Grof, Andrew. Goldberg Variations: A Novel.
"Is there any place in the world where one can be safe, absolutely safe, Laci?" asks a Hungarian Holocaust survivor of her son in Andrew Grof's recently published novel, Goldberg Variations: A Novel. For Mrs. Schaeffer, Laci's mother, the answer is painfully obvious. The world after Auschwitz will always be tainted by the horrors of the Nazi's genocidal obsession to rid the world of Jews; her New York apartment overlooking the East River will forever be crowded by the shadows of dead relatives and friends clamoring to be remembered; and it is the Danube and its floating drowned bodies of mercilessly executed Jews that she will see while staring out the window of her flat, rather than the East River and United Nations headquarters where her son works. A tragic figure, she exemplifies Jean Amery's contention that Holocaust survivors will never be able to heal the deep wounds they suffered at the hands of fellow human beings. "Whoever was tortured, stays tortured," asserts Amery, himself a survivor, in his memoir/philosophical treatise, At the Mind's Limit. The tragedy of survivors, he maintains, is reflected in their loss of "trust in the world."
So distrustful is Laci's mother of the world where "human beings [are] not worthy of the name" that she refuses to circumcise her son: "'I wouldn't have you circumcised,' she said, 'I denied, I stole your heritage, I didn't want you to become one of the drowning, one of the drowned." And yet Laci senses that his mother's seemingly rhetorical question--one usually posed to affirm an irrefutable point--embodies a desire to solicit a response, to start a conversation, to regain some hope in the redeemability of the post-Shoah world. After all, she is still "thinking of places to hide, dreaming of Sweden, of Switzerland." Hence, the son's rewording of his mother's question: "Is there any safe place from the past?" By reinterpreting the question's thrust, thus, he turns it into his question as well.
Andrew Grof's novel makes it irrefutably clear that there is no escaping the past; there is "no safe place" for either survivors or their offspring where they can respectively avoid the excruciatingly painful experiential and inherited memory of the Shoah. "Escape is not the way," Laci proclaims as he realizes that to stay "sane" and balanced he must stop his ceaseless travels from one country to another, from one continent to another, and make a concerted effort to suspend, at least temporarily, his state of "permanent transience"--a phrase Andre Aciman uses to describe the exilic predicament--and start listening carefully to his mother's life story of dispossession, dislocation, abandonment and orphanhood before she succumbs to uterine cancer. He must take a hard look at the woman "incapacitated by the burdens of her past" and obey the deathbed legacy she so urgently tries to impart during the last months of her life. "In the end," states Laci, "my mother wanting nothing less than to have me look, stare at her past without blinking, my mother caring nothing for either her own sanity and balance or mine, my mother simply wanting me to stare unblinking at her past in the end, avoidance not the way, I simply had to do it and hope for the best, hope to come out sane and whole in the end."
In spite of the nihilism embedded in Mrs. Schaeffer's belief that no place exists on earth where one is safe from one's fellow human beings, and in spite of her efforts to make her son invisible as a Jew, she insists, indeed demands, that her son bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. She further demands that he honor the memory of his grandparents, aunts, and uncles who fell victim to the deadly collusion between murderous Nazis and Hungarian fascists who were obsessed--even possessed--by their desire to rid the world of Jews. Telling her son what happened during "the years of madness" translates into a "call to memory." It echoes Elie Wiesel's plea to commemorate a vanished civilization of European Jewry, for "Remembering," he writes in his Nobel Lecture, "is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible."
Furthermore, to be a witness is to be in possession of knowledge, which, in final analysis, may help repair both the self and the world--Tikkun Atzmi and Tikkun Olam--two concepts that contextualize Jewish ethical and moral values. Thus Mrs. Schaeffer's legacy facilitates her son's metamorphosis from a man who avoids facing a past that produced a set of "confused identities" into a witness who possesses self-knowledge and knowledge of the world. Consequently, she reveals her faint belief and hope that there might be a place in the world where one can be safe, where her son can marry, have a family, and do good works--thereby sustaining from generation to generation the ultimate Jewish refusal "to grant Hitler a posthumous victory." Every Jew who embraces life becomes an emphatic repudiation of Hitler's efforts to eradicate the Jewish people. While accepting responsibility for denying her son his Jewish heritage, she does not deprive him of the knowledge of a past that can instill Jewish values to Laci and, indeed, implicitly help all children of survivors live a meaningful life in the shadow of the Holocaust.
Like his fictional protagonist, Andrew Grof was born in Budapest shortly after World War II to a Jewish mother and a Hungarian father. He grew up with a strong awareness of the Holocaust, although the magnitude of the catastrophe was not actively discussed in his household or in Hungary as a whole, for that matter. In most Communist states, the Holocaust was a taboo subject: to allow its history to be seriously examined and taught would raise the question of those countries' role in the elimination of its Jewish subjects and the paucity of efforts to save the Jews. Most of Grof's mother's family perished during the Holocaust, and if it were not for his father, she, too, would have shared their tragic fate. Defying his family's counsel, he did what a righteous person is expected to do, and what just a precious few had the courage to do: he hid his wife-to-be and her brother, thereby ensuring their survival.
In 1957, a year after the eventually failed Hungarian uprising against the Hungarian People's Republic and its Soviet masters, the Grof family fled to Vienna, where Andrew, then ten, attended the prestigious Schottengasse/Wasegasse Gymnasium. After a two-year sojourn in Austria, the family moved yet again, this time to New York, where he completed his high school education. Grof's interest in philosophy and education led him to New York University where he earned a Bachelors Degree and to Fordham University from which he graduated with an MA in Philosophy. His love for writing and reading informed his decision to pursue yet another academic degree, a Masters in Library Sciences at Queens College. In the early 80s he moved to Miami where he embarked on a successful professional career at Florida International University as the Head of the Humanities and Social Sciences section of the university library and as an instructor in the English Department and the Honors College.
By Grof's own admission, the Holocaust has always been central to his creative and professional development. He started to write about it at the very beginning of his creative career, and he never failed to explore its lessons and legacies in his classes. He felt a strong kinship to a number of writers, filmmakers and intellectuals--children of Holocaust survivors--who started to come of age in the 1970s. Like him they questioned issues related to post-Shoah memory, identity, intergenerational transmission of trauma, social justice, and the burdens and privileges of inheritance, to name but a few. He followed closely the emerging academic interest in the second-generation phenomenon.
In 1979, Helen Epstein, who like Mr. Grof was born in Eastern Europe (Prague) to Holocaust survivors and educated in America, wrote a seminal work, Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors, which set into motion the exploration of the second-generation experience. In a shorter article published two years later, Epstein called the second-generation, including herself, "the guardians of a problematic, unique and volatile legacy" who "need to learn how to translate our consciousness of evil, our skepticism, our outrage into constructive action." Such writers as Art Spiegelman, Melvin J. Bukiet, Thane Rosenbaum, Julie Salamon, and Lev Raphael, to name but a few, took to heart Helen Epstein's call to translate their unique legacy into constructive creative action. As more and more novels, short stories, poems, films and essays by children of survivors appeared in print, literary critics started to take notice of these authors and made them the subject of their scholarly inquiries and explorations. Among them was Alan Berger, a noted scholar who produced a fine study on second-generation writers and filmmakers, including those mentioned above. In his treatise, Children of Job: American Second-Generation Witnesses to the Holocaust, Berger maintains that their work "comprises a secular midrash of Post-Auschwitz Jewish identity" and "will have a great bearing on how the [Holocaust] will be commemorated in the future."
During numerous conversations I had with Grof throughout the years, he told me that like many other members of the "hinge generation"--as Eva Hoffman, a Warsaw-born daughter of survivors, labels children of survivors--he thought often and hard about the issue of "howness" invoked by Helen Epstein and Alan Berger: how to translate, how to commemorate, how to transmit inherited knowledge, how to exercise discretion and responsibility. Grof routinely coped with Marianne Hirsch's concerns about the "ethics and aesthetics of remembrance after the catastrophe." Not only if one can speak, which in and of itself is an issue, but how to speak, and how to ensure that the Shoah never becomes normalized.
When writing Goldberg Variation, Grof often thought of questions similar to those Professor Hirsch, herself a daughter of survivors, poses in her essay "Generation of Postmemory": How, in our present, do we regard and recall what Susan Sontag has so powerfully described as the pain of others?' What do we owe the victims? How can we best carry their stories forward without appropriating them, without unduly calling attention to ourselves, and without, in turn, having our own stories displaced by them?" He has also been fully cognizant of the doubts writer-survivors like Theodore Adorno and Elie Wiesel express about the ability for anyone to capture the enormity of this nearly unimaginable horror. He was encouraged, however, by Samuel Beckett's insightful comments on the nature of art in his "Three Dialogues" from which one may infer that not to write about the Holocaust imaginatively is not an option. "There is nothing to express," writes Beckett, "nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express ... together with the obligation to express." In his Goldberg Variations, Grof grapples with this paradox and adds a strong voice to those coping with the artistic and human responsibilities and possibilities for second-generation witnesses.
"Whoever listens to a witness," writes Elie Wiesel, "becomes a witness." The plot of Grof's novel fully embraces the wisdom of Wiesel's observation. The novel's first person narrator is James, a journalist, and the story revolves around a single encounter between James and his friend, Laci Schaeffer, a United Nations worker. Their encounter lasts for approximately twelve hours. They meet for drinks in a Greenwich Village bar on a rainy afternoon where Laci commences telling James the story of his mother's life and death. At times his narrative is unwieldy and fragmented, digressing into meditations on philosophy, literature and music. It is imbued, however, with a sense of urgency and intensity that affect James, who becomes increasingly drawn into the story. Later in the evening, they move on to James's Manhattan apartment where he lives with his estranged girlfriend, Marie. Almost immediately, Schaeffer renews his account, with both James and Marie becoming increasingly absorbed in the story of Schaeffer's mother's tale.
Grof's choice of a journalist, a man of words, as a first person narrator is not happenstance. As James listens to Schaeffer, he begins to realize that Schaeffer was "not at all satisfied with the simple telling of the story of his mother's life and death but wanting more, wanting the impossible perhaps." By pulling James and Marie "into his mother's apartment the way his mother had pulled him into her mad, her distant past, both of them in desperate need of witnesses, Schaeffer no less than his dying mother, Schaeffer [was] in need of witnesses as well." Ultimately both James and Marie are ready to assume the role of witnesses. Schaffer, however, needs a "broader audience," comments James. And so does Grof, who finds it in his novel, Goldberg Variations.
Not quite a roman a clef, Grof's novel nevertheless contains a major autobiographical element. His mother, a Holocaust survivor, passed away a few years ago, and as a devoted son he spent a great deal of time with her, listening to her stories of life in Hungary before, during, and after the Holocaust. Listening attentively and lovingly is a precious talent. To listen to a parent in pain can be an excruciatingly difficult experience, especially when the story of the Holocaust is at the center of what often turns into a non-linear narrative imbued with tragedy and question marks. At times Grof found it unbearable to listen to her stories of loss and unrealized dreams, her attempts to make sense of her life, while he was unable to alleviate her pain. At other times, however, he felt privileged by his mother's desire to convey to him her recollections, her innermost thoughts and secrets. It is this tension that gave rise to Goldberg Variations, a finely composed meditation on intergenerational relationships, on filial obligations, on life's ambiguities, on intricate complexities associated with remembrance and memorialization, and, most importantly, on the nature of witnessing.
Given the wide range of truly complex issues the novel treats, one cannot help but respect Grof's skill in organizing such difficult subjects into an accessible narrative. It was indeed a challenging task, he told me in an interview: "To deal with the impossible, in this case the Holocaust, I had to personalize the impersonal, and move from the universal to the specific and, hopefully, back to the universal once more. The work had to be all of a single piece (run-on sentences, no chapter headings, etc.). Inhaling without exhaling to the very end." To translate his artistic vision into a creative process that could produce an original and multifaceted novel, he "had appropriated the continuous movement of Bach's Goldberg Variations and had it inform the structure and rhythm of his work. Glenn Gould's obsessiveness in playing [Bach]," he told me, "is mirrored by Schaeffer's obsessive retelling of his mother's tale. Schaeffer's obsession, like Goulds, is a life obsession." It is inspired by his mother's obsession to impart her story of the "years of madness" to her son. Like Grof's mother, she bears witness, so that her son can do the same. And in publishing Goldberg Variations: A Novel, Grof bears witness so that we may all become witnesses as well.