Hugh Raffles’ The Book of Unconformities is about loss—personal and political, immediate and historical—and the struggle to make sense of it in all its dislocations and disturbances of temporal and geographical scale. This excerpt is from the epilogue. It follows six chapters organized around an elemental object or substance, often stone, that draws the narrative (and the reader) into explorations of places, histories, and events and the varied forms of absence from which they’re made.
During the years I was writing this book, my mother began to lose her memory, or, as she often said, she started “getting stupid.” I traveled frequently to London at this time, and on one of these trips visited the house in Belsize Park in which Sigmund Freud spent the last months of his life after his wife Martha and daughter Anna persuaded him to leave Vienna following the Anschluss of March 1938 and Hitler’s triumphant entrance into the city. Freud was almost eighty-two then and had been plagued for more than a decade with cancer of the mouth and jaw. But he finally agreed to go, despite having to leave behind four sisters all unable to obtain exit visas, all close to his age, and all of whom would die in concentration camps: Regina in Treblinka; Adolfine in Theresienstadt; and Marie and Pauline, transported from Theresienstadt to their deaths in Maly Trostenets, near Minsk. Freud himself survived in London for little more than a year. But those around him—including Martha, Anna, his housekeeper Paula Fichtl, and his doctor Max Schur—did everything they could to make his exile bearable, meticulously creating on the first floor of their new home at 20 Maresfield Gardens a replica of the study from their apartment at Berggasse 19 (in front of which the Nazis had draped a swastika). This labor of love, desperation, and endurance involved shipping not only furniture and sixteen hundred books but most of Freud’s substantial collection of antiquities—rugs, paintings, prints, figurines, pots, oil lamps, and more—and arranging them just as in Vienna. (“It was difficult, seeing the familiar desk, the familiar new-old images on the desk there, to realize this was London,” recalled the poet H.D., who was analyzed by Freud in both cities.)
It was startling to enter that room with its resolutely domestic refusal to conform to events—as if the re-creation of a recognizably continuous private and professional everyday life could overcome and undo exile and its effects, no matter the character of the world outside. The fact of that room and the objects it holds make it clear that for Freud and those around him the method and the metaphor were archaeology, redemptive and emancipatory: the unlayering of the psyche that Freud turned into the analyst’s trade animated by the narrative-filled objects covering the tables and desks and packing the vitrines, a stage set for the recovery of history and its possibilities, civilizational as well as personal, an archaeology of memory which preoccupied me, too, as I struggled to grasp the apparent arbitrariness and fragility of the pasts that surface in a mind distressed, inconstant, and prone to panic. For the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, Freud’s method was a geology of the psyche. And geology, like archaeology, had its utopian dimension—the promise of suturing time: “When the miracle occurs, as it sometimes does,” Lévi-Strauss wrote, “when, on one side and the other of the hidden crack, there are suddenly to be found cheek-by-jowl two green plants of different species and when at the same time, two ammonites with unevenly intricate involutions can be glimpsed in the rock, thus testifying in their own way to a gap of several tens of thousands of years, suddenly space and time become one; the living diversity of the moment juxtaposes and perpetuates the ages. Thought and emotion move into a new dimension [and] I feel myself to be steeped in a more dense intelligibility, within which centuries and distances answer each other and speak at last with one and the same voice.”
A few months after Freud left Vienna, my aunt Helga, then thirteen years old, arrived at Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse Station with her parents, Emma and Martin Jonas—who, like Freud’s sisters, had been refused exit visas—and boarded the Kindertransport, the train and the boat and the second train that would take her, too, north to London. Martin Jonas was a disabled First World War veteran whose condition gave the family some protection from deportation, but within a few years he died in a Berlin hospital, and Emma was transported to Theresienstadt and forced to work in the camp’s mica factory, cutting blocks of muscovite into impossibly thin sheets for the German war effort, an effort that by that point was entering its final months.
In May 1999, nearly thirty years after her mother’s death in Los Angeles, Helga donated a small collection of Emma’s wartime possessions (documents, photographs, objects) to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., possessions that included three crumbling sheets of mica, broken, irregular, and too delicate to handle. Until I saw those translucent sheets, now safeguarded in a Mylar folder within a protective box, I had thought of mica with a kind of affection, always buoyed on seeing it glinting in the sunshine, a touch of glamour in a slab of schist, always pausing in the Hall of Minerals at the American Museum of Natural History to admire the dark block of muscovite in its old-fashioned vitrine, with its faceted opacity and its solidity that was more paradox than illusion.
For many months after seeing Emma’s mica in the Holocaust Museum, I immersed myself in the story of Theresienstadt, discovering a strange, distorted, and terrifying place that existed for only three and a half years but through which 150,000 people passed, of whom at least 115,000 died either within the drastically overcrowded walled town or after transport to Auschwitz. I was hoping to understand why Emma would have saved those fragile mineral sheets, mementos of what must have been an extraordinarily difficult period, and by the time I finished, I did understand something about that place and her life. But I’d lost my appetite to add to the literature on terror, overwhelmed by the uncanniness of being submerged in the darkness of those times even as that darkness re-emerged all around in the present. Although the 1930s and ’40s are not precisely the template for twenty-first-century fascism, the inescapable political and cultural repetitions produced an unnerving melting of temporal distance: the millions of refugees on the move in boats, in trains, on foot; the children forcibly separated from their parents; the unannounced raids; the opportunistic politicians fomenting division and crisis; the horror of contagion; the scapegoating night rallies; the physical and verbal assaults in mundane locations. At times, everything felt like a correspondence, a sign: the temperatures so far above normal in Europe, North America, and across the Arctic; the fires rampaging through high and not-so-high latitudes; the pandemic that thrust the entire world into uncertainty . . . even the pink cherry blossoms blooming so recklessly in Riverside Park a few days after Christmas.
In Santa Barbara, where she now lives, Helga told me about her journey across Europe in an operation characterized above all by improvisation. When I arrived at Liverpool Street Station, she said, I spoke no English, knew no one, and my mother’s handwritten label still dangled from my neck. Right away, I discovered that the family with whom I expected to live—former business associates of my father—could not afford to keep me. Your grandmother was there, too, waiting for a ten-year-old boy, a playmate for your eight-year-old mother, but, for some unknown reason, he failed to arrive on the train from Berlin, and it was in this way that I became your mother’s sister and, later, your aunt. As it happens, your grandfather was also a teenager when he left his home, she added, but that was 1913, and he lived with his aunt and shared a bed with four cousins, working as a tanner—a despised trade—in the East End of London, leaving behind his father, an incomeless Talmudic scholar, and his mother, an itinerant saleswoman who traveled eastern Europe peddling lace and similar goods. Jack Posnansky, she said, was a decisive and energetic man, and in 1933, the year Hitler came to power in Germany, he returned to Kraków and, unable to bring his parents to England because of restrictive immigration controls, he escorted them to Palestine, where he took this photograph in which his shadow looms like an unexpected messenger as they look up, unsmiling, unsure of what comes next in the unaccustomed southern sunlight.
When I arrived in London in November 1938, Helga continued, I wrote to Berlin every week until the outbreak of the war. After that, I could send only Red Cross letters limited to twenty-five words and I only ever got one letter back, from my mother in October 1944, with the news that my father had died and she was leaving on a trip—I knew exactly what that meant. In 1947, Helga spotted Emma’s name by chance on a list of people held in displaced persons camps, and not long after, they reunited in London. How was Emma after those experiences, I asked, was she depressed? No, she was just so happy to see me, Helga replied, but I wasn’t a particularly good daughter. I made so many mistakes. She wanted to talk about it. I didn’t want to hear it. Now I would have liked to have heard more about it but back then I really didn’t want any connection with Germany. Because I’d become so British. I didn’t want to be drawn back. I wanted my mother, but I didn’t really want a German mother, you know? Emma told Helga it was the desire to see her again that kept her alive through those years that she and Martin scraped by on his Army pension until they were arrested and evicted, their possessions confiscated, after which, in May 1944, Martin was handed over to the nuns at the Jewish Hospital and Emma put to work ironing laundry in a Berlin declared judenfrei, free of Jews. When Martin died that October, an SS officer informed Emma that if she failed to return from his funeral, her escort, a young nun, would be shot. At the hospital, one of the doctors gave her medication to induce fever when the transports came. But six weeks later, she was sent to Theresienstadt.
“The disaster ruins everything,” wrote the philosopher Maurice Blanchot, “all the while leaving everything intact.” Emma and Helga took the train to Bournemouth, the seaside town where my grandparents were staying. It was the High Holidays between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and they heard David Kusevitsky, the acclaimed cantor. Emma, Helga remembers, was overwhelmed by the quantity of food at their kosher hotel. Helga was a young English-speaking nurse in postwar London, twenty-one years old and looking to the future, living in the moment, as she told me, then, as now, so caught up in the fullness of her life, the fullness of the moment, that she would forget the time, maybe even manage to forget the world, “trying to be as English as possible” despite the enemy alien card she’d carried since she turned sixteen, drinking tea with milk, throwing off the past. She had left school at fourteen with no qualifications, but here she was, the supervising nurse in an operating room and with no intention of ever departing from this recovering city into which the energy of peacetime life was flooding back. For Emma it was different: postwar London faced an intense housing shortage, and without money or effective English, this woman who before the war had run her own franchise of a well-known clothing store, now worked as a live-in carer for the sick and elderly and applied for reparations from the German consul who told her that people in London had endured a harder war than those, like her, who had the privilege to spend it in Theresienstadt. Eventually, together with a friend from Berlin, she rented a basement flat in Kilburn and, with Helga’s help, acquired a Singer sewing machine on which she taught herself to turn cuffs and mend bedsheets. Mother and daughter moved to Montreal in 1957 and, four years later, to Los Angeles, where Helga used her training as a nurse to build a new immigrant life, working in operating rooms, eventually as an anesthetist on an open-heart surgery team, marrying a NASA engineer, moving to Santa Barbara, volunteering at the natural history museum, running marathons, and skiing the steep slopes into her late eighties. Emma, for her part, fought emphysema caused by a lifetime of cigarettes and perhaps pneumoconiosis from exposure to mica dust. But she also went often to the movies and loved the German crossword puzzles that she bought on Hollywood Boulevard; so she was happy, Helga told me, despite the isolation of being so far from her friends in this sprawling city.
Los Angeles, 1968. I’m twisting around in the front seat of Helga’s low white convertible as she drives us in from the airport. I’m a small child sent across the ocean to keep the fragile connections alive, and I’m gawping at the freeways, the overpasses, the palm trees, the big cars, the big buildings. The sun! I snap long-lost color photos with the Kodak Instamatic my mother lent me for the trip. Everything in California is shiny, bright, and new. The parking lots and motels, the thrilling blinking neon, the unsuspected colors of night, and, in the wide-open mornings, the police sirens bouncing off the hillsides, the smog giving way to the gray-blue sky. That same week Helga takes me to Disneyland and to Knott’s Berry Farm, where I see water run uphill. California is a sun-bleached dream. Helga and I climb the outside staircase of Emma’s apartment building. I remember white-washed walls and a metal handrail. Emma opens the door, and inside the room is shady and cool.
Hugh Raffles is a professor of anthropology and director of the Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography, and Social Thought at The New School for Social Research.