His work has appeared in the Sunday Tribune, Crannog, The Stony Thursday Book, Revival, Boyne Berries, Wordlegs and various anthologies.
By Brian Kirk
I was in Manhattan early on the morning of September 11, on my way to see my ophthalmologist. He’s more like a buddy now, but back then he was just an eye quack I had been referred to by my doctor. I had just been diagnosed with glaucoma and my sight was deteriorating rapidly.
I was walking along Greenwich Avenue when I sensed the panic. I didn’t see what you saw on the TV, a spectacle, rather like a trailer for a disaster movie. With my vision already blurring and shaded, I merely had the impression of alarm among the people around me; like startled horses ready to stampede, a sense of imminent physical danger. Of course I lost my cell phone in the mayhem and my daughter, Kathy, saw those pictures on TV, and spent the whole day calling me in vain, while I stumbled around the city waiting for Penn Station to re-open so I could get the Amtrak back to Albany.
I wasn’t scared. Nothing scares me much anymore. Now I am completely blind I am even less scared than I used to be. I have seen some terrible things in my time. That is to say, terrible things happened right under my nose, but I didn’t always notice them so much. I didn’t understand the evil that people can do. As a young boy I lived through the occupation of Amsterdam with my parents without really seeing what was happening around me. Much later I allowed myself to admit to the latent fear I felt at the time, the fear no one in my family ever spoke of; that pervasive, insidious fear peddled by people like my Uncle Franz, my father’s brother.
My mother never liked Uncle Franz. She particularly disliked the way he invariably stood in the doorway of our apartment building every morning as if he owned it, drinking a cup of steaming tar that he called coffee, inscrutably watching the world go by.
I was ten and the war was over some two years when my father announced that his firm had offered him an opportunity to work in America. An awkward age for a move of that scale you might think, but not so. For me it felt like going home, and when we settled in Syracuse in upstate New York I never once thought of the past with regret. At that time music was everything to me. I had been picking up forces radio on a crystal set at home as they broadcast from a defeated Germany. All I lived for was a chance to hear those exotic sounds made by Americans with preposterous names like Leadbelly, King Pleasure, Muddy Waters, Little Richard.
After me, my mother took most quickly to our new life, safe in the knowledge that she had seen the last of Uncle Franz and his like. His passport had been confiscated by the new government; my mother said he was lucky not to have been jailed because he had been one of the first to join the party soon after the occupation. My father never said much at all.
He never settled into our new life. The job was not at all what he expected, the country even less so. He drove a battered car with impressive tail fins around the Tri-State area peddling shoddy jewellery, watches that wouldn’t keep time, pens that leaked indigo ink across the faux leather trim of his cheap attaché case. He was dead within two years of our arrival. Meanwhile my mother kept herself busy, cleaning our new home, hanging curtains, washing windows, digging flower beds and a vegetable patch in the back yard. Flowers were best, she always said, they were the one thing that allowed her to think of home without feeling sad or angry. I didn’t know what she meant back then, but of course I do now.
I fed my appetite for all things American with TV and radio, and I went to the movies as often as I could, aiming to become the quintessential American youth. I resisted parental authority, revelling in what I thought was the freedom of a teenage gang for a while. By the time my mother remarried when I was sixteen I had pretty much nailed down my brooding James Dean disinterest. I suppose I went off the rails for a couple of years; I dropped out of high school, got into a bit of small-time trouble with the law, and caused my mother and my new stepfather some anxiety. Sal wasn’t so bad I guess, but I couldn’t let that be known. He was a good-humoured Italian immigrant who worked hard and looked after my mother, but who spoke with an unfortunate accent that always put me in mind of Chico Marx.
I was a bright kid, however, despite being troublesome, and eventually went back to school where I graduated, before going on to the StateUniversity. After college I took post-grad History in Boston. I took a lot of drugs there; everyone did in those days. We talked a lot then also, and we marched from time to time. We talked about civil rights, human rights, free love, gender equality, an end to the war in Vietnam. Even though the world was full of horrors, and even though we read and talked the terror through like old hands, without ever flinching, on campus all was well. We had created a utopia for ourselves; we lived in a bubble of our own making, repeating righteous slogans, breathing the expended air of like-minded others, claustrophobic, and yet heedless of our claustrophobia. The speakers in the gym hall, carefully selected by the Students’ Union leaders, confirmed the rightness of our beliefs and we applauded them generously. We smoked, we listened to new music the like of which was never heard before, we danced, we made love. We loved everyone – everyone who agreed with us that is.
All so long ago. Another dream. Another life. When I finished my studies and came home my mother didn’t recognise me. I no longer pretended to dislike Sal, and happily moved back into my old room while I took up a junior lecturer’s post in the History Department at SyracuseUniversity. I was still into music and made lots of new like-minded friends. As a consequence I wasn’t home that often, staying out and sleeping on the floors of party houses around campus.
Last year I turned seventy. My mother is long gone. My own wife Marion also, more than fifteen years ago to cancer. When I think back to Amsterdam, it seems like another life. Not mine. On the few occasions when I think of the place at all these days it’s like remembering a dream: early morning sunlight on the canal while I watch from the window as my father’s slumped suited shoulders fade into the busy street. The bell of the milk dray approaching, Uncle Franz exchanging gruff words with the driver, before he continues his round. My uncle’s calloused hand upon my head as I pass him on the stairs on my way to school. I hear his heavy footsteps ascend, his voice low as he calls her name, the front door closing behind me. I never went back there, never wanted to. Sure I always felt a certain amount of pride in my Dutch roots when I walked around the Metropolitan and looked at the Van Goghs and Vermeers, but I was an American by then, just as I always wanted to be. My wife was an American, my daughter is an American, my grandson is an American too.
My father always appeared to be embarrassed by the occupation, as if he or his peers hadn’t done enough to resist it. I knew what the history books said. The Netherlands was a densely populated, flat land that offered no natural cover to the resistance. Escape was impossible, surrounded as we were by other conquered nations and a discouraging North Sea that was alive with German patrols. The fighting ceased after a mere five days and, following the bombing of Rotterdam in May 1940, the Germans took control. Nothing much seemed to change at first. I still went to school every day. The trams ran, the shops opened each morning, my father went to work, my mother stayed at home. There was talk of persecution of Jews in Berlin and Vienna, but we didn’t know who they were, these Jews. We didn’t know any of them, none lived in our apartment building or on our street; there were no Jewish boys in my school that I could name.
My Uncle, who up to then had been a quiet lodger, started to attend party meetings from which he generally came home drunk, loudly lecturing my father about his patriotic duty and the purity of blood and race. Uncle Franz was not an educated man, and I had no idea why he was so much incensed. My parents took advantage of his absences to exchange hoarse whispered words in the kitchen while I lay in bed. My mother cried a lot around this time I remember. But in the morning the sun came up each day, and Uncle Franz would stand out on the street with his coffee mug as usual as I set off for school.
The Nazis appointed a civil government to administer law, and the papers carried information that summer and autumn, new rules that were put in place concerning Jews. I didn’t understand and anyway it hardly seemed to matter. Within six months everything had changed however. Shops were closed down in town, yellow stars daubed across them, only for them to re-open weeks later with new names above the doors. Lists were being made, I heard my father tell my mother once, a register he called it. It was compulsory he said for all Jews to be on it. I remember wondering why he told her that. Certain boys I knew at school no longer came, and whole families that lived just streets away went missing overnight, their broken windows shuttered for some weeks until a suitable family were found to take their place. The Jews were being sent to places set aside for them, one of the older boys at school explained. I still recall the names: Westerbork, Vught, Sorbibor, Auschwitz. Still my father went to work each day, my mother stayed at home, I went to school, passing Uncle Franz as I went down and he climbed up the stairs, his empty coffee mug swinging nonchalantly on the crook of his bony index finger.
It happened a few times in high school and college, and occasionally over the years on various campuses where I lectured. On one occasion when I was speaking at a conference in Atlanta on the subject of “Nation building after World War II”, one kid disrupted proceedings by shouting abuse at me, holding aloft a homemade placard that said, “Zionist go home!”, which I thought at the time was amusing. Lately it disturbs me a little. It is just another part of me I’ve so easily placed to one side and ignored. I don’t know when I realised my mother was Jewish, or if back then I appreciated the danger we were in, living under the dubious protection of my uncle. It bothers me that, while I can remember certain things, events, the names of forced labour camps for instance, I cannot clearly recall my own childish understanding of that time.
My daughter Kathy was hysterical by the time I made it home that day. She’d dropped my grandson Harry into playgroup first thing as usual and spent the whole day watching news reports, switching between channels, seeing the towers fall again and again, fearing the worst for me. She was so relieved to see me, but I was more worried about her. I always worried about her. She took her mother’s death very badly, although with Marion’s illness we’d had some time to prepare ourselves before the end. She was just a kid then, barely fifteen years old.
That night she tucked young Harry up in bed and came back down to sit with me. Even with my bad eyes I could tell she was distracted, her brow creased, her eyes half closed, unable or unwilling to look me in the eye, as if she thought she could avoid the only subject that could possibly be discussed that night. Eventually we did talk, and she cried some, out of relief I suppose that I was okay, but also out of incomprehension, the way she had when her mother died. The tears of a child. She couldn’t understand how anyone could do such a terrible thing to innocent people. I realised then that although she was a grown woman of thirty years she really knew nothing about hate, and I suppose she is no different in that to a lot of people.
Fear was palpable in the weeks after 9/11, and it was fed by the media and our neighbours and friends, because none of us really knew why what had happened had happened. As the weeks passed I found myself reliving that moment on Greenwich Avenue when the world slipped off its axis. That crescendo of panic that rose from one spot in Manhattan like a scream and was sustained across block after block; one spark ignited, caught hold, and spread like a fire right across the whole country. I found myself looking at Harry and seeing myself as I was back in Amsterdam during the war, and I wondered did he understand any of this now, or was he just like me, an innocent, ignorant of what was truly happening around him. And would I have to try to tell him some day, just as my mother tried to tell me? And would he already know the truth, but never admit it?
I am like my mother in so many ways. She too went blind; she too lost all fear as her sight declined. She told me near the end that for years she despised my father for what he did, for letting Uncle Franz do what he did to her, but ultimately she said she knew he did it for her. It killed him in the end, the guilt, but what he did allowed her and me to have a life. I sat beside her, stroking the translucent skin of her frail hand, and said nothing of course. I asked nothing of her, although I knew she wanted me to. I understood that she wanted to unburden herself of the sordid truth before she passed on, but I could not let her say the words aloud.
Despite all I say about my fearlessness, little by little the fear comes to me now. If it is not fear it is the memory of an old unacknowledged fear. It is not fear of my own death. No, I worry for Kathy and Harry, for the future they might have to endure in a world that has grown so small. America is no longer a new world, no longer the refuge from the old world that it was. When sides are taken and morality is set aside, only one thing matters: fear and making others feel it, whether your enemies are in your city or on the other side of the world. I never thought that I would have to live through this again. Silence sustains fear. I must learn to talk to my daughter and grandson, to let them speak to me, and I must learn to listen no matter what they say. Perhaps it is too late. I have spent my whole life in the history departments of universities, among academics in places of learning, cosseted from the real world, reading old books, passing on knowledge, teaching, and all the time I am burying the past.