A Movie, a Short Book, a Lecture (6 cents)

The Movie.  We were rained out of our plans to listen to Welsh music on the grounds of Strathmore last night, and had to settle for a DVD.  We chose “Mr. Klein”, a 1976 Joseph Losey directed film, starring Alain Delon, a Holocaust story that could have been written by Franz Kafka.

One Robert Klein is a non-Jewish art dealer in Paris in 1942, making money buying art very cheaply from Jews in hiding or about to leave the country.  Another Robert Klein appears to be a Jew in hiding, who goes deeper in hiding when he leaves his apartment and gives, as his forwarding address for mail and everything else, the address of the non-Jewish Robert Klein.

Thus, the non-Jewish Robert Klein gets identified as being Jewish, and must prove his non-Jewish geneology.  Well, this proves to be difficult, and of course there are relationships that each Robert Klein had that must be sorted out, and one thing leads to another, and things don’t get better, and the gentile Robert Klein wants to get at the bottom of things, and won’t let go of his search for the “whys and wherefores” of his being targeted until he finds himself……….. (you need to see the movie for that).

This film won a number of awards, both for direction and for Delon, as well as for several technical aspects.  It keeps you going, and there are so “I thought that would happen.  How could he be so stupid?” moments, but there are too many “That’s just too coincidental”, or perhaps “That’s too quick for me to follow” moments.

For one thing, where did the dog come from, and is it the same one?

For another, how did Isabella/Francesca/Cathie get in the same train compartment with Robert Klein?

And, oh yes, Jeanne Moreau is also in the picture.  She gets top billing with Alain Delon on the DVD cover.  You’ll enjoy seeing her.  Unless, of course, the 3 minutes when she appears happens to be when you went to the bathroom.

A Short Book.  I believe the title is Ineada, and it was written by the mother of a good friend.  The author, born near Krakow, went underground at the start of WWII, escaped to Hungary and in 1944 to Romania, boarded one of three ships leaving the Black Sea port of Constanza illegally for Palestine, saw her ship lose power on the Black Sea and, with the rest of the passengers, was rescued by the citizens of a tiny Turkish fishing village, Ineada, where they were protected until they eventually got passage on another ship to Haifa.

Each of these events was drama-filled, much more so than those that “Mr. Klein” encountered, as all 400 on ship seemed to have survived, but few have told the tale.  The short book has been published in Israel in Hebrew only, but our friend and her daughter have translated it into English.

Just last month, our friend and her husband took their first trip to Turkey, went to Ineada, and had an extraordinary and unexpected time, meeting the local historian, who has written a book, published in Turkish, about his village, including a chapter on the ship, the Bilbul. And they met an elderly woman, in her late 80s, who remembers the incident, and remembers our friend’s late father.

The Lecture.  Cambridge Professor Christopher Kelly has written a book, just published, about Attila the Hun; he spoke at the Smithsonian Tuesday at noon.  His premise was that, as so little is really known about Attila and the Huns, much of what is said about them (and all very negative) comes from speculation, sometimes speculation from so long ago that it has been morphed into historical truth.  He wanted to go back to the sources, and see if he could find evidence that would challenge the written histories.  It does not seem to me, from listening to him, that he succeeded.

From what we seem to know, the Huns appeared from somewhere in the east in about 370 C.E., created a vast, if somewhat loose, empire stretching from the Asian steppes to Central Europe, and disappeared within five years after the death of Attila in 452 C.E.  They conquered areas on horseback with great brutality; they murdered, they raped, they stole and they burned farms and villages to the ground.  Twice they threatened Constantinople, and they successfully raided northern Italy (refugees from Attila’s onslaught left the mainland and founded Venice), although never went as far as Rome.  They pillaged much of France.

They were very powerful, seemingly more powerful than Rome at the time.  They negotiated sophisticated treaties; they understood the politics of the time.  They were clearly quite a sophisticated force. Were it not for the defensive walls of Constantinople, it would have been sacked.  The Romans were, in fact, paying tribute to the Huns at this time.

Where did they come from?  We really don’t know.  Did they return to Asia after the breakup of the empire?  We aren’t sure.  They were nomadic, but how did they live?  We haven’t much of a clue.  What language did they speak?  Hunnic, but we don’t know what that was (we only know one word of Hunnic, as reported by a Roman historian, Priscus, who said that the word for “funeral” was “strava”, a word which apparently gives no clue as to etymology).

I am sure that there was more detail here than Kelly gave in his well-delivered lecture; looking at Attila on Wikipedia, you see areas of knowledge or presumed knowledge of the Huns that were not referred to by Kelly on Tuesday.

Kelly relies greatlly on Priscus, a contemporary Roman historian, who wrote eight books of history, only small segments of which are extant.  Some of his writings on Attila remain, and they form the only contemporary report of his person and activity.  Priscus met Attila at his court somewhere north of the Danube, and describes a more complex and “civilized” personality than has been handed down through mythical sources, and Priscus apparently attended his “strava”.  How realistic Priscus’ writings are, as opposed to semi-fictions drafted for the reading public, is unclear to me, however.

The part of Kelly’s talk that I enjoyed the most was his description of Constantinople in the 5th century.  How regal was the Christian Roman court, how majestic the palaces, and collonades and boulevards of the center of the city, how strong the city walls, which had held out against the first onslaught of the Huns.  Then came, in 447 C.E., a devastating earthquake destroyed much of the city, including much of the city walls, the strongest in the empire, toppling over 50 percent of the walls’ towers.  A great surprise, since the city felt its splendor and power emenated from a Godly source. The emperor walked from the destroyed palace the seven miles to the breached walls barefoot and in simple dress.  Working with the city prefect, organizing the followers of the city’s dominant sporting teams, the Blues and the Greens, into competing factions, working day and night, the walls were rebuilt within 60 days (to hold tight another 800  years).  The reason for the extraordinary effort to rebuild the walls was known to the emperor and the prefect and few others:  the Huns under Attila had crossed the Danube and were heading south towards the city.  Seeing the rebuilt walls, the feared attack never came.

So, an interesting talk, but much is still a mystery.  “Mr. Klein” would have felt right at home.

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