Trains of Thought and In Lands Not My Own—both titles have a melancholy sound. Both are memoirs of East European Jews in flight from Hitler at the outbreak of World War II; and both the authors end up as members of the Allied forces, Victor Brombert in the American Army and Reuben Ainsztein in the RAF. Though their stories cover much of the same ground (literally), they are very different.
Ainsztein’s is more of a thriller. That is partly because, born in 1917, he is the older by six years. In 1939 he was a medical student in Brussels. With his parents left behind in his native Wilno (he was never to see them again), he was on his own, forced to make his own decisions in razor’s-edge situations, while Brombert had to follow his father’s choices, which left him free to dream his teenage dreams and worry about his trouser legs: Were they breaking over his shoes as they should? The reason Ainsztein was studying in Brussels is that in pre-war Poland only a small quota of Jewish students was allowed into the universities. Anti-Semitism was official, general, and generally accepted. Ainsztein’s memoir runs on the fuel of anti-anti-Semitism, and his hatred and distrust of Poles is an indelible part of it.
On the other hand, his gratitude toward non-Jews who treated Jews as equals and friends is touching. His parents were poor and the money they were able to send covered his university fees but nothing else. He lived on giving English lessons (they must have been pretty elementary: he’d never been to England or the US), and there were times when the only food he had was stale bread. He was chronically weak with hunger, and he despised his fellow students. They were spoiled and frivolous, he thought, while his own life was “a continuous, soul-destroying struggle against hunger, loneliness, and adolescent pride.” That pride was wounded when he had to borrow money for his rent, and more still when a kind shopkeeper offered him some ham for free: “Nobody’s embarrassment can compare with that of a proud pauper.” Still, the shopkeeper and her husband became his friends, and so did another couple called Caprasse, who came from the Ardennes and lived in Ainsztein’s apartment building. Their “Catholicism… was sincere, tolerant, and mitigated by their Gallic mentality.” Ainsztein is given to such pronouncements.
The most unpredictable event in his story occurred in February 1940, when he came across an article on Stendhal in an English magazine. It was by Sir Samuel Hoare, the British secretary for air. It seems extraordinary that a cabinet minister would have time for such a thing in wartime. Ainsztein doesn’t say that, but he does become “convinced that Sir Samuel was the type of man to understand my motives.” So he wrote to him and asked to join the RAF. A few weeks later a letter with an English stamp lay on the lobby table. “The impossible had happened: I was granted permission to join the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve as an aircrew.”
Unfortunately, the impossible happened just before the Germans invaded Belgium. Ainsztein and the Caprasses planned to flee together. He helped them lug their belongings to the teeming railway station, where crowds were fighting to get in line for trains that might never arrive. The Caprasses had arranged a rendezvous at a café; but when he got there, he found a note to say that they had found
a train on the point of leaving for the South of France and could not wait for me. To see the effect of panic reflected in the behavior of people whom I loved and respected made me painfully sad.
He must have really loved them, because his usual reaction to anyone who crosses him or whose behavior he deplores is one of aggressive scorn and blame. A few weeks later, for instance, he is taking shelter from German shells in a cellar near Boulogne. Some of the others there sneer at a young French soldier from the Midi, and at the southern French in general:
I could not help asking them whether they were at war with Germany or about to declare war on Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Marseilles. That brought them back to reality but did not endear me to them.
No, it wouldn’t. Ainsztein does not come across as an endearing man.
The difficulty, of course, about joining the RAF was getting to England amid falling bombs and shells and advancing German troops. Ainsztein just missed the last boat across the Channel. He returned to Brussels, and then set out for Spain through occupied and Vichy France, always on the run or in hiding. His account of his adventures and of the characters he meets is gripping in its precision and brio, even though he may overemphasize his own courage—which doesn’t need it. He explains that his determination to be, and be seen to be, brave came from growing up in a culture that assumed all Jews to be cowards.
It took him fifteen months to get to Spain, only to be arrested and spend another fourteen months in a concentration camp for foreigners. The Poles among them despised and humiliated him, and it was in the camp that he first heard about the gas chambers:
I felt like howling, tearing my clothes, covering myself with ashes, but I was too far removed from the religious and medieval mind. My intellect never gave up its role of investigator and examiner; despite the absence of human sympathy and understanding, my mind did not crack and I did not go mad.
The Polish prisoners, he writes, received the news with “widespread applause. There was not a single voice of protest at this expression of solidarity with the aims of Nazism.” No wonder Ainsztein refused suggestions that he might join the Polish forces when the prisoners were released after a hunger strike.
With a batch of other prisoners Ainsztein traveled via Madrid and Portugal to Gibraltar. In Madrid he had an affectionate affair with a Spanish woman, which leads him to condemn Spanish males for their brutal attitude toward women. Then, in a station café at the Portuguese frontier, he had an experience almost as thrilling as Sir Samuel’s letter: he got into conversation with Leslie Howard. The star of Pygmalion was
modest, gentle, quizzical, with an indefinable charm, and [I] felt that I was facing the foremost product of English civilization…. (It came as a great surprise to me to learn after his death that he was born a Hungarian Jew.)
At the time, though, Howard’s behavior confirmed Ainsztein’s infatuation with the British. It had come upon him when he was a boy reading the novels of Joseph Conrad, the only Pole he seems to admire. And when at last, after many vicissitudes, he found himself in England training with the RAF, that experience further endorsed his view that
of all the Western peoples I knew, the British were the only ones to have become completely civilized without losing the more primitive virtues that lie in the love of danger and adventure. The ideal hero I had dreamed of as a boy in Wilno—the man in whom action and thought were harmoniously combined—seemed to occur very frequently in the ruling class of Britain…. I was struck by the degree of trust and confidence governing the relations between individuals. I also discovered the extraordinary decency, kindness, and humanity of the English.
But, the chapter regretfully concludes,
there was one feature in British life that I found utterly sordid. I found the relations between the sexes lacking in grace, fun, and interest…. The sight of thousands of couples lying in broad daylight on the worn grass of Hyde Park, engaged in every possible caress short of actual copulation, made me understand why D.H. Lawrence could have been born only in these isles!
Ainsztein finished his training as an air gunner with the rank of sergeant and flew on missions over Germany. He gives a step-by-step account of an engine failure, during which he groped his way through the belly of the failing aircraft, from his gun turret to the tail and back again, without his parachute, because
it seemed to me that to strap on my parachute would be a sign of faintheartedness on my part, a kind of abdication to fate, and expression of distrust.
A few minutes later the crew had to bail out anyway. Ainsztein injured his leg as he landed near a tiny Belgian village. An old woman and her daughter took him in—by extraordinary coincidence they were already sheltering three East European Jews.
The dust jacket tells us that after the war Ainzstein worked for the BBC; that he died in 1981; and that in 1941 (when he would still have been in Spain) he married someone called Pat Kearey. That seems as surprising as Sir Samuel’s letter; he never mentions her, and it is hard to imagine how he could have fit marriage into his life on the run.
A distant British relative told Ainsztein, and one can believe her, that she “found me without a sense of humour.” Victor Brombert has one, and lots of charm as well; even though his book is sometimes slapdash and contains a few clichés, it is impossible not to like it and him. His parents were well-to-do, cultured, nonobservant middle-class Jews: his father a fur importer, gentle, nervous, cautious, and fussy, his pretty mother a bridge champion, and both of them hygiene freaks. They had fled from Russia in 1917 and settled in Leipzig, where Brombert was born. When the Nazis came to power, they moved on to Paris and a flat in the haut-bourgeois sixteenth arrondissement. He went to a lycée, but occasionally skipped lessons, and had a “passion for tennis.” Merry photographs of him and his friends on the beach at Deauville and Trouville remind one of Albertine’s little bande, only including boys.
Brombert portrays himself as lazy, vain, and obsessed with sex; but his admission of these faults only makes him more appealing. He loved riding on the métro and discovering strange parts of the city. “I believe,” he writes, “that my curiosity about literature was awakened not by books but by my Parisian walks.” French became his first language, and he was to become a professor of French and comparative literature at Yale and Princeton.
When the Germans invaded the Low Countries, his father decided to move south to Bordeaux. “In May– June 1940,” when he was sixteen, “literally millions of refugees obstructed the roads and railway stations.” It was the start of the family’s progress by means of bribes:
Papa explained to me how important it was in times of stress to make proper contact with officials, and then, at the right moment, adroitly slip into their hand, or place on their desk, an envelope with a few bank notes in it.
This was called accommodements, and was the method that got them visas and took them by hired car and train from Bordeaux to Nice (where Brombert and his favorite cousin enjoyed bicycling into the countryside to buy unrationed food from farmers), then to Seville, and finally, after six weeks crammed into a squalid banana boat, via Bermuda to New York. In Bermuda, Brombert’s first encounter with the British was very unlike Ainsztein’s:
The British police, in their impeccably neat shorts, had contempt written all over their faces. There was contempt in their gestures, their silence, their way of handling our passports and our tickets, as though we and all that belonged to us were infected.
Describing his first impressions of New York he begins to worry about “the imp of inauthenticity,” which makes him see the city through the eyes of Melville, just as he later sees Capri through Axel Munthe’s, Rome through Stendhal’s, the Midwest through Mark Twain’s and Sinclair Lewis’s, and St. Petersburg through Dostoevsky’s and Gogol’s. But the imp is not such a bad imp. When he writes about mooching around Paris, Brombert alludes, among other writers, to Baudelaire and quotes him; it makes the atmosphere he is describing dense with contributory ghosts.
Brombert spent a year at Harrisburg Academy, then took an unlikely job in a dental laboratory, all the while impatient to be drafted. The call came late in 1942. Because of his knowledge of languages, he trained for military intelligence and was sent to Europe as a front-line interrogator, in time for the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes. His close-up views of the fighting, the terror, the choice of risks, the smell of corpses, are all so strongly described that Stendhal, his favorite writer, would surely have appreciated them:
Officers were in search of their men, men were in search of their units. Many of them were dispersed, roaming over the bleak landscape. Commanders were scrounging for troops. One was always in danger of being commandeered by unknown officers.
Trains of Thought is punctuated by short reflective passages. The last section begins:
I often wondered if it is because I recognize the child in me that I find it so hard to take myself seriously. Sometimes I tease myself into believing that mine is a case of arrested development, but if seriousness means acting grave and important, then I am not ashamed to have been able to make fun of my occasional esprit de sérieux. The imp [another imp] of pretentiousness should be thwarted. I laugh every time I remember Montaigne’s wonderful observation that even on the loftiest throne one is still sitting on one’s ass. No, I resist taking myself seriously, except perhaps in my deeper allegiance and fears.
Like Brombert, Ruth Kluger is a retired professor of literature—German in her case and at the University of California, Berkeley. Her memoir, Still Alive, is subtitled A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered; and, unlike Brombert, she leaves no doubt that she wants to be taken very seriously indeed. She came closer to death—in a gas chamber—than Brombert or Ainsztein did in battle or on the run. Her tone is outspoken to the point of aggressiveness, and she believes that
it is not in our power to forgive: memory does that for us, and when memory refuses, the honeyed words that are meant to convey what we sincerely think we ought to feel turn sour with hypocrisy.
A subtle and brave analysis—and merciless; and at this point she isn’t even talking about her experience of Auschwitz, but about a very early childhood memory: an aunt confiscating her collection of used street-car tickets on grounds that it was “unhygienic.”
She was born in Vienna in 1931. Her “Jewish liberal background decreed that Orthodox Jews were fanatics and baptized Jews were spineless assimilationists.” After Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, her father, a doctor, was arrested by the SS; he returned, fled abroad, was interned in the French concentration camp at Drancy, and finally deported to the gas chambers. Her mother was harsh, histrionic, demanding, attractive (she had four husbands—Kluger’s father was the second). She was also brave, and proud of it. Her daughter doesn’t like her much. In fact, you could read her memoir as the story of three concurrent resentments: of the Nazis and all anti-Semites; of most men (including her ex-husband, an American war hero and academic whom she rarely and only dismissively mentions, though they had two children); and of her mother.
She also resents all views on the Holocaust that do not tally exactly with her own, and gets indignant about everyone who criticizes her: her American relatives after the war, for instance, who found her insufficiently ladylike, and the Austrian psychiatrist in New York who was supposed to cure her depression. They all are berated for not understanding who she is or what she has been through:
One of my friends reads this, shakes his head and says: “You complain that no one asked questions. But you also complain about the questions they did ask. You are hard to satisfy.” There is a fine line between indiscretion and sympathetic curiosity. Damn right. I am hard to satisfy.
And of course, nobody could expect to get it completely right unless they too had survived the Holocaust. That makes it difficult to judge her book. It holds one’s attention by the very nature of her story, and the story could hardly be better told, in a forceful, colloquial style. All the same, Primo Levi told a similar story without making one feel so hectored.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the most moving section of her memoir is about the years before she left Vienna. She was seven in 1938 when the Nazis annexed Austria. Jews were gradually excluded from one activity after another. The school principal came to teach her class the Hitler salute, which the Jewish children were not allowed to use:
The class dutifully imitated him, while we five or six Jewish kids got to sit in the back. Because the principal was friendly and the teacher visibly embarrassed, I was unsure at first—such is the touching optimism of the young—whether our special status was a privilege or an insult.
Jewish children were also banned from public playgrounds and swimming pools, the movies, and soon from school as well. They had to go to special Jewish schools and wear the yellow star.
With the increasing isolation of the few Jews left in Vienna, my mother became dependent on me for companionship and tortured me with her anxieties…. I was like a young dog without exercise, and she tried to keep me from the few games which were left…. The Jewish cemetery was our park and playground. When I came home to our cramped quarters [they had been forced out of their comfortable home into a dark, bug-ridden apartment shared with other Jewish families] from a rare outing with other Jewish kids, happy and exhausted from running around in the open, she’d paint the specter of deadly pneumonia, which I was very likely to have caught, she said.
In 1942 they were deported to Theresienstadt—neither a work camp nor a concentration camp, she explains, but a prison ghetto, “the stable that supplied the slaughterhouse”:
The term extermination camp didn’t exist yet…. I insist on [the differentiations] at the risk of alienating my readers (most of them likely to be female, since males, on the whole, tend to prefer books written by other males), because we need to break through the curtain of barbed wire with which postwar sensibility has surrounded the camps.
Her mother agreed that she should live in the children’s barracks. Cramped, hungry, and freezing cold though they were, there were things that she liked: learning about the classics, for instance, from another child’s mother; and “in the end I developed a gift for friendship, which I believe I still have.”
But then the Klugers were moved to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Auschwitz was a concentration camp; they were put into Birkenau, where the ovens were. They could see them spitting flames at night and smoke by day. Her mother proposed that they should commit suicide by walking into the lethally electrified barbed wire. The child refused, and “my mother accepted my refusal nonchalantly.” When she had children of her own, she understood that in Auschwitz killing them might be better than waiting. “Committing suicide is a homespun, almost cozy, idea for many cultures,” and for Austria especially, she maintains.
Then came a selection of prisoners for work or death—and she survived death by courting it. Women between the ages of fifteen and forty-five were chosen to go to labor camps. They lined up half-naked before two SS officers. Kluger’s mother passed. Kluger didn’t: she told the truth, that she was twelve, and was rejected. Her mother whispered that she should try the other line, and say she was fifteen. Kluger sneaked out of one entrance and back through another, undressed again, and stood in line for the other SS man, planning to say she was thirteen. His female clerk—a nineteen- or twenty-year-old inmate—saved her at the risk of her own life. She whispered to her to say she was fifteen. This time Kluger did. The SS man thought her a bit small, but the clerk encouraged him to take her—and he did. The chapter ends with a philosophical argument:
It makes sense that the closest approach to freedom takes place in the most desolate imprisonment under the threat of violent death, where the chance to make decisions has been reduced to almost zero…. And so one might argue that in the perverse environment of Auschwitz absolute goodness was a possibility, like a leap of faith, beyond the humdrum chain of cause and effect. I don’t know how often it was consummated. Surely not often. Surely not only in my case. But it existed. I am a witness.
The Klugers were transported to a labor camp in Lower Silesia. They worked on farms, where people stared at them “as if we were wild animals”; and also in a quarry, which was “the worst of all, because no other place was so desolate and cold.” In January 1945 they heard the Russian gunfire. The prisoners were moved on, and then on again. In February Kluger and her mother escaped, together with an older girl called Susi, whom Kluger’s mother had more or less adopted (she was capable of goodness after all). Susi is still Kluger’s best friend.
They struggled through a Germany teeming with displaced persons—mostly Germans fleeing from the Russians. They got identity papers by pretending to be displaced Germans too, and they begged or stole their food:
Every right step made us more sure-footed. Susi and I still talk about our minor achievements, which added up to the major one of survival. Two old women, we sit giggling, “Do you remember the time when…?”
Eventually they settled in Straubing, and Kluger went to school. A teacher complained about discipline:
Boys at least had a sense of honor to which he could appeal, which was lacking in girls. Morality concerned all people, so why was this man telling me that honor was beyond my ken by virtue of my gender? It made no sense, except as an insult. While Germans had to revise their judgment of Jews, however reluctantly and sporadically, they didn’t even try to revise their Nazi-bred contempt for women.
From Straubing the family moved to Regensburg. Kluger went to the university there and her mother got a job with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Kluger wanted to emigrate to Israel; her mother chose New York, and in 1947 they disembarked there, with Susi.
November 7, 2002