In "Ghost Waltz," Ingeborg Day, the daughter of a now-dead Austrian SS police officer, writes of her search for the roots of his Nazi past, his possible involvement with anti-Jewish atrocities and her attempts to come to terms with this horrible legacy. Her father, withdrawn, inflexible, fanatically stubborn, refused to speak of it.
I know what my father did. He saved a family of four Austrian Jews from annihilation. They were complete strangers. Yet, when their pleading letter arrived, my tired grocer father, who was himself in dire financial straits, spent nine months trudging the streets of Washington trying to reach someone who knew someone who would talk to someone who would be able and willing to take financial responsibility for these people. Untold numbers perished because the United States refused to lift this immigration requirement. But my father prevailed, and four Jews lived. I was a child, but it was not a secret. And I remember.
Day was born in 1940. Her memories of the good days when life was happy, her parents beautiful, and the waltz exhilarating, are hazy. But her memories of the end of the war and its aftermath are sharp: hiding from the Russians on her grandparents' farm, the austerity, the tight-lipped silence, her mother's illness, and, one strange bright spot -- learning from her father, at the age of 5, the 29 stanzas of Schiller's "Des Lied von der Glocke," "The Song of the Bell." By the time she became a gymnasium student he had retreated into silence, spending his evenings digging out and building, brick by brick, his dream house. Day tells her story in flashback cinematic imagery with spurts of stream-of-consciousness, moving back and forth between Austria, Austrian history and her present life as a New York writer.
The days of National Socialism were never discussed in her home, nor studied in school. She only became aware of that bidden world when she came to America in 1956 as an exchange student. Her American "Mom" and "Dad" were shocked when she innocently told them her father had been a Nazi. From school textbooks, augmented by the hundreds of World War II movies she secretly gorged on every night on late television; from the monstrous Aryan film villains who wore the same boots as her father, Ingeborg Day learned about the horrors of the Nazi regime -- about the Holocaust.
Day traces the historical forces that turned her uneducated father into a Pan-German "Illegaler," a member of the secret National Socialist Soldier's Ring of Austrian youth agitating for the Anschluss years before it occurred. She describes his army career as a musician, and how the SS provided him with a high school education. She explains Austrian anti-Semitism as a historical phenomenon stretching back for generations, exacerbated by the catastrophic inflation-depression following World War I. And she expresses with haunting emotion her desolate fear -- "Vati, vati, what did you do and why?" -- the terror of finding out: "If I try to put myself into my parents' shoes I go down a dizzying spiral and all thought stops. I am just so grateful not to be in their shoes."
The next sentence, however, changes the focus of the book. From an attempt to understand her parents and their Nazi legacy, "Ghost Waltz" becomes an instrument for working through her own anti-semitic emotions. "And I long to be rid of every trace of this creeping sickness that assaults me unawares, over a newspaper photograph, or a researcher's question conjuring up Yiddish. I do not want to accept it. I want it rooted out." Wallow in it, might be more accurate.
Ingeborg Day is a closet anti-Semite come out of the closet -- supposedly having her soul in hopes the sickness will go away. In the process, however, she describes it all in graphic purple prose -- from "having my flesh crawl at the sound of Yiddish" to "a quick, short rush, a smell, that taste in your mouth that first warns you that you are going to be sick" brought on by a picture of Hassidic Jews in a Brooklyn courthouse. These passages, undoubtedly, will provide aid and comfort to other closet anti-Semites.
The larger implications of this compelling, but frequently overwrought personal memoir, are frightening. If Ingeborg Day -- who came to this country fresh out of high school, went to college here and has many Jewish friends -- feels this way (and claims that many of her American Christian friends do also), what about the millions of other young Austrians and Germans who probably have absorbed anti-Semitism in the same manner: "Even if I don't know when or how, I have no choice but to assume that my parents made clear, somehow, very early on in my life, that they were anti-Semites. I was not born like this, it was done to me."
But still, she yearns to hold on to her parents. They are dear to her; she cannot give them up. Nor can she give up the hating they bequeathed her. Of all the loving experiences she shared with them in life, this hatred they never talked about is now her loyal bond to them in death. In a predawn session of lightheaded sleepless frenzy, her subconscious shifts into high gear -- "I felt: The legacy of the Holocaust has destroyed my father. I felt: The legacy of the Holocaust has irreparably damaged my mother's life. I felt: The legacy of the Holocaust has tarnished me beyond all methods of cleansing. I felt: I hate the guts of every Jew alive."
This is a strange book of catharsis, a schizophrenic attempt by Day to expunge the secret irrational phobia which links her "to my dead parents, to their dead parents, to their dead grandparents." And so she has gone public. Emptying the garbage of her soul on us, she seeks our sympathy and empathy.
I can appreciate Day's need to understand and cherish her parents. But I remain unconvinced by her emotional rationalization, her hysterical self-flagellation. Starting as an examination of her father's place in the Nazi machine, "Ghost Waltz" soon escalates into a repetitive diatribe of her own anti-Semitism -- the many ways she hates Jews, the word Jew, Hassidic Jews, Jewish causes, and that horrible bastard language, Yiddish. All the while protesting how this whole horrid business sickens her. I should think it would. But I do believe the lady doth protest too much. I cannot sympathize with her and I cannot forgive her.