Anna Rosner Blay
BOOK LAUNCH - Sunday 9th May 2004
Address by George Halasz©
Thank you. I welcome you all.
I am honoured to be invited to celebrate the launch Anna Rosner Blay’s latest book NOT PARADISE. Today’s celebration is a triple celebration:
1 Mother’s Day
2 Lag B’Omer
3 And of course the reason we are here – to launch Anna’s book.
First a tribute to all the mothers – I begin with a mother’s days story:
Early one morning a mother went to wake up her son
“Wake up, son. Its time to go to school
“But why mom/ I don’t want to go to school
“Why don’t you want to go? The mo asks
“Well the kids hate me for one, and the teachers hate me too – Give me a good reason why I should go to school go to school” he asks his mother.
“Well for one you are 48 years old. And for another you’re the principal!”
It seems a mother’s job is never done.
I was especially pleased when Anna invited me to launch her then forthcoming Not Paradise. You see it was a re-invitation, six years after she invited me to write the foreword for her previous book Sister, Sister. A return invitation means a great deal, thank you Anna.
Reading and reading Not Paradise, I feel I am in a privileged position as a ‘witness’ to Anna’s writing as she charts and explores new territories in her and her family’s extraordinary story. That story is deepening and daring – daring to enter uncharted psychological territory, and as I hope to show, in my opinion breaking new literary ground, inspiring new life.
As I read and reread Not Paradise I discovered that there were at least three levels to read and relate to this amazing book of five lives, in two generations, related by much expressed and more left to the reader to reflect.
The first level: to appreciate the unfolding, intimate story of four women, survivors, BASIA, ERNA, JASIA and KITIA. In addition to having survived the Holocaust, each woman is a life-long family friend. That friendship extends back to Anna’s childhood. Such friendship have been recently celebrated at the Jewish Holocaust Centre’s exhibition Friends Forever: bonds forged in adversity which opened last week, Anzac day, 25th April, 2004. (Friendships Enduring, Halasz, 2004).
After her book Sister, Sister, Anna decided to interview her family friends, to ask them as Age reviewer Dianne Dempsey noted ‘extraordinarily important questions’. These questions related to how they coped, the mystery of their survival skills which enabled them in special ways to overcome such ordeals. She asked these questions to learn from them.
Anna details each story. She pays particular attention to details that, at times, I had an urge to skip a few pages, just to get to an easier part. They could not skip pages. You see their ordeals as Holocaust survivors are beyond the ordinary. If we endure, we just might learn from their ‘life-lessons’ – even if some lessons are beyond words. Lessons such as: how to cope with deep tensions; how to make new beginnings after tragedy; how to negotiate hurdles set by past trauma; how to engage cultural and language barriers; and most importantly, eventually how to find joy, to celebrate life.
What did Anna wish to learn? Why did she go to such lengths to question, to record, to research, to find out…surely there must be profound reasons to go to such lengths. We find out soon enough.
A parallel story emerges at the end of each chapter. These remarkable four stories resonate, in Anna with immediacy; their past is alive in her present life crisis. We learn, indeed witness aspects of Anna’s private and intimate story of the breakup of her 33-year marriage.
At the core of this book is Anna’s ordeal, Anna’s life conflict exposed, perhaps the reason she devotes her passion to explore their lives to such depths – is it entitled to be on the same page with the survivors’ story? Is she entitled to her own life-crisis in the shadow of theirs?
P 185: My own story is so ordinary and trivial in comparison to theirs. Nevertheless I have a need to understand: Where did they find their strength and resilience? How did they cope with memories of sadness and loss, without being overwhelmed? What gave them the courage to keep going? Perhaps if I can achieve a fuller understanding, I too will be able to move forward and recreate a new life for myself.
This leads to the second level to reading Anna’s book. I can only briefly introduce that today, it is so subtle, so complex and so filled with lived experience that I must qualify what I can do today is merely to skim the surface, to whet our appetites, to stimulate our sensibilities.
The epigraph is a quote by Kathryn McNess addressing the work of architect Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. A few lines capture a visceral level of a generational consciousness that is in exile, foreign, dizzying.
The tunnel that leads from the depth of the museum to the GARDEN OF EXILE AND EMIGRATION…’stepping into the garden is like stepping off a yacht after days at sea…49 six-meter concrete solums leans away form the horizon.
Nothing feels quite right.
Disoriented you pitch into the ‘trees’. The forest unmasks exile: it is not paradise or heaven, but a foreign land where learning basic things anew is dizzying…’
In this second level of Not Paradise, a deeper story, almost imperceptibly, hesitatingly, emerges even as it is ever conscious of being on the same page as the survivor’s story. How can a child of survivors dare to put her life story on the same page as Erna describing the loss of her parents and brother
READ P 187: to P 188
Experiences like Erna’s, that dare to trace the many shredded threads of the survivor’s life, inspire, inform and shape Anna’s courage. Anna dares to confront her writer-self, she breaks personal barriers, barriers established in the nursery, barriers of self imposed exile of a lifetime. Once these barriers are breached, she encounters even subtler, new layered barriers: of family sensibilities, ‘what will they say’ and finally ‘how can I not say it!’
In Sister, Sister Anna plummeted to undercurrents from her family life that shaped her own, how her mother’s and aunt’s life impacted on the little girl Anna. That book’s minimal self-reference implied how the parent’s life impacted - transmitted – silent messages to her own mind’s life. In that book she captured and wrote of the impact of her mother’s and her aunt’s will to survive despite their silent pains. In Not Paradise, as her marriage disintegrates, she revisits those earlier pains even as she confronts new dimensions of inner reality, of the mature woman.
This is part of her quest, to seek, to learn, to make sense of, to understand, to become mindful of the lives of her parent’s and their survivor friends, as unique individuals and as a generation. From her mature vantage point, what she allows to come alive are her earliest childhood impressions of her mother, that first profound role model of womanhood, motherhood. Now Anna allows herself to see other women as models, some who also divorced.
She sees anew how her apparently ‘ordinary’ youth was coloured and shaped by her parents dark periods; why her sense so ‘typical (of) second generation – an ingrained belief that nothing that we experienced could compare to what our parents had been through’ further distanced herself from a sense of entitlement to own her own ‘ordinary’ feelings…(a powerful conflict-theme in this book shared by Art Spiegelman in MAUS: ‘How presumptuous of me!’).
Reading the pages of Not Paradise, we discover, page after page, Anna’s emergence from the deepest levels of her self-discovery.
We are privileged to be invited, to share this intimate journey as Anna arrives at that station of life where she gives herself permission to feel. Feel core feelings for the first time in her life. She lives. We celebrate with her living this process as she discovers parts of herself, finally validated.
It is a cliché, I know, that writing is often likened to ‘therapy’. In Not Paradise, there is surely a layer of therapy writing. There is surely intelligent, elegant ‘art’ in the true sense of the world, that opens up to the reader new worlds, new ways of seeing and being.
And for us to reflect on the profound relationship between art and therapy awaits us, as readers, to explore, discover and treasure.
Let me illustrate by what I was especially moved by in the following passage:
READ : P 194 ‘Travelling in the Metro on my own …
…Which way? I am confused, dislocated, uncertain…’
And that is where we entered, from the epigraph, …emerging from Libeskind’s architecture’s representation of exile. Anna’s exile has been redeemed.
Like great architecture which has the power to leave us breathless, so Anna’s self portrait reflected through the visions of 4 amazing women, brings alive a book that is in the company of the great literary explorers and innovators.
Her quest for life lived, her thirst for self-knowledge, her hunger for self-truth has combined to map out no less than a new horizon of humanity.
Her book in the Holocaust genre, to the best of my knowledge, is unconventional. Why? Because she dares to juxtapose the survivor’s struggle with physical survival with her own second generation’s struggle with psychological survival.
This is radical writing, is it revolutionary?
Does it open the possibility to what I call ‘Holocaust dialogic (intergenerational) writing? Can we see this emergence of the survivor-adult offspring dialogue as a new, hugely demanding risk undertaken in order to emerge from a lifetime in psychic exile? To appreciate fully that weighty history’s tremendous pressure on personal story’ to use Eva Hoffman expression in After Such Knowledge (2004) we may need to read intimate, personal accounts like Anna’s.
Finally, let's turn to yet another dimension of Anna’s book, especially appropriate on Lag B’Omer. I wish to conclude with the deepest, transcendent level of the book.
We gain a clue that such a level infuses the pages from the title Not Paradise. Paradise as we know speaks also of the relationship between two worlds.
As if to make sure we do not miss this transcendent, spiritual level of the book, each chapter heading is taken from the concluding verses of King Solomon’s Book of Proverbs. When the wisest of all people shares his wisdom, we would expect his teaching to have more than one layer of meaning.
And so it is in this book, from the simplest, literal meaning to also allude to the much deeper issues. The last 22 verses of Eshes Chayil … the famous paean to the righteous woman, chanted in Jewish homes at the beginning of Friday night meal. Yet the word Chayil implies more than just ‘valour’ or excellence. ‘It includes the possession of whatever attributes are needed to carry out the task at hand. At the other levels, allegory, aphorism, metaphor and parable, it has been interpreted as a metaphor for the Shabbat, the Torah and the soul.’
What a fitting choice to celebrate the multi-layered, transcendent lives of five remarkable women. Not Paradise, like the Book of Proverbs I read as a collection of lessons for life. Read again, I discover formulas that give life the only meaning that truly matters, the generational meaning passed on from survivors to their children and grandchildren.
Anna’s chapter heading from the concluding verses of Proverbs reminds me that her insistence to ‘tell it like it is’ teaches us, if we wish to learn, that the only meaning that truly matters is discovered at those moments in life when we decide to stop hiding from ourselves, when we stop pretending to be someone else. Anna’s writing inspires us to revisit this lesson in the context of the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Her epilogue is titled ‘Praise her in the gates.’ The full sentence from proverbs translated reads ‘Give her the fruits of her hands, let her be praised in the gates by her very deeds.’
What a fitting blessing with which to launch Anna’s book, which I now declare launched. May she travel far and wide, inspire all with an open heart, with G’d’s speed.
G Halasz (2004) Friendships Enduring… Public Lecture at Launch of Exhibition Friends Forever: bonds forged in adversity. Jewish Holocaust Centre, Melbourne, 25 April 200