By Igor Webb.
Mounted on the wall next to my desk is a large (24″ x 18″) formal black-and-white photo of me in a gilded frame, aged maybe three. When the news of the Hamas invasion of Israel, and of the Israeli response, first broke, it was this old photo that immediately came to my mind.
I am standing on a bench covered by a white animal skin; I am wearing a black velvet suit, with short pants and white tights, and elegant two-toned lace-up leather boots. I am facing directly and unself-consciously at the camera, as children do. Not long after this photo was taken, my mother, my father, and I fled to a hamlet in the Little Carpathian Mountains, for it was no longer possible for a Jewish family to remain in our home town, over-run by German soldiers and fascists.
I am very attached to this photo; I would be very distressed if anything happened to it. The photo is an emblem, solid and objective enough for a historian to value, of my having been a young boy there, at that place and time. My mother’s brother and my father’s brother, and their other siblings and their parents were all alive and living a short walk from our house when that photo was taken. Somehow petit-bourgeois life was going strong even in my dangerous home town in those perilous years of the early 1940s. The calamity of course was already well underway, and very soon more or less everyone in the family, and in every other Jewish family in that town, was dead.
The boy in the photo survived.
After 1945, after the Holocaust and Hiroshima, in the years when I came of age, the barbarism into which I was born seemed to have been pushed into the back corners, not eradicated, for we know that’s not possible, but cast back into the shadows of countries and of lives. The New York City where my family eventually landed in 1952 was nothing less than a city of promise, especially for Jews. A kind of euphoria, the elation of wellbeing and possibility, characterized the years from the late fifties to the early seventies; and even thereafter, a reliable, stolid okayness sustained public as well as private life.
But ever more menacingly in the last decade the world into which I was born— terrifying, vengeful, sadistic, mean and brutal—has come raging out of the shadows. We are engulfed in the horrifying prelude to a more all-encompassing bestiality.
On 7 October 2023, scores of Hamas fighters poured through the barrier fence into Israel, and among other things surrounded a music festival and proceeded to execute, or attempt to execute, everyone there (some escaped). Elsewhere in the south of the country men, women, and children were indiscriminately shot and others abducted. In reprisal, the Jews—my people—have shut off the electricity, water, and supply of food to the blockaded Gaza Strip; they have ordered the evacuation of the population, which is however blockaded from evacuating; and they have commenced the demolition of the territory by bombardment in preparation, so it is reported, for a ground invasion. One of the young men who escaped the slaughter at the music festival, when asked by a television reporter what would happen to Gaza now, replied, “There will be no Gaza.”
My cousins, and their children and grandchildren in Israel, are unharmed. My first cousins, because my mother’s brother and my father’s brother escaped my native Slovakia and the Fascists and fled across Romania to the sea and to Palestine, where my father’s brother settled (only to be killed in the 1947 war; my mother’s brother made his way to England and joined the British Army). In the tangle of obligations among those of us who survived the Shoah, there is the thread of family, there are the ties of blood. What we owe each other, not always a pressing question, now burns like the rockets flying north and south across the old homeland.
The boy in that picture by my desk is bound to the others carrying the traits—the tight curls, the fat ankles, the unruly eyebrows, and maybe the fortitude—of the Weiss boys, my father and his brothers. If one of my Israeli cousins, or their children, or their children’s children knocked on my door in distress, I would take them in and embrace them without a second thought.
We are thrown back upon this, the oldest etiquette, and make no mistake, now that is all we have. What is being said about war crimes and human rights and the laws of war is of course necessary, insofar as that goes, but this is not about a world of proportion. This is about the fiendish world I was born into that I had thought could never return. This is about the gods of the Mediterranean, Ra, Zeus, the god of Abraham and the god of Mohammed—implacable, jealous, indifferent to slaughter and to the rage they carelessly unleash on our merely human streets, on our fields and in our cities. Hector slaughters the Greeks; Achilles slaughters the Trojans.
Perhaps you too, if you are of my generation, can’t calm the panic and turmoil, the upside-down torrent of bloodied dreams and scourge.
What will happen to us?
IGOR WEBB was born in Slovakia and raised in the Inwood section of Manhattan. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in, among others, The New Yorker, Partisan Review, The Hudson Review, The American Scholar, and Notre Dame Review. He is Professor of English at Adelphi University. He is the author of Christopher Smart’s Cat (2018); his most recent book is Buster Brown’s America: Recollections, Reveries, Reflections.