Thinking about Waves
Lynn Jenner is a writer who blends poetry, fiction and nonfiction in her collections Dear Sweet Harry (2010) and Lost and Gone Away (2015). Lynn has written extensively about the Holocaust from a New Zealand perspective. In ‘Thinking about Waves’ Lynn describes thinking about contemporary ‘waves’ of immigrants to New Zealand and Australia while visiting Holocaust museums in those countries. This excerpt from the essay mentions the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand on Webb Street, Mount Cook. Along with preserving the voices and memories of survivors, the museum presents talks and exhibitions, such as the ‘Auschwitz to Aotearoa’ exhibition about nine Jewish women who survived Auschwitz to make a life for themselves in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Undated — early in 2011: This morning I found, somewhat to my surprise, that I was talking with a woman of my own age, from my own country, but whom I don’t know very well, about the Holocaust. Any conversation about the Holocaust is a bit uncomfortable. Sometimes silences occur in these conversations which no one knows how to end. One of these silences grew between me and a German friend in 2002 and it has not been broken yet. Increasingly these days I try to avoid these conversations, finding that my views on the topic are too Jewish for non-Jewish company but not Jewish enough for my Jewish friends.
This particular conversation started when the woman asked me about my upcoming trip to visit museums in Australia and New Zealand which have Holocaust exhibits, as background for my latest writing project. The conversation went quickly to a bus tour this woman had been on which included Auschwitz as part of the package. After a few minutes of descriptions of heritage sites and monuments, she stopped talking and looked away, downwards and to the right. After just a minute, the woman raised her eyes, looked at me again and told me how shocked and surprised she had been when, in the 1970s, she met two middle aged people in Lower Hutt who had been in the camps.
Around the same time as the conversation about monuments, a Jewish friend, who speaks five languages and reads several more, told me it would not be possible to write about the Holocaust from New Zealand. There’s so little to say here, she said. You should go to Europe.
But this is where I am, I said. That is the problem. This is where I am from, this is who I am, and this is where I am.
MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER arrived in New Zealand in 1878, probably from what is now Poland or Russia. He said different things about where he was from, according to the audience. We do not know the names of his relatives in Europe or the villages they lived in — there is no one left now who knows these things.
On arrival in Wellington, an official wrote ‘Cardiff’ for his departure point and ‘Hebrew’ for his religion, and that was enough to get him off the docks and into town. We know he started his new life in New Zealand quickly, marrying a Jewish woman from the same ship, and making a large family. For whatever reasons, Isaac (that was his English name) did not apply for New Zealand citizenship, which meant that in the 1930s, when Jews everywhere worried about their safety, he was not a New Zealand citizen. Bed-ridden, Isaac banged his walking stick on the wooden floor of his upstairs bedroom to call attention to his needs. This noise terrorised his children and was still spoken of during my childhood.
I sometimes imagine Isaac listening to the radio in his living room in Aro Valley, hearing about Kristallnacht or the Nuremberg laws. Once I went as far as to imagine him receiving a letter, in Yiddish, from a sister, telling him how and when his parents died, where they are buried, and asking for him to sponsor her son and his family to come to New Zealand. She doesn’t care about herself, his sister says, but he should help the children if he can. He rages and cries and bangs his walking stick on the wooden floor and tells no one about the letter, not his children and not his wife. Perhaps he is ashamed of not having money to help them, or perhaps he is angry because he thought he had left them all far enough behind that no claims could ever be made. In my teens, when I was first starting to learn about the Holocaust, I remember being preoccupied with the problem of how I would know when it was time to leave New Zealand. I would read about people whose lives were deeply rooted in a certain place in Europe — more deeply rooted than mine felt here in New Zealand. I saw pictures taken of these people in 1932 or 1936, as they walked in pairs along a street they knew well. This is Before.
I looked and looked at Before photographs of Jewish people, trying to see if they knew it was time to leave. I thought there would be something obvious, a darkening in people’s faces, or perhaps a solemnity that said they knew it was already too late. But there wasn’t. Or maybe there was, but I didn’t recognise their expression. ‘Backshadowing’, or reading the past backwards, is one word for what I was doing.
As far as I can see, nothing answers the question of how Jews were supposed to know when it was time to leave Europe. I think this unanswerable question is the reason that I have inherited a sensitivity, common among Jewish people, to suitcases.
November 2011: I visited four museum exhibits related to the Holocaust, two in Australia, two in New Zealand. On my return, my skeptical friend asks gently whether my visit was satisfying. I think for a while and then I say yes. She asks me what exactly I saw. I tell her that I met six people who had survived the Holocaust, and that until then no survivors had ever looked me straight in the eye and told me their story. She looks at me for a moment without speaking.
I tell her that they all said I could ask questions. One man said ‘you can ask me any questions’.
Why do you do this? I asked. ‘To warn everyone’, the man replied. His answer has a different quality from the rest of what he says. It is very direct. His voice is in a low register.
‘What do you think Australia should do about the boatloads of illegal immigrants arriving every week?’ I ask.
He says it is a difficult matter. He has great sympathy for them, coming with their families and risking their lives. His eyes water as he says this. But the state has to do what it needs to, he says. If the government did nothing, millions of immigrants would come from Asia. The government should do what is necessary he says, but they shouldn’t be cruel. That is the important thing.
September 10, 2013: Waves keep arriving. No need to say any more about that.
The sound of waves is like the sound inside a shell — meaningless, and strangely consoling. I learned that from six years of walking by the sea.
Through the sound of the waves, you can hear voices. I thought that was the case but now I am sure.
Books, museums, art galleries and taxis help us detect faint signals. Think of a trumpet, narrow at your ear, and opening wide towards the world.