Primo Levi’s words remind me of why we need one another. This need goes beyond the idealistic and ephemeral. We need one another for survival. Levi writes, “We, too, are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility. Willingly or unwillingly we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by, the train is waiting” (The Drowned and the Saved, “The Gray Zone,” p. 69). So, I will stretch from footprint to footprint, from one moon to another.
A 2012 European trip let me touch the Baltic, revel in Peter and Catherine’s glorious St. Petersburg, and walk at midnight in Moscow’s Red Square, but it was Warsaw that made me weep—not just the city’s history of the Ghetto and the sewers, but Europe’s horror of six (seven, ten?) million dead Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, dissidents, mentally and physically disabled. Warsaw believed that the elm tree outside Pawiak Prison witnessed Nazi brutality. They attached metal boards with victims’ names. When the tree died, the city of Warsaw replaced the tree with a monument cast in bronze. A testament to scars and sorrows, generosity and integrity.
It was so easy to choose If You Give a Mouse a Cookie for my first book to re-read in 2017. It was not as easy to read again Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved. What remained consistent was my wish that I had known him, that I could have called him a friend. A young survivor of Auschwitz, a writer, a humanist, and for me, a hero of the 20th century. “A Man of Quality”. Levi’s definition of the intellectual describes, for me, a quality human being: “a person whose culture is alive inasmuch as it makes an effort to renew itself, increase itself.”
In 1995, our community in N.E. Portland welcomed a Tutsi family who had escaped the Rwandan genocide. For six months, the mother, three-year-old boy, and one-week old daughter became part of our family of adults, dogs, and books. A favorite story was If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. We all knew—even the baby—that if a pink-nosed mouse appeared in blue overalls, we’d offer him a cookie and invite him inside for a glass of milk. When he asked for a mirror to check his looks and a broom and mop for cleaning and a blanket and storybook for a nap and crayons for his artwork, we’d run to get them. He’d need to hang his picture on the refrigerator and the refrigerator would remind him how thirsty he was. We’d pour him a glass of milk. What is milk without a cookie? And, if we really liked the story, we could spend a very long and busy time inside that book.
In Copenhagen, I stand next to the bronze statue of Hans Christian Andersen whose fairy tales remain key childhood memories. My list of books to re-read in 2017 deal with memory.
- A View from the Bridge, Arthur Miller. I recall a deep empathy; cannot remember why.
- Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury. A simple memory of summer and beautiful language.
- David Copperfield, Charles Dickens. Will David stay a favorite Dickens’ character?
- Enemy Women, Paulette Jiles. I loved this novel of women POWs during the Civil War.
- If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Laura Numeroff. Hope I still smile page after page.
- King Lear, Shakespeare. The manipulative old man, stripped clean, fascinates me.
- Kristin Lavrandatter, Sigrid Undset. For years I’ve said “Someday I’ll read this again.”
- The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi. The camp’s water pipe remains unforgettable.
- The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan. I missed too much of the Palestinian-Israeli history the first time around.
- Thrall, Natasha Tretheway. I’ll make sure I have the art piece next to each poem.
Over the holidays I read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, beautifully illustrated by Robert Ingpen. I read the story aloud from the beginning “Bah, humbug!” to the ending, “It was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” How often have I savored this book, finding new surprises hidden in the language? Looks as though I have my 2017 New Year’s Resolution ready. On January 1st, I will list ten familiar writings to read again. Perhaps de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” or Faulkner’s Light in August, Freeman’s Corduroy or some of Grimm’s Fairytales. Will my memory of “being hooked” prove true even now? I plan to find out.