milan Kundera quote comes to mind:

People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.

I know this sounds incredibly stupid and naïve; it sounds incredibly stupid and naïve to me. We haven't fixed things. We are passing on to young people a world where "Never again" is empty syllables. Feeling utterly impotent and dreading the future young people face: not one of the rewards of old age.

As Azur spoke, lines from W. H. Auden's poem, "The Shield of Achilles," went through my head.

Thetis approaches Hephaestus, the Greek god of the forge, a blacksmith, and asks him to make a shield for her son Achilles, heading off to fight the Trojan War, where he will meet his doom. Thetis expects to see beautiful scenes engraved into the metal of the shield. Instead, Hephaestus, the only ugly Olympian, fashions one scene after another of carnage:

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
loitered about that vacancy; a bird
flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
that girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
were axioms to him, who'd never heard
of any world where promises were kept,
or one could weep because another wept.

In the poem, Auden alludes to the crucifixion of Jesus. I ask students why Auden does this. "This is an *allusion.* It is *anachronistic*."

I turn to write "allusion" and "anachronism" on the blackboard.

"Why would Auden place Jesus in a poem about The Trojan War, over a thousand years before Jesus was born?"

Maybe I'm asking the question wrong, but my students never give the answer I suspect is true: Auden is saying that the time on the clock or the calendar page does not matter. "Never again" is a catchy slogan; that's it.

My head wanted to explode as Azur spoke because I craved the release of tears and I did not feel I could cry in front of my student. My head wanted to explode because I didn't know what to say.

"What's your favorite animal?" Jorelle asked. I had entirely forgotten about Jorelle, sitting there behind me, quietly waiting for Azur to finish up so he could have my attention.

Azur looked at Jorelle with a bit of surprise. Not the question one might expect in a discussion of genocide.

Azur's reply was as eccentric as Jorelle's question. "Walrus," he replied. I giggled.

Azur continued talking. He never seemed to run out of things to say, or of quiet outrage.

A few minutes later, Jorelle reached past me and handed Azur a gift: a perfectly fashioned walrus, complete with conspicuous flippers, tusks, and whiskers, made out of Silly Putty.