Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Yom Hashoah Comes to Town
Because Yom Hashoah fell on a Sunday that year, Jo Ann thought of having a memorial service in a Christian church. Good idea, I said, but where will you find a church around here that’ll do it? After a long silence, Jo Ann triumphantly said, “Sister Agnes”! She’s a nun, a friend with whom Jo Ann had collaborated a couple of years ago in bringing a survivor to speak at the high school down at the Strait. Jo Ann wrote to her, and also to the National Council of Christians and Jews in New York. Sister Agnes replied at once, full of enthusiasm and interest, and the Council sent Jo Ann a manila envelope bulging with material — complete services, excerpts, sermons, background information — everything she could possibly want.
I was working in the woods on the day Sister Agnes was due, but I made sure I got home early. Papers were scattered over the kitchen table, and Sister Agnes was getting ready to leave.
“Everything set?” I asked.
“Just about,” she answered, buttoning her coat.
“In outline,” Jo Ann added. “Sister Agnes will work out the details of the program, and I’ll prepare a short talk.”
“That’s right,” Sister Agnes agreed emphatically. “I persuaded your wife to give a speech. I told her that’d be the sermon.” She laughed, bending over to struggle with her rubber boots.
“I’d like to give a little talk, too,” I said.
She quickly straightened up and looked at me with round eyes behind her rimless glasses. Before she could say anything, I went on.
“Look: This is a special Yom Hashoah service for Christians. Well, I’m a Christian and I want to talk about the impact of the Holocaust on me.”
To say that Sister Agnes was horrified would be an exaggeration, but not by much. As a sentimentalist, she thinks I’m a heartless cynic because I don’t share all her enthusiasms. Lord knows what she thought I might say to the congregation.
“Trust me, Sister,” I said, “I promise you won’t regret it.”
She bent down again and tugged at her boots. When she stood up, stamping her heels, she faced me squarely, her gray hair tousled and her face red. “All right. I’ll trust you. Just don’t tell me anything about it.”
We had trouble with our speeches. Jo Ann showed me her first draft, and I couldn’t make it out — it didn’t go anywhere or say anything. “It doesn’t seem to have any point,” I said. Jo Ann was glum. “I know what you mean. In some way it’s all wrong,” and she took it away to work on.
A couple of days later she said to me, “You know, the trouble is, I’m afraid of giving offense.”
“Jewishness. It’s a sensitive subject here; you never know how people are going to react. Remember when I was showing that woman from town the daffodils and I told her the same kind grew wild in Israel? She turned to ice. I mean, sometimes just to mention the word Jew is offensive.”
“Okay, you know the audience. But what’s the point you want to make? That the people in front of you are responsible for the Holocaust? Of course not. What the Holocaust did, or rather, what your knowledge of it did for you, was to reawaken your Jewishness. So tell about that, honestly and simply. Anyone likely to be offended by that wouldn’t be there. Think of it that way.”
My trouble was a little different. When I had volunteered to speak it was no more than an impulse to stand beside my wife, to be identified with her in her cause; I had no idea what I wanted to say. Now I turned to the material Jo Ann had collected, as well as to a pile of newspaper clippings, sent to us by a friend in New York, about Yom Hashoah services and sermons. By the time I was done, I had the stock speech by heart — all I had to do was patch together the clichés: Never Again with its precedent Never Forget pointed to the Lessons of History, i.e., the Face of Bigotry, Man’s Inhumanity to Man, Madness, and Brutality, finishing with Tragedy in all its varieties, National, Personal, Human, Inhuman, Unique, and so on. Pastor Martin Niemoller put in a cameo appearance, Speaking Out was advocated, the murdered Jews became the Six Million, Six Candles were lit, and it was all done for our Children’s Children. The speech of officials, the hollow voice of Everybody and Nobody.
When I was done, though, I knew what to avoid: I should try to speak directly and simply (as I had told Jo Ann) in my own voice about my own experience. Ah, but what was that, I asked myself? The renewal of Jo Ann’s Jewishness had had unforeseen consequences. Before that, we had gone along for years, not only without a religious affiliation, but seemingly without the cultural attachments associated with any religion. In fact, we assumed, however implicitly, even deprecatingly, that my culture, what would pass on a very dark night for WASP culture, was the real thing, the standard, our “home.” Now all that was overturned, and the oddity was that I had played such an ambivalent role. I insisted that she read that book about the Holocaust; I encouraged her; I read the same books; I discussed everything with her — and at the same time, I fought against it, tried to stop her, tried to defend and preserve the old dispensation. I remember once, near the beginning, when Jo Ann remarked that she thought the Christian churches had had a lot to do with anti-Semitism, and hence with the Holocaust. It was during evening chores and we were both milking, a time when we often talk over things, sitting on our stools, our heads resting against the cows’ flanks, the lantern light casting a yellow dusk around us. I pooh-poohed the idea, insisting that Hitler was a modern pagan whose ideas and appeal owed nothing to Christianity, but she persisted, and I, who really knew nothing about it, became exasperated, defending Christianity with a zeal astonishing to my own ears. Of course we wound up, as usual, by agreeing to look it up, with predictable results.
As March gave way to April, everything was ready. The service would be held in the convent chapel because, when Sister Agnes asked the priest about a church service, he groaned and said, “Why do they have to pick on us?” With just four weeks to go, we began to invite people, not formally, but just as we met them coming to the farm from day to day. We knew most of them quite well. Generally, their response was to make no response, none whatever, which is a Cape Bretoner’s form of tact. Where someone from a more middle-class place would make an excuse, a Cape Bretoner, without any sign of embarrassment, simply says nothing. One couple underwent the transformation Jo Ann had mentioned: They seemed, subtly but definitely, to grow rigid and cold, eyes glazed.
We got a ride with our friend Mike, a surveyor from Ontario working temporarily on the Island. It was a long drive — 40 miles — on a cold, raw April evening. And we went the back roads, passing here and there the skimpy farmhouses and trailers that make the dreary miles seem only lonelier. Once in a long while we’d see a few beef cattle out, though no grass grows in this thin, cold soil until late May at best. These were not farms, only what once were farms.
We arrived early enough to have tea and cookies with Sister Agnes in the convent kitchen, an interlude made somewhat tense by her nervousness as she spoke hurriedly in fragmentary sentences about her efforts to secure an audience. Beneath her optimistic formulas — this one was “interested,” that one “promised to try” — poor Sister Agnes obviously was very worried. I could see that she had worked hard to make the service a success, but too many of those she had depended on had disappointed her. Despite her sentimentality, I have always admired Sister Agnes, and never more so than on this night. Who else would have had the courage to sponsor a Yom Hashoah service in the face of the prevailing indifference and hostility?
When the service began in the chapel, a large room with a small altar and lectern against one wall, folding chairs arranged around the outer walls, there were 15 people in the audience. None of those we had invited were there, none of our friends or acquaintances. Sister Agnes’s fellow nuns were absent, as were the few Jews who lived in the town.
Looking at the program, I was surprised at the absence of any clue to the sequence of events: there were only pages and pages of mimeographed readings and songs and poems jumbled together from the Council brochures. The service was more muddled than the program because Sister Agnes was constantly stepping outside the door to fiddle with the lights or to put on a record of syrupy, 60s-type songs. We sang, we recited, we mediated in the dark, Sister Agnes lit candles, one thing followed another remorselessly, but each part seemed interminable. Everything seemed distant and muffled. I was caught, I realized, in an amateur version of the Never Again service.
The audience was beginning to show signs of stupefaction, and I could hear that almost inaudible, but persistent, fuzzy noise; as if all the wandering thoughts and distracted senses of each individual emitted a tiny hum, the static of boredom.
Jo Ann’s speech transformed the service. The force and clarity of her voice dispelled fuzziness: her passion compelled attention. The room grew still as Jo Ann recalled how she had first learned about the death camps at the end of the war in the pages of Life magazine.
I looked at the pictures and young as I was, I drew my own conclusions, which were quietly locked away in that part of my mind where all the unpleasantness associated with being Jewish was stored. Subtly but surely, throughout my childhood, I had received the
message, from my non-Jewish schoolmates, from their parents, from my teachers, from many remarks I heard around me, that there was something wrong with being Jewish.
It was then, when I came back to reexamine the Holocaust in recent years, that I was forced to think about my own Jewishness and the attitude of my own neighbors to that
mythical creature they so often abjured, “the Jews.” From the moment I recognized the dead as my dead, my people, I strove to recover what was almost lost to me, my precious birthright. I realized how wrong I had been to have acquiesced, to have excused anti-Jewishness.
At the end of her speech, Jo Ann acknowledged her debt to those Christians who had helped her, mentioning (among others) “my husband, who urged me to study the Holocaust as he had done and who supported my difficult journey back to Judaism.”
The words were no surprise to me; I had read them a month ago, and I had been pleased. Now I was ashamed. Looking over the pages of the speech at home had been one thing, but hearing Jo Ann speak them in public with such honesty and simplicity, was another. Yes, I had supported and encouraged her, but it was equally true that I had tried to hold her back. The devastating blow, however, was the full realization that I, too, for so many years of our marriage, had been one of those who had made her feel that there was something wrong with being Jewish.
My throat tightened and the room swam, but before I could grasp what was happening to me, Jo Ann had resumed her seat, and I was standing before the audience, gripping the lectern. Although I’m not much of a public speaker, I know how to avoid giving the impression that I’m just reading something, but after my first sentence, I gave it up. If I were to complete my little talk (only two pages), I would have to concentrate all my attention on the words in front of me on the paper, reading them very slowly and very carefully.
When we were first married, I thought, in a half-conscious way, that I was doing her a favor by introducing her to the superior world of Anglo-Saxon Christian culture. That condescension was punctured one evening when one of our dinner guests made an anti-Jewish remark. Later, when the guests were gone, my wife cried. I tried to comfort her, tried to explain it away. For the next 22 years, that was the extent of the impact of my wife’s Jewishness on my life. I learned ways to head off anti-Jewish remarks. If I failed, if I could not prevent such remarks, I learned how to isolate them. And finally, I comforted my wife. I did not hear those remarks until I was married to a Jew. They were there, though, maybe I even said some myself. But I did not hear them.
As I read, a fresh sense of my hypocrisy in the pose of my wife’s comforter assailed me, and my voice wavered. Instead of gaining strength and control, I was losing both. Then I knew my speech was lost, wasted, blotted out by the spectacle of a man trying to speak against his tears. Not that it mattered — Jo Ann’s speech had been enough. Anything else was superfluous, and if her words did not stay in their minds, nothing I could say would. I carried on because I had said I would. And now it was all for Jo Ann. The others could have the spectacle: the love and sorrow were for her alone.
Reading the last paragraph, the words blurred, but I knew what they were. Pausing, I heard the silence in the room, an electric stillness. I began the last sentences.
My wife has given me not only knowledge of another religion and culture but another gift. Thirty years ago, I loved one Jew. Because of that love, and what it led me to — the things I have just talked about, Jewishness, history, Christianity, and so on — I have come to sympathize with all Jews, and I am all the richer for it.
Slowly, ever so slowly, I uttered the words out of my distress. After “and so on,” there was a long pause. I spoke the next phrase, waited a moment, then firmly finished the speech.
When I returned to my seat, Jo Ann clasped my hand. I sat with my head back and my burning eyes shut. There was a long silence in the room. Finally, Sister Agnes came to the lectern and said, in a shaking voice, “I don’t think we need to go on with the rest of the program.”
One more sentimental song, and the first Yom Hashoah service in Nova Scotia under Christian auspices was over. It had been a success, thanks to my wife, and even in the midst of my personal failure, there were consolations: I had brought the dreadful program to an end, and I had shown Sister Agnes that I had a heart. *