‘Sapozhkelekh’ is a piece of short fiction written in 2016, which was read and discussed at the Aberdeen-Curtin Symposium in 2017. The story has at its heart Auntie Renka and Aunty Golde’s two diametrically opposed and apparently incompatible haunted subjectivities, and considers whether the absorption of language, the transmission of culture and of ghostly burdens can ever be separated at all. The narrator is a child, whose preoccupations may seem very different from those of the elderly women, even if this turns out not to be the case. ‘Sapozhkelekh—A reflection’ is a meditation on the processes that produced the story as well as ‘matters arising’ from the experience of reading it aloud, and the implications of the child’s voice being ventriloquized by an adult in this situation.
Keywords: Short story — Childhood memory — Reflection on creative practice — Language acquisition — Laughter — Anti-Semitism — Polish-Jewish relations — Yiddish song — Jewish ancestry
Auntie Golde says to pick up his blanket and be quick about it. Auntie Golde is quite fierce. Mummy says it’s called strick and once she says it’s old fashion, but I think it’s fierce like the lion picture in Ruthie’s book where the mouth and all the fangs is popped up. I’m not fraid of Auntie Golde either cause I’m the Eldest and so I don’t fall asleep in cars or be fraid of grownups or pictures. Once Ruthie was so fraid she tried to tear the lion picture out and put it in the toilet. Most grownups like it if you do a really big smile with all your teeth. They like if you do what they say and don’t ask questions. The question they specially don’t like is why, but that’s what a question is. Daddy specially doesn’t like are we nearly there, and Mummy doesn’t like is there anything to eat when she’s already told you.
Auntie Golde says I’m standing there dreaming, but I’m not I’m just thinking, but she doesn’t wait for me to splain her and she has picked up BabyDaniel and his face is over her shoulder with big surprise eyes going to the stairs. BabyDaniel is my brother and he’s only one year old. Ruthie can only say bruvver cause she can’t speak as well as me. Most of the time she followsmeround and is quite noying, though she is good for characters in games. I’m the main character cause I’m the Eldest but Ruthie can be everyone else. Usually Ruthie doesn’t speak to grownups but I can do talking and she can say and me so that she gets everything the same as me. I’m the Eldest and I don’t need a carry on long walks and I have to look after her so she isn’t lost and leftbehind even if she’s very noying.
BabyDaniel’s blanket is on the armchair so I grab it quick to take for Auntie Golde. I wish I could stay down in the kitchen where Auntie Renka is. Ruthie is on the big stool that BabyDaniel’s high chair goes on top of. Mummy says it’s her perch. I can see Ruthie through the doorway where the light is all yellow. Auntie Renka pops pieces of honeycake in your mouth when you don’t even ask her, and sour cream and berry jam on a spoon. BabyDaniel’s blankie is scritchy and yellow, though it used to be white onceuponatime and it has a smooth, shiny feeling along the edge and a pointy corner which BabyDaniel likes to suck. Mummy says that colour’s called cream, but cream is white like milk is. Ruthie and me call it his wee-wee blankie and we say it smells of wee-wee and is yellow like wee-wee and he’s a baby and wee-wees on everything, even up in the air, and he has nappies and it takes everyone a lot of time to look after him.
Ruthie and me got cited and telled Auntie Renka bout the wee-wee and she laughed and we jumped up and down at the same time as the washing machine noise and shouted wee-wee blanket wee-wee blanket every time we jumped. Auntie Renka’s name is Auntie Renya and Auntie Iroosha and she calls wee-wees shoo-shoos. Auntie Renka even likes questions and makes long answers to splain us. Her voice is funny and goes up and down like hickory dickory dock and she says funny words like Hennchen and Malootka. Ruthie can’t say words like that cause she can’t say el sounds. She says maootka and when she has to say lollipop she can only say o-i-pop and once she said oddiplop and we laughed like drains. Daddy said it was her first el even if it was in the wrong place and should be cedebrated. Then all the grownups and me laughed like drains.
When Mummy and Daddy went away for a whole day and a night and a next day, I asked Auntie Renka why? But why? Why do they have to go out? She said Mamas and Papas need to rest sometimes. But they can rest here, I said, and Mummy can take a pill for her sore head. Auntie Renka gave us some honeycake which was very extra lishous. Ruthie says ishous. Auntie Golde did a big noise like a pig sneeze. Auntie Golde isn’t noyed by questions she just never answers them. She says things or goes away, but she always notices your haviour, specially the not talking kind. Even when she’s not looking.
Daddy says get that look off your face, my lady, but Auntie Golde says, what are you, a jug? I don’t know what kind of jug she means. Auntie Renka always makes a funny tishing noise at her with a bit of laughing. Auntie Renka has pretty white hair and it’s not a bun. Her hair is bouncy and she has paleblue glasses on a dangly golden chain, but Auntie Golde’s isn’t and her glasses are on her nose.
Now Auntie Golde says over her shoulder—‘Don’t stare. Bring that blanket. You help me a little, no?’
Mummy says that babies have wispy hair. I asked her why didn’t the Aunties have any children, but Mummy said not everyone has babies. Auntie Golde and Auntie Renka are Mummy’s aunties too but they’re not her real aunties asamatterofac. When Mummy was learning to be a teacher before we were everever born she lived in their house, which is called Swiss Cottage even though it’s a flat.
Once when Mummy and the Aunties were discussion and I was staying very quiet so it wasn’t bed time for me, Auntie Golde said Poe lax in an almost shout, and she spitted like that, even onto the carpet. I had to go to bed allofasudden, but I asked Mummy what Poe lax is, and she did splain me bout it, but it was a funny reason.
The War was long ago but Auntie Renka and Aunte Golde were children then but not so little like us. The War was very bad and there were soldiers and people shooting like in films. Our Nana calls them fillums and we always laugh like drains so she says it again and Ruthie says she’s funning us. Mummy says in The War it was very dangerous and the Aunties lived in a country far away called You Crane, though they weren’t friends then and didn’t know each other at all.
Mummy says it was very dangerous in You Crane in The War and all the neighbours were called Poles. Auntie Golde’s family had to run away in a special bus, but the neighbours all stood in their front gardens. With flowers in? Yes, with flowers. What kind? I don’t know, sunflowers, and dahlias—she was starting to get cross so I said Auntie Golde was in the bus? Yes and the neighbours made a horrible sign with their fingers on their necks to show they thought Auntie Golde and all her family were going to ... weren’t going to get away, and they were laughing. Even the children. I thought about the children laughing like drains in among the flowers.
But Auntie Renka had nice neighbours and some of them hid her in their barn for two whole years, even though she had to eat potatoes all the time and the rest of her family went somewhere else on a big train. Some people were very brave, Mummy splained me, Polish people, and other people, they hid people away even though it was a big danger to do that, and some people, they ... they didn’t.
‘They laughed in their gardens,’ I said. ‘Laughed like drains.’
So only Auntie Renka but never Auntie Golde is doing chitchatting with Mrs Dobramilska in the shop where they have the curly sheep horn rolls. Auntie Renka says the Poles are a Proudandfearlessnation but I don’t know what that is. And Mummy says the Aunties have greed to disagree. She also says Nevverthetwain shall meet, but I don’t know who Nevverthetwain is.
When we are at Auntie Golde’s and Auntie Renka’s I say to Ruthie let’s pretend we don’t live here, that we live at our house. Pretend the settee is our real house and we’re just visiting. Leopard’s visiting too, I tell her. Yes, and Old Ted. When Ruthie goes into a room she always holds Leopard up and shouts ‘Eppard’s here’ and everyone laughs. Daddy says he’s a faymus beast. Leopard has one green ear where something got spilled on him that wouldn’t come out. We give them some pills for a sore head cause they’re crying. Then they’re all outofsorts so we give them two spoonfuls of medasun instead.
Leopard was gived to Ruthie when she was a teenybaby by Auntie Kathleen—Ruthie says Auntie Katheen and she’s a real auntie of ours. She always comes to visit us with our Nana on the big train from Liverpool but we don’t go there on the big train to visit them anymore since BabyDaniel was born cause it would make a nightmare. At teatime Auntie Renka said bout Granma but we don’t have a Granma only a Nana. Auntie Renka said she didn’t mean our Nana but there’s a diffrunt other Nana too. I think this Other Nana lives more far away but Auntie Renka says this Other Nana lives in London so I say can we go and see her? Can we? And Ruthie says and me.
Auntie Renka says I’m sorry, Hennchen. My name is Helen but Auntie Renka says I’m hennchen but it’s not a mistake, it means little hen. Auntie Renka says that the Other Nana is ever so Lishous. Auntie Golde makes the sneeze noise and says it’s a unforbiddable thing, but I don’t know what that is. In our house there is a picture of us with our Nana, Daddy and Auntie Kathleen at the seaside at More Come. We are eating sandwiches and I have a bucketandspade. Our hair is blowing into our mouths and our eyes are shut. There isn’t any sea, only sand. The sea is farfar away. There isn’t any picture of this Other Nana.
There’s a picture of Mummy and Daddy getting married in a place called Turkey, like the bird Ruthie calls gobblegobblers. Mummy has short hair and a summer dress and looks very pretty, and Daddy doesn’t have his glasses on. Mummy is writing in a book and Daddy is watching her. I can see from her mouth in the picture that Mummy has a concertration face on. Mummy and Daddy worked in a school in a town and the big children’s mummies and daddies gave them boxes of oranges for a present. Uncle Harry and Auntie Jean are Mummy and Daddy’s friends from the Turkey School. I like Uncle Harry cause he always swings us roundandround. He’s always funning us and he funs Daddy too. When he comes to our house Daddy says hello you Proddy Barster and Uncle Harry shouts hello you Feenya Get and Mummy always laughs. Auntie Renka calls Mummy Reevka and sometimes hennchen too though her name’s not even like Helen at all. It’s Becky same as the teacher in my Nursery School. The other one is called Golden Rain and she has long yellow hair and a big tummy with a baby in it that’s going to come out shortly. She says it will come out to play but it won’t. It’ll be too teenytiny and all outofsorts for that. Shortly means in a little while but not as soon as soon.
When I go to Big School I’m going to make a steam engine all out of bitsandbobs and learn to read and write. I’m nearly ready for Big School because I can touch my ear over my head. I already have piggytails and I have bobbles, yellow bobbles, and I’m old enough to have memries. I haven’t got any memries bout being a teenybaby but I do have memries bout being three. I got a present and I was cited cause it was a big present in red paper and Aunty Kathleen said awww she thinks it’s Christmas but it was just cause the paper was red and I know bout Christmas and I didn’t think that.
Auntie Golde comes back to see if I’m going to stand there all night. At teatime Auntie Golde said that Mummy was marriedout but I don’t think that’s the same as carriedaway. The grownups say not to get carriedaway when we’re all cited but that’s what we like and we don’t want to stop then and someone doesn’t get hurt.
I follow Auntie Golde up the stairs. The stairs go round a corner two times and then it’s the top floor where the carpet all runs out and the Box Room is. I don’t know if this room is small like a box or for keeping boxes in. There are some boxes in it, big wooden ones with labels on and lots of dust. Daddy says sometimes I really am a gormlessgreateejit, but I know that he’s always funning me, cept when I stracted him and he dropped a heavy box on his bare feet. That wasn’t funning but I was so scared I laughed anyway. It sounded silly and Daddy was fulloncross that time. I was little then and Ruthie was only a teenybaby. It’s chilly up here where there isn’t any more carpet, and Auntie Golde is going up the stairs really fast and pressing BabyDaniel really tight on his nappy. Auntie Golde’s legs are everso straight under her woolly skirt. Calves are baby cows but shins aren’t anything else. There are hands and feet and legs and eyes but there are other things like thighs and cuticles which I do know bout but I don’t always remember whichiswhich. BabyDaniel’s face is all wet and red and his spression looks horrorfied but he’s bouncing up and down so he can’t make any noise cept one that goes up and down with each stair. I can’t keep up with them and the blanket gets hooked on the corner of the wall. All I can see is his dangly legs wobbling with each bounce underneath Auntie Golde’s elbow. He looks like the puppet that sat on the edge of the stage once, the one that said ‘ooh, a egg!’ and tried to cross his legs but he couldn’t and everyone laughed.
There’s a old cot here that I saw once before but I don’t know why cause the aunties don’t have any babies of their own. At our house his cot is yellow and has picture of a bunnyrabbit on the side. This cot is made of metal. Auntie Golde is so fierce I can’t tell if she’s cross or not. She puts BabyDaniel in the cot. He doesn’t want to lie down but she makes him by squashing him with her hand, and asks me to pass his blanket. There are other baby blankets in there too already, a blue one and a big squishy one that’s red and golden. Auntie Golde pushes him inbetween and he starts to suck on the corner of his blanket. He doesn’t look sleepy to me. His eyes are stremely openwide and his face is wet.
Auntie Golde says, ‘now, now, my little prince,’ stroking his back. ‘And you,’ she says, ‘can make yourself useful.’ He’s not everso comfy but she keeps on stroking his back and she sings him a song in a funny language I never heard before1. One bit is easy cause the words are just the same ya dada dai all the time, so she makes me join in that part and she sings the bits with words inbetween. I want to ask what the words mean but she hisses at me not to stop singing. It’s a nice tune but we sing it hundredsandhundreds of times before he falls asleep.
We sing it so many times that I even know the funny words as well. They come back overandover. Little girls need to help their mamas, Auntie Golde says. While I sing the ya dada dai bit, Auntie Golde whispers me the story. It’s bout a man who loves a lady so much that he sings how he’ll sell his own boots and sell hankies at the railway station. I never saw anyone sell hankies at the station, but Auntie Golde says he has to do it because this lady is his favourite and he calls her his own little bird and if she doesn’t love him he will be like a door without a handle. That would be silly but praps he’s a gormlessgreateejit.
It isn’t like any of the songs I know. Some of the words have a scrapey noise in them and Auntie Golde is making her voice go round a corner and up and down and all bendy and soft like it never is usually. I want to laugh at her diffrunt voice but I don’t. It’s a good thing for a girl like me to be able to do, she says, a useful thing, and it will help my poor mother who godknows needs all the help she can get. It makes me very sleepy to sing it and I want to do a big yawn but that would be silly cause I’m not a baby and it isn’t bedtime for me.
‘Come,’ she says, ‘soft soft, we go downstairs. The little Prince needs to sleep. Little boys need to grow big and strong.’
‘I’m big and strong,’ I say.
Auntie Golde makes a sneeze noise and she doesn’t say I’m the Eldest even though I am. I’m really cross allofasudden and I want to shout but I might wake him up and he’ll cry. ‘He’s not a Prince,’ I say it really quiet to Auntie Golde. ‘He’s not a Prince, he’s a Ruddynuisance.’
1. Versions of ‘Di Sapozhkelekh’ are available on YouTube.
I read this story at the Curtin-Aberdeen Symposium in July 2017. ‘Sapozhkelekh’ is a childhood ‘memory’ narrative that centres around Auntie Renka and Auntie Golde’s two apparently incompatible haunted subjectivities, and considers whether the absorption of language, the transmission of culture and of ghostly burdens can ever be separated at all. Jewish ancestry, lost or submerged identities and missing populations and their relation to geographical location were recurrent themes in other papers, too. However, in reading this story aloud, I became particularly aware of the implications of the child’s voice having to be ventriloquised by an adult, and the issue became part of the discussion that followed.
The experience of seeing this text on the page allows some of the effects (created to highlight the child’s impression of words garnered through sound, context and adult usage) to be perceived differently by readers, and several participants were eager to see the printed version for this reason. Childlike formulations, arising out of the way a child hears or pronounces, such as ‘noying’ and ‘fraid’, or the elision of words like ‘asamatterofac’ or ‘onceuponatime’, can all too easily sound cute in the mouth of an adult. Yet one of the features of the child narrator that came across most powerfully to me on revisiting the story once I had written it was her sense of her own dignity, not just in her place and her ‘office’ as ‘the Eldest’ but in her whole relation to the world of adults, in which she embodied the perpetual proximity to humiliation that may be true of many or even of most children. And for this narrator at least, to seem to have misunderstood information from adults or to be misunderstood in what she is saying is a profound form of humiliation. For the child to be presenting as cute to an adult audience therefore felt like an injustice, since she is speaking to the remembered child in other people. Thus, while the ‘readership’ for this preliterate child is, by definition, the literate adult, this narrator’s distinctive locutions, though indicative of her orality, are better processed when encountered on the page.
It is still an adult ventriloquising a child, though, even if, within the childhood memory format, that child is purportedly oneself. The story grew out of a combination of events recalled from childhood, a triggered memory around the song of the title, a desire to address an ‘abstract’ question—that of continuing Polish anti-Semitism—a creative writing exercise I set my students, and a tiny sprinkling of half-remembered literary precursor (Laurie Lee’s two co-dependent grannies living one above the other in Cider with Rosie). When I started out simply trying to find my child-self’s authentic voice, I had no idea that the story would end up being so concerned with language acquisition itself.
Attending a Balkan/Klezmer music, song and dance workshop with performers from the band She’Koyokh a few years ago, I had the sudden realisation that I ‘already knew’ the Yiddish love song being taught to the group. This was a surprise not least because I had no idea that I knew any Yiddish songs, and when asked by a friend next day what we had learned, briefly wondered why I referred to this as a lullaby. The childhood memory element impelled the process and made this story in some respects very easy to write, interweaving my own memories with those of my siblings and my children: the role of my brother David is played by my nephew Daniel (whose name usefully possesses both Jewish and Irish resonance), my younger sister Ruth merges with my younger daughter Miriam, the character of the narrator has shades of my eldest daughter Koshka as well as of me. Still, the story also emerged from an abstract idea—albeit one grounded in some very concrete personal experience of living for five years in Poland in the late 80s and early 90s—namely the spectre of anti-Semitism in a place, among a people and within a culture very much haunted by the destruction and continued absence of its Jewish population.
The Communist regimes of Eastern Europe tended to exonerate their populations from the horrors committed under fascist occupation. ‘Poles helped Jews in the war’, children were taught in school, and the Catholic Church emphasised the heroic actions of individuals and organisations who sheltered Jewish people and often paid the price. Poles are the single most represented nationality in the roll call of the righteous at Yad Vashem. Given that the consequences of being caught hiding a Jewish person were death for oneself and for one’s whole family, no one is in a position to make judgements about those who did not do this. Nonetheless, the ‘Poles helped Jews’ mantra may have deflected many among the generations of post-war Poles from scrutinising the role of Church, State and their own nationalism and cultural beliefs in the historical and continuing anti-Semitism to be found in their country.1 I was always struck by the intimate, familial quality of the Polish anti-Semitism I encountered, in its content and frequently its imagery, from sibling rivalry (often centring on competitive victimhood) to tempestuous marriage (Jews are always the wife), from dysfunctional parent-child (or step-child) relationships to problematic adoption. Since the writing of ’Sapozhkelekh’, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has made it illegal to implicate Poles in Nazi atrocities committed on Polish soil, albeit in face of considerable opposition. This presumably puts an end to discussion of events like the massacre of the Jewish inhabitants of the village of Jedwabne by some of their Polish neighbours in 19412, or the pogroms against Jews returning to their homes in Polish towns in 1945-6. German occupation evidently does not ‘explain’ the events of 1968 when, as part of a Communist Party power struggle in which popular nationalism was invoked, many of Poland’s remaining Jewish population lost their jobs and (largely unremarked in ‘the West’) were offered passports to Israel only, and left the country.
To take just one wartime example, when Jewish prisoners broke out of Sobibór extermination camp in Eastern Poland in the unprecedented revolt of 1943, a number of the surviving escapees were subsequently killed by Polish partisans in the forests or handed over to the German authorities by Polish farmers—some of these were first lured into confined spaces with promises of shelter (Bialowitz 2010: 143-194). Survivors describe owing their lives to Polish or Ukrainian former neighbours or to total strangers, in the same accounts that include betrayal or attempts on their lives by Polish citizens (in some cases after previously harbouring them for some time), by post-war policemen, partisans, even children (Blatt 1997). According to these testimonies, some people helped in return for money or promised future access to the ‘Jewish treasure’ believed by many Poles to have been hidden in pre-war Jewish homes and gardens; some helped in spite of their stated belief that the Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Christ; others, quite understandably, did nothing and, among these, some may have regretted the outcome more than others. When I lived there, it was still not uncommon to hear the late twentieth century (98%) homogeneity of the country treated as a ‘neutral fact’ and self-evident benefit: before the war, 44 % of the population of Poland was not Polish Catholic (Jewish, Roma, Ukrainian, Belarussian, Tartar). Behaviour of all kinds is documented in memoirs of the wartime period, from assistance great and small to robbery and blackmail, from resistance to passive acceptance to active collaboration and all shades in between. Many Polish families moved into houses vacated by deported Jews and into the 80s and 90s suspicion and fear that Jewish owners or landlords (or their descendants) would return to reclaim their property were still rife. Speaking of these things risks claims of besmirching Poland’s reputation, or negating Polish suffering, and the ‘sibling’ element ensures that this is often perceived as a zero-sum game. It always seemed to me that the reason these competing realities—Golde’s and Renka’s experience—could not easily be assimilated into Polish self-conception was precisely because, while diametrically opposed, they were both true.
I already had the idea of trying to represent this in two survivor/old women characters but, notwithstanding this ‘issue-based’ origin, one of the seeds of this story lay in an exercise I regularly set my creative writing students very near the beginning of their course, taken from Bernays and Painter’s What If? (1990). Designed to elicit a childhood memory from before the age of seven, it stipulates first person, present tense, and requires the writer to use only the kind of vocabulary they would have possessed or comprehended at that time. For this reason, it proposes, for example, not ‘Daddy looks confused’, but rather ‘Daddy has a funny look on his face’ (64). The student example given in the book has a child narrator of about five, and a subsequent exercise and example involve narrating the same incident from the point of view of a reminiscent narrator, teaching students very effectively which perceptions and kinds of knowledge can be included in each and their effects. Very often, students find that their child-narrator version is more vivid, and that they have conveyed much of what, as an adult, they deemed essential to understanding the episode, or that indeed much of this material is entirely superfluous—unless they can make the situation and character of the adult narrator part of the point of the story. However excellent this exercise may be at generating pieces of student creative writing which have immediacy and authenticity, I always slightly baulk at the claim that, as a five-year-old, I wouldn’t have understood a term like ‘confused’. On the contrary, if it was a word I had heard, I imagine I would have had a pretty clear idea, if not of its actual meaning, certainly of the contexts in which it might be applied and of the significance attached to it. Maybe ‘baulk’ is a bit strong, but noticing this reaction certainly set me thinking, and led to, or at least informed the writing of ‘Sapozhkelekh’.
I don’t think this is just something about me—a kind of linguistic pride—though after re-reading the story I’m not so sure. But rather, something many children exhibit in the process of acquiring language: the urgency of the desire to understand, and to be acknowledged to have understood, as well as to communicate. As mentioned, one of the most obvious features of the story is the pre-literate child’s impression that frequently used phrases—such as ‘gormless great eejit’ and ‘round and round’—are not actually separate words. And, indeed, it seemed to me in writing it that I could actually remember this sensation: the example of ‘bucketandspade’, leaving some residual confusion as to which item is which, was a memory that came to me strongly as I wrote. As when you’ve met someone several times but don’t know or can’t recall their name, there comes a point after which it’s too embarrassing to admit this, and too mortifying to ask. The child’s identity and self-esteem are very much bound up with her status as ‘the Eldest’, a notion which may well have been sold to her as a compensation for the arrival of younger siblings in the first place. And it is the privileging of younger sibling on grounds of gender that so bewilders and outrages her. In fact, such special offices—‘big girl’, ‘big brother’ etc.—may act as compensation for powerlessness more generally for children. The easiest way to indicate that these words are run together in the text, when reading out loud, is to say them as though they are: but even aside from the danger of sounding whimsical, the whole point is that, on the page, this is a representation of how the child perceives such phrases in her mind from hearing them said perfectly 'normally’.
In seeking to channel the authentic child-voice, the other feature that flowed naturally was the extreme associativity of the child’s train of thought, and how closely allied were linguistic associations and emotional ones. A child is making sense of the world all the time from fragments and needs to join everything to everything else, new information to old, by whatever means possible. It struck me that this is actually a very powerful way of operating, and akin to some forms of fictional and poetic creativity. Re-reading the story, I thought about how amazing it is that, in ordering, interpreting, decoding a very large thing—the world and all the inter-relations within it—using only the very small amount of information we have already gleaned, we eventually do arrive at a fairly comprehensive or at least workable account; the energy every child uses to do that, the fact that languages are family languages before they are even tribal languages; and cultures are family cultures: every family has its own unique one, and, for young children, the family is a complete and an almost closed system.
Perhaps because this happens so early in our lives, associative tendencies are often scorned as less ‘rational’, less ‘adult’, even less ‘male’, later in life. As a narrative strategy, it has its risks, since the reader is expected to follow these skeins of thought—at least partially—and plot points may be missed in this way (‘marriedout’ and ‘carriedaway’, for example). In her attempts to make new words fit into her existing vocabulary, the child hears as ‘lishous’ what is probably (re)-ligious. Some readers may be as much in the dark as the child at this juncture. I wrote it, so I’m not sure, and I’m also not sure how much it matters if they are.
It also surprised me to notice how much the child is constantly checking whether the adults around her are happy, and her sensitivity to the ‘approval rating’ of herself and others. This kind of ‘responsibility’ may be common in children—or perhaps she feels it part of her ‘job’ as the eldest—but it seemed to reflect a child’s inherent powerlessness and reliance on the strong around her; indeed, the ways in which this child’s situation—any child’s situation—has resonances of the circumstances in which disenfranchised and subject peoples find themselves. This ties in with the preoccupation in the story with where we get our language and what we get along with it. Inextricable from food and love and comfort and succour and protection and approval, and even survival, the child needs constantly to interpret the languages, verbal and otherwise, of those around her, and to perceive the least alteration in levels of approval, signs of anger and contentment. Interpreting (reading) and partaking of laughter, as Horkheimer and Adorno (2003) write in their analysis of laughter and the Holocaust, denotes both survival and its opposite.3 As an eldest child, the narrator’s desire to be in with the adults, to identify with them, manifests the importance of being included in the joke and not the subject of it.
Place in family may also determine the way individual children receive language, as the Ruthie character demonstrates with her pragmatic ‘and me’ formulation. My second daughter, as a toddler, once looked at a tomato in the fruit bowl and said matter-of-factly ‘ball narna’—that is, a round fruit (banana). I’m certain that, at the same age, her older sister would have asked for the object to be identified, would have tried to repeat ‘mato’. Miriam is a second child, and a layer of older, wiser little beings inhabited the space between her and her (probably distracted) parents: her sister, five years her senior and her little school friends (old enough to know a great many things but not always to explain them). For her, then, it made sense to work out words from first principles in this rather entertainingly ‘philosophical’ manner.
When Wittgenstein quotes St Augustine—a philosopher he much admired—as the starting point for his own critique of certain kinds of language theory in the Philosophical Investigations, he may not be entirely just in taking this as a word-object based account, even though the emphasis on pointing and repeating might seem to imply this.
When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples; the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of the voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires. (St Augustine, Confessions, cited in Wittgenstein 1953:2)
While this characterisation serves Wittgenstein’s purpose in demonstrating the oversimplification in Augustine’s understanding of what language is and how it is acquired—which his own propositions set out to complicate and nullify—he may be simplifying Augustine’s position4. The second sentence in the quotation seems to me at least as important as the first, and this is primarily about context and about feeling, about adult reactions and their implications, all of which the child Augustine is imbibing. It is often assumed that Augustine’s description of his own language acquisition is not an actual memory, but rather a reconstructed recollection based on a supposition that this-is-how-it-must-have been (Hertzberg 2018). Still, that second statement has more of the quality of a memory, with its stress on facial expression and gesture, disgust and pleasure, sensation and response. The implicit value-judgements accompanying the ‘seeking, having, rejecting and avoiding’ tallies with the underlying sense I had when writing the story that we are all in this sense ‘brainwashed’ into a language and into our familial and wider cultures. The Philosophical Investigations’ discussion of the language games parents play with their children stresses the ritualising and ritualistic features of language and language-learning, and this aspect was one I was reaching for in trying to represent in writing precisely how the way we acquire language and the way we deploy it are inseparable. In apparently challenging the how-it-must-have-been account of childhood language acquisition, Wittgenstein is concerned to disrupt and explore unquestioned assumptions about how we approach philosophy, yet, in his modifications of his own Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) and of the work of Frege, his emphasis on ‘use’ retains some affinity with Augustine’s description. Frege’s work already contains the notion that a term’s meaning is dependent on the context in which it appears (i.e. within sentences) but for Wittgenstein, context is grounded in lived, social existence, and has its meaning in actual human interactions.
It is crucial, then, that the child receives Auntie Golde’s cultural preference for boys at the same time as a language, song and vision of the world that is precious and worth preserving. The link with an inherited tradition that would otherwise be lost is laced with a new and previously inconceivable injustice, that gender trumps age in a hierarchy the child thought she understood and felt safe and comfortable within. The parents in this story have left behind their Liverpool Irish and London Jewish roots, first merging or submerging them in a cosmopolitan adventure (teaching at the Turkey School) that defies any previous allegiances of class and ethnicity, and then generating a new combined and self-defining familial identity. In a class-busting move typical of their post-war generation, my parents did not go to university but they did train as teachers and work abroad, a fact which coloured their lives and many of their friendships ever after. In the story, there seems to have been an involuntary severing of family ties for the mother—although the surrogate aunties provide a tenuous link—while the father has settled in the South, only occasionally reminded of his community of origin, with its own sectarian divisions and their violent consequences, by the jovial jibes of ‘Uncle Harry’, the two able to become friends precisely because, in a distant location, their common ‘Irish-ness’ supersedes everything else. The child instinctively grasps the story of European Jewry because of her own structural powerlessness (and relation to authority) and is able to intuit what happens if the people who turn out to be in charge no longer approve of you; how very close to extinction are we all if those around us are not, after all, benign, and the joke, rather than being something we participate in, is on us.
As children, we set a huge premium on kindness in adults: ‘is she strict?’ we would ask in whispers of the teacher whose class we would ‘go up into’ (telling phrase) the following year. As such, Auntie Renka is clearly the favourite and, unsurprisingly, given her experience, the less ‘damaged’ of the two. Yet it is angular, Pole-hating, Golde who transmits to the child in the story the small nugget of artistic, linguistic culture that endures. As in their embodiment of the Polish-Jewish experience, Golde and Renka remain two sides of the same coin. And, like all cultures, theirs comes with kindness and love and food (berry jam and honey-cake), with acceptance and nurture but also hierarchy and limitation and exclusion, with its own traditional, even if well-grounded, hatreds. This is a loaded lesson and carries a burden and a challenge, along with the beautiful specificity of otherness conveyed to the child by the song itself. I must confess I was not fully conscious of most of this while writing, but reading the story now, it seems to me that this is so—and that concern with these questions was what made me want to write it.
1. There have of course been many notable exceptions, and also much change since the early 90s, of which the Borderland Foundation and Borderland Centre of Arts, Cultures, and Nations in Sejny may serve as an example (Zaborowska 2009).
2. The briefest exploration of the history of the events in Jedwabne and the controversy surrounding it since the publication of Jan T. Gross’s book Neighbours in 2001 (outrage, denial, national apology, public inquiry, counter-claim, retraction etc.) provides a microcosm of the issues at stake. See: Gross 2001, Neighbours: the destruction of the Jewish community of Jedwabne, Poland; Polonski & Michlic 2004 The neighbours respond: The controversy over the Jedwabne massacre in Poland. For President Aleksander Kwaśniewski’s fulsome public apology in 2001 for this ‘fratricide’, see http://www.polish-jewish-heritage.org/eng/jedwabne.htm. In his response, Israeli Ambassador to Poland, Polish-born Shevah Weiss juxtaposed the barn where the Jewish inhabitants of the town were murdered with ‘other neighbours and other barns’ to which he, his family and many other Holocaust survivors owed their lives (including the barn of Antonina and Aleksander Wyrzykowski, where seven survivors of the massacre were hidden for the remainder of the war).
3. There may be some intersection between the way laughter is depicted in ‘Sapozhkelekh’ and Horkheimer and Adorno’s account of laughter in the Holocaust, and in subsequent cultural manifestations, as ‘the echo of power as something inescapable’:
A creature which has fallen attracts predators: humiliation of those already visited by misfortune brings the keenest pleasure. The less the danger to the one on top, the more unhampered the joy in the torments he can now inflict: only through the hopeless despair of the victim can power become pleasure and triumphantly revoke its own principle, discipline. Fear averted from the self bursts out in hearty laughter, the expression of a hardening within the individual which can only be fully lived out through the collective. Ringing laughter has always denounced civilization. (2002: 88)
4. Though this sense of Wittgenstein’s purpose may in fact owe more to Wittgensteinians than to Wittgenstein, as Warren D. Goldfarb (1983) has pointed out.
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