“No, I have no desire to go back for a visit: what for?” says Amos Oz’s aunt Sonia in A Tale of Love and Darkness, a recollection of Oz’s life and that of his family, centered around the suicide of his mother.
“To start longing again from there for a Land of Israel that no longer exists and may never have existed outside our youthful dreams? To grieve? If I want to grieve, I don’t have to leave Wessely Street or even set foot outside my own apartment. I sit here in my armchair and grieve several hours a day…I only grieve for what never was. Only for those pretty pictures we made for ourselves, and now they’ve faded.”
There is a feeling that I find in Oz’s book which seems to line up, almost perfectly, with a range of deep-seated emotions related to exploring my own family. His story is almost too familiar: the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe who brought with them enlightened Western civilization and culture in a way that only Jews could, surrounded by its trauma as much as by its beauty. It is the strange irony of Oz’s death: that it leads me to finally encounter him, and write about him, and I haven’t even finished the book!
It seems appropriate to read A Tale of Love and Darkness while I travel in Belarus for the second time. Months ago, I was a terrified child, living in the 40-year-old dreams and nightmares of my parents and grandparents as I reconciled them with the real 21st-century country around me.
Now, I am almost too confident, with a sense of familiarity that prompted the Belorussian hostel owner in Minsk to tell me “you look like one of us.” And here I was thinking I look like a Jew, with my black hair and beard, dark eyes, and round face standing out against the sharp Slavic lines I saw everywhere.
Maybe it was my grandfather’s death. On my first visit to Belarus, he was chained to an old, dementia-ridden body in Minnesota. Now, I imagined him a free soul in Minsk, a city he had been born in and, later, had helped build after the Second World War that stole his childhood. He had been at the brutal, destructive Battle of Stalingrad, and his father, my great-grandfather, worked during the war as a civilian who helped construct wartime factories on the front lines.
So seeing the monument to WWII in the center of Minsk didn’t scare me this time, as a large Soviet finger pointed threateningly at me. This monument is my right as much as anybody else’s in this city, a memory of my grandfather.
There is a tragedy in the story of immigration and my grandfather’s dementia, a wider story in the fabric of Jewish history that I can’t really express or write. But Amos Oz cuts through this Eastern European tendency, this silent emotional masculinity that haunts us from the pages of civilized Russian books and Soviet education.
In understanding his mother’s suicide that left him angry and alone at the age of 12, he sinks into the broader history of Eastern European Jewish life. The vibrancy, the stories, the people.
And its destruction. Poignantly, Oz describes the Jewish school his mother and aunts attended, a Zionist school of Hebrew and history preparing the Jewish return to Israel. Not just names, but the characters of the teachers and students, salvaged from the memory of his aunt Sonia. And how, in the glitter of their life, their town, the forest that they would walk in, Nazis killed them. And his father, a gifted academic, whose older brother was so intelligent, so European, that he didn’t immigrate to Israel. The brother who was also murdered by the Nazis along with his wife and small child, the cousin Oz never met.
And Oz describes the family that immigrated to Israel, lost in a grimey new reality. A country, not yet established, of an earthy realism that bullied European romanticism into submission and drowned it in quiet, sullen depression. America may have been established, but for some Soviet Jewish immigrants, this feeling rings true. And their children have inherited a deformed version of it that some of us have difficulty recognizing, caught up as we are in our American upbringing.
Oz uncovers the things that I can never say. And truthfully, he too can’t say them. A good portion of A Tale of Love and Darkness is directly from the mouth of his aunt Sonia as she describes the world that was, and how it decomposed away.
It is an emptiness that I met in Belarus face-to-face, in the cold, and wind, and winter, visiting Maly Trostenets. Most of the Jews of Minsk, where they had been over 50 percent of the city’s population, were shot by Nazis in this area.
A massive memorial of bodies and barbed wire. And short remains of the outlines of barracks. I walked around and had no idea what to do with myself, flanked by apartment buildings and a distant forest in this wide open space. By sheer luck, a nearby cat latched onto me, and I spoke with it like the blithering, lonely, and terrified child I was.
A Tale of Love and Darkness brings all this to mind as Amoz Oz feels his way around the emptiness of his own life to find his deceased mother’s spirit.
Oftentimes, great writers die and the world exclaims in pity and sadness. Their work becomes a “classic” which, as Mark Twain said, is a book that men praise but don’t read. To do so to Oz would be a great disgrace (although, as he is helping me understand my own Jewish trauma, I am – of course – biased).
“No, I have no desire to go back for a visit: what for?” asks aunt Sonia rhetorically, something I’ve heard from people when they are confused and amused by my travels to Eastern Europe. And maybe this is just the desperate, dramatic reach of a young soul, but I feel Oz captures my answer better than I could, just by having written what he did.
Oz has no choice but to “go back for a visit,” as he does in his book. After all, how else will we make sense of ourselves?