Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

A Postcolonial Jew: Cynthia Ozick's holocaust survivor

Lawrence S. Friedman

To invoke the postcolonial is to invite its awful signifiers: devastated landscapes, debilitated peoples, shattered traditions. For the postcolonial condition reflects, however dimly, the ugly mis-en-scene of its gestation. And no matter how benign the colonial regime that spawned it, postcolonial society is saddled with the standard assumptions that empower all colonial enterprises. Chief among those assumptions is the superiority - intellectual, racial, perhaps above all, moral - of the colonizers to the colonized. Whatever their announced motives - those unannounced are depressingly similar and familiar - colonizers portray themselves as saviours, the colonized as the saved. To render self-serving salvation is to insist on those differences between "us" and "them" that cry out for colonial rectification. Negative racial and/or religious stereotyping - frequently amplified to the level of propaganda - invokes the "other" who must be disciplined, converted, or worse. Via this perverted moral calculus that locates evil in the foreign colonialism's most egregious depredations - displacement, expropriation, exploitation, enslavement, even extermination - are not merely excused but exalted.

There is no shortage of postcolonial scenarios. Nearly all the present countries of Africa and South America were created by carving up - casually, arbitrarily, yet ruthlessly - entire continents. And the breakup of the Soviet Union into its constituent republics is only the latest example of postcolonial fragmentation. My deliberate (desperate?) multiplication of colonial and postcolonial categories is prologue to my equally disingenuous classification of the Germans as colonizers and the Jews as the colonized. Hitler's goal - a reconfigured Europe conspicuously emptied of perceived enemies - is an infinitely more hideous version of the current Serbian policy in Bosnia-Herzogovina. The colonizing of Muslim territory, the seizing of Muslim property, and the attendant displacement and/or persecution of Muslim people, all carried out in the name of "ethnic cleansing," recall Hitler's war against the Jews waged under the rubric of the no less ominously euphemistic "Final Solution."

Race provided the theoretical basis for the Nazi imperium in eastern Europe. Populated by inferior breeds, home to masses of Jews, the area targeted for German Lebenstraum would be redesigned to Nazi specification. All existing political structures would be scrapped; government would revert to the Nazis and/or their proxies. In a May, 1940 memorandum to Hitler, Himmler unveiled a plan to scour all eastern Europe of racially impure elements. Racial purification became the centerpiece of a programme that ran the gamut of colonial atrocities ranging from displacement and resettlement to persecution and outright murder. In Poland, for example, the Germans enforced an ethnic hierarchy of their own making: Aryans dominant; Slavs, and especially Jews, subservient. Only the Master Race was fit to govern. Poles were fit only for drudge work; Jews for prison labour at best, extermination at worst.

It is, of course, this last element that distinguishes the German occupation of Poland from, say, the Belgian exploitation of the Congo. No matter how brutal the conventional colonial enterprise, it had more or less rational objectives. But the Final Solution, ostensibly a macabre sideshow to the main event of World War 2, became instead the war's raison d'etre. As late as 1944, with the entire German war effort hanging in the balance, trains that might have carried critically needed material to front-line troops were instead diverted to transport the pitiful remnants of European Jewry to concentration camps. Still later, in the war's final months, the slaughter continued unabated. Finally, more thousands of Jews, miraculously spared the gas chambers, perished in forced marches, victims of the Nazi rage to murder even with the war lost and the death camps abandoned. Hitler was the avatar of an unimaginably perverted colonialism rooted in irrational rage. Ultimately, the prosecution of a war became the persecution of a people. Genocide, directed against a harmless and helpless people, became an end in itself, a means to nothing, at once transcendent symbol and grim parody of the colonial imperative.

For the Jewish survivors of a colonialism so all-consuming that only the term Holocaust does it justice, nominal postcolonialism is inconceivable. Postcolonial communities, however distorted or debilitated, invariably retain important aspects of their precolonial identities. In V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River, for example, neither colonialism nor its aftermath radically transforms people's lives. Naipaul's postcolonial African backwater is a place where the vast majority of people live in the same bush in the same manner as they did before and during the colonial period. But so profound was the devastation of European Jewry that communal endurance, much less renewal, was foreclosed. The rare Jew to survive the Holocaust had no home to go back to, no one to go back with. Bereft of family, friends, community, even language, the typical Jewish refugee fled the Europe of evil memory for the unlikely postcolonial destination of New York. There, huddled together with similarly displaced persons, the Holocaust survivor lacked even the consolations of a viable community and a familiar geography that sustained Naipaul's Africans.

My paper deals with a postcolonialism of the mind, with psyches seared by the remembrance of things past. "A Mercenary," one of Cynthia Ozick's most powerful short stories, establishes what my paper attempts: the postcolonial/ post-Holocaust linkage. Among contemporary American Jewish writers it is Ozick who most intensely and most articulately evokes the fate of Jewish "postcolonial" (i.e. post-Holocaust) survivors. Like most Jewish writers who treat the Holocaust, Ozick regards it as a unique rather than a representative event. Still, her refugees share with survivors everywhere the dilemma of how - or whether - to live in the wake of the oppression that devastated their former lives. Juxtaposing black African Morris Ngambe and Polish Jew Stanislav Lushinski, Ozick invokes the common denominator of their successive identity crises. The crumbling of their painstakingly self-fashioned identities testifies to the fragility of all such artificial personas. Grafted by necessity, the identities of Ngambe and Lushinski are immunosuppressive, lacking the defenses of identities imprinted by culture. Accommodation and its discontents - the stuff of more conventional postcolonial fiction - is sharply magnified in "A Mercenary." What Ozick suggests is not merely that accommodation is difficult to achieve but that it is impossible to sustain. Ultimately, the psychic legacy of oppression is as indelible as its most harrowing symbol: the concentration camp tattoo.

"A Mercenary" begins with an epigraph attributed to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's infamous propagandist: "Today we are all expressionists - men who want to make the world outside themselves take the form of their life within themselves." Goebbels' words prologue to the imperial theme if ever there was one - are characteristically sinister in their historical context, implying that the Holocaust - that definitive "creation" of Nazi "expressionism" - reflected the twisted lives of its perpetrators. While expressionism predated Hitler's Third Reich, the expressionist aesthetic of distortion prefigures the Nazi wrenchings of German culture, values, even language to conform to a twisted world view. In varying degrees Lushinski and the two other main characters of "A Mercenary" have reinvented themselves, thereby altering their relationship to the world. Seemingly a relatively innocuous form of distortion, the destabilized identity is nonetheless symptomatic of a more general chaos that Jews have learned by bitter experience to dread.

Stanislav Lushinski, the mercenary of the title, has turned himself inside out in every conceivable fashion. A Polish Jew, he has long represented a small unnamed black African country at the United Nations. He has exchanged his cold and grey European homeland for hot and bright Africa; his native language for tribal dialect and diplomat's English; his Judaism for cosmopolitanism. Lushinski is most at home in New york, the quintessential melting pot where identities are confused, altered, reinvented. Still, he is essentially homeless even in New York, travelling incessantly around the United States and returning to Africa only sporadically and then mainly for official visits. Even his sexual identity is fluid: he lives with a mistress, Louisa (Lulu), in new York; with an Italian boy in Geneva. Lushinski crafts his public persona on the television talk shows (the ultimate symbol of the ephemeral?) on which he delights to appear. That his life is in good part a fairy tale of his own telling is underlined in Ozick's "Once upon a time" lead-in to one of Lushinski's many television appearances. A consummate actor, he loves the cameras which record his performances and the studio audiences who love his stories. Mocking, parodic, contradictory, his tales are reminiscent of the patter of standup comedians who nightly redo themselves. Joking about his past becomes a strategy for effacing it: "He had made himself over, and now he was making himself up . . . "

Morris Ngambe, Lushinski's young assistant, and Louisa, his mistress, have likewise made themselves over, albeit not so thoroughly or so consciously. A black African only a couple of generations removed from the bush, Morris has acquired the manner and manners of an English gentleman by virtue of an Oxford education. In so doing he has reversed the de-Europeanizing trajectory of Lushinski: "A Mercenary" ends with Morris in New York ("a city of Jews"), Lushinski in black Africa. Louisa, reputedly a former German countess whose last name was preceded by a "von," seems thoroughly American. But her accent - "a fake melody either Irish or Swedish" - belies both identities, German and American. Louisa claims to have "once run a famous chemical corporation in California" but to have given up everything for Lushinski. In the three central characters of "A Mercenary" Ozick has calibrated identity transformed, from the case of Louisa who seems essentially American, her German origins hazy and glossed over, to that of Morris, whose African past is never fully subsumed under a European patina, finally to that of Lushinski, whose metamorphosis from Polish Jew into cosmopolitan mercenary (by definition a metamorphic calling) is both more conscious and more thorough than the changes wrought in themselves by Louisa and Morris.

Least conscious of multiple identities because least burdened by history is Louisa. But Morris and Lushinski, shadowed respectively by African colonialism and European Holocaust cannot so easily escape their pasts. In New York, despite his Oxford degree, Morris suffers like any black: he is snubbed and sent to the service entrance of a Riverside Drive apartment by a Puerto Rican elevator man; he is patronized and ignored by the Secretary of State who pays attention only to Lushinski; and he is knocked down and robbed by a gang of youths whose windbreakers ironically read, "Africa First, Harlem Nowhere." That Morris's acquired persona begins to chafe is evidenced by his suddenly tight underwear, his perspiration, and his growing hatred of New York which he comes to see as less civilized, more a "jungle" than his native Africa. His identity crisis comes to a head in his recollection of the Tarzan movies he once compulsively attended. Morris fears himself to be a self-duped mimic of western manners, a black version of "that lout Tarzan" whose crude chatter parodies African dialect. Even more jarring to Morris's sense of himself is Robert Rossellini's classic Italian film, General della Rovere (1959). Vittorio De Sica plays a scruffy con-man, a blowhard who impersonates a famous World War II military hero so successfully that he gradually takes on the general's moral stature, acting with genuine courage. There is, moreover, a subtextual doubling of the film's story of heroic impersonation: the middle-aged De Sica, a matinee idol as a young man, playfully mocks his former persona. For Morris, however, General della Rovere's theme of self-transcendence as a mode of personal discovery collapses into the same accommodation offered by the ferocious natives to Tarzan. Troubled by "the problem of sincerity," Morris worries that jumping into someone else's skin - which inevitably begins to fit - is to inhabit no culture. It is his revulsion against his perceived unauthenticity - "How long could the ingested, the invented, foreignness endure" - that drives Morris eventually to reverse Lushinski's direction, and to reclaim his African heritage.

Unlike Morris, Lushinski is untroubled by the question of sincerity. Symbolic of his many possible identities, any one of which he can assume at a moment's notice, are the several complete sets of false papers, passports, and diplomas he keeps in an "always reliably present" suitcase. Ever ready to exchange the life he has spun out on television for one no less arbitrarily conceived, Lushinski, the deracinated Jew, welcomes the very homelessness that for the real Jew is an endless affliction. He calls himself "the century's one free man," not only because as a Holocaust survivor he has already experienced the worst that can happen to a human being, but also because he is not imprisoned in a single identity. Having trivialized his own tragic past - and by extension, the Holocaust - by reducing it to television patter, Lushinski has exorcized his former self and made all identities equally plausible. To Louisa, Lushinski denies "being part of the Jews," claiming rather to be "a part of mankind." But for Ozick Jewish assimilationism amounts to Jewish disappearance, the ironically macabre culmination in America of what Hitler began in Germany.

Still, despite claiming that "I am an African" and snubbing Jews at the United Nations Assembly, Lushinski is haunted by the vestigial remains of the Jew he was. Chief among these are the characteristically Jewish reliance on words and obsession with history. As a "paid mouthpiece" he has long corrupted words; as a talk-show guest he has relentlessly devalued history. But he is forced finally to confront words and history not in the shallow sense in which he has employed them but in the full resonance of their Jewish bearings. When Louisa calls Lushinski "You Jew," she "restored him to fear" - to the Jew he once was and, in some measure, must ever be. A word suffices to pierce the armour of Lushinski's painstakingly crafted public identity and expose the Jew beneath. And it is by means of words that history - the one subject that Lushinski allows Louisa to read - is created. In their respective attitudes toward "what really happened" (Ozick's emphasis) Jew is demarcated from Gentile: Lushinski cares "about the record" while Louisa hates history. In Elie Wiesel's Night (1960), one of the most harrowing eye-witness evocations of life in the hell of the Nazi concentration camps, and Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews (1967), a monumental and exhaustive documentation of Hitler's war against the Jews, Lushinski finds indispensable facts while Louisa senses only the undifferentiated litany of death. Lushinski's passion for Jewish history marks the Jew no less than Louisa's recoil from what she perceives only as senseless morbidity marks the Gentile.

Lushinski, the cosmopolitan mercenary, "the century's one free man," cannot quite wrench himself free from the unwanted embrace of Ziggi, the "black" Jewish child he once was. That effacing one's Jewish identity is futile in any event is shown by the fate of Lushinski's parents who, despite their fair hair, pale eyes, aristocratic manners, and cultivated Polish, are shot for Jews by the Germans. Lushinski and his parents are examples of deracinated Jews who are pressed back into their original Jewish identities despite their best efforts at assimilation. The self-fashioned identities of Lushinski's parents are shattered by the Germans, that of Lushinski by words.

Lushinski's affinity for the words that comprise Holocaust history is not the only vestige of the Jewish identity he so vehemently disclaims. He retains the dark good looks that evoked the childhood nickname Ziggi, "short for Zigeuner, the German word for gipsy." The peasants with whom he had been hidden by his parents throw him out, afraid that his "black" features would bring the Nazi Jew-hunters to their door. (The gipsies, for that matter, were also marked for extinction.) The child's ensuing flight into the Polish forest, his miraculous escapes from menacing Polish peasants and German soldiers are reminiscent of the no less incredible adventures of the persecuted child in Jerzy Kisinski's The Painted Bird (1965). Kosinski, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust and immigrated to the U.S. in 1957, tells the apparently autobiographical story of a child known only as "The Boy." Like the youthful Lushinski, Kosinski's first-person narrator hails from a large East European city, is dark despite a fair-haired, blue-eyed father, is taken alternately for a gipsy and a Jew; is betrayed by peasants who were entrusted with his care, and is threatened by a ferocious dog (Judas in The Painted Bird, Andar in Lushinski's account). Because the entirety of The Painted Bird consists of the Boy's struggle for self-preservation, while Lushinski's talk show tale is little more than a brief (albeit crucial) anecdote in "A Mercenary," Kosinski is able to flesh out the meaning of what Ozick symbolically implies. Thus the Boy's anonymity testifies to a profound loss of identity. As he wanders through the nightmare universe of war-torn East Europe he becomes every victimized child whose memories of a pre-war world of decency and order have been permanently cauterized. Once-essential biographical details, rendered useless and meaningless by universal evil, are abandoned. What use are absent parents who cannot protect him? Of what relevance is a pampered and cultivated childhood in a brutal and primitive environment? And what is the difference between a Jew and a gipsy since both are dark and destined for extermination? The Painted Bird is a harrowing evocation of a concentrationary universe whose Nazi masters confer the final identity - victim - upon those they murder. To be a Jew is to be merely the possessor of a fatal identity that marks its bearer for annihilation. What so diminishes Lushinski is that he yields his Jewish identity not under the irresistible pressure of Nazi persecution but willingly, eagerly, even jokingly when to be a Jew is no longer to be conspicuously at risk. Ironically, it is when he is living most flagrantly the self-fashioned role for which he sacrificed his Jewishness, that he is forced back upon his former self. And fittingly, it is Morris, whose own identity crisis resolved itself in favour of his African heritage, who unmasks him. The effect of Morris's letter - about a captive Japanese terrorist who had murdered twenty-nine Jews at the Tel Aviv airport only to convert to Judaism in his jail cell - is to drive a wedge between himself, the true African, and Lushinski, the impersonator. In its hypothesis that captivity leads to captivation, that man finally "becomes what he wishes to victimize," needing "to impersonate what he first must kill," Morris's letter echoes the language employed by Jerzy Kosinski to trace the Boy's evolution from victim to victimizer in The Painted Bird. Once on a talk show Lushinski had told about how, as a child in the Polish forest, he had killed an unidentified man. As he sits "on a blue sofa before an open window" of the white villa on the blue African coast, the setting dissolves into "the bluish snow . . . under the stone-white hanging stars of Poland" and the man Lushinski killed is at last revealed to be Lushinski himself.

Morris Ngambe - westernized black African alienated from his native and adopted cultures alike - is colonialism's most obvious, even clichéd, victim. And it is his identity crisis that prefigures, even precipitates, Lushinski's own. Apparently more secure than Ngambe in a self-fashioned persona, Lushinski proves equally powerless to prevent its disintegration. Black African and Polish Jew - modernity's quintessential victims - are endlessly haunted by the afterimages of a prior existence. But Ngambe the African can go home again, there to reclaim at least vestiges of a lost identity. No such possibility exists for Lushinski the Jew whose losses no postcolonial future can redeem.

National University of Singapore


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