22 February 2009

Taking History Personally

Tonight I watched 60 Minutes. There was a time in my life when that was the only TV program I watched, and I never missed an episode. It is often informative, but more often, it's sensationalistic. But tonight there was a very interesting and disturbing segment.

Elia Solomonovich Kalperin was a town in Belarus, where he saw most of his family--including his mother--slaughtered by the Nazis when he was six years old. He would have been one of those victims, too, except that an SS soldier took a liking to him and trained him as a young soldier. He soon became a mascot and the youngest corporal in the Nazi army, leading a bunch of other kids in a propaganda film.

The Nazis gave him a new identity, naming him Alex Kurzem. Because he was so young, he soon forgot his original name and, with time, the details of his aborted childhood. For more than half a century afterward, he didn't talk about his experiences with anyone. So he lived with a name, and therefore an identity--and, therefore, by extension a bunch of stories--that weren't his.

Does any of that sound familiar?

You can imagine, if not count, how many tears streamed down my cheeks. Holocaust stories are terrible enough, even when they're about survival. I won't even pretend that I expereinced anything as traumatic as that, and I hope I don't have to. Still, those stories somehow feel personal for me.

Now, as for the other part of his story--living as someone else--I can identify with that all too well, as I suspect every transgender or anyone else who's ever lived "in the closet" can. I, too, lived with a name and identity, and thus a life, that wasn't mine. All of those things were forced on him; I would say that, under less extreme circumstances than his, I was inculcated with the idea that I was a boy called Nicky who was supposed to grow into a man people would know as Nick and who would sign his checks and other documents as Nicholas. Similarly, all those Germans who saw that propaganda film thought he wasn't part of "the hated race," as he said in the 60 Minutes interview, so they expected him to grow into a the sort of man from "the master race." The kids who saw that film were supposed to want to be him, and their parents were supposed to want their kids to grow up as he was expected to.

Take away a person's history--personal or collective--and you can dismantle him or her for your own purposes. The Nazis knew that all too well; so did Mao Tse Tung when he initiated the Cultural Revolution. So, of course, did those who bought and sold African people and forced them to work in the cotton fields and sugar plantations. As long as the slaves were forced to speak a language that wasn't their own, but weren't allowed to learn how to read or write it, or any other language, the slaves could not be anything but.

That's more or less what one of my students said in the Poetics and Rhetoric of Hip-Hop class I teach. While Elia Kaperin made it to Australia, where he survived and prospered, he was in a sense a slave, too.

It seems that slaves carry some memory, even if it isn't one of their own, of their lost personal or cultural history. That, I believe, is the common denominator of just about every cultural contribution African-Americans have made, and the reason why so much of it is expressed in music. In some sense, they're recreating the griot or its equivalents: the experience is shared and passed on through the performance of music and dance, and the telling of stories.

Elia Kaperin said there was a word that stuck in his mind through all those years: Koidanov. He had no idea of what it meant until some historian found learned that it was the old name of the village where Kaperin was born. Only then was he able to find family members who had survived--and to learn the fate of his father, about twenty years dead by then.

Through all those years I lived as Nicky, Nick and Nicholas, I carried within me an essence, a spirit, of the woman I am becoming. Sometimes it felt like a memory,though I didn't know from where or when it could have come. I was willing to believe, as I am now, that perhaps I was a girl in a past life. An Indian man I met not long after I started my transition said as much: He believed that I was indeed a woman but was sent back in a male body in order to learn what I needed to learn.

So a Jew who was, in effect, forced to become a German has something in common with Africans who were turned into slaves and a woman who had to live as a boy and a young man. Our first imperative is, of course, to survive--no, to live. To do this, we must not only resurrect personal or cultural heritages; we must create. I take that back, we can't do anything but to create, whether or not we choose to do so. We create ourselves and, in consequence, what we need to nourish ourselves intellectually and spiritually.

It's all we can do, because it's all personal.

No comments: