“The secret of it all, is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment – to put things down without deliberation – without worrying about their style – without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote – wrote, wrote…By writing at the instant the very heartbeat of life is caught.” ― Walt Whitman
I am not here to tell any inconvenient or unvarnished truths, but this thought has been coming up over and over the past few days. Truth–truth of the moment, in one’s life story–is not always how we proceed.
I recently watched a documentary called “The Flat.” It’s the autobiographical story of how a modern Jewish man, Arnon Goldfinger, in Israel begins to incidentally uncover his family history after the death of his 98 year old grandmother. She was his maternal grandmother, and she and her husband and children, including Arnon’s mother, immigrated to Israel from Berlin at the outbreak of World War II. As a mystery unfolds, he asks his mother, Hannah, questions. Not only does Hannah not know the answers, but she doesn’t really care to learn them. “Why?” she asks more than once. This not asking why even extends to the fact that she doesn’t know what happened to her maternal grandmother, Susanna. When Arnon finds out what did, in fact, happen to Susanna, Hannah doesn’t believe him at first.
Later in the documentary he visits his grandmother’s last living friend in Israel, Gertrude. She was also a German immigrant to Israel. When he questions her about Nazi Germany she says that she and his grandmother “never discussed such things.” Gertrude tells him that his grandmother, Gerda, never quite found a home in Israel and his grandfather, Kurt, certainly never did. Gertrude, however, says that she was lucky to find such a home in Israel. She could not forgive what had happened in Germany and was not “German in her soul.” Gertrude says, “Why do only 3rd generation Germans ask questions? The 2nd generation didn’t ask questions.” Then she pauses and smiles at him as though he is very, very young (and to her 95+ years his 40+ years is very, very young) and says, ” You don’t understand, and I’m glad you don’t understand.”
The pain that the first generation endured was taboo to the second generation. It is insinuated in the movie that Hannah was never directly TOLD not to ask, but somehow from a young age she got the message that you just don’t ask questions. At all. Ever. Then, here comes Arnon who had never asked questions himself, until he begins to help clean out his grandmother’s flat and is faced with the evidence of a mystery. He, of all of his siblings, is the only one interested in the why.
Here are two comments from others who watched it.
“This movie upset me, amazed me, and left me silently musing on just how complicated is the human heart. Our capacity for denial, for self-delusion, for both coldness and compassion truly make us a different kind of animal from any other. . .”
“This is so terribly disturbing… It’s not explicable by any terms. These were not bad people in any ways, they knew they had to go and they went yet they kept their friendship with the same couple they must have known somehow were part of the machine that killed so many and even their own. There are no words for this. The only question I have is why tell the world about this quite shameful state of past history of the family that could hurt for generations to come. It seems to me that this is the kind of thing one HIDES?”
I agree with both of the comments. The information that is uncovered is one that will only cause pain to those living who didn’t want to know in the first place, but it gives understanding and greater appreciation to those who didn’t live it in that first and second generation. There are parts of the time I question why these things weren’t discussed, but then there is a section in the movie where Arnon is giving information to someone and want to stop him–I know that the information will only cause her pain and heartache that cannot be resolved in any way.
I know someone whose aunt has struggled with mental illness all of her adult life, and recently a distant family member asked to know the story. As a child, this distant relation had been told that the aunt had “a lost love and just never recovered.” While that is very true, it is the most passing version of truth.
So I have pondered on this as we all, eventually, want to be known by those who love us. But the truth we share is not always whole. Sometimes, I believe, it is because the whole, unvarnished truth is so painful that some people can’t handle it. Other times I think it is because those who are involved face it head on, but then they must let it go. Knowing the truth, accepting the truth, and then putting it to rest so one can get on with the business of living life seems to be how most humans deal with painful truths.
A little heavy for a Saturday night, but this documentary has made me think and wonder about my own story–the story of my life. How much do I REALLY want others to know. Am I brave enough to write the whole, unvarnished truth and set it aside for future generations–not just about myself, but about my family and friends? Will it heal or hurt? Will it inspire or overwhelm? I think some of us are Arnons and some of us are Hannahs.