“Unread Harvest” by Mathias B. Freese

(This is an excerpt from Freese’s new memoir, And Then I Am Gone: A Walk with Thoreau.)

I am disappointed to find that most that I am and value
for myself is lost, or worst than lost, on my audience. I
fail to get even attention of the mass. I should suit them
better if I suited myself less. I feel that the public demand
an average man,—average thoughts and manners,—not
originality, nor even absolute excellence.
—Thoreau, Journal

Whenever I am under considerable stress, my gums become impacted and decay sets in. Having found a dentist, I discovered that I needed root-canal work and four crowns put in. Disheartening. Stress goes straight to my mouth. I have endured gum disease and bone loss.

I was not in good spirits for my recent dental treatment, and restoration required me to lie on my back for over an hour. At the checkout desk, two women sat at their stations as I approached to pay part of my bill. Jenny, the office manager, ended up revealing that she enjoys traveling and has been to New York. Michelle, the other woman, joined in, and in the three-way conversation I regaled them with my love for the Big Apple, how digestible food is not to be found in Alabama – which Jenny agreed with wholeheartedly – and how I missed my hometown dearly. I am an urban man in the boonies.

The conversation became animated, had me babbling and made me feel alive. It brightened my day and erased my former low spirits. Good conversation with others can do that. I shared my background as a New York City cab driver, an English teacher, a shrink, and an author of several books, promising each woman a copy by next appointment.

I also spoke of the Viking cruise down a French river Nina and I took in August of 2016. We docked at several French towns, and most of our navigation was done at night. One town guide was a young man, maybe in his late twenties. I engaged him as he showed us the sights, and when I discovered a synagogue, he was more than willing to bring the group in and make the arrangements to get access. Across the way from the synagogue’s door, high up on a wall, was a marker citing the capture of Jews in the area back in the Nazi era. Eventually, as we strolled I learned that the guide was a singer, but not an ordinary one. He revealed that he had a high falsetto voice and that he was studied in music. With encouragement by me and others who had learned of his other talent, he agreed to sing for us in a nearby courtyard. He settled down, he settled in, he clasped his face in his hands, and when he was ready his astonishing voice adorned the area like melancholic roses spread across a wall. Passersby and cyclists stopped, a woman curiously looked out her window. Later on, when we were about to embark on our ship, he sang a farewell song. It was an entirely blissful way to experience not only France but one another, our shared humanity.

We met another French guide named Pierre Brunel. When I returned to America, I sent him a copy of I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust. He has never replied to me. Perhaps my book was not to his liking.

Pierre was leading a group of us through a French town when he spontaneously addressed everyone about his family’s history in the area. His mother’s family had rescued a Jewish doctor and his wife, but the wife was captured and gassed in Auschwitz. The doctor survived with the dogged help of Brunel’s family, though some family members were killed. After the war the doctor continued to treat the Brunels for over forty years. Brunel was inordinately proud of what his family had done. I drew him aside to see if I could engage him, garner more details, since I had written two books on the Holocaust.

After some talk, he reached into his shirt and removed a necklace with a large silver Jewish star on it, which he said was a constant reminder of the event. I was stunned and moved. I shared with him my admiration for his brave family and told him of my background, followed by a promise to send him a copy of my book when I returned to the States.

I revealed this riveting story to Jenny and Michelle, and they were quite taken by it, as I had been. Leaving the office, I felt renewed by having shared some tales of fascinating human beings and brightened by those who were willing to listen to me. I am thinking now of the trademark line of the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski: “The Dude abides.”

When readers explain to me why they will not review my book, I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust, I have noticed, in some instances, that the two stories they do like are what I call “Anne Frank” efforts. That is, the stories are safe and give humanity a free pass, playing on the cello strings of the human heart. Most of my stories are idiosyncratic, gritty, graphic, savage, caustic, and satirical.

They take no prisoners. When the head of a Jewish studies program wrote to me that she “shuddered” upon reading my other stories, I found that schizoid. In a world in which we now have beheadings, her dainty perspective and head-up-her-ass attitude are hard to take. She is an intellectual wuss.

Films are much more graphic than books, but books incise into the mind in a different way. So, here is a Holocaust educator who has circumscribed what she reads, to admit and accept only what is safe. In Terrence Des Pres’s book The Survivor, about the concentration camp experience, he graphically describes how camp guards made some Jews eat their own shit. It happened. Learn from it. As a writer, use it. Don’t flinch. Or get out of the Holocaust experience as a writer.

If I were to write a story in which an inmate has to eat his own shit, I wonder if it would be rejected immediately. Of course it would. It would make her “shudder.” My literary imaginings bother her more than beheadings.

Another writer and educator, barely containing her rage, complained to me that she had no time for fiction about the Holocaust, that we should spend more time taking down the stories of survivors, become memoir recorders, assisting them in encapsulating their experiences.

I have no problem with that at all, but in the same breath she castigated Holocaust fiction as a waste of time at this time in history. Holocaust as memoir, Holocaust as remembrance—is that all there is? So no more Primo Levi, no more Elie Wiesel, no more Olga Lengyel. No time for explication and exploration, or interpretation. (I am a staunch Jew. I make trouble. I wear no Star of David on my neck, but I have always dreamed of having a question mark fashioned to take its place.)

I must say judgmentally that I experience such responses as a kind of moral cowardice. I have no need to defend my book or explain its contents. When you mine for gold, digging produces slag, detritus. When you explore the heart of darkness, you make things messy and muddied, conflictual, and, for these days’ weak-minded readers, aggravating and annoying. However, it is the search that always counts. My mind wanders back to 1958 to a Contemporary Civilization course at Queens College. The instructor began to speak about Karl Marx, and one of the undergrad women got upset with the mere mention of his name. The teacher went up to her seat and said, “Karl Marx … Karl Marx … Karl Marx … Karl Marx” in an attempt to desensitize the student, I imagine, to the very sound of the name. And so it is with mentioning the Holocaust.

When I receive these responses, I feel soiled by human beings who want the Holocaust neatly wrapped up, literally ended or tidied up – or just not written about at all. Underneath is a need to be safe. And my Jewish brethren are as guilty as anyone else. It is the dark and nether consequence of resistance to put out of conscious mind what is nettlesome, frightening, scary, and personally repulsive to bear under the scrutiny of awareness.

In short, it comes down to fear. I wrote in another context that fearlessness leads to authenticity in writing. I stand by that. I am so old that authenticity in living is still a vital principle to live by or struggle to attain. And when I come across prissy responses to my book I don’t relate to them well, for they are foreign to me. I’m naïvely taken aback that people don’t want to see, and yet I spent years dealing with the unsaid in my clients. So, I have determined that if my book is to be read I must give it away, which I am doing in certain cases: to Holocaust museums and centers, Holocaust studies programs, instructors, and the like. After all, I am into sharing what I own and what I feel and what I can write about without an inordinate concern about marketing and making royalties.

Apparently, any book on the Holocaust nowadays, like the Jews in the 1940s, is met with indifference. Ho-hum is the response. An ennui has settled in and, like a miasmic swamp, occludes efforts to understand again and again what the Holocaust is. One of my lifelong learnings is that human beings are a shabby lot. I have no expectations of man because my own fellow man lacks the slightest realistic expectation of himself, except to make money and fuck. Kazantzakis said it well on his epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

I may like to get bruised or kicked in the ass, to perseverate in this agony, or I don’t really give a damn. I do have a measure of hope. I hand out my book for free, like a business card, just to share: “Hey, brother, I can spare a dime.” To be read is all that I require; to be asked a question is a wonderful chakra, something to behold. It is the teacher in me. At my age I experience what Erickson called “generativity,” the need to give what wisdom one has attained to the young or to those who are willing listeners.

And there is also the asbestos-like silence. I have mailed out over one thousand queries, and more than a handful to reviewers who have read my earlier works. And they don’t nibble at all. In my imagination they feel not to reply is not to be involved with a foul subject, or one that makes them shudder, equivocate, or flee; whatever, the motivation what I am left with is silence from previous supporters.

It is deafening. You might label this “Holocaust aversion.” Human beings rarely ever face what they are capable of, something evident in the long-lingering dislike of Freud. Some “well-meant” individuals want to protect survivors from the very horrors they have experienced. How self-servingly odd.

In education, reading readiness, if I recall correctly, has to do with the child’s ability at a certain age and grade to be introduced to reading or to another level of reading. I suspect Holocaustphobes are not “ready.” Many of us cannot advance beyond Anne Frank’s outside-the-concentration-camp experience. (More than a few historians feel that Anne Frank’s diary is not part of Holocaust literature.)

Psychologically, many human beings suffer, with regard to the Holocaust, from arrested development. I have let out the genie from my powder keg. A writer can never control the consequences of what he says in print, the misinterpretations, the misunderstandings, or the lack of nuanced reading. Henry Thoreau, when Margaret Fuller read your “The Service” for The Dial, she complained, “I cannot read it through without pain.”

I also sense that I have touched upon several taboos. I am well aware that I rarely censor myself or hold back what I have to say. That is, I don’t send my work out to the cleaners. I am not a safe person to be around, in any case. Some people cover holes with stones; I unearth them for a look-see, call it characterological.