THIS IS WHAT THINGS ARE LIKE HERE. The Palestinian fedayeen raids continue without mercy. Hardly a week goes by without a civilian being shot or ambushed in the Israeli Sector. Aubrey visits now and then, the young man’s face unalterably severe. He says there is a sense of foreboding in the air, a quiet dread, the threat of war ever palpable. He looks through the half-open shutters but does not see the autumn sun. It filters through the windowpane like dappled amber.
The doctors have prescribed several weeks at the sanatorium at Sonn-Matt. They have forbidden all travel. If one goes against their wishes, and ventures out some evening onto the streets of Talbyeh, perhaps to hear Casals play, one must pay for it the following day. Thus, one tends to the daily mail. There is always the responsibility for the word.
From Geneva there is news. The nephew of Dag Hammarskjöld writes that he has brought back the body of his uncle from Africa. He regards it as his duty to report that among the few personal effects found in the wreckage were twelve handwritten pages of Ich und Du. The secretary-general was translating my work into Swedish.
Hammarskjöld had contacted me one month before his journey to the Congo. His attempt to translate Die Legende des Baalschem was not productive. The nuances of the German language were formidable. He still hoped to translate one of my works into Swedish. I replied that the most difficult of all, but one that is most suited to the realm of dialogue, was I and Thou.
I sent him a special German edition produced for my eightieth birthday. This was the book he carried with him on his fateful journey to the Congo, the book discovered by the African rescue authorities.
It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Dag Hammarskjöld. The news of the airplane crash was transmitted in an emergency broadcast last week. (Ze’ev has procured a television from an Arab merchant on the corner. He is a good son-in-law.)
This morning we watched the United Nations airplane touch down on the runway at Cointrin. The body of Vladimir Fabry was delivered to his mother and sister. The women were clutching flowers in their hands. I could not discern the sort of blooms. (My eyesight has deteriorated. I must use a magnifying glass for all my reading.) Arum lilies, Barbara tells me.
A military band played “J’avais un camarade.” I should have hoped for a bugler. Afterwards the airplane departed for Stockholm, transporting the coffin of Herr Hammarskjöld, where there will, no doubt, be a state funeral befitting kings and queens.
The telephone on my desk has been sounding off for days. I do not allow my secretary to answer. Ze’ev knows better than to pick it up. It is an old-fashioned upright with a cone-shaped receiver. I have resisted attempts to modernize. Ze’ev believes he has seen this model in a museum of science and technology.
Andrew Cordier rang up yesterday evening. He is preparing for the inauguration of U Thant. “We are like a crew that has lost its captain, Professor Buber,” he said. It is not only the diplomatic realm that will mourn the loss of the secretary-general.
Often, I thought politics was perhaps not Dag Hammarskjöld’s natural milieu. I had long discerned in Hammarskjöld the inclination of the mystic. There was a quality in his personality of otherworldliness, a tendency towards abstract-mindedness that one finds often in mathematicians. I saw it in his taste for Braque, Léger, and Picasso. At Princeton, where we lectured together in 1958, he engaged Sakharov in a discussion of nuclear physics.
I believe my friend was guided by a desire to flourish on the other side, to be united with an order not of this world. More than once, he talked of an all-powerful force, a force he could never fully touch or participate with.
“Where is this frontier,” he would ask me, “the frontier of the Inapprehensible, the frontier of the Unheard-of?”
This internal conflict surfaced during our last meeting, here in Talbyeh, in November. Hammarskjöld arrived on short notice. He had been practicing his “quiet diplomacy” in attempts to solve the crises in Egypt and in Palestine.
As expected, he suggested a walk before retiring inside. We strolled down Zion Street, Hammarskjöld holding securely onto my forearm, so I would not falter. The secretary-general took snapshots along the way: photographs of Mount Zion, the stone villas and pepper trees, and the valley of Hebron in the distance. We talked of Herman Hesse, the American Emily Dickinson, the poet Saint-John Perse, and of Africa.
“The next decade must belong to Africa,” Hammarskjöld said. Africa was to be the great test for the philosophy he wished to see brought to life through the United Nations.
“Human beings were meant to make the United Nations a thing of perfection. We are not ripe for that kind of perfection yet,” the Swede said, “but if the elephant walks, and walks in the right direction, we should not be impatient. The elephant does not move too quickly, but the elephant certainly arrives at the goal.”
And we talked of Ben-Gurion: one cannot escape Ben-Gurion! Hammarskjöld had spent the morning at Paula and David Ben-Gurion’s home at Kibbutz Sde Boker. He was seeking reassurances that Ben-Gurion was not about to break the peace, but Ben-Gurion behaved as only Ben-Gurion could. He thrust a Bible under the nose of Hammarskjöld, quoting from Deuteronomy: “Thou shall not have in thy bag divers weights, a great and a small. Thou shall not have in thy house divers measures, a great and a small. A perfect and just weight shall thou have.”
A perfect and just measure: what Ben-Gurion considered a perfect measure is yet to be determined!
I told Hammarskjöld that we have not settled the land together with the Arabs but alongside them. We must attain a relationship with the Arabs of Palestine, or else Israel will be reduced to a nation of flags and cannons and military decorations. The land of Israel belongs to two peoples, and these peoples need to find a way to live together.
Gandhi did not understand this. Gandhi believed the land belonged to the Arabs. Ask the soil what the Arabs have done for her in thirteen hundred years, and what we have done for her in fifty. Land is, in my opinion, only lent. God waits to see what we will make of it.
But what do I know? In my own country I am either ignored or repudiated. Orthodox rabbis look upon me as a heretic, my observance of Talmudic law too casual. Reform Jews say I have given over to the mysticism of the Hasidim. The Yishuv treats me like the hen in the fable that has sat upon a goose egg, and has hatched it out, and then does not know what to do with the result. Is Judaism too small a vessel to contain her most obedient son?
They want to execute Adolf Eichmann. I do not accept the state’s right to take a life of any person. Eichmann should be sentenced to life imprisonment. Justice works best when it is tempered with imagination. I would like to see Eichmann sentenced to working on a kibbutz. He could farm the soil of Israel side by side with the Jews he had hoped to kill. He could see the young people all around him. Every day Eichmann would see that we as a people have survived his plans for us. Would not this be the ultimate and most fitting punishment?
I have many enemies in Israel because of this opinion, but not in other countries. Ze’ev tells me I am famous in Europe and America. He says they regard me as this century’s Blake or Dostoevsky. But I am not concerned about fame! Der Ruhm ist eine taube Nuss, die knack ewer sie knacken mag. Fame is an empty nut that he who can cracks.
Why do people turn to me as an oracle? Young people keep showing up with questions, among them the kibbutzniks, and not a few young people from Germany. They beg to sit at my feet. I chastise them. Why would you want to sit at anyone’s feet? You should be on your own feet doing good to others. Barbara and Ze’ev hurry them along, in an attempt to protect me against over-fatigue, but these young people have questions! One must impart knowledge to them to the best of one’s ability.
I tell these young people that they must not try to escape from this world through drugs. They must try to live in the real world. The real world is the world of Biafra and Vietnam and Auschwitz.
But I have digressed in my recantation concerning my Swedish friend. Forgive me. I am an old man. The mind wanders.
Upon our return to the house, Ze’ev called out to Barbara. My granddaughter was in the kitchen preparing wine, with tea and cookies. She joined us in the courtyard. Hammarskjöld took the last picture of the three of us beside the garden cypress. Once inside, I tended to the oil stove. The November air can be chilly in Jerusalem.
Hammarskjöld walked patiently around the study. He never tired of reading the titles of my philosophy books, just as he never tired of hearing the story of the boycott of 1933, the story of when the Nazis forced us to place signs in the windows describing our profession.
The Nazi official who came to my home had no sign with the words jewish philosopher. But he took notice of my twenty thousand books. The next day he returned with the sign jewish book dealer. Schoolchildren stood outside my home every morning at five o’clock. This was organized by the Nazis. The schoolchildren sang one song. Every day the little children sang, “Only When a Jew’s Blood Squirts from the Knife.”
But again I digress.
After the fire was well stoked, we settled into our usual places in my study. Barbara came in with refreshments. She giggled like a schoolgirl at the sight of us—me, the melancholy Viennese Jew, wearing my tatty cardigan and furry slippers, sitting opposite Hammarskjöld, the noble Swedish Lutheran in his bow-tie and gabardine suit.
As was customary, there was a long silence before we commenced speaking. My good friend seemed exposed and unprotected. The corners of his eyes sloped downwards, giving him an expression of vulnerability. The side of his head was bent gently in my direction. The fingers of his right hand were placed against his cheek. He scribbled unwittingly with a pencil, geometric doodles which were a habit of his. There was an altered expectation, something I could not explain, something fateful, something connected with this hour of the world.
At long last he spoke. And the words he spoke were indifferent to the arena of diplomacy. They were words of his homeland:
“I grew up on a hill,” he said, “in a castle called Castle Hill. The countryside around the castle was that of clouds and flat land. Even from this distance across the sea, I can hear the Gunilla bell tolling nine. I can smell the lilac bushes. I can see the lovesick hedgehogs standing guard beneath these bushes. From the windows of this old castle, I could gaze out over the ancient university town of Uppsala. The castle sat perched high enough so that it was possible to see beyond the town. I never tired of gazing at the fields, and cattle, and brooks, and the distant churches.
“I had a passion early on for flowers. I was familiar with the Latin names of most of them. Every time I came in from the outside, I brought one or more flowers. I pressed them and pasted them into leather-bound albums. I made cages for strange larvae. I picked up stray animals from ditches. My brothers thought it remarkable I did not become a biologist. My mother, Agnes, was fond of saying: In nature we can, so to say, see God on his back.
“This year I have been unable to get even a few days to myself to visit Backåkra, my farmhouse in southern Sweden. The longing for my country has become more acute than ever.
“Winter has taught me a peculiarity about myself. I long for the northern wastes of Lapland. In recent articles it has been said that I am interested in mountaineering. This is true. But I have never climbed any famous peaks. Mountains in Scandinavia are harmonious rather than dramatic. There is no finer sight than the midnight sun in Abisko, the northern point of Swedish Lapland. Such a night up there can be of unearthly beauty. I am longing to bask in the light of this beauty. I am longing to drown in the silence of the mountain moors. I am being driven forward into an unknown land. The pass grows steeper, the air colder and sharper.” Hammarskjöld spoke these final words in a whisper.
And then I spoke to my friend Dag Hammarskjöld:
“A visit took place very long ago, well over forty years, when I was living in the Austrian crown lands of Galicia. A stranger showed up after a morning of religious enthusiasm. I conversed courteously with the young man, omitting certain questions. Later, I learned from one of his friends that the young man had taken his life. He had come to me in grave desperation, and I sent him out, something that might not have happened had I not been so engrossed in my mystical pursuits. I never again sought religious exaltation.
“We must not live in the abstract. We must live in the here and now. He who withdraws fully into the inner world risks spinning himself into the silk of his own soul. It is in this everyday life that one must find the opportunities for dialogue. All real living exists within dialogue. Whether anything is actually said matters little, for it is the quality of what flows back and forth that impacts us.
“There was a woman who came out of the death camps. Victor Frankl asked this woman what kept her going during those years. ‘It was a tree,’ the woman said. A tree was visible from her cell. She spoke with the tree. When Frankl asked what the tree said, the woman replied, ‘It said, I am here. I am life eternal.’
“The cats in my household come in and out through the window of my study, as they please. When you call a dog, the dog will come. When you call a cat, however, the cat says, ‘Leave a message, and I will get back to you.’ But the cat is nevertheless speaking. The cat is saying, ‘I am here. I am life eternal.’ Every encounter with a being has a hidden significance.”
And then Hammarskjöld and I read the seventy-third Psalm together: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” This was a favorite verse of Dag Hammarskjöld. May his memory be a blessing!
Thus, this is what things are like, here on the world’s edge, a fortnight shy of my eighty-third birthday. Memory weaves itself round and round my forehead. And though the friends with whom one shares these memories may not be alive, they are nevertheless present at this moment.
We walk on the narrow ridge between two abysses, although we do not see them. The spirit hovers powerfully above us. A strange voice speaks across the void, Va’ani tamid imakh. I am continually with thee. The lightning of the Lord flashes across the chasm. The sky deepens towards evening. And the fiddler fiddles.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.