Encounters with the past

But we never really hear Ripp cry for him. And we cry for Ripp because he can’t.

Hungarian Jews disembark from trains at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in the summer of 1944 (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
Hungarian Jews disembark from trains at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in the summer of 1944
(photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
Victor Ripp’s book – Hell’s Traces: One Murder, Two Families, Thirty-Five Holocaust Memorials – is an incredibly disturbing and engaging meditation on how difficult it is becoming to remember those we have lost in the Holocaust.
Ripp’s mother’s family escaped the Holocaust due to their wealth and prominence in Berlin, where they managed to buy and bribe their way out, but his father’s family perished since they were poor Russian Jews who were powerless and vulnerable to the Nazi onslaught.
Ripp admits candidly that he is and has always been an alienated Jew, who spent most of his life comfortably teaching Russian literature and not thinking too much about his family’s tortured past. His latein- life mission to remedy this speaks to the strain of someone who has been long immersed in a denial that has sheltered him but also prevented him from connecting with his Jewish self.
This book seems like an attempt by Ripp to remedy this, and the reader is captivated by the intensity of his personal struggle.
However, he often seems tone deaf to things other Jews are deeply affected by.
Perhaps this is an affliction brought on by a lifetime of avoidance. We sense Ripp wants to feel more than he really does and break out of a malaise that enshrouds him.
The book begins with Ripp attempting to find out more about the fate of his three-year-old paternal cousin Alexandre, who was killed in Auschwitz after being arrested by the French police in Paris. Ten other members of his father’s family would also die in the Holocaust, but Alexandre’s death preoccupies Ripp’s thoughts. His mother’s family, the Kahans, who numbered around 30 people, made it to what was then Palestine, and some to the United States, where they maintained the success they had in Germany before the Nazi siege.
Ripp believes the Kahan family intuitively understood that “the right state of mind was crucial, and being wealthy allowed the Kahans to imagine moving through the darkening world. They knew where authority lay, what connections could be exploited. What had gone out the door as a business favor was now reclaimed as an official document. All that helped them get to safety.”
There is something disturbing about his infatuation with his wealthy maternal relatives. He seems, without intending to, to imbue them with some sort of magical prophetic powers when the truth is they simply had the means to bribe their way out and his paternal relatives didn’t. It is this sort of somewhat detached reasoning that pervades his entire book, and tragically prevents him from getting in touch with the deeper part of himself that seems to want to find a way to mourn for what all his relatives endured.
When the powerful Kahan clan left Berlin in 1933, the family patriarch, Chaim Kahan, who read the Talmud daily and spoke Yiddish as his first language, arrived in Palestine. There he started one of the country’s largest orange groves, and became involved with the chocolate maker Elite, and helped found Haaretz. Another relative became a star player on the Maccabi basketball team and yet another was among the founders of Ma’agan Michael, one of Israel’s largest kibbutzim.
The Kahans originally came from Poland and then lived in Baku in Azerbaijan, before moving to Berlin.
RIPP DECIDES to spend time touring 35 Holocaust memorials around the world in the hope that the proximity to the memory of the Shoah will help him draw closer to his own family’s trauma. He begins in New Jersey, where he finds a memorial of a helmeted American soldier carrying an emaciated Holocaust survivor in his arms. He is disturbed by the image, which seems to promote American heroism and in doing so, diminishes the impact of the Jewish victim.
He goes to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and is confused by the fact that there is no marked entrance and no obvious path through the 2,711 granite, gravestone-like steles, which are arranged in a rectangular grid without any inscriptions. No Holocaust victims are named; their stories remain untold. He is upset by the ambiguity of the building’s structure, which seems to say nothing. He concludes sadly, “Jews in the millions murdered. Families shattered, traditions desecrated. Shouldn’t a Holocaust memorial acknowledge these facts in a way that can be easily grasped?” He finally finds the Information Center underground where there are two rooms devoted to his mother’s family and their accomplishments in Berlin before the Nazis. He is moved by photographs of Jews being taken away, shot, or placed on transport trains, and his thoughts wander to his father’s relatives and their brutal deaths. But his conclusion startles the reader.
“Wa l k i n g through the exhibit, I found it impossible not to think of the members of the Ripp family who had been killed. Viewed from one angle, their fate seemed controlled by the same iron logic that seemed to control the fate of the Jews shown in the photographs.
For them also, the sequence of events that led to their murder was locked into place. But was the way that it was the way it had to have been? Over the years, I had toyed with that question, but I resisted considering it at length… Was there a particular missed turn that had sent those members of the Ripp family down the path to their death while the Kahan family had found a detour to safety?” Ripp seems to be unintentionally blaming the victims for their deaths without recognizing that he is doing so.
One of the most astounding Holocaust memorials Ripp visits is in Bayerische Viertel in western Berlin where there are randomly placed signs listing restrictions Jews must follow. The signs read “Aryan and Non-Aryan children are forbidden to play together,” “Jews can no longer use Berlin swimming pools,” “Jews are not permitted in the National Chess Association,” “Jews are expelled from all choral groups,” “Jews can no longer keep pets,” “Jewish doctors can no longer practice,” Jews can no longer purchase cigarettes and cigars.”
There is nothing to indicate that these signs are part of some sort of Holocaust remembrance project, and when Ripp speaks with those who created the signs and had them installed, they tell him that when the signs were first put up there were many calls to police stations asking when these laws would be put into effect. They eventually had to place a small disk on each sign indicating that this was just art and part of a remembrance project.
Another moving memorial Ripp visits is on the Danube at one of the spots where Jews were shot by the Arrow Cross and their bodies were thrown into the river.
The memorial consists of some 50 pairs of cast-iron shoes that are lined up, their toes facing the river. He is impressed by the image but disturbed by a nagging feeling that the Holocaust memorials he has seen all seem to blend into an unintelligible chaos. But the reader senses the chaos is inside him. He remains a lost Jewish man; disconnected from his own history and identity and seemingly still without a compass.
Ripp was a very little boy when he escaped in 1939 with his father and mother and six-year-old brother. They traveled from Paris to Mont d’Or near Vichy, and then went to Arcachon near Bordeaux.
When the Germans invaded France on May 10 and France surrendered on June 17, they were still in Bordeaux. The family escaped through Spain to Portugal and eventually got to the United States. There were scary moments and last-minute glitches they managed to overcome. They finally boarded the Serpa Pinto and arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey. They settled on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where, like their Israeli family members, they prospered and thrived.
Ripp’s book shows the serious fractures that have remained lodged in his psyche.
He writes about disagreements he used to have with his mother because she was infuriated with his purchase of German cars. We sense the scars his parents endured were buried with them, but their residue is still choking him as he seeks some understanding in his last years.
We stay connected with Ripp throughout the book, hoping for a reckoning that never arrives, and wince at some of his assessments, for they show us the heavy burden of a man still out of touch with his deepest self. There are many passages throughout his narrative about his search for any facts about the short life and brutal death of his three-year-old cousin Alexandre, who was killed in Auschwitz.
But we never really hear Ripp cry for him. And we cry for Ripp because he can’t.