“I learned not to trust anyone,” said Holocaust survivor Jack P. Eisner. Then he looked me right in the eyes, and said, “…even you.”
This was in the winter of 1998, as we stood in his high Fifth Avenue apparment in New York, looking down over Central Park. We had many talks, as he was orienting me to the very strange world of the Holocaust–in which he was a personal participant, in grave detail.
I was preparing the libretto for the grand opera I would write, based on Jack’s personal story. He was a Polish Jew. The opera would be called simply, Jacek (Ya’-check). I had read his book, The Survivor of the Holocaust (an earlier edition), and I was impressed with certain aspects and incidents. My libretto was all about progressive alienation. That’s what I saw happening to Jack, as his story begins. He was only 13 when the Germans came into Warsaw, Poland (1939). His memory of the circumstances is overwhelming. He found himself often correcting misunderstandings and misrepresentations, no matter how authoritatively they may have been presented.
I had met Jack and his second wife, Sarah, in Caserea, Israel, in 1998. I was there to present a music lecture, and to have a debut of one of my chamber works. Jack was impressed with my music, and had agreed to let me write an opera for him. Jack passed on in 2003, before he produced the opera. He promised me to produced it, as we conversed there in the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota. These were among our last words. I was with him for several days, before he died.
Jack and I, in his hotel room at the Mayo Clinic, 2003.
I have never forgotten the feeling that came over me when, after confiding so much to me of his personal experience, he nevertheless proclaimed a basic distance between himself and the world. Or, should I say, between the Jew and the Gentile? After all, I was a rank heathen, technically speaking. But, I had been taught to observe Sabbath since I was a child. And I had had sabbath dinners with Jack. (In orthodox Jewish culture, that is no small circumstance.) Well, maybe that’s why he said, “even you.”
In a way, I had made myself a servant of his personal narrative. I cherished it. My love for Jack was expressed in a work for oboe and orchestra, called “Ha Nitzol” (The Survivor). This was my memorial to his passing. It was recorded by a young Israeli oboist Meirav Kadichevsky and the Polish National Radio Sympony in 2005, and again by Volodymyr Koval and the Kiev Philharmonic (2006). I tried to express something of the depth of Jack’s personhood. The opening of this symphonic work is how I felt the first time I shook his hand, there in Caserea, on a walk home from the synagogue. It was like the door to another world, a world of profundities, mysteries, and ineffable sorrows. And yet, came somehow with sense of wonderful expectation and a hidden kind of good cheer. Hard to describe, exactly.
So, it affected me, when he said he didn’t or counldn’t trust. “Even you.” Even me. After I had given myself to understanding him. This was no basis for him to trust me. There is an eternal kind of separation, a kind of sacrosant distance. It must be. One must accept it, though. It is a Jewish thing. I was merely a sympathetic observer. Jack knew my Comanche Indian background made me especially atuned to his personal ‘symphony,’ too; but, that still wasn’t a basis for trust.
True, many Indians know the same feeling. Many Indians don’t trust the white man. We have to deal with him, but, we know he is in command, no matter how much space he has left for us, and no matter how much distance we keep between us.
So I understood Jack Eisner’s disposition. I accepted it. I grant each person his kingdom. I can only ask that I be granted mine. We all have our own worlds, anyway, but, it’s just a more pleasant world when we are not persecuted for them, and when we let others have their world, too.