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"Weapons of the Spirit"



Los Angeles Goethe Institute / Los Angeles Martyrs Memorial of the Holocaust
Sunday, November 6, 1988, 10:30 am
Panelists: Helen Epstein, Peter Sichrovsky, Doerte von Westernhagen,
Henryk Broder, Menachem Z. Rosensaft; Moderator: Pierre Sauvage


When I was called a while back and asked whether I would be interested in moderating this panel, my first reaction was to say—or at least, to think—"Boy, is this up my alley!"

Pain, guilt, rage...  To be quite candid about it, these are emotions that for various reasons I've felt closer to these last months than ever before.  And this was true even before I experienced a very important loss just a week ago, as I will share with you shortly.

I'm not sure how much my state of mind has had to do with the Holocaust, and its lingering effects on me—particularly as I now seem to work in the field of the Holocaust—and how much is simply my own personal mishegass.  (Which for those of you who need the translation is a friendly Yiddish word for mild insanity.)

In any event, I won't embarrass you any further by saying more than you want to hear about that—especially so early on—but I do feel the need to tell you that a subject like this morning's hits a nerve in me.

And thus my second reaction was to tell Barbara Rottman, who was issuing the invitation to moderate this panel, that this is not an instance where I could play disinterested facilitator and referee.

Barbara said that was fine—perhaps not thinking it over as much as she might have—and now I apologize in advance that I am not likely to "moderate" this panel so much as I am to provoke it—and you.

But then isn't that our role this morning: to be as personal as possible.  To share our experiences.  To lead off these postwar-generation reflections with some fundamental building blocks of feelings and emotions.  To connect with whatever pain, guilt, and rage we may have, leaving to the historians this afternoon the responsibility for providing a judicious context for our experience, and to the creative artists tomorrow evening the task of assessing how and whether that experience can or should be conveyed through art.

But as I indicated, there is something else of a personal nature that I must share with you.  Because I need to.  And because I think it is, in a symbolic way, highly relevant to the situation of our post-Holocaust generation.

Just last Sunday evening, I got that phone call that people always remember.  It was my mother, with the news that my father had just died.

When I was asked—when he was alive—whether we had a close relationship, I would answer no.  We would talk on the phone every Sunday morning at about this time—my parents live (lived?) in New York—and over the years we had a lot to argue about.

What most surprises me now is the extent to which my feelings about him are changing because of his death, and how much I miss him.  I also can't help thinking of all that I withheld from him in retaliation for all that he had withheld from me.

If you'll indulge me a little more, I want to tell you that it happens that my father had a remarkable career as a journalist and author.  And one of the main forms that my mourning took this week was writing an obituary on him—two actually, one for France, where he was well known, and one for the U.S.—my "spin," if you will, on his life, but actually my attempt to convey that life precisely as he would have wanted it conveyed.

Friday, I received phone calls from the New York Times and U.P.I. and they acted as if I was driving them nuts because I wouldn't give them my father's place of birth.

I couldn't explain to them that it was just one of those families...  And that my father would have wanted what was to them a gaping hole in his obit.  I wondered if they'd write: "Son Pierre Sauvage declined to give his father's place of birth."

Actually, the U.P.I. was sneakier than that.  They called a publication that my father had worked for and they got the "cover story" I had been unwilling to repeat.  And that's what ran in today's L.A. Times.

Similarly, his death had confronted me with a dilemma, although actually there was never any doubt in my mind that there too I would respect his wishes, although these had more serious consequences for me and for my family.

Those last wishes were that there be no funeral, no services, that he be cremated, that his ashes be scattered over the ocean.

This meant that the laws of Judaism would be violated and, frankly even more importantly for me, that his grandchildren—and his children—would be deprived of a physical place that remained his, for ever and ever.

That is how far I was willing to go to respect his wishes.  That far, but not much more.

You see, some of you know me as a child of Holocaust survivors, as a child survivor of the Holocaust, and thus as a Jew.

But that is not the way I was raised.

I am, perhaps, becoming a Jew, with the essential help of my wife and my [then] eight year-old son, and what I increasingly believe to be common sense—that one derives strength from being one's self, and that one's self is rooted, among other things, in one's heritage and one's history.  Exactly the opposite of what my father believed.

And this evolution of mine did not have his blessing, was even probably experienced as a repudiation and a betrayal.

Oh, I wasn't raised as a Christian.  I was raised as a "nothing."

I have never before said this publicly, and I agonized until late in the night as to whether I was going to say it this morning.  And ultimately the thing that clinched it was a line I remembered from Elie Wiesel's "The Fifth Son," which is about the experience of a child of survivors, and in which it is said at one point: "The duty of the Jewish father is towards the living."

Well, I want to live an open life, with no secrets.  And I want to pass that approach onto my children.

And thus I will even tell you that at the age of 18, just as I was getting ready to go off to Paris to live and study—to live in fact with my cousin, who was a survivor of Auschwitz—my parents called me into the living room, sat me down, and told me that I was Jewish.  Or perhaps that they were Jewish.  Or perhaps that they were born Jewish.  I just don't remember.

My mother, a Polish Jew, had gone along with my Father, a French Jew—at least roughly speaking a French Jew.  Perhaps all those years, they had simply remained in hiding.

In any event, the rest of the family went along too.  Most of it, those who hadn't been killed off, were kept at arm's length, or I didn't know about their existence at all.

The conspiracy worked.  I never caught on.  I think I've learned something about the power of taboos.

My father never became comfortable with the new me, the almost flamboyantly self-proclaimed Jew, the public speaker about the Holocaust, and I always felt a little embarrassed talking about these things in his presence.

And thus, for instance, my film Weapons of the Spirit, about that unique community of Christians where my parents were sheltered and where I was born, was not—contrary, I'm sure, to what most viewers assume—the work of a dutiful child.  It was the work of a rebellious child.

If I'd respected my father's wishes, I wouldn't be a Jew, I wouldn't be the father of two Jews, and I certainly wouldn't be here today.

So while I realize that there are probably few of you who are able to relate in any direct way to what I have just felt the need to say about my relationship with my father—and here I take the liberty of addressing myself particularly to fellow children of survivors—I submit that we cannot take as a given, because of our love for our parents, because of our awareness of what they went through (and my parents were spared more than most), that we can be content merely to be dutiful children.

We must not deny the pain, and guilt and rage that may be buried in many of us, whether we still have the good fortune to have our parents or whether we do not.

And to the survivors among you, our parents, may I say, Please, stick around as long as you can.  We need you.  Most of all, we need your blessing to move on, to become ourselves.

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