Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Au Ciel de Paris and other (more serious) thoughts

Last tonight, to commemorate the departure of two people in the department and to celebrate Christmas, my department had a very smart dinner out in a restaurant called 'Au Ciel de Paris' on the top of the Tour Montparnasse, the highest (and ugliest) building in Paris. Can you believe that someone actually granted planning permission for this monstrosity?

I expected amazing food and even better views but, unfortunately, I got neither. There was so much fog out that we saw nothing from the 56th floor, and the food was decidedly mediocre. But I did have some lovely chats with my colleagues, and I realised how attached I had become to the company. I will really miss these people.

One of the people I spoke with is Austrian and, knowing that I am Jewish, he started talking about the Holocaust. He expressed a mixture of remorse, sadness and embarassment. I was so touched that he had visited Israel, that he mourned the loss of so many. It wasn't necessary to bring it up, particularly not on a festive event -and I appreciated his thoughfulness and gentle handling of the issue. He told me a lot about the politics surrounding the judgement of war criminals in Austria. Apparently for 10 years after the end of WWII many people involved were stripped of their right to vote. However once this restriction was lifted, suddenly this group represented a significant proportion of the population, a proportion to which the parties pandered in order to gain a majority, hence the difficulty of bringing people to trial. I didn't know that.

I have to be honest though: I didn't quite know how to respond. I tried my best to thank him and tell him that I was honoured by what he had said. I find that Germans and Austrians are always so knowledgeable about Israel and so sensitive to the issue - but he wouldn't hear of it.

It's not the first time that I have been in this situation and it is a hard one to handle. There is something to apologise for, of course, but it is not he who needs to apologise. Neither is it for me, really, to accept an apology. I don't have the right to do that on behalf of others. But I made sure I told him that I appreciate his thoughtfulness.

All we can do is appreciate moderation, appreciate the sentiment and try to do our part. Yet, if I am honest, with all the persecution in the world I'm not at all sure that I do my part. I think doing one's part starts with caring, with taking an interest. Following the news though it's not always comforting or fun. Knowledge is the start of empathy. Am I informed enough? How much do I really go out of my way to effect even the smallest change in the face of atrocities I hear about? These are questions that I ask myself frequently. I want to do more. Where to start? I don't have the answer, but perhaps with small acts of kindness day-by-day.

I once knew a man who was very active in the world of war crimes tribunals, government and academia. He had lofty ideals and the talent to effect change. He gave speeches, worked at the White House, had the best of contacts, set up charities, the list goes on. And yet, of all the people I have met, he disrespected and degraded me the most. A hero in one capacity, in every way visible to the outward world; a coward in the personal sphere, in which kindness does not advance one's career prospects.

My conclusion? I guess I don't have one. I learnt that overt activism does not trump small gestures from people who seek no recognition for their actions. George Eliot, perhaps my favourite author, expressed what I feel far better:

'Her full nature... had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.' (Finale, Middlemarch).


Anonymous said...

Look how pretty you are! Awww...

I think you're absolutely right. You probably know this, but a couple of years ago in the States there was a big debate about paying reparations to African Americans who were the descendants of slaves.

What a hard situation... I honestly have no opinion on it, because on the one hand, yes, it was absolutely wrong, and by NOT doing anything, maybe it looks like we condone it, or at least don't acknowledge the inherent wrong in it... But on the other hand, no one alive today was directly responsible for what happened, so why should anyone have to apologize for something they didn't do? It's tough.

So while I can't completely understand where you're coming from, I kind of have a handle on what you're talking about. Does a simple apology from one person remove the hurt that was caused by so many, and inflicted upon so many more? Or does that one apology to one person mean more than any mass payout from an impersonal government agency ever could?

I like the idea that one person can positively impact the world with small actions. It's simultaneously individualistic and collectivistic - the little things I do can make a difference on a micro scale, but on a macro level, the little things that we all do every day have the potential to improve our world exponentially. It's empowering and so optimistic, and I think that right now is definitely a time where we can use some positive thinking.

Thank you for sharing!

Pearl said...

you are gorgeous - you look like you belong in vogue.

and wow, what a pretty difficult situation to be in, especially for a christmas dinner. i know what you mean - it's hard to respond, yet somehow, WE feel guilty for his apologies. it's not his fault, and in a way, we almost feel like we've gotten away with something because it didn't happen to US, directly.

i am chinese, and i remember watching this film about the bombings in japan during WWII. i remember tearing up about it, because i thought about the innocent lives that were lost. my dad, however, launched into a tirade about how evil the japanese people were then and how they had brutally attacked the chinese people. a part of me wanted to say, "i think you need to move on," but another part of me also knew exactly where he was coming from. how do we deal with such feelings?

i think what i'm thankful for is the fact that i've been given such great opportunities to meet so many different people to know that race has absolutely no bearing on hate or ignorance. i've met wonderfully brilliant people who shocked me with their extremely strong and racist beliefs, and i've also met kind, thoughtful souls who do not look as good on paper as the former, but who exhibit a kind of patience and acceptance that is really spectacular to witness.

thanks for sharing :)

Vanessa said...

Thanks so much you two! I have written to you on your blogs but wanted to do so here as well - your comments are wonderful - merci merci! xx