I do not know what Joe Monte thinks or would think if he were still alive. It is not likely that he is alive. I have no words for Joe now, nor did I then when I was a boy in his grocery buying Boar’s Head ham sliced on the non-kosher slicer. I have no words for any of the victims I have been taught I am supposed to feel something for, victims of something for which very few American have the ability to imagine. There have been moments, moments often, where I have forgotten them entirely, forgotten that they have ever existed.
Most of us do not recall, or lose the ability to recollect, most of the people in our lives. Historical memory is very thin. In fact, we do not have historical consciousness as much as we have media managed sensations about historical facts, or historical products to be packaged and sold. Most of us are fixed on the moment now and our problems eclipse the world’s problems. History is just out of this world.
Try as I may to feel for the people close to me in my life, sometimes I fail to feel anything, or most of what I should, imagining some situation where I would be expected to feel something. This lack arises though, when I think about what I should be feeling, and there is a should, not the received idea about what I should be feeling, complete with the appropriately drawn performance to meet weith popular=critical approval.
What we feel is always a bit in abstentia in abstentia, a kind of absent-presence or present-absence superimposed over itself, an emptiness lingering over emptiness. This thinking about what kind of feeling I should feel is absurd.
I can see the grocery store where Joe Monte worked with his wife and his daughter and his rolled up sleeves revealing tattooed numerals on his arm. I initially did not know what the numerals meant. I subsequently found out and I wondered what I felt. What was I supposed to feel is a question that marks our problems in the world, in our lives; our lives are the world. Sometimes I can see Joe’s wife or his daughter, but principally, Joe, the grocery store owner, and the man with tattooed numbers on his arm, with the sleeves of his white shirt rolled halfway up his forearms, who sliced my ham on his non-Kosher slicer to make my ham hero for school lunch when I was going to JHS 285 across the street from Tilden High School in Brooklyn.
What does being able to see him mean? What does remembering this mean . . . to me to you to anyone? I still can’t imagine what it was like to have been tattooed as he was, when he was, where he was, and not even another Jewish man born here in Brooklyn, New York, USA, as I was, knows why. The knowing we do, we have is other than Joe’s. Yet, still . . . he had to have been a teenager, the highest percentage of survivors who were not collaborators were teenagers. Children and the elderly were the groups with the highest percentage of deaths. To feel what another feels is called empathy; sympathy is something else–in fact, it is what in a Romance languages is used as a translation of the English ‘nice.’ To be nice is to be sympathetic. I wish I understood what that meant–I do know what it feels like when another is what I later understand to be sympathetic. I know what it is like to receive it; I should know what it means to give it, and I do express sympathy to others for things that happen that I understand should receive sympathy. The mouthful here should not detract from its genuineness, its importance–it is palatable. What more do I say? What then must we do in face of the demands for sympathy. Sympathy does have demands.