June 6, 2000
In Troubled Memory, Tulane history professor Lawrence N. Powell follows a remarkable woman on her improbable journey from the dire depths of the Holocaust to the front lines of Louisiana politics. Like so many little girls of her time, she betrays a mother's infatuation with celebrity. Even here, in prewar Poland, a half-world from Hollywood, her hair is faithfully combed and pinned into precious spirals of Shirley Temple curls.
The child's smile is just as sweet. Dimpled sweet. Innocent as spring. Four-year-old Anne Skorecki looks out of this worn and weary photograph into your own eyes, and--if you know her story--your heart breaks. You wish that things would not go as badly as they will for this little girl and her younger sister, who stands like a pouting doll at her side. If every picture tells a story, then this unadorned image of goodness begins a tale of incalculable evil.
It's an intimate account of perseverance scratched into an epic tale of despair, a story of the past that begins and ends in the present.
"It began serendipitously," are the words Tulane history professor Larry Powell first finds to describe the process of telling this story. Soon it will be routine for him to talk to interviewers, but now, in the early weeks of February, with a bound version of Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, The Holocaust and David Duke's Louisiana still in production, Powell must search for the right words.
Initially, "serendipity," that guiding force of fairy tales, seems incongruous with any story about the Holocaust, but survivors will tell you that it was often these unforeseen, charmed bits of happenstance--being at the right place at the right time--that could make the difference between life and death. Powell knows. He's talked to many. So it is fitting that it was an intrusion of providence that brought Holocaust survivor Anne Skorecki Levy and Powell together.
Although it is set largely against the grand and sinister tableau of the Holocaust, Troubled Memory (University of North Carolina Press) is ultimately Levy's story--of how she and her family escaped the grim tally of Hitler's Final Solution and how the childhood memories of that experience informed her anti-bigotry activism a half-century later. Yet had it not been for a particular turn of events, Powell just as easily could have told another story. In fact, he was supposed to.
"It started out as a different kind of book than it eventually became," admits Powell, a Tulane professor of history and scholar of the American Reconstruction and 19th-century civil rights. It was back in 1992 when a "big-time agent" asked Powell to write a book on the "Stop Duke" movement of the previous year. Shaped by his 1960s liberal arts education, he always had embraced the historical study of American civil rights with more than aloof academic interest. W
hen former Ku Klux Klan leader and Nazi sympathizer David Duke announced his 1990 candidacy for the U.S. Senate seat then held by J. Bennett Johnston, Powell helped organize the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, a multiracial, multi-ethnic group bent on preventing Duke, then a state representative, from reaching Louisiana's highest office. According to Powell, Duke's political success was tied to his ability to "perpetrate the fraud" that he was a mainstream, born-again conservative.
No less than the New York Times credits the Louisiana Coalition as being the prime agent in shaping voters' perceptions that the new Duke still harbored the hostile racial and ethnic ideologies of the old Duke. "We took truth as our candidate," says Powell. The book envisioned by the agent would tell the compelling tale of how a grass-roots coalition toppled Duke's political ambitions. What most intrigued Powell was the sense of social duty that drove so many to join the "Stop Duke" movement.
"People dropped everything they were doing," he says. "It was an action that sprung from a morally grounded sense of memory. People had a sense that we had been there, we had done that, we know where Nazism leads, and we were offended." One Thing Led to Another As he stitched together an outline for the book, Powell tracked down and talked to individuals who played a part in the coalition. It was inevitable that he would contact Anne Levy.
Levy had become something of a reluctant celebrity within the movement following her well-publicized confrontation with Duke in the main hall of the state capitol. It was June 1989, and Levy was among a group of Holocaust survivors in attendance during the opening ceremony of a Simon Wiesenthal Center exhibition of images and artifacts from the Holocaust.
Duke, who recently had been elected to the state legislature as a Republican, made an appearance at the exhibit, a gesture rife with wicked irony considering his own long record of dismissing the "so-called Holocaust" as an overstated distortion of Nazi wartime atrocities.
That irony did not go unnoticed. "I don't know what happened to me," recalls Levy, who at first was startled to see Duke. "I was just going to be very quiet and in my quiet way talk to this man." Tapping Duke on the shoulder, Levy calmly demanded to know what Duke was doing at this event. "He was an educated man," says Levy. "He went to college. Didn't he really know about the Holocaust?"
According to Levy, Duke first attempted to ignore her, but as she persisted he "kind of snapped," shouting that he had never said the Holocaust hadn't happened, but only that it had been greatly exaggerated. His response was like a slap in the face. "One thing led to another," she recalls.
At 6-foot-3-inches, Duke stands about a foot taller than Levy, yet she managed to get in his face, wagging a finger as she prepared to give him a biting lesson in history he wouldn't soon forget. Reporters on hand to cover the ceremony converged on the two, and the media-savvy Duke, recognizing bad publicity when it was headed his way, fled the hall. Despite Duke's quick exit, the incident was widely reported in the media. It was, Levy recalls, a turning point in her life.
After 40 years of following her parents' example of avoiding their shared memories of the Holocaust, Levy would gradually gain a kind of reconciliation with the past that allowed her to regularly speak out on issues of anti-Semitism and racism. Powell intended to record the surprising encounter between Levy and Duke as one component in the story of the anti-Duke movement, and he first met Levy for a formal interview in January 1992. That initial conversation led to many others.
"I began to write this up as a chapter," says Powell. "But the more I got to know about Anne the more I became intrigued with her story."
He soon discovered that Levy was a child survivor of the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos of occupied Poland; that Anne's was probably the only family in the Warsaw ghetto to survive its liquidation as a group; that Anne and her younger sister, Lila, survived by hiding 12 hours each day in dark, tiny spaces beneath apartment floorboards and in a kitchen vegetable bin; that through cunning, patience and luck, her parents, Mark and Ruth Skorecki, were able to avoid the death trains to the Treblinka extermination center; that the sisters may have been two of only 100 children under the age of 10 in a community of 500,000 to have survived the experience.
"Eventually I felt that hers was the story I needed to tell," he says.
Curiosity kills the cat but it makes all kinds of wheels spin in the head of a historian. Powell began to tinker with the idea of recounting the Holocaust in an intimate sort of way, one that put the reader at street level in the Warsaw and Lodz ghettos. He also began seeing connections between Levy's involvement in the anti-Duke movement and the troubled memory of her own past.
For Powell, the past and present intersected inside the psyche of this diminutive grandmother who for so long had kept silent about her memories. "Anne is very demure and not at all an aggressive person," he says. "I was curious as to why she stepped out of character and confronted this guy." The manuscript would present him with a number of challenges. First, he would be researching and writing outside his field.
Beyond that, he would be writing the history of a person who was not only still alive but also virtually unknown beyond the New Orleans community. Powell also understood that the narrative would have to alternate from a broad historical account of the Holocaust to an intimate telling of how Levy's family members dealt with what was happening around them. Then there was the matter of documenting Anne's transition from the introverted survivor of the Holocaust to outspoken social activist. |
To accommodate these concerns, Powell chose a somewhat eccentric structure. Troubled Memory begins with Levy's confrontation of Duke and ends with two chapters that follow Levy's gradual acceptance of her role as an activist in the "Stop Duke" campaign. In the intervening chapters, Powell drops readers into the abyss of the Holocaust, putting them elbow to elbow with the Skoreckis as they at first are imprisoned in a ghetto carved out of their hometown of Lodz and then relocated to the larger Warsaw ghetto.
By making good decisions and dodging bad luck, Ruth and Mark Skorecki hold their family together, eventually escaping the Warsaw ghetto to "pass" as gentiles on the "Aryan side" of the city. As the war ends the Skoreckis eventually reach an American-operated displaced persons center. Finally, in 1949, they arrive in New Orleans, a port of embarkation for Jewish refugees.
Eventually, however, family members must contend with the alarmingly familiar anti-Semitism of the neo-Nazi "hate rides" of the 1960s and again during Duke's meteoric rise in popularity. Intertwined with the often hair-raising family narrative, Powell presents a chilling account of Nazi strategy and methodology, a kind of nuts-and-bolts handbook of Hades.
"I don't know why, but it struck me that this was the way to write it," says Powell, who understood implicitly that the story of 6 million was too large to comprehend. "History happens to individuals," he says. "If you can show how history affects the lives of ordinary persons, then, I think, it becomes more memorable."
The word "memory" turns up in a lot of things Powell has to say about the book, as if the concept that guided him through the telling somehow became stuck on his brain and he can't quite shake it loose yet. Memories inform as well as haunt the project. Although Anne was no more than 7 when the bottom fell out of her life, we learn in detail about the people and events that surrounded her because her mother, Ruth, had dictated a memoir during the mid-'50s.
Ruth died in 1973, but it is her memories that serve as a blueprint for much of the book. "The mother wanted to get this story out," says Powell, who not only studied the copy of the manuscript given to him by Levy, but also discovered additional transcripts that were unknown to the family. "Larry read the manuscript and pulled out of it so many things that I had missed," says Levy.
What the memoir meant to Powell was that he would be able to bring readers to ground zero of the Holocaust. Listen to Ruth tell of one "selection" conducted by Nazis to determine who would remain in the ghetto and who would be sent to a death camp:
"I was thinking so much of my children in the cellar that when [the SS officer] said everybody could go, I stepped out before he told us to starting walking. I saw a terrible face looking at me. He raised his hand with the gun. In the other hand he had a whip. I was between my husband and my brother-in-law, Julius.... I thought to myself that I was finished. My brain was not working at all at this moment. I didn't know whether I was alive or dead already. I just saw a mean, hard, cold face looking at me.... Then a miracle happened. He lowered the gun and let me go."
Ruth's words hold together in an artlessly poetic way that seems to at once understate a situation while having it crash your sensibilities. "There is something very powerful about hearing testimony firsthand from a survivor herself," says Powell, who talked to a number of people who remembered the Skoreckis from the very bad old days. While understanding the need to "be respectful to the body of work" contributed by other historians who have written about the Holocaust, Powell also sensed the importance of investing his scholarship with the testimony of individuals.
"I felt that there needn't be this sharp division between memoir and history, that what I should do is show how both of them work together." By using memoirs to enliven his "hard" research and, conversely, using research to buttress or correct personal testimony, Powell arrived at a methodology that would serve Levy's story. "It was not simply demonstrating how history had something to say to survivor memoirs and vice versa, but it's the honesty of acknowledging survivors as real humans instead of saints and sacred relics, which is how they are sometimes regarded."
Writing is solitary work. So is research, but at least it gives you a license to travel. In compiling the material for Troubled Memory, Powell spent about a month in Europe and several weeks in Israel "schlepping through the archives" in Warsaw and Lodz, as well as Yad Vashem, the world's largest repository of Holocaust material. His objective was twofold: to develop new scholarship on the Holocaust and to retrieve long-lost bits and pieces of the Skorecki family history.
Once he began researching the book, Powell stayed in close contact with Levy, frequently looking for clarification or elaboration on new information he had uncovered and often arriving at her doorstep with gifts from the past. "I'm telling you, Larry used to come here and I would say, 'I wonder what he is bringing me now,'" recalls Levy. Powell slowly reassembled her family tree that was lost due to the destruction of official records during the war.
He delivered stories of aunts and uncles who did not survive its tragedy. He even located Levy's own birth certificate, a document long ago separated from the child to whom it had borne witness. "He brought me so much," she says. That's because Powell was a relentless hunter. He went to the Skoreckis' ancestral shtetl outside of Krakow to locate family history in books within a local synagogue.
Back in the States he scoured the United Nations' archives in New York and the National Archives in Washington, D.C . Everywhere, he looked for survivors. "I tracked them down in Canada, Australia, Florida, Ohio, wherever I could find folks who knew this family," he says. As one year fell into the next Powell slowly tailored an intricate narrative by weaving a survivor's story into the history of the Holocaust.
"It's not purely a history book," admits Powell. "I did try to write it for a general audience because I wanted people who were non-scholars and didn't know the academic lingua franca to be able to read this book and like it and even learn from it."
Lessons are delivered in grand, sweeping accounts and in concise epiphanies, as in the account of the Warsaw ghetto "liquidation": There were lots of suicides in the ghetto during the deportations.... In fact, there was a lot of just plain giving up. The crying and screaming began to abate after the first week. People climbed into wagons submissively.... Some ghetto inhabitants had been lured there by the offer of three kilograms of bread and a jar of marmalade promised by German authorities to anyone who volunteered for resettlement. Starved and exhausted from dashing between courtyards to evade deportation, as many as 20,000 people accepted the offer during the few days the policy was in effect.
The Nazi ploy reawakened that incurable Jewish optimism. It aroused the all-too-human inability to accept one's own mortality. It fed ghetto delusions that Warsaw would be spared the fate of Jewish communities elsewhere in Poland. Why would they feed us if they mean to kill us? By August 1, the tenth day of the deportations, nearly 65,000 residents of the Warsaw ghetto had been shipped to Treblinka, followed a week later by another 53,000 deportees. The ghetto's once busy streets resembled a graveyard.
"It is as if the earth had opened and swallowed up all its crowds and noises, its secrets and vices, and the entire tribe of ants that scurried through its streets from dawn until curfew," wrote ghetto diarist Chaim Kaplan on July 29. Five days later, after smuggling out his diary to a Polish friend, Kaplan himself disappeared into the maw. It is believed that he and his wife perished at Treblinka.
What goes on in the minds of those who have witnessed such things? Powell became deeply interested in the psychology of survivors and the effects post-traumatic stress syndrome had upon them. For Powell, the overarching theme of Troubled Memory is embodied in Levy's transformation from a silent witness to one who would publicly testify to her past.
"I think the book is about how the obligation to remember is part of our civic culture," says Powell, who admits he could have told of Anne's transformation in a more compressed way. "But I felt that to give it real depth and feeling I needed to show how a life evolved and put the whole story of an ordinary person against the backdrop of this extraordinary tragedy," he says.
Levy admits that she "shared a lot" with Powell, as she and her husband, Stan, allowed the historian into their home, their family, their thoughts and memories. For his part, Powell confesses that at times he felt as if he was practicing family therapy without a license. But how could he resist trying to put the pieces together? Here is a little girl who, along with her younger sister, survived each day by paying single-minded attention to their parents' instructions and learning to be breathlessly invisible to the regular and hostile scrutiny of German soldiers.
A week after she confronted Duke at the state capitol, Levy again challenged the candidate at a symposium on race relations in New Orleans. For Levy, who had for so long pushed her childhood memories into a small, guarded corner of her being--so much so that even good friends did not know she was from Poland--it ultimately became too painful to silently witness the political ascendancy of a Holocaust denier. When she talks to schoolchildren and other groups, as she often now does, Levy is overwhelmed by the response to her story.
"Some come and hug you, and some write wonderful notes," she says. Call it serendipity. Call it a fairy-tale ending. Good things do happen. And Levy's story still has such a pull on Powell that he hasn't lost his wonderment of it. "You see her metamorphosis," he begins, again searching for the right words. "You see her metamorphosis and then you see her also as really kind of your next door neighbor, because she is. She is someone we see and talk to every day. She is not a museum piece."
In the weeks before the publication of Troubled Memory, Levy confesses she's a tad apprehensive about it all. "I'm having a hard time believing that, after so long, the book is really here," she says. "I knew it was going to happen after all the work that Larry did. But my whole life will be in front of whoever buys this book. I've really exposed myself."
It's a big step for the little girl in Shirley Temple curls who grew up a silent witness to things no one should have to see. It's a big step, too, for the historian out on a limb, attempting to pull meaning out of bits and pieces of the past and present. Both are bound in the simple and elusive understanding that truth may set you free but it will not make memories disappear. And that, sadly, wonderfully, is a good thing.
Nick Marinello is a senior publications editor at Tulane and is editor of the faculty-staff newspaper, Inside Tulane. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Tulanian.
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