Thursday, 10 December 2009

Making paper hats: Sam Nechama tells his story and beats death for a second time

Thirteen year old Sam entered the library with hesitation, taking special care not to be noticed by those who were already gathered there. He hid behind a pillar, waiting for them to sit around the tables to listen to their guest. Then, his gaze turned to the back of the room. He had noticed a child.

He refrained from shouting:

“Halt! Who is there?”

And then:

“This way, Norman! Cover me! Behind the pillar! Let’s hide in the Tower!”

Then, he took a seat on a library bench, behind the audience.

Despite his thirteen years, he had gone on playing cops and robbers with his little brother, their favourite game, ever since the time they had been hiding in a house in Halandri, in 1943 when Italy surrendered, Germany took over Greece and things got worse.

  It was then that his father came home with false identity cards and told him that from now on he was going to be called Aristotelis Karavokyris (Karavokyris: ship’s captain)

“Aristotelis, a gentile name, so that you won’t be confused when they ask you when your name day is”

This was a strange game indeed: Karavokyris - the one who leads the ship and travels in the open sea - had to be confined in a house at Halandri and then for eight months in a mud house without a toilet in the neighborhood of ROUF (in Athens, Greece),

Sam used to travel with his head buried in a hole of the old couch, his nose pressed against the cold springs, listening to the conversations of the adults about the Jews of Thessaloniki hiding in Athens. Now, the time had come for the Jews of Athens to hide as well.
Or had they better present themselves to the German authorities and get their families registered?
There was no question about it; they had to hide.

And Artemis? The girl that he had met at the Karagiozis (Karagiozis: traditional shadow theater) performance? Her name, a gentile name like his, made him wonder: What was her real name? Hanna? Esther? Rachel?

And now this man down there giving a talk, insisting that being a prisoner at Auschwitz did not make him a better man…

A prisoner? So he did not avoid being arrested by the cops! They got him too!

It was not a game any longer, when at four o’clock in the morning, a torch beam fell on their faces in the court yard of the mud house in the neighborhood of Rouf, and woke them up. It was hot and they had been sleeping outdoors when this had happened. It was not a game, when they took them to the building of Merlin Street (the headquarters of Gestapo). It was not a game when the German officer asked him to pull his pants down.
For what reason?
And then the slap. He was different and now they would know. The mark of the rite of passage, the trace that the circumcision had left on his body, the indelible engagement ring with his race was there, a stark reminder that he could not deny his people. He did not intend to. Sam was a man now. This is how he felt when he answered the SS officer who had questioned him and his mother.

- Where is your father?
- I don’t know.
- Who does he send you money with?
- With a different person each time.
- Where is your brother hiding?
- I do not know.

And then, the whip in the hands of the SS officer wrapping around his feet and little Norman asking:
- Did that hurt Sam?
What would he answer?
Do real men feel pain?

Little Sam had become a real man when he had told his mother:

- Mother, don’t worry, I will do the talking.

“ At that moment, became the man of the house”, he thought.

Are my clothes alright?
Who said I cannot wear a worn jacket?
And my belt?
His belt was an old leather belt which had been given to him by a prisoner at Auschwitz, in exchange for his bread ratio. He had exchanged his food for a belt. He would not wear his pair of trousers fastened with a string…

“This helps me restore my humanity”, he replied to his protector who had told him:
“I will cut off your feet if you will ever exchange your food for anything again! Anything!”

He had done this before. He had exchanged his food for a spoon!

And this man with the lively voice and tired body was speaking just like his protector.

“In order to save yourself you have to stop hoping!”
You have to forget bread, trees, flowers, colours, dogs, their barking. Women…
You have to confine yourself in a cocoon that is called concentration camp and do not hope. Just fight…Just fight… Who said that hope is the last to die?
Hope must die first!

If you want to survive.

Why should I want to live?

Sam needn’t ask himself why he should live. He ought to live for little Norman and for his mother who had been led into the gas chambers as soon as they arrived in Auschvitz.

He cannot erase from his memory the prisoners with the inscrutinable gaze, the Jews of Thessaloniki who welcomed them as they arrived at Auschwitz.

They say that at the end of the tunnel, when you have crossed the border between life and death, you arrive at “The light”, at the land of death and your people are there, to welcome you. Auschwitz was indeed the valley of death, wasn’t it?
And these were his people, welcoming them, without big words, in a hurry, trying to separate young mothers from their kids before it was too late.

- Is there an old aunty to hold this child?
- Is there a granny?
The mothers, numbed, did not understand.
These people did not explain.
Nevertheless, there was a system and organization in the camp. The Germans wanted the vulnerable groups, mothers and children, had to die first.
This is why the Jews of Thessaloniki were trying in a hurry to save as many young women as they could. The plan was simple. They separated them from their children. In that way, they sentenced to death the ones to whom they designated the guarding of the children.

Who can talk about this?
How can one speak about the new executioners – saviors?
How can one refer to the new role that the merciless mechanism of the camp had cast upon its victims…

Primo Levi had said, “I want to survive, in order to tell the story”.

This is exactly what the man with the tired body and the young voice was doing.

In telling his story he keeps his audience, seventeen – year - old - students, captured, all ears to listen to him.
The narrative…The way to beat death…Like Sechrazade of the fairy tale that would escape death every night, by telling her husband a new tale, like the Hassidim Rabbis with their stories and their parables, teaching their people the meaning of life and giving them strength to go on…

If you remember my story, he tells them, I will still be alive…

Sam with the tired body, ios telling his story…

From Merlin street to Haidari camp and from there to Auschwitz on the trains of death.

He recounts his tribulations and those of his co – detainees, without breaking his voice… He describes the new structures that the system has created in order to entangle its victims. The prisoners – gaolers, the protectors, the degenerates that have given up on everything…

The worst torture was the deprivation of their humanity… Of their self respect…The hysterical endeavour of making lists of items and people, the tattooed number identification system on the prisoners’ wrists…

The absurd rules of discipline that confuse you and excaust all the power from you. The daily call in the snow… Nevertheless, in his own words “in our effort to abide by these rules, we escaped fear…”

“What is the meaning of my life? I have been deprived, from an early age, of the right of asking existential questions.”

“I have seen death in such a quality and quantity that you cannot imagine…”

“However, I have kept three good things for myself: Family, friendship and love…”

Where is his lady? Where is his beloved?

She dead… With a leap my lithe girl she went off…


Little Sam steps down slowly from the library bench. He feels that he is holding little Hanna - Artemis’s hand. “My love how beautiful she is…” (From the Song of Songs)

The children gather around Sam while he is studying his family tree…

His ears are filled with happy voices from the Song of Celebration. Hava Nagila. Time for dance he says. I will dance with you.


    • Artemis – Hanna and the Karagiozis show are mentioned in Lili Zografou’s book (in Modern Greek) “Jews once upon a time ” (The text can be found in:
     Mr. Sam Nechama addressed the students of the International Baccalaureate of The Geitonas School in Athens, on Thursday the 26th of November. I feel honoured that I had the opportunity to meet with the eternally young Mr. Sam Nechama and listen to his story with the colleagues and students of the IB. I would like to thank with all my heart, Mrs Elisabeth Wahler – Athanassiadis, the Educator, in every meaning of the word, due to whom all this was made possible.
    The above text is dedicated to “Aristotelis Karavokyris”, the captain of his childhood.
    Poly Hatjimanolaki
    Pictures from the internet :

Sunday, 6 December 2009

“ he hadn’t quite finished his tea…”: hot drinks and trials

Nine years after their last boat trip with Alice, Lewis Carroll – Charles Dodgson – noticed a picture of her in the museum. She did not appear natural to him.

“Very pretty but not particularly natural”, he said.

He preferred to remember her the way she had been in the boat on the Thames, with the freshness of her childhood. It was then that she had posed for his photographic lens.

Let us leave Lewis Carroll in his melancholic thoughts and picture Alice the way Sir John Tenniel had sketched her, creating the illustration model for all the later editions of “Alice”. People say that the other illustrators had a hard time with Lewis Carroll’s obstinacy in counting the lines in the drawings they had made of Alice and comparing them with the ones by Sir Tenniel.

This is the picture of Alice, when she is about to testify in court, looking unfathomable and surprised, but less innocent than her other representations in the book. This is because she jumped up in such a hurry and has tipped over the jury – box – the jurymen and the Lizard onto the heads of the crowd, with the edge of her skirt.

The trial is the trial of the Knave, who is a accused of theft – “he stole the tarts” is the charge – and it is the scene of the last act, a landmark of the journey to Wonderland. We will linger here, because this trial, and the entire novel as well, is non –sense. This is not because the testimony of Alice makes no sense and causes the anger of the judges, that is of the King and the Queen who run after her demanding her decapitation. “Off with her head!” It is because in this trial a characteristic figure of the story reappears as a witness. Remember the Hatter, who shows up in court with a cup of tea in his hands.

Some chapters before that, at the Mad Tea Party, the March Hare, Dormouse, the Hatter and Alice were sitting around a table taking their tea, singing and solving weird riddles.

The Hatter turns up at the trial with his cup of tea, his characteristic hat – “that is not his” – in order to confuse the judges even more. He is upset. In his hands he carries a piece of bread and butter.

The Hatter is confused by this trial that he cannot understand at all since the only thing that he has in mind is his attempt to start drinking his tea a week ago. Instead of biting on the bread, he bites the cup by accident.

“and he hadn’t quite finished his tea when he was sent for…”

The questions and the events are already irrelevant to the case, that is the trial of the Knave. Let us focus our attention on the figure of the Hatter and to the recall - weird repetition – of that tea scene in court.

A weird figure interrupted from taking his tea and, complaining about not being allowed to drink it, who thinks and re- thinks about it, puzzled, quite different from all the other figures of the trial – lizards, guinea pigs, moles, jurymen, witnesses, soldiers and judges, in this coordinated dance of the absurd.

Suddenly, the trial is all about tea and whether you manage or you do not manage to drink it during a trial.

If instead of tea, the hot drink was coffee with milk…

If the hearing was about a coffee that someone had drunk while he was not supposed to…

If the trial had been about a murder committed by the defendant, but the hearing was veered to whether he had sufficiently mourned his mother – because among other things he had dared to drink some coffee the night before her funeral…

We should no longer be talking about the trial of the Knave but about the trial of Mersault in L’Etranger (the Stranger) of Albert Camus.

In l’ Etranger, Mersault he stands for a murder that he has committed for no obvious reason. In fact, the charges change in a bizzarre way and he finds himself defending his meaningless life and lack of feelings. According to the indictment, the discussion about the hot drink that he has already drunk and has enjoyed, i.e. coffee with milk, is of central importance.

On the other hand, if he had not yet drunk the beverage causing its discussion during the trial, but he was about to drink it at the moment of his arrest – very hot coffee which he can barely touch with his lips – and the bread with marmalade that he had for breakfast is eaten by his prosecutors in his own home, than the defendant should be Joseph K. in Kafka’s “The Trial”.

These beverages – tea and coffee – that do not cause drunkenness but enforce the sobriety of the drinker, appear by coincidence (?) in three especially absurd trials, discreetly highlighting the non - comprehensible, non – conceivable, non – sense of the three before – mentioned procedures: Thoughts, philosophical meditations and riddles around the tea table, relief after a painful sleepless night, and bleak omens for the incomprehensible accusations without even having yet drunk a hot coffee.

Is it possible that the sobriety and the limpidity of the hot drink can be completely defeated by the absurdity of a trial that pretends to be striving for the truth, while actually it is attempting to weave a net in which to trap the defendant inside it?

The hot drink that accompanied by country biscuits, the renowned madeleines, leads to a dreamy recreation of reality in search of the Lost Time, has its place also in the uncontrollable course of the dream, i.e. in the nightmarish version of a non reality.

It is the symbolic landmark of the entrance to another dimension of the flow of time and events: dreamy or nightmarish. Meditating over the steaming hot drink, a product of our civilization meant for pleasure and social gathering, away from the realm of necessity is the boundary between two worlds that overturns the balance, making a crossing between the world of ordinary logic and the world of miracles.

This works the other way around as well, since the hot drink and its ritual trigger the exit from the world of dreams into the world of reality:
When Alice escapes persecution in Wonderland, chased by the sound of rattling tea cups, the sound is gradually transformed into tinkling sheep bells.

This is how she gets out of the dream.