During these excruciating days in our country, as we again publicly witness the injustices we inflict on each other, I, like so many others, feel an urgency to find my bearings. As an antidote to my sense of helplessness, and in the face of voices like Donald Trump’s, I’ve turned to my father, a survivor of another time when norms of decency were annulled in people and in countries, for a compass. Here are excerpts from letters my (future) father wrote to my (future) mother in 1945.
That philosophers of ‘dialectic’ invent formulas, thesis/anti-thesis systems, makes me realize that people don’t want to understand that there was something human that led to the hopeless system that brought Hitler, and there is really no rescuing anti-thesis free of its own potential for evil… I have nearly lost all doubts that America will give me hope.
I almost admire everyone who can get away with a cheap painting, who can oversimplify, who can say, here is the good, there is the evil, here imprisonment, there freedom, here nonsense, there sense. Only a few months ago I was able to gain quite a bit of truth from this deception. But I believe now that contradictions — sense and nonsense, lies and truths, moral and amoral, freedom and imprisonment, human will and causality, misfortune and fortune, love and hate — are not as separable as we like to think, and must come together for a rendezvous in this dying world rather than in an endless fight. God knows this fight cannot end in reconciliation.
My father, Paul Heller, was born in 1914 to one of the few Jewish families in Komotau, Czechoslovakia. He began medical school in Prague in 1933. In August 1939, days after his graduation, he was arrested and transported to Buchenwald, remaining there and in Auschwitz until 1945.
With the help of Edward R. Murrow, whom he met at the gates of Buchenwald the day of liberation, he made his way to England, where he wrote letters to his former medical classmate, my future mother, Liese Florsheim, beginning the slow process of metabolizing his experiences.
He didn’t practice medicine again until he was in his late 30s and spent the rest of his life making up for lost time.
My father, like other survivors of genocides, was at the receiving end of the worst that human beings contain within themselves. And yet his mind remained a sensitive instrument, registering and granting complexity to all who lived and live, including those who’d aimed to annihilate him. If growing up in the US, I wanted to hate all Germans (and I did), my father made it clear that I was on my own. Though deeply traumatized, he managed to live by the philosopher Simone Weil’s credo: “It’s better to say I am suffering than to say this landscape is ugly.” In his letters to my mother and in his life, he raised stunning provocations against simplistic formulations of good and evil.
Until now, I’ve avoided making connections between the survival of my father’s humanism and the cheap moral narcissism of today’s political landscape in the very country that gave him such hope. Although Roger Simon uses the term moral narcissism to describe the use of politically correct language, I would argue that it is a far more accurate description of complete lack of interest in the complexity of the world. It accurately describes Donald Trump’s speech and behavior.
Terence DesPres wrote about “the capacity of men and women to live beneath the pressure of protracted crisis, to sustain terrible damage in mind and body and yet be there, sane, alive, still human.” Against the greatest of odds, my father and others who witnessed genocidal horrors – the recently departed Elie Wiesel comes to mind – patently resisted formulas that require an “other” to despise and belittle.
Trump’s self-aggrandizement and willful ignorance lull the mind and offer simplistic certitude to those who fear the complexity and ambiguity of the world. But this is a moment in which we could all benefit from a deeper encounter with those ambiguities. As my father wrote to my mother only months after his liberation, not to remain awake is to sleepwalk into catastrophe. In the face of a moral narcissist like Trump, we need to remain awake.
Caroline Heller is the author of “Reading Claudius: A Memoir in Two Parts” and teaches at Lesley University.