Yesterday I addressed Hendrix’s incoming Freshmen and their families, as part of a convocation welcoming them to the college. Here’s what I told them.
At the beginning of MAUS, his remarkable memoir in comic book form of growing up with parents who survived the Holocaust, Art Spiegelman tells a story about his ten-year-old self. On a summer’s day in the late 1950s, Spiegelman is rollerskating with friends in his neighbourhood in Queens when he falls and skins his knee. Tearfully he makes his way home, where his father, Vladek Spiegelman, is cutting a piece of siding in the driveway.
“Why do you cry, Artie?”, Vladek asks, continuing with his work
“I – I fell, and my friends skated away without me,” Artie sobs.
Now Vladek pauses. He looks at his son and says:
“FRIENDS? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, THEN you could see what it is, friends.”
[This is where the platform party gets nervous about inviting the Holocaust guy to give the inspiring talk…]
In the several panels over which Vladek offers this pronouncement, Spiegelman pulls back the point of view: father and son get smaller; the tidy suburban neighbourhood gets bigger; Artie’s expression is unreadable. But only two pages into the book it’s already clear how much Vladek has been shaped—by which I mean, mis-shaped—by his experience of persecution, and how he inadvertently passes on that damage to his son.
Reading MAUS, with its dramatic incidents, terrible and miraculous outcomes, and shattered family dynamics, we can easily forget that the opening anecdote turns on the idea of friendship. What could friendship have to do with the Holocaust? After all, the Nazis were determined to destroy their victims as humans—to that end, they ensured that nothing like solidarity or common feeling or fellowship could exist among victims. The result, it has been said, was a situation in which selfishness was everything. As the doctor and antifascist fighter Ella Lingens-Reiner wrote about surviving Auschwitz: “My principle [was]: “I come first, second, and third. Then nothing, then again I; and then all the others.” [Pause] But reality was more complex. Yes, victims were often too hungry and afraid and sick to create any relationship approximating friendship. It was dangerous to care for others: the result was often punishment or torture, even death. And yet victim testimony is full of stories of connection, even among complete strangers. Care and friendship persisted throughout the ghettos, camps, and killing fields of Europe. (Lingens-Reiner, in fact, saved many people, both before her internment and during it, when she was pressed into service in the camp “hospital.”)
And despite what Vladek Spiegelman says to Artie—“If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, THEN you could see what it is, friends”—his own story is full of comradeship, solidarity, care, and, yes, friendship. A Polish priest gave him, of all things, a lesson in Torah at one of his darkest moments. A Kapo (a prisoner in charge of other prisoners) agreed to pass letters from Vladek to his wife Anja when they were briefly interned in the same camp complex. And another prisoner agreed to share a clean, by which I mean a lice-free, shirt, which prisoners had to be able to show to get even the irregular rations on offer in the chaotic final days of the Third Reich.
I’m always struck by the presence of friendship in Holocaust testimony. Maybe that’s because friendship has always been so important in my own life. Being and having friends has always been central to my sense of self. Which is why I believe one of the most important things that will happen to you over the next few years will be making friends who help you flourish, by caring for you and allowing you to care for them. [Slight pause] I genuinely believe that many of the most important lessons you’ll take from Hendrix will come from things you learned in class, and I don’t just say that because I’m a professor. But when I reflect back to my own time in college—at a liberal arts campus in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada—I think above all of the friends I made there. And mostly I think of one friend, my bestie, Alan Hall.
Alan and I lived together for three years. When we moved into our apartment in downtown Halifax in the fall of our Sophomore year—in a crumbling former rooming house that had, it was said, put up Oscar Wilde on his speaking tour and Duke Ellington on his frequent sojourns north of the border—we didn’t know each other that well. Of course, I’d seen Alan around during my Freshman year, it was a small school, everybody knew everybody. But I wouldn’t have called him my friend. But when my Freshman roommate decided to transfer, I needed someone to split rent with. One morning in the caf, a guy with floppy hair and a necklace of wooden beads, smelling of Patchouli (I dunno what to tell you, it was the 90s) came up to me and said, “I hear you need a roommate. I have a great stereo.” Then he gave out the infectious high-pitched yelp-snort of a laugh that I would grow to love so much over the coming years.
That was our meet cute. We were an odd-couple: Alan so open, me so shy; Alan so outdoorsy, me so not; Alan so even-keeled, me so neurotic. I’m not sure what he saw in me, but I fell in love with the joy he took in the world. I was a child of immigrants and had the buttoned-up quality of one who has had to translate for his parents and is always anxious to fit in. Alan was from an Old Canadian family—the patriarch on his mother’s side had been a lumber baron; his great-grandfather had founded the CBC, the national radio service—and he had the confidence of belonging. One time we took the bus to the mall and on the way Alan started singing, like right there, out loud, in front of people he didn’t know! I was mortified, of course, but then I saw how others smiled, enjoying that little moment of serendipitous pleasure, and I realized, with amazement, “Huh, there are other ways to be.”
You don’t know Alan. How could you? He’s not famous. He lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick. [5 bucks to anyone who can find that on a map.] He teaches part-time at a local college, and takes care of his three kids. He’s an all-around good guy, such a total delight, and the most important person in the world to me other than my wife and daughter. Now that we are middle-aged with all the ordinary disappointments and frustrations of that time of life, kids to schlep around, home repairs to ignore or contract out, we don’t have as much time for each other as we’d like. Plus, the trip from Little Rock to Fredericton is no picnic. But whenever we text or Zoom or, best of all, see each other in person, it’s like we never left off.
I know, I know, what do you care about these middle-aged Canadians? My point is this: find your Alan. [Slight pause] I’m not sure you can go looking for them, it just has to happen. But you can make yourself open to the possibility. Try new things this year: ask to sit next to someone in the caf; join a club, even if it makes you nervous; take someone up on their invitation to go the gym or a party or to the play they’re in. Put the word out that you’re looking for a roommate and when a guy comes up to you and says he has no furniture except a decent stereo (on which, you will learn, he only plays Joni Mitchell) maybe say, what the hell. Maybe you’ll meet the person who will stand up with you at your wedding, or give advice to your kids, or cheer you on when you write a book or take a new job or submit a photo to a contest or whatever it is you do later on that you’re proud of and want to be validated about.
Most of all, find someone to just hang out with. This feels like the moment in the speech where I humblebrag about the shenanigans Alan and I got up to. Alas we were too nerdy for shenanigans. But we cooked a lot of chickpeas together while listening to the CBC. [Is that a shenanigan? What’s that you say? No? Ok.] We wrote a humour column for the campus paper. We serenaded a girl outside her window one frigid night because she was roommates with a girl I really wanted to date and the girl I really wanted to date asked me to do it to cheer up her friend who was having a hard time and Alan agreed to come with me. [Now that’s a friend!]
And we talked about what we were reading. About this amazing book that blew our minds, a comic book, but about the Holocaust. The characters were half-animal, half-human, and the story was as much about what happened after the war as during it, and how the child of parents who survived the genocide indirectly suffered from their traumas. That book, of course, was MAUS. In the early 90s it wasn’t yet the classic it’s since become, taught in schools and colleges around the world. Though not in every school. You might have heard that a school board in Tennessee recently banned MAUS as being “too troubling.” As Spiegelman himself put it, partly incredulous and partly enraged, it was as if the board was saying “Why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?” I can picture Spiegelman’s expression when he said this, because I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days with him when he gave a lecture here at Hendrix about ten years ago. Spiegelman was kind and smart and wry, a real mensch, but also not one to suffer fools gladly. He reminded me, in fact, of Alan. Because Alan is sweet and gentle but he also doesn’t put up with any nonsense, especially with anyone who disparages people who are too often marginalized. I learned so much about my own prejudices, for example, when after we graduated Alan lived at a home for folks with Down’s Syndrome.
When you find your Alan, when you make the friendship that will last for decades, you’ll be finding someone to order late-night pizza with, yes, but also someone who will help you in the task of figuring out how to live, which is especially hard when you also realize, as you will in every class at Hendrix, that everything is complicated. The reason that scene at the beginning of MAUS is so painful is that Vladek wants, even needs, Artie to live the way he does. Which is understandable, maybe even well-intentioned—Vladek is convinced the next Holocaust is coming and he wants his son to be ready—but it’s also paranoid and paralyzing.
When you’re in college you’re figuring out how you want to live, and you need your friends to help you. Especially these days, when lots of people—a minority, maybe, but an increasingly vocal and vicious one—think that knowing how to live means dividing people into those who are worthy of protection and care, ultimately of being deemed a human being, and those who aren’t. It’s just that kind of thinking that destroyed Vladek Spiegelman along with so many other victims.
When you’re in search of your friends, of course you want to avoid people ruled by insecurity and fear and hate. They’ll be the ones judging and demonizing others. But, sadly, you must also approach someone like Vladek Spiegelman with care. Despite the friendships he made during his time of suffering, Vladek was too damaged not to replicate in his own life the divisive logic of his persecutors. (In an infamous scene in the book, Vladek launches a racist tirade when his son picks up an African-American hitchhiker.) Much better to find someone like Art Spiegelman, who, as far as I can tell, is an all-around good guy. He’d be a good friend, I bet. Problem is, geniuses aren’t always thick on the ground, even at Hendrix. So best of all to find someone like Alan Hall, who as I speak is probably going for a run before he has to pick his youngest up after school.
I can’t speak to what would happen if Alan and I were locked in a room for a week without food—god forbid any of us should learn what that’s like—but I know for sure that if I suffered any of life’s ordinary hurts, as of course I have, stuff like falling down while rollerskating, Alan wouldn’t—hasn’t—skated away. Which is funny because there’s a famous line in a song on Joni Mitchell’s album Blue (ask your parents about it). The line goes: “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” The speaker, someone like Mitchell herself, who was born in Alberta but sought her fortune in California, is living in the US and pining for Canada—relatable!—but she’s also running away after having hurt the person closest to her. Lucky for me, Alan confined all his skating away to the cds he played on what turned out to be a really great stereo. He’s never left me yet. I wish similar good fortune to you all.
Thank you and welcome to Hendrix.