Connections…

How we each connect to events and stories … how our personal connections make them more real for us. My context here is the story Philippe Sands tells in East West Street. (See my last post.)

Poetry is a powerful connector. Sands quotes the Polish poet, Jozef Wittlin, ‘the poet of hopeful idylls’.

‘Where are you now, park benches of Lwow, blackened with age and rain, coarse and  cracked like the bark of medieval olive trees,’ he wrote in 1946.  (Lwow has many names – Lvov, Lemberg, Lviv.)

‘I can hear the bells of Lwow ringing, each one rings differently. I can hear the splash of the fountains in market square, and the soughing of fragrant trees, which the spring rain has washed clean of dust.’

I was reminded of a powerful poem I discovered two or three years ago, To Go To Lvov, by Adam Zagajewski.

To leave/in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September/or in March. But only if Lvov exists,/if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just/in my new passport, if lances of trees/—of poplar and ash—still breathe aloud …

Why do I connect to this – to the many identities of Lvov, its history, the frontiers that change around the city, but the city remains?

In part because in the foolishness of our own times, and the mega-weight of warfare we can bring to bear, and the arrogance of our notions of superiority, we have destroyed cities and communities which date back to biblical times. ‘Our notions’ – innocent, protesting our innocence, we have disturbed the age-old patterns, the habits and simple tolerance that allowed people’s and ways of life to rub along – sometime only just, but they did –  they rubbed along together.

But more, even more, because of the destruction of the Jewish community in Poland and Ukraine.

Martin Buber lectured in Lemberg. He was a passionate advocate of Jewish and Arab coexistence in Palestine, and author of ‘I and Thou’, and he’s long-time hero of mine. Coexistence. Two peoples, side by side. 

Sands’ grandfather moved from Lemberg to Vienna, his mother Ruth escaped Vienna on a train in 1939. Also in that decade, though earlier, my professor at the Warburg Institute, Ernst Gombrich, had left Vienna for London, along with many others from the Jewish community of that remarkable city.

Gombrich suggested to me I might make the Jewish ghetto in 18th century Venice my subject for a PhD thesis. That sadly never happened.

One final link. I see that Sands serves on the board of the Hay Festival, from which we’ve just returned. His advocacy of human rights in the context of international law matches the mood and commitment of many of the speakers at Hay … matches the mood of so many people around the world, their belief that their own small contributions, taking in the aggregate, will ultimately turn the tides of history around, and we as individuals whatever our groups, communities, countries, will come to see ourselves as citizens of the world.

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