How faraway and long ago Europes great past now seems. There were injustices and inequalities, to be sure, but also diversity, character, leisure, and liberties, all of which Hitler and Stalin between them killed off, to leave a continent of charnel-houses and memories. The mainsprings of Europes social and intellectual life have not recovered. Infinitely dreary, todays Europe pretends to a culture and a creativity that it no longer has. There is no point regretting what cannot be mended; nostalgia is only a form of self-pity. But it is possible to keep the record for those who are still curious about the past, or who wonder if things had to turn out as they have done. And this is what Victor Brombert has done in Trains of Thought, a memoir of the years when the totalitarian waves were first breaking over Europe, and nobody could any longer be sure of the future. He writes with brio and a sense of elegy, in command of every last scrap of cherished detail. He is a guardian of the flame, or one of those whom Stendhal called the Happy Few.
Quite representative people in their sophistication and their success, the Bromberts had prospered in their native Russia. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 put an end to that. There began what was to be an ordeal, and that was representative too. They first fled to Leipzig, and there in 1923 Victor was born, little Vitka, Vitienka to his father, Vicky to his friends. In exile too was Dyedushka, his grandfather, an engineer who had owned sugar refineries and railway investments. Every day he ate an omelet for lunch, and every day he commented, It was good, but it was better yesterday. Grandmother Anna Vassilievna insisted that little Vitka recite Lermontov and Pushkin in Russian. She taught him the dignity and self-respect with which to avoid raspushchinast, an untranslatable word for moral anarchy. Other members of the family came too, Aunt Anya, Cousin Sascha, Cousin Yula, and others. At his first school in Leipzig, Herr Oberlehrer Prager and Herr Lehrer Brenner further taught him German but punished him as a six year old for walking with the girls in break.
At the center of this memoir, naturally, are his parents, Jascha and Mama. Evoking them, he regrets that he did not manage to reciprocate the unquestioning love they showed him. For him, it seems, their qualities and their foibles were too close to be disentangled. Small, bald, and shortsighted, Jascha was so careful with himself that he could be rather ridiculous, for instance brushing his scalp till it went red; a worrier and a hypochondriac who took cures in spas like Marienbad; something of a frant (Russian for a dandy); an admirer of Chaliapin and a Russian cabaret singer called Vertinski, but himself in the habit of singing snatches of opera out of tune. So afraid of fire was he that he put extinguished matches under water. Be reasonable was Jaschas slogan, which young Victor interpreted as timidity and submission. Reproaching himself now for the way he once could patronize so indulgent a parent, he writes, A father doesnt need to be taught to see through his son.
Mama had been a Red Cross nurse in Moscow. She had a period stylishness, large-brimmed hats, French perfumes, and a racy English car, a green Graham Paige. Somehow she was related to Vera, the wife of the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Smoking flattened Turkish cigarettes between her long fingers, she played championship bridge. She pronounced Don Juan as the Spanish do, danced the foxtrot with her son, read him Gogol, and took him to the movies where they both liked to weep. One day, through the open bedroom door he caught sight of Mama slapping an astonished Jascha. Full and considered as these portraits are, Brombert can sometimes be elliptical and reticent, too much so. Not till halfway through the book do we discover that Jascha was in the wholesale and export business, and we never learn Mamas name. His sister Nora died when she was small, and again for no evident reason we never learn the cause of what must have been a determining tragedy for the family.
Escaping from the rising shadow of Hitler, the family moved on at the beginning of the Thirties to Paris, to the splendors of the Sixteenth Arrondissement with its Second Empire stone houses and heavy squares of chestnuts and gravel, the Eiffel Tower in the background, and the Bois de Boulogne within walking distance. Other White Russians formed a social circle with them. Summers were to be spent at Cabourg, Deauville, or Nice, and winters in Megève. Little Vitka promptly acquired the new nationality of French, and with it yet another language. So fast was the process of assimilating that he had become ashamed of his fathers mannerisms and foreign accent. Jascha enrolled him in a fashionable tennis club, and once arrived to watch him play. What are you doing here? Victor asked him, mortified now to remember it. November 11, Armistice Day in 1918, happened to be also his birthday, and his father would take him to the great military parade on the Champs Élysées, with the band playing the Marseillaise and the Sambre et Meuse. The very idea of France, he says, began to stir him in a way that Russia or Germany did not.
By his own account, at the well-known but forbidding local Lycée Janson he was not a good pupil. Too much truancy, too much interest in jazz and girls and surprises-parties, which the French pronounce as if it were not an English borrowing. With his friend Jacques Blum, he visited One-Two-Two, the brothel in the rue de Provence which many celebrities frequented then and later during the German occupation, and about which books have been written. To pay for his visit, he stole a piece of Russian silver from his father. But at the lycée nevertheless, teachers familiarized him with Coleridge and Wordsworth, Ariosto, Montaigne, and Victor Hugo, and on his own he discovered minor writers, for instance Lajos Zilahy, a Hungarian novelist, and Paul-Jean Toulet, a poet who coined a phrase, la douceur des choses, the sweetness of things, which seized Victors imagination. High culture was a matter of course, something natural and lasting to be enjoyed even byor especially bya schoolboy and a refugee. To be attached to the life of words, he writes, means to take possession of sounds and signs that are charged with echoes, reminiscences and yet also carry at their core a permanence. By no means an idle luxury, the taste for literature has a moral quality.
Jascha perceived that there was a flaw in France: the French had not grasped that they were sleepwalking to disaster. This was not another of his personal anxieties. From experience he knew that there was no justification either for Communism or for Nazism, yet these twin ideologies were already holding the future of France in the balance, and nobody appeared to be aware of it. But in a little portent of what was to come, at the lycée a lanky boy with the name of Roussot called Victor a dirty Jew. Anti-Semitism to the Bromberts was a fact of life. A family story had it that a cousin, a soprano, while singing with Chaliapin, had heard him mutter at her the derogatory Russian zhid. One year at Marienbad, Victor had done his barmitzvah, but he says that he had been brought up with resigned and ironic skepticism about everything. Now in a fight, he bloodied Roussots nose. And what are the likely choices taken by Roussot a few short years later under German occupation?
A photograph in the book shows Victor in the final summer before the war, the final summer of a whole way of life. Youthful, hopeful, handsome in shorts and a jacket, he was at Deauville with friends, among them Danielle Wolf, or Dany, a pretty and sporty-looking girl for whom he felt a forlorn and unrequited love. What followed, he writes, had the inevitabilty of a bad dream. War exposed for all to see that France had indeed sleepwalked into disaster. Like so many others, the Bromberts scurried to and fro, from Deauville to Paris, by train to Bordeaux in the exodus of June 1940 under the impulse of the German blitzkrieg, to various places in the still unoccupied Vichy zone, and finally Nice, where they rented an apartment. The seventeen-year-old Victor made friends, enjoyed himself on the Lido, and explored the countryside on a bicycle. In reality, anti-Jewish legislation had placed them all in danger of deportation and death. The Vichy government agreed to hand over to the Germans all foreign-born Jews. Aunt Anya and Danielle Wolf were among those eventually murdered in Auschwitz.
Timid as he may have seemed with his poor eyesight, Jascha now showed what he could do. His calm persistence was nothing short of heroic. Victor confesses how he let it be known that all the talk about the deadliness of doctrines and ideologies bored him, whereupon he heard his father give him the advice: Go read Montesquieu. The Spanish frontier was closed. But Jascha had heard of Varian Fry and the American-run Emergency Rescue Committee which found ways to help people flee abroad. Patiently he badgered the American consulate in Marseille until he brought off the feat of obtainingand synchronizingAmerican immigration visas, French exit visas, Spanish transit visas, and finally boat tickets at a thousand dollars a person, a sum which must be multiplied many times for todays equivalent. How all this was paid for is something Victor does not know. Others fortunate enough to escape by this route included Hannah Arendt, Jacques Lipchitz and Marc Chagall, Franz Werfel, and Lion Feuchtwangerand at the very last moment, the aged grandparents too.
The ship the Bromberts caught from Seville was a crowded and unhygienic banana boat evidently operated by wartime profiteers. In New York, safe at last, they moved into a building on the Upper West Side. Jascha and Mama fade from the story as Victor goes through yet another process of assimilation, speeded-up by circumstances. His parents had had the foresight to send him before the war to England, where he had learnt the language, his fourth. At Harrisburg Academy in Pennsylvania, for the first time he did himself justice as a student. By the winter of 1942 he was a soldier with an army dog tag on which was stamped his number and the letter J for Jewisha handy tip for the Germans if he had been captured.
On account of his linguistic skills, he was soon training as a combat intelligence specialist. Promoted master-sergeant and posted to England, he landed with the 2nd Armored Division on Omaha Beach on D-Day +2. Nothing in his background and education, nothing in the several literatures of his reading, had prepared him for the fear and closeness of death that lay ahead. In some forty vivid pages he describes the Normandy campaign as he experienced it, and the German counterattacks in Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. Interludes in liberated Paris brought some semblance of normality. His only regret is that he behaved badly to some captured Nazis, pulling the beard of one in order to discover if the man had known about the camps, and depriving another of a box of pills. In these acts he kept seeing the face of his father, who was distressed at the mere thought of hurting someones feelings.
Through this memoir run images of trains, the comfortable trains that once conveyed the Bromberts to pleasure spots, and the sealed cattle wagons taking Aunt Anya and Danielle Wolf to Auschwitz. Never again will there be the poets sweetness of things, and never again will the stain of mass-murder be lifted. After the war, Victor Brombert went to Yale and became in that setting what he was destined to be anyhow, a man of taste and sensitivity, a professor and author of erudite books doing justice to admired writers. It amuses and alarms him to realize that he has inherited many of his fathers worries and hypochondria, as well as some of his mothers stylish idiosyncrasies. But his parents had given him the gift of a humane culture which America has allowed him to express and enjoy. He says farewell to Europe and its past with much regret, but even more thankfulness.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 1, on page 70
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