After I had seen the film once, and then once more, I was overcome with a sadness, a deep sadness that settled over me like a mist. The next morning, I was drawn to a sentence in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.
In Paris in the 1920s, Hemingway has returned from the bookstore run by the lovely Sylvia Beach, who is very nice to him, letting him borrow books without a deposit. It is with that goodness in his heart that Hemingway returns to his cramped flat and tells his wife about the books. There is a beautiful moment between them as his wife says to him: “We will never love anyone else but each other.”
It is what Hemingway would have liked to call “one true sentence.” Here, you forget the writer’s odiousness in real life, including his ‘mild’ antisemitism.
This contrast is vital, because with horror, with evil, we must also remember beauty, and retain its memory, because that alone is life-sustaining. As W.G. Sebald reminds us, to get the full measure of the horrific we must be reminded of the beatific moments of life.
There are images that come to my mind as I think about the film: Walter Benjamin on the France-Spain border in September 1940, lugging a heavy black briefcase containing a manuscript that he says “is more important than I am.” And yet he is dead soon afterwards, and the briefcase with its promise of redemption is nowhere to be found.
I am reminded of the first time I went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where I felt paralysed inside a railway coach they had put up on display – a real coach used to transport Jews to labour camps. I remember a group of visiting school children, very chatty, one of them blowing bubble gum, go silent suddenly as the enormity of left-out shoes and shaved hair hit them. I am reminded of visiting Dachau a year later and wondering about two guides whom I felt were so close to the edge that I feared they would blow themselves up. And, yet, they took group after group and repeated stories with remarkable restraint. I wondered what this trapeze act was doing to their hearts.
How does one preserve a moment, remember it? Or remember a face, a voice? How does one come to terms with a simple fact that one has not been able to say even Goodbye to a loved one before an impending departure? I am imagining a moment where you are separated, like people in the film. And you know that another moment will never come. And you say things like “I want you to be courageous” to a child and then show him how to be courageous by walking away without looking back. In the gas chamber, when the bitter-almond smell of Zyklon-B hits you, do you remember a face?
In 1990, thousands of families, including mine, were driven out of our home in Kashmir Valley in the lap of the Himalayas by Islamist extremists. A family we knew from back home, who lived in a large house by a river, was suddenly forced to live in exile in a cramped room next to a sewage drain. Their boy wanted to have a little money for buying snacks for a school picnic, which his mother could not provide. He borrowed the money from a local ruffian. Fearing admonition, he did not tell his parents and hence failed to pay it back.
One day his mother is eating a slice of cucumber and in his playfulness the boy snatches it and goes out where the ruffian accosts him and in anger stabs him to death with a screwdriver.
The mother’s grief! Even thirty years later, I see it as if I am seeing a palette of strange colours. I imagine the mother dreaming of her kitchen garden back home, and the vines of cucumber and their yellow flowers.
In the film, Heda Margolius Kovaly speaks about her need to see a sign that her mother is somewhere around. And one day a dandelion lands on her hand and she finds a little happiness with it. “My mama, my mama” from a pappus of Taraxacum laevigatum! Beauty. Like a true sentence about two young people promising to love each other and no one else.
Come to think of it, it is like having our personal David Wojnarowicz’s magic boxes with their little shells and model steam trains and watermelon key ring, among other magical things. Think of it as Benjamin writing about lighting a cigarette in a boat with a flintstone and a fuse in Spain, 1932. “In a boat that is the best way. The wind blows the matches out, but the harder the wind blows, the more the fuse glows,” he writes.
That is the only way to be ahead of all departures, as Rilke would say in a sonnet.
Rahul Pandita is a journalist and an author based in New Delhi, India. He is a Yale World Fellow (2015).
Image created by artist Kenan Aktulun; the images come from each of the families. Images courtesy of the Kovaly family (Fortunoff Video Archive).
This contribution is part of the larger forum engaging artists and authors, from very different places and writing in very different genres, in a conversation on “the uses and disadvantages of historical comparisons for life.” The idea initially arose in response to the American presidential administration’s family separation policy on the southern border. A short documentary film, The Last Time I Saw Them serves as a point of departure. The intention is to provoke a discussion that could be an Aufhebung of the ‘is Trumpism fascism?’” debate: what can and what can we not understand by thinking in comparisons with the past?
The project is a collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the Democracy Seminar, and the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at the New School for Social Research.