Saturday, October 30, 2010

Homeless With The Holocaust

At the elegant new Jewish Federation Building on Wilshire today, just east of Beverly Hills. Upstairs in the offices of the Israeli Immigration Agency I look down out the window at La Jolla Ave. At the corner of La Jolla and Colgate is the house where I grew up, moved away from forty years ago.

The official who sits across from me in her office has just arrived three days before from Israel. She doesn't know what to do with me, my case. I have got all the papers required. But there is no work for me in Israel, government support is minimal, and is only for a limited time, and what then? We don't want to put you in a bad position, she says.

- Is that all you're concerned with?
- Yes.
- So if I convince you life is Israel can't be worse than my life here, there's no problem? It's quickly said: no place to live, no money.
- Where do you live?
- Nowhere. Sometimes I stay with a friend.
- So you have friends here.
- I have one, a student who lets me stay with him when he can. The situation would be unbearable if not for the prospect of getting paid for my work with a Holocaust notebook I discovered in Budapest two years ago. Want to hear about it?
- Yes. Where did you get it from?

It was outside on the street one rainy night, amid televisions, lamps, bookcases, old clothes, and anything else cleared from attics and basements on the city's day for collecting the larger size unwanted. I am used to looking for and finding things, and since this was a Jewish neighborhood, the notebook was old, it immediately occurred to me what this could be. Opening it and leafing through the first pages, there is a full page children's book style illustration of a standing boy and girl. Opposite I see, as a rain drop falls on the page, a large six-pointed Jewish star framing a few lines in Hungarian. I keep the book open and take it in with me to the cafe I am headed for down the block, where I carefully arrange it on a radiator to dry. And then I ask one of the girls working behind the counter at the cafe to translate the Hungarian. It is a memory book, "memories" is written on the cover. There was a tradition of young boys and girls keeping these notebooks and asking friends, family, teachers to paint pictures, write poetry or advice. This one comes from an accomplished artistic family, judging by the quality of the illustrations and the poetry. The book is beautiful.

That is almost two years ago. Since then I returned to Los Angeles with my Hungarian wife. I couldn't find any way to make money. Hundreds of job applications didn't get a single response. I went to work researching the memory book. Using genealogical services, I contacted all relatives of the girl who the book belonged to, assuming it was her name penciled on the upper right hand corner of one of the first pages, Magda Adler. I asked them to look at the pages of the book I posted at www.flickr.com/roirex. I called the Magda Adlers I found listed in telephone directories. I asked the help of the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and referred by them, contacted the Shoah archives in Los Angeles, and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. There was not a trace that met the requirements of age, place, name, except one document, from Yad Vashem: a Dachau concentration camp entry questionnaire: 1944, Budapest, Magda Adler, twenty years old, and signature that looked very much like the one on the memory book.

I took this information, together with a short essay I'd written about how I found the book, and translations of the first pages of the Hungarian into English, to various institutions, saying I would like to donate the book but would like to be paid for my work researching, arranging for translations, Hungarian publication (I had found a publisher in Budapest that wanted to publish a facsimile), and writing an introduction.

I tried the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C, Simon Wiesenthal Center/Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles, Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, UCLA special collections. A friend of the Holocaust museums tried Brandeis University, where the archivist wrote back that the memory book was an important piece of history and belonged in one of the Holocaust museums.

Meanwhile my wife had decided she had no more use for me once she had her residency visa, and declared she was no longer married to me even though we were still living together. We made our separate ways back to Europe. She returned to L.A. for school, and wrote to me she wanted me to come back and live with her again. I did, but when I arrived she told me she'd changed her mind.

So I have been here in L.A. with no way to raise money except for the memory book. The museums say they want it but will not pay for it, the educational institutions say they would like to have it, but it belongs at one of the Holocaust museums.

The Holocaust museums tell me to find someone to sponsor donation to them, which it appears is the only way I can get paid. But someone with no place to live typically does not know millionaire donors to museums.

- So what have you done?
- The friend of the Holocaust museums who contacted Brandeis is trying to find a sponsor. Reporters from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times are following the story. It's an interesting situation. This is a book made by kids for kids, and the majority of visitors to the Holocaust museums are kids. What could be better to make the Holocaust real and immediate for the kids, and show the way of life that was lost?

Yet the museums will do nothing to acquire the book. I've discussed this with the reporters, all the angles, provenance, the morality of paying for Holocaust artifacts. But nothing makes sense. The research I did was exhaustive. I just got an email from the librarian at the Getty Research Institute, who I'd contacted for help, saying they couldn't really do more than I had done already. And the museums have admitted they do sometimes pay for Holocaust artifacts, not to mention the fact that all their administrators receive salaries. It did not make sense, neither the reporters nor I could make sense of the situation. So I just wait.

- It's interesting.
- As long as it isn't your life. I try to understand how I ended up here. Do you know the historian Tony Judt who died recently?
- No.
- During the last two years of his life he wrote personal and philosophic essays. In one of them he talked of what he called a new "lost generation", people who have grown up with no idea of good or bad. They seek money, possessions, recreation. They are not evil, don't in fact have any conception of a person at all. Everything is drawn from outside: money, career, relationships, games, purchases. My connection to the Holocaust museums is like this: I have something to give them, add to their collection of things and attributes, but perhaps there is some risk involved, some draw back. It has to be calculated. While they are calculating the book stays with me in my bag. So you agree it can't be any worse for me in Israel?

- Yes. But I can't decide myself. The situation is special. I have to contact Jerusalem about this.
-I'll be here. Homeless with the Holocaust.