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Surviving History

Posted on Mar 2, 2012

By Rayyan Al-Shawaf

(Page 2)

Just about everybody in “Hope: A Tragedy” is grappling with the past. Kugel’s mother feels guilty for not having lived and suffered through the Holocaust—so she convinces herself that she has. Anne Frank survived the Holocaust only to discover that she was famous for having died in it. (When she showed up at her publisher’s office several years after the end of the war, he told her: “Stay dead.”) She has spent the decades since trying to write a book that would outshine her diary. Through Kugel’s mother’s obsession and Frank’s ambition, Auslander makes repeated digs at the centrality of the Holocaust in contemporary American Jewish life. As a Jew today, Kugel’s mother feels no need to identify with Judaism or the (Ashkenazi) Jewish culture of her origins. Instead, she is drawn to an event that devastated European Jewry, but that she was fortunate enough to have never experienced. Meanwhile, a cantankerous Frank complains: “I think never forgetting the Holocaust is not the same thing as never shutting up about it. I’d like to scratch Abraham Foxman’s eyes out.”

During the years Frank spent in other people’s attics—on both sides of the Atlantic—those of her (inadvertent) hosts who treated her best were German or German-American. They were filled with shame and guilt over what their parents or ethnic kin had done, and wanted desperately to atone for the crimes of others. Frank found herself feeling sorry for them. In a wry reference to the Torah’s view of inherited guilt, Auslander has her exclaim: “The sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons. What an abominable idea! Who said that?”

And then there’s Solomon Kugel. He had hoped—here, Jove would already be shaking his head—to find “a home unburdened by the past, unencumbered by history.” Stockton, “famous for nothing,” and the farmhouse he buys seem to fit the bill.


book cover


Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel


By Shalom Auslander


Riverhead Hardcover, 304 pages


Buy the book


No such luck. Even without Frank reminding him of the past, he has his mother. And while Kugel dismisses her paranoid fear of another Holocaust, he can’t stop himself from wondering whether he and his family would find refuge in the event of a genocide. He asks his colleagues at work if they would help out “if something happened” and he and the family—with their dog—needed a place to hide.

“Of the seven people in his office Kugel asked that day if they would let him and his family hide in their attic, three said they had a lot of shit up there, one said he would love to but was allergic to dogs, one said he didn’t have an attic but Kugel could stay in his garden shed (on condition that, if discovered, Kugel would back up his claim of ignorance), and one said he could probably stay in his attic, but he didn’t want to commit to anything at the moment and Kugel should ask again when the time came.”

In one of several thought-provoking asides, Kugel wonders whether forgetting the past entirely might be best—especially when it comes to age-old religious and ethnic animosities.

“Kugel had read that the war in the Balkans was referred to as the War of the Grandmothers; that after fifty years of peace, it was the grandmothers who reminded their offspring to hate each other, the grandmothers who reminded them of past atrocities, of indignities long gone. Never forget! shouted the grandmothers. So their grandchildren remembered, and their grandchildren died.”

Kugel doesn’t have the luxury of being ignorant of his community’s past. Indeed, although Anne Frank is a real character in the book, Auslander clearly intends that she also be a metaphor for the past’s stubborn resistance to banishment. Your people’s history will remain in the back of your mind—your mind’s attic, as it were—whatever you do and wherever you go. And so it is with Kugel; he has come to know quite a bit about human depravity and Jewish suffering. Yet he decides—against Jove’s counsel—to hope for the best. And sure enough, that second Holocaust predicted by Kugel’s mother fails to materialize. But hope is a tragedy, so you know that it will require of Kugel a great sacrifice, one that may remove him from a world more than willing to forsake him, but that he is not quite ready to forsake. Kugel’s hope that he can transcend the past makes for a rousing act of bravura in the face of rampant indifference, cruelty, cynicism and pessimism, as well as a remarkable coda to an unremarkable life.

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By gerard, March 5, 2012 at 3:59 pm Link to this comment

    Between-Either-and-Or—Course 101:
    Course Description (Jan.-June 2013)

  Using World War II as an example, we will study
  the history of the decade before the bombing of
  Pearl Harbor to explore what opportunities were
  missed by American policy makers, and by
  Japanese policy makers, which, if taken,
  might have avoided the bombing of Pearl
  Harbor and the War in the Pacific.

    Course Description (July 2012-Jan.2014)
  The entire second semester will be devoted to
  appllication of methods and skills considered in
  previous semester,trying to realisticly project
  specific methods toward avoiding future wars,  c
    To conclude, we will evaluate how various
  methods might be considered “general enough”
  to serve in avoiding wars in general, and which
  might applyonly in more specific circumstances.

  (Emile, to understand what I’m getting at, you will have to put aside “silly” for the moment and look beyond this superficial summary. Quaintly
enough, so far as I know nothing like this has ever been tried. Maybe in some diplomatic training somewhere—or a school of international relations? If you know better, let me know.)
  My point being, of course, that the territory between either and or is a vast waasteland, for all practical purposes.  And every day makes it more practical! What alternatives were considered after Sept. 11, for instance?  One?  Or none?  How many possibilities actually existed?  Unknown number?
  What alternatives are being considered now by Assad?  None? Why not?

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By gerard, March 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm Link to this comment

Emile Z:  Don’t try so hard.

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Copeland's avatar

By Copeland, March 4, 2012 at 7:28 pm Link to this comment

What is eating at the heart of our country besides the narcissism of empire, and
all the tropes of exceptionalism?—the lies, denunciations, scapegoating, and
bullying? The next steps presented in our unfortunate history are killing,
maiming, and the familiar economic sanctions, the strategy of slowly starving
civilians to death. Next there could be ethnic cleansing, or finally, an implied
permission to exterminate.

But there is an alternative to a world made in this way.

The embodiment of the fully human, and complete compassion, is what is read
in the words of Anne Frank. The Diary is an expression of wholeness and love
that remains uncorrupted. Anne is who she is for all time; and she will not
surrender her humanity, or reduce herself to something less. She doesn’t
denigrate the world, or cheapen it, or ask us to believe that peace is not
precious, or that most people are not worthy, or good enough to enjoy it.

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By UreKismet, March 4, 2012 at 1:33 pm Link to this comment

Remberance is stupid.  No one is suggesting people forget their history but the idea that every time more than a handful of humans die, there must be ubiquitous & annual public demonstrations of grief, is the biggest obstacle to peace in so called developed nations.
The way New Yorkers have taken to wailing and gnashing their teeth every September, ensures that the only need to be sated will be the hunger of cannon fodder for gwot. 
The former state of Yugoslavia is a classic example. Tito mistakenly thought that one and a half generations of peace would ensure that everybody put the past behind them and used their common language and customs to benefit the whole society.
He reckoned without the poison poured into your citizens ears by old men who would immortalise the wrongs of past grievances by way of religious and cultural ‘celebrations’ within their specific sect right through the period when the government was attempting nation-building, thereby subverting the new nation.
The holocaust industry is a just such a sabotage of modern societies.  It attempts to inculcate a sense of guilt among humans of european descent, so they will go along with the ethnic cleansing of the Jordan Valley, and then hopefully stay on board for the creation of Greater Israel whereby a puppet state of amerika owns and controls transportation channels, and the remaining oil resources of the Mid East.
The diary of Ann Frank was a propaganda pushed out after the end of the Nazi domination of europe, with the aim of overcoming the anti-semitic propaganda of nazidom that had indoctrinated so many europeans.
In is convenient now to blame the slaughter of gypsies, jews, and queers on some ‘other’, the nazis, but these acts were comitted by europeans of many nations, with the willing compliance of most other europeans.
Propaganda like Ann Frank served a purpose but like every bureaucracy allowed to continue on past its use by date, the anti-anti-semite propaganda has grown to subvert the values it was created to uphold.
Peave, tolerance of difference and determination to get along have been replaced with war, intolerance and a determination to kill arabs and muslims.  Those are the primary goals of the holocaust industry now and all humans need to speak out against this travesty, not go along to get along because “hatred of the holocaust is the one thing that most everyone agrees on”.

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By EmileZ, March 4, 2012 at 2:26 am Link to this comment

@ Gerard

I dunno Gerard, while that isn’t the stupidest thing I ever heard, it is pretty silly.


I use “is” and “isn’t” in the most absolute sense of the word, not as an either or proposition.

When one meditates on the isn’t-ness of the stupidest thing and the is-ness of pretty silly, both the possibility and impossibility of enlightenment might emerge spontaneously and with only a small quantum of effort, the seed of effort, so to speak.

Grab hold of neither and you may or may not attain inner conflict.

Grab hold of both and you may or may not gain transcendent wisdom.

Skillful means are, however, another story.

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By Rudy, March 3, 2012 at 9:53 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think this either/or analysis has quite a lot going for it.  Long ago I realized that I could simultaneously love and hate someone, but that idea was not well received by others.

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By gerard, March 2, 2012 at 7:10 pm Link to this comment

I’d like to suggest that the (perhaps main) reason we at present cannot “escape” history is the fault of the languages we use which largely determine the way we think and speak and interact. Not all languages are as rigid as English, but English has become (for better or worse) the “international” language, and it is extremely limited by being built on presumptions of either/or—limiting choices of understanding, of creativity and of behavior to one of only two alternatives.
  Take the words most concerned here:  “remember” versus “forget” and “hopeful” versus “hopeless”.
The moment the words are uttered, their opposites are unconsciously implied and anticipated.
  By its horrendous nature the Holocaust is doomed to be “remembered” in attempts to put back together tens of thousands of lives, families, institutions that were permanently dismembered. Yet to move on and let it be “forgotten” seems disrespectful. In fact the degree of horror it evokes in memory seems to call out for a “re-venge” that is “impractical” and a satisfaction “unattainable.” People who are directly effected and try to deal with the emotional aftermath, find their efforts useless. Anne Frank lives in their attic.
  Yet in spite of the fact that the human race has endured such insane slaughters time and again, with similar results recorded in stories, patterns built up by repetition tend to persist. To remember or to forget. (To be or not to be. To win or to lose. To advance or to retreat, fight or flight.)
  New patterns might be (might have been) invented presenting different and/or intermediate alternatives, but apparently were not. Proof of the lack is apparent in the lack of words to express alternative responses. The very nature of language tends to prevent recognition of what has not been said or cannot be thought, let alone verbalized. Other possibilities simply do not exist because they do not “come to mind.”
  It is impossible to understand why this lack of human “progress”, but I suppose we will not get out of the “box” of either/or (one of only two alternatives) unless we can begin to consciously recognize how the limitations of language itself may be trapping us, actually preventing creativity and growth.
  Is there actually no possible concept to be discovered between remembrance and forgetting, between hope and despair?
  In reality, a lot of work must be done in advance to prevent wars that destroy peace. Yet in reaiity little to nothing has yet been done to fill the gap so that “peace” is little more that the lack of killing and not an opportunity to create situations that, as the Quakers say, “take away the occasion of all wars.”
  The idea of course being to prepare for peace rather than, or at least as much as, to prepare for war.

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