Events

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Armenian Genocide Commemoration in Amherst



The commemoration of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide on the Town Common last week was an even greater success than we could have hoped for: circa 50-60 people were present, which is an unusually large number for any such ceremonial event, even compared with our well-attended Black History Month gathering in February.

(Amherst Media recorded the proceedings, which should be posted soon.)


It was a moving event.

Town Meeting and League of Women Voters member Adrienne Megerdichian Terrizzi opened the ceremony with music and an explanation of Armenian history and the nature and lasting trauma of the genocide.



Amherst Select Board Chair Alisa Brewer welcomed guests on behalf of the Town, emphasizing the need for remembering and learning from history.

Our Massachusetts State Representative Ellen Story spoke of the struggles that she had experienced in the course of attempting to get the legislature to recognize this crime and make it part of our educational curriculum.

Amherst Human Rights Commission Chair Greg Bascom described his efforts to educate himself about the genocide and highlighted its relation to our commitment to the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (whose anniversary we commemorate every December).

from right: Select Board Chair Alisa Brewer, State Rep. Ellen Story, Human Rights Commission Chair Greg Bascom, Adrienne Terrizzi


I read the Select Board Proclamation:

Whereas, from 1915 to 1923, the government of the Ottoman Empire systematically planned and carried out the murders of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians living in Asia Minor and historic West Armenia, and

Whereas, by 1923, this mass extermination and the accompanying atrocities had resulted in the virtual elimination of the Armenian population and culture in historic Asia Minor and West Armenia, which has become known as the Armenian Genocide, and

Whereas, the first mass murders began on the night of April 24, 1915, when the Turkish government arrested more than 250 Armenian community leaders in Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire’s capital city, and

Whereas, most of the prominent educators, clergy, writers, lawyers, intellectuals, and other public figures of the Armenian community were summarily executed, and

Whereas, most of the adult males were either conscripted into the Turkish army to fight on the side of the country that was killing their people or were murdered on the spot, and

Whereas, large numbers of Armenian old men, women, and children, including babies in arms were either killed or forcibly deported to the Syrian desert, during which deportation many died either en route, at the hands of government-aligned gangs, or from dehydration and starvation in the desert, and

Whereas, in May 1915, the Allied Powers of France, Great Britain, and Russia issued a joint statement charging the government in Constantinople with committing crimes ‘‘against humanity and civilization,” and

Whereas, Raphael Lemkin, the initial drafter of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the originator of the term “genocide,” recognized the Armenian Genocide as the type of crime the United Nations should prevent through the establishment of international standards, and

Whereas, historians cite the Armenian Genocide as a forerunner of later genocidal massacres, including the Holocaust, the Cambodian Killing Fields, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur, now therefore be it

Resolved: we, the Select Board of the Town of Amherst do hereby urge all residents to mark this occasion and to participate fittingly in its observance by honoring the memories of the victims and the courage and resilience of the survivors,

Beginning with a ceremony to be held in front of Town Hall on April 30, 2015

And further, by taking to heart the lessons of this tragedy as we commit ourselves to upholding the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, throughout this centennial year and beyond.

Finally, be it resolved that the Town of Amherst be directed to send a copy of this resolution to Governor Charlie Baker, State Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren. U.S. Representative James McGovern, President Barack Obama, the Armenian National Committee of America and the Armenian Assembly of America. 
My Hampshire College colleague Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy then read a poem by a murdered Armenian poet.

Historic Armenian relief posters from the time:




Following the ceremony, Marian gave a reading from her new book--Sacred Justice: The Voices and Legacy of the Armenian Operation Nemesis-- (Transaction Books, 2015)--at Amherst Books. It is a blend of historical research and personal reflection. As the announcement described it:
This work combines narrative, memoir, and primary sources to tell the story of a group of Armenian men who undertook a covert operation created to assassinate the Turkish architects of the genocide.
In one of the fascinating coincidences of history, a Polish Jewish anarchist, Sholem Schwarzbard, stood trial for assassinating the Ukrainian leader Symon Petliura--accused of allowing pogroms in the chaos of the Revolution following World War I--at the same time as the Armenian Soghomon Tehlirian stood trial for assassinating the architect of the Armenian Genocide, Talaat Pasha. Both were acquitted. (After Word War II, Jewish "avengers" carried out operations similar to those of the Armenian "Nemesis.")

My Hampshire College colleague Aaron Berman introduced the event by explaining the historical background of the Armenian Genocide in the context of Ottoman history.


Adrienne Megerdichian Terrizi introduced Marian, who then read from the work and answered questions.



One of the most intriguing aspects of Marian's book is that she did not discover her grandfather's role in the revenge operation until after his death when she came across a cache of papers presenting a very different portrait of the mild-mannered patriarch that she had known. The book is thus a story of detective work and personal exploration as well as historical analysis. Any one of those traits would make a compelling case for placing it on anyone's "to be read next" list.

Here, to whet your appetite, is an excerpt (via Armenian Weekly):
For the first six years of my life, my parents, brother and I lived in my maternal grandparents’ house in Syracuse, N.Y. The six of us were crammed into a small early 20th-century frame house, with a front porch and tiny back study that served as my bedroom; an enticingly flat roof outside its window overlooked our grape arbor, fruit trees, and strawberry patch where my grandmother caught the thieving bunny she spanked and sent on its way. Our home welcomed many a visiting dignitary. As a small child I sat on the lap of family friend, Hamo Paraghamian, a huge man with a heart to match. My small hands carried a bowl of yogurt and garlic for General Dro sitting in the blue chair in the corner of our living room, who thanked me by intoning in his gruff voice, “This is food for the gods.”

Aaron Sachaklian (in Armenian, Aharon), my grandfather, spent most of his days in the red leather chair near the wooden radio he listened to every day, silently smoking his Camels with shaking fingers, perhaps from undiagnosed Parkinson’s that would, years later, steal my mother’s smile and cause her shuffling gait. But when I was three, four, five, this quiet man who wore a three-piece suit nearly every day of his life, who had private sessions with visiting community leaders and battle heroes, bounced me on his foreleg, carried me through the doorways on his shoulders like a queen, and took me outside at dusk to survey the peach, pear, and apple trees beyond our back door. When my grandmother Eliza and I made our weekly trip to Abajian Cleaners three blocks down on South Avenue, I was the one to carry his wool coat, hugging it to my chest, saying, “I love my medz-hairig [grandfather]. I wish he would live forever.”

My grandfather lived to 84, the last few years in mental and visual darkness, his eyesight failing, his prodigious brain’s neurons deadened from a series of strokes. Thinking me his wife as a young woman, he called me Eliza, took my hand in his, stroked it, and held it to his cheek. No one in our family knew until close to 25 years after his death that my grandfather was the bursar and logistical leader of the covert operation—known as “Operation Nemesis”—to assassinate the Ottoman-Turkish architects of the Armenian Genocide.

Resources:

a recent post serves as a backgrounder on the genocide, its commemoration in Massachusetts, and some controversies over definitions and political implications


Thursday, April 30, 2015

1990-2015: Massachusetts Commemorates the Armenian Genocide

I'm willing to bet that few of my readers are aware of the presence of a plaque in the Massachusetts State House honoring our Armenian community. (It dates from the Bicentennial year of 1976).



But most--especially this year--are probably aware of one of the historical situations described on it:
who reached these shores, having escaped from the tyrannical rulers of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. For centuries, the Armenians were subjected to political, social, and religious abuses, and the most degrading indignities of man's inhumanity to man, including mass genocide.
By tradition, the Turkish arrests of Armenian leaders in Constantinople on the night of April 24, 1915 have been taken to mark the beginning of a series of persecutions, atrocities, and massacres that have collectively become known as the Armenian Genocide: which, through the deaths of perhaps 1.5 million civilians, and the persecution and driving out of hundreds of thousands of others, eliminated the physical and cultural presence of this people in its historical homelands of Armenia and western Asia Minor.

The acknowledgement of this crime, which, committed in the context of an unprecedented murderous war, set the tone for further mass murders and ethnic cleansing in the subsequent hundred years of European history, has long been controversial in Turkey. The government of the modern state has not only rejected the terminology of genocide, but also claimed that whatever losses occurred were the result of either the general hardships of war or an open conflict between peoples for which the Armenians themselves bear some blame. (In one case, Turkey even pressured a Canadian local school board to drop the subject from the curriculum.) The current Islamist regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has been particularly vehement in its responses as the centennial loomed--witness the lengthy press release on "The Armenian Allegation of Genocide: The issue and the facts" (the title is revealing) from the Foreign Ministry.

It came as an increasing number of states and public figures not only marked the anniversary, but also made a point of speaking explicitly of genocide. The first to gain widespread attention for this step was Pope Francis, who called the atrocities "the first genocide of the twentieth century." Turkey called the statement "far from historic and legal truths" and "unacceptable." Denouncing the "unfounded claims," it recalled its ambassador. Davutoğlu accused the Vatican of “joining the conspiracy” of an “evil front.”

When the European Union spoke out on the genocide, Turkey called the resolution a "preposterous" repetition of "the anti-Turkish clichés of the Armenian propaganda" "mutilating history and law," and ascribed characterization of the events as genocide to "religious & cultural fanaticism." Other states have this spring earned similar rebukes and diplomatic retaliations.

Some nations, groups, and leaders were more circumspect.


A Genocide By Any Other Name?

Admittedly, defining genocide on the level of history and international law can be more complex than it seems at first sight to the layperson. The Süddeutsche Zeitung (in my opinion, still the best German newspaper, despite certain marked flaws and idiosyncrasies when it comes to foreign affairs) correctly points out that, legally, this was a matter of intentions and other factors beyond mere numbers (or else Chairman Mao, whose policies killed millions, would appear in the list). The resultant infographic may appear confusing.



The reprehensible but isolated murders of some 762 to 3500 Palestinians at Sabra and Shatilla carried out by Lebanese militias in the context of a civil war during the Israeli invasion in 1981 appear as a "genocide"  because some UN body asserted they were such, and yet this puts them on a par with the systematic murder of 1.5 million Armenians and ethnic cleansing of this population from its ancestral lands simply because both have thus (in some sense) been declared to be genocides while neither has been the subject of a formal trial. Meanwhile, the Serbian ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims has not been officially declared a genocide or prosecuted; thus only the massacre at Srebrenica is listed. The Khmer Rouge butchery in Cambodia is likewise not classified as a genocide, though it has been prosecuted.

The Süddeutsche further argues that the intention of the killers is difficult to determine in the case of Armenia. Some scholars share this view, not necessarily denying the extent of losses, but arguing that the overall picture is too complex to justify the designation. Others see a growing consensus that the crimes were indeed part of a deliberate and systematic policy and thus did constitute a genocide: a recent review of three new books in The Financial Times is a case in point. Middle East Forum has just published a very useful backgrounder, providing an overview of the issue and links to articles representing the full range of viewpoints.

The Economist, in a piece similar to that in the Süddeutsche, observes:
The “g-word” has considerable power. If mass slaughter is recognised as genocide when it is happening, it is harder for outside forces to sit idly by. When it is over, official recognition that it was genocide can give the survivors some grim satisfaction. But when that recognition is withheld, whether because of a technicality or political expediency, it can feel like the final insult. And some human-rights activists and legal scholars feel that genocide’s status as the “crime of crimes” sometimes overshadows the horror of other crimes against humanity.
Part of the problem, then, is that the subject involves legal, historical, moral, and emotional issues at once.

A case in point has been Israel's reluctance to use the "g-word." It is ironic in some ways. Jews were among the first to call attention to and commemorate the slaughter. It was the US Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau, Sr. who reported on the massacres and confronted the Turkish government. Franz Werfel produced the first great literary representation of the suffering of the Armenians in his novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933; English, 1934; a reference to an Armenian stronghold in 1915). And it was Polish Holocaust refugee Raphael Lemkin who coined the term "genocide" and explicitly cited the Armenian example.



Although the State of Israel and its leaders have consistently called for commemoration and condemnation of the crimes committed against the Armenians, they have, officially, at least, shied away from using the word genocide.

This is sometimes said to derive from the concern that doing so might dilute the significance of the Holocaust, but it is not the real reason and is in any case a groundless fear. Yad Vashem, the Israel Holocaust remembrance authority, refers to the Armenian genocide in honoring Armenian Holocaust rescuers and likewise speaks of genocides in Rwanda and Darfur and includes survivors of those murders in its educational programs. The real issue has been geopolitics, pure and simple: specifically, a reluctance to harm relations with Israel's erstwhile regional ally Turkey, and now, new regional ally Azerbaijan. (Raphael Ahren provides perhaps the best and most nuanced overview.) The centennial has sparked a welcome new debate, with echoes in the worldwide Jewish community. (1, 2, 3).

The U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations was even more equivocal. "[C]oncerned about alienating a key ally, Turkey, through one-sided declarations," it noted:
we share the pain suffered by Armenians during this period. We also believe that any acknowledgment by religious or political leaders of the tragedy that befell Armenians should be balanced, constructive and must also recognize Turkish and Muslim suffering.

In this respect, characterizing the events of 1915 as genocide without proper investigation of these events by independent historians will not only jeopardize the establishment of a just memory pertaining to these events, but will also damage the efforts aimed at achieving reconciliation between Turks and Armenians. 
Calling for further investigation by historians has, of course, always been the preferred delaying tactic and escape strategy for those unwilling to call the killings a genocide. (Rule of thumb: outsiders defer to historians only when there is an ulterior motive; we don't get much respect otherwise.)


Those Who Have Power Yet Do Not Speak Truth

Although the stance of the Israeli government strikes many as problematic or even morally indefensible, it is at the least understandable in the world of Realpolitik and the struggle for survival. One struggles in vain to find an explanation for the behavior of those who are more powerful and can act with impunity.

Above all, the stance of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was disappointing. He referred to "atrocity crimes," and a spokesman said
the secretary-general firmly believes that the commemoration and continuing cooperation between Armenians and Turks “with a view to establishing the facts about what happened should strengthen our collective determination to prevent similar atrocity crimes from ever happening in the future."
The United Nations, founded in the wake of the worst genocide in history, unanimously approved the Genocide Convention in 1948, and is supposed to be the leader in moral issues, not a splitter and trimmer.

Barely less disappointing was the backtracking of US President Barack Obama. As a candidate in 2008, he boldly declared, to the plaudits of Armenian-Americans:
Two years ago, I criticized the Secretary of State for the firing of U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, after he properly used the term 'genocide' to describe Turkey's slaughter of thousands of Armenians starting in 1915. … as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.
Now no one who has reached the age of reason should be surprised that candidates make promises that they cannot (or perhaps do not even intend to) fulfill. But this was a candidate who made a point of promising something different: hope and change and an end to partisanship and politics as usual. The bigger the failed promise, the greater the disappointment. According to CNN, a presidential spokesperson addressed the issue in the clinical language of bureaucracy and diplomacy:
"We know and respect that there are some who are hoping to hear different language this year," the official said. "We understand their perspective, even as we believe that the approach we have taken in previous years remains the right one -- both for acknowledging the past, and for our ability to work with regional partners to save lives in the present."
Representative Adam Schiff (D-California) said:
"How long must the victims and their families wait before our nation has the courage to confront Turkey with the truth about the murderous past of the Ottoman Empire?" "If not this President, who spoke so eloquently and passionately about recognition in the past, whom? If not after one hundred years, when?"
Armenians and Armenian-Americans were outraged. The hashtag #ObamaLied was soon trending on Twitter.

Unfortunately, it is part of a consistent pattern on the part of a president whose foreign policy has been an almost complete disaster (1, 2).  (full disclosure: I voted for him twice, eyes wide open). In a region in chaos, he declined to support the Iranian "green revolution" or the real democrats of the "Arab Spring" and instead perversely chose to throw in his lot with the anti-democratic, obscurantist Islamists: Morsi in Egypt and the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu regime in Turkey. The former is out of power, but the President naively and vainly seeks to curry favor with the latter, in defiance of both historical truth and basic political judgment. The Armenians, among others, are paying the price.

Meanwhile, by contrast, quietly and outside the corridors of power, some Turks joined Armenians in marking the centenary in Turkey, and that is ultimately far more important than the words of an American president: dialogue and reconciliation on the ground, among the peoples concerned.


Here in the Commonwealth

Our Commonwealth, which is the home to several significant Armenian communities, has had no such hesitation.

Already in 1990, on the 75th anniversary of the tragedy, the Massachusetts legislature designated April 24 as a day of remembrance.

This year, newly elected Governor Charlie Baker reiterated the Commonwealth's stand on the issue:
Today we have a chance to reaffirm our record on the Armenian genocide as Massachusetts and 42 other states have already done. I’m proud that our state continues to stand firm on this issue and educates our students about the history of the Armenian genocide in public schools through the Facing History program.
Our neighboring town (and county seat) of Northampton has held a memorial rally on April 24 for 15 years now, and indeed, I saw the Armenian flag flying there last week.

I am pleased and proud that the Town of Amherst will acknowledge this crime against humanity on the occasion of its centennial, calling upon residents to honor the dead and the survivors and to draw the appropriate lessons in the continuing struggle for human rights in our own world.

On April 27, the Select Board approved a memorial proclamation.

On April 30, at 5:00 p.m. in front of Town Hall, Town officials will read the proclamation, and along with other residents, speak to the historical and enduring significance of this issue. (Town Meeting and League of Women Voters member Adrienne Megerdichian Terrizzi has generously taken the lead in organizing the event.)

At 7:00 p.m. at Amherst Books, my Hampshire College colleague, Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy, will read from her provocative new book: Sacred Justice: The Voices & Legacy of the Armenian Operation Nemesis.  This work combines narrative, memoir, and primary sources to tell the story of a group of Armenian men who undertook a covert operation created to assassinate the Turkish architects of the Genocide.

I hope that we will have a strong turnout.

Monday, April 20, 2015

For Patriots' Day: Marking the Graves of the Revolution

Two examples of the markers used to designate graves of Revolutionary War soldiers in Amherst. (Walking through the cemetery today, I noted at least one mistake: a case in which, judging from the age on the tombstone, the person buried there cannot have served in the Revolution.)

Here, one of the old markers, placed by the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), founded 1889, chartered 1906.


The central figure is like a crude facsimile of the famous Daniel Chester French "Minuteman" statue in Concord.

Below, a modern marker (apparently the version in bronze)



I assume it is one of the replacements put up after a shameful series of thefts, in which artless criminals stole the markers and sold them as antiques or for scrap metal.


For Patriots' Day: Historic Postcards of Lexington and Concord


In honor of Patriots' Day, I'm putting up a series of historical images of Lexington and Concord, where the Revolution began in April, 1775.


Enjoy.


From the tumblr:




more old postcards of Lexington


 The Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington


full description


more old postcards of Concord


I may add related images after the anniversary date, but don't hold me to that.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Commemorating the Holocaust in Music


It is a truism--and a typical piece of philistine thinking--to say that it is "impossible" for words, or art, to capture the reality of the Holocaust. On some level, words and art--the only tools at our disposal--are "incapable" of capturing many realities and experiences, and yet we use them to try to approximate that goal. Still, most of us would nonetheless agree that addressing the Holocaust through the arts does pose steep challenges. Just avoiding the maudlin, the hackneyed, and the banal is challenge enough--never mind actually capturing the essence of the tragedy or making an original aesthetic statement.

And what of music commemorating the Holocaust?

At first, it seems hard even to think of pieces that might serve such a debate. Commemoration and depiction have been much more the domain of literature. Still, there are examples.

When I was a kid, I was present in New York at the world premiere of Darius Milhaud's cantata, "Ani M'amin" ("I Believe") to text by Elie Wiesel. In the words of a recent review: "a meditation on the possibility of faith in the presence of unbridled and seemingly unpunished evil." In all honesty, mostly what sticks in my mind is one rather cynical adult saying he had enjoyed the Holocaust more. He was, I suspect, no fan of modern and contemporary music. I am. Still . . .

I hadn't listened to the piece in years. I enjoy much of Milhaud's music, but somehow, this one, and this particular style of choral singing never did much for me. In any case, you can  judge for yourself from this excerpt.

A review of Donald McCullough's more recent "In the Shadow of the Holocaust," made it sound more promising, but I have not heard it yet.


Here, for what it's worth, are some of the compositions that I find most accomplished or most regularly play:


Lukas Foss, Elegy for Anne Frank



I've always been partial to the music of Lukas Foss, the German-born American composer who succeeded Arnold Schoenberg as professor of music at UCLA.

His "Elegy for Anne Frank" is a modest but moving piece. The elegiacal mood, crudely interrupted by variations on the Nazi hymn, the "Horst Wessel Song" (not as the Milken Archive describes it: the "German national anthem"), before returning to the original register, somehow captures both the innocence of the insightful girl and the anxiety of life in the Secret Annex. (It exists in two versions, one with spoken text, and one without, critics generally preferring the latter.)

Sample here


Arnold Schoenberg, A Survivor From Warsaw, Op. 46

Speaking of Schoenberg, this treatment of the Holocaust stands out by virtue of its relatively early date (1947) and its power. Although Schoenberg had converted to Catholicism, the rise of Nazism prompted him to return to Judaism. The text is Schoenberg's own, based on the account of a survivor of the Ghetto Uprising and liquidation. In the liner notes, fellow composer Nancy Van de Vate, noting that "many" regard the composition as "Schoenberg's most dramatic and moving work," describes it as follows:
     The narration is in Sprechstimme, a kind of speech-singing which Schoenberg developed, precisely notated for rhythms, more approximately for pitches, Olbrychski's moving narration is uniquely authentic, yet faithful to Schoenberg's notation. The cantata builds to a powerful, dramatic climax when, at "the grandiose moment," the male chorus begins spontaneously to sing the Shema Yisroel ("Hear, O Israel") in Hebrew, the third language of Schoenberg's life. It is "the old prayer" central to Judaism, that its martyrs have sung throughout history in defiance and resignation in their hour of death. It is the dramatic climax of the piece, for which Schoenberg has skillfully prepared the listener from the narrator's first lines when a French horn softly played the opening of the Shema Yisroel melody.
     The music vividly accentuates textual details throughout. A trumpet fanfare first awakens the Jews for transport to death camps. There are suggestions of military drum, unusual string effects from taps or scratches of string with bow sticks, high woodwind trills, muted brass fluttertonguing, snarls of muted horns and trumpets. The music builds to the terrifying counting off, louder and faster to prepare for the choral entry. "They began again, first slowly: One two, three, four, became faster and faster, so fast that it sounded like a stampede of wild horses, and all of a sudden, in the middle of it, they began to sing the Shema Yisroel." The sung Hebrew dramatically contrasts with the spoken English and brutal Nazi commands, and gives the work a powerful, moving climax in its only extended melody.
Here is a version narrated by the great Maximilian Schell:




I have a couple of recordings of this piece, but the following version, by Polish performers, conveniently combines it with other works commemorating the atrocities of the Second World War.




No list of Holocaust music would be complete without


Krzysztof Penderecki's "Dies Irae," or Auschwitz Oratorio.

Back in the day when I was a high school student, first learning properly about classical music, this piece was issued on a vinyl LP with a bleak black-and-white image of a crematorium chimney.  Popular, too, was his "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima," and these became obligatory items on the record shelves of all right-thinking progressives who prattled on about "man's inhumanity to man" even if they didn't really know any history and could not fully appreciate the jarring, and indeed, terrifying music. They may have bought it, but I really doubt they often listened to it.

Penderecki's piece, composed for the dedication of the international memorial at the Birkenau (Auschwitz II) death camp in 1967, differs from the others here in that it does not focus on the Jewish victims. Although Jews made up the largest number of victims at Auschwitz, the camp served first for the internment of Polish political prisoners, and subversives and resisters from many countries. It is also a site of specifically Polish national mourning. Penderecki is also Catholic (literally and figuratively) in his textual choices. Although he does not use the text of the requiem mass, he draws upon the Psalms, Apocalypse, Revelation, and Corinthians, as well as Greek tragedy and modern poetry.


The piece also reminds us of a very exciting time in the history of avant-garde music and other arts, not least, when artistic experimentation flourished in the countries of the East Bloc between the tyranny of Stalinism and the prosaic repression and philistinism of the post-1967 "normalization" and the following "era of stagnation."

As Nancy Van de Vate says in her liner notes,
     Dies Irae is an atonal, extremely dissonant work employing precise notated pitches, quater-tones, and sounds of indeterminate pitch. As in other works from the composer's early period . . . combinations of many unusual timbres, used both simultaneously and in succession, create unusual textures, neither homophonic nor conventionally polyphonic. Extreme dynamic contrast, from the softest to the loudest imaginable musical sounds, adds further to the music's drama and intensity. The sound of an air raid siren at the end of the second movement intensifies a section of the music which depicts beasts and men being burned alive. The rattling of a chain and shaking of a thunder-sheet (lastra) further evoke feelings of fear and horror appropriate to the subject.
     The chorus sing, speak and chant with an unusual variety of vocal sounds. The imagery of their text is dramatic and terrible, ranging from references to the shorn hair of a little girl's pigtail once tugged by cheeky boys at school to the triumphant "Death is swallowed up by victory" (Absorpta est mors in victoria) of the final movement. Yet the work closes tragically with the phrase Corpora parvulorum (Bodies of the little ones) which has been heard many times earlier.
Part I:



I am a great fan of mid-century modernism in all fields, from architecture to avant-garde music, but more recently, the minimalists have made their contribution, too.

Among more contemporary compositions, one that I find the most compelling is


Steve Reich, Different Trains


Trains, along with chimneys and barbed wire, are among the most common and evocative images of the Holocaust as the epitome of modern industrialized death. (Not coincidentally, a train also figures on the cover art of the final CD that I will mention.)

Using the symbol of the train, Reich's piece offers a brilliant and troubling mediation on the vagaries of chance:
     The concept for the piece comes from my childhood. When I was one year old, my parents separated. My mother moved to Los Angeles and my father stayed in New York. Since the arranged divided custody, I traveled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942 accompanied by my governess. While these trips were exciting and romantic at the time, I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains.
He says that the work, commissioned for the Kronos Quartet, "begins a new way of composing," "the basic idea" being "that speech recordings generate the musical material for musical instruments." It features recordings of his governess, an African-American Pullman porter, three Holocaust survivors, and historical train sounds from the era of his childhood journeys. It is divided into three parts:
America--Before the war
Europe--During the war
After the war





Popular music has not often ventured into the territory of the Holocaust, and that's probably a good thing. Still, there are notable exceptions.  One of the truly great albums is

Yehuda Poliker, Efer ve Avak (Ash[es] and Dust)



Poliker is one of the most multi-talented and influential Israeli musicians, a compelling vocalist and a stunning soloist on a wide range of intstruments.  His parents were Greek Holocaust survivors, deported from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz, and at the same time as Reich was writing "Different Trains," Poliker teamed up with son of Polish Auschwitz survivors Yaacov Gilad, who wrote most of the lyrics for "Ashes and Dust." Eight of the twelve songs deal with the Holocaust, and the album became not only a bestseller and reflection of Israeli Holocaust culture, but also a shaper of it: specifically, in the shift from collective to individual commemoration, and in its emphases on the new role of children of survivors in shaping the reception of the events as the focus moved from history to memory.

Like much of the best Holocaust literature (I always think of the works of Aharon Appelfeld), this music succeeds because it is subtle and often indirect, moving around the margins of the topic, confronting it by implication rather than declaration. The result is an overwhelming mood, a persistent sense of loss.

The title song:




When You Grow Up (a subtle meditation on the children of survivors)




A Small Station Called Treblinka (request English lyrics)

 



Yom HaShoah / Holocaust Memorial Day 2015/5775

Haaretz today ran an article, "A dozen reasons why Israel should do away with Holocaust Remembrance Day." It was no doubt supposed to be provocative, but even if some of the individual points were valid or worth discussing, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. Above all, in condemning the holiday "because it has become a tool in the hands of ultranationalist ideologues," the piece simply substitutes one political agenda for another. It's one of those ideas that, as the saying goes (not in fact Orwell's, but close to his thinking) is so absurd that only an intellectual could believe it.


One might as well say that we should end Fourth of July celebrations because American patriotism sometimes degenerates into triumphalist jingoism. The solution is not to do away with the holiday, and rather, to infuse it with new and deeper meaning. The founding of a revolutionary democracy or the commission of genocide are worth commemorating, and far too important to discard on the whims of a self-important op-ed writer.


At the very least, the simple and non-political rituals of commemoration should seem unobjectionable. The traditional ritual of mourning on the anniversary of death involves lighting a candle that burns for a full day.

I have taken to placing mine on top of this immense old candlestick, of hammered iron in the Arts & Crafts or Werkbund style, circa the beginning of the twentieth century.


The dealer I bought it from acquired it from a scrap metal dealer in Dortmund, so it's precise origin is unknown, Clearly, though, given its striking size (77 cm. tall, or just over 30 inches), it came from institutional setting rather than a private home. In fact, it is identical in appearance to a brass one sold at auction over a decade ago. That one came from the destroyed Leipzig synagogue in the Gottschedstraße, destroyed in Kristallnacht. It seems more than likely, then, that what I have here is another relic from the pogrom that began the Holocaust, and as such it seems especially fitting to call it into service for this use.


Many have remarked on the challenge of representing the genocide through conventional monuments. Some do, however, succeed in being both original and powerful.

Still, to me, the most powerful "monument" is actually a ritual used in Israel: On the morning of Holocaust Memorial day, an air raid siren sounds, and the entire country literally comes to a halt for two minutes. People stop where they stand on the sidewalk, cars and buses pull over to the side of the road, and drivers and passengers get out and stand respectfully  in silence. Then life resumes. It is the most eerie and moving ritual I have ever seen.

It is evanescent, yet eternal: lasting only two minutes yet repeated every year. It is a monument in time, of time. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. . . . Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.”

And because this ritual so abruptly interrupts daily time itself, it conveys almost better than anything the tear in the fabric of the world and civilization that the Holocaust represented.





Footnote:

I have often thought that the United States should adopt something similar for Memorial Day. I still recall how, as children, we stood and observed a moment of silence at 11:11 a.m. on November 11, in tribute to Veterans' Day's origins as Armistice Day. We have lost that sense of an entire nation united in mourning the tragic costs of war.

Monday, April 13, 2015

April 13, 1943: Nazis Announce Discovery of Mass Grave of Murdered Poles at Katyń

In April-May 1940, the security services of Stalin’s Soviet Union, which had concluded a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in August 1939 and then occupied the eastern part of Poland after the Germans invaded from the west in September, murdered some 22,000 Poles--soldiers, intelligentsia, and other suspect classes--at Katyń forest near Smolensk and other locations.

On April 13, 1943, the Nazis, acting on rumors from locals, announced the discovery of one mass grave at Katyń forest near Smolensk. The Soviets emphatically denied the charges. The incident led to a break in relations between the London Polish Government-in-Exile and the Soviet regime.

The incident long remained controversial, as the Soviets insisted that these were the victims of German occupiers. In fact, I recall my father saying that, while he was serving with the US occupation forces in Germany (OMGUS), he found Germans testifying to "terrible crimes" they had committed in that area, which no one was willing to address.

The forensic evidence seemed contradictory, as the victims were killed with German bullets but tied with Russian ropes, but eventually, the weight of the evidence clearly tipped the scales in favor of a Soviet crime. It was only half a century later, in the Gorbachev reform era, that the Russian government acknowledged responsibility for the crime


This illustrated magazine, produced by the Nazi regime, conveyed the news to the occupied Polish population in May, 1943. The cover is a harmless depiction of the lobster harvest in Martinique (which was then under the control of the Vichy French regime).



Without warning, the next page reveals the horror of the Katyń massacre--conveyed through a Nazi propaganda lens.




Monday, March 30, 2015

Palm Sunday Donkey



One of my favorite genres of medieval sculpture is the so-called Palm Sunday Donkey (German: Palmesel), a tradition that thrived in particular in Central Europe from the Middle Ages through the eighteenth century, when the rise of the Enlightenment and new ideas of propriety led the Church to suppress the increasingly raucous behavior that accompanied it. Palm Sunday processions commemorating Christ’s entry into Jerusalem are documented beginning in the seventh century. At first, it seems, a priest or villager rode a donkey in these processions, but there were concerns over the vanity of the performer and hubris of imitating Christ. In any case, it eventually proved more practical to substitute a dependable sculpture for a sometimes recalcitrant beast. Both the use of the live donkey and the wooden substitution are documented since the late tenth century. The typical Palm Sunday donkey thus consisted of a figure of Christ seated on a donkey mounted on a wheeled platform. Most such sculptures were large if not life-sized and carved of limewood or oak, decorated with colored paint.

The Cloisters and other sources speak of some 50 surviving examples at the end of the nineteenth century, but modern inventories cite 190 examples in the German-speaking lands alone. The earliest, in Switzerland, dates from circa 1200, and there are a few other examples from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but most are late-medieval.

I honestly forget where I first encountered this phenomenon: I believe it was in college while spending a summer studying German in the Catholic region around Freiburg, with its great museum of medieval art. It was probably only after my return that I discovered we had one in the University of Wisconsin art museum. (My photos are not accessible to me at the moment, but this one shows it nicely.) At any rate, the genre always appealed to me, for it perfectly embodied both the humanity and the majesty of Christ in church doctrine, and the donkey (much like a nativity scene) had a wonderful way of bringing home the nature and naive charm of popular religion in rural medieval society.

Palmesel (15th-century Germany), The Cloisters

Read the rest on the Tumblr.

The biblical entry into Jerusalem had its modern historical resonances, as well: When British General Allenby captured the city in December 1917, he made a point of entering on foot: not only out of humility vis-à-vis Christ--but also as a rebuke to the Kaiser, who on his visit had ridden in on a grand horse.




Sunday, March 22, 2015


    "To build a sustainable, climate-resilient future for all, we must invest in our world's forests. That will take political commitment at the highest levels, smart policies, effective law enforcement, innovative partnerships and funding."

    Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

March 21 is the International Day of Forests.

In celebration of that event, some tree- and forest-themed bookplates over on the book blog, habent sua fata libelli.



Saturday, March 7, 2015

as if she is giving brisk lectures to students with the memory span of goldfish

The art of the harsh review is, well, a real art.

Here's a recent example, from Richard Davenport-Hines's take on:

The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth and Lamb 
Stanley Plumly
W. W. Norton, pp.336, £18.99, ISBN: 9780393080995

Poets and the Peacock Dinner: The Literary History of a Meal 
Lucy McDiarmid
Oxford University Press, pp.212, £20, ISBN: 9780198722786

. . .
Stanley Plumly, the Poet Laureate of Maryland, has used Haydon and his guests as the launch-pad for his own ruminations on the mainsprings, ambitions and insecurities of poets and painters. It is low-cholesterol fare compared with the delectable, richly buttered concoction published 14 years ago by Penelope Hughes-Hallett on the same subject with an almost identical title. . . .
Similar infelicities spoil Lucy McDiarmid’s book, which bustles with reiterative summaries, as if she is giving brisk lectures to students with the memory span of goldfish. . . .
These two books are assiduous and assertive, but keep striking wrong notes, like a nervous guest at a dinner who tries too hard to impress. Both had a desperate need to be checked in manuscript by English readers, who could have forestalled the blunders of etiquette, nuance and fact. The parties described by Plumly and McDiarmid still sound amusing, but both authors are didactic people, whose opinions on genius, tortoises, the English class system and vaginas are not much cop.




"The table talk of the poets: dining with Keats, Yeats, Blunt and Lamb, Flint, Pound and Moore"
In a review of The Immortal Evening by Stanley Plumly and Poets and the Peacock Dinner by Lucy McDiarmid, Richard Davenport-Hines relives two feasts of literary legend, The Spectator, 3 January 2015