Friday, July 10, 2020

Book Review Hell and Other Destinations

Hell and Other Destinations by Madeleine Albright is occasionally a heavy lift, but it is more often funny, acerbic, and thought provoking,  Her humor is wry and sneaky.  When she was told by another woman how brave she was for not getting a facelift, she admitted that she was tempted to respond to the courage the woman had shown in dealing with the results of hers.

And that’s how it goes. In the chapter on her family and friends we find that they all were educated and did well,  particularly in helping professions like the law and international children's assistance.  Education was her passport to a full life and she has passed her support for it on to her children and to the minions of countries around the world. Her father was a well known college professor and fled from Prague with his family just prior to WWII. One saying of his she remembers was “There is nothing better than to be a professor in a free country.”   She says that her father felt that the professorial life, because of all the time spent in preparation, was a solitary profession at heart.  Yet the rewards came from constant exposure to young minds, interchange with “mostly amiable” colleagues,  and a campus environment that was exciting and frustrating in somewhat equal measure.  Having spent my own life as a student and teacher on many campuses, I could not agree more. Albright continued to teach throughout her government career and another thing I agree with her about is that due dates are important.  In real life, she says, a decision memo or paper that arrives too late  “is as useless as a screen window on a submarine.”  Or as I have often said to generations of students, "Showing up is half the battle."

Midway in the book I was starting to bog down a bit, but when she began to relate the  discovery of  her Jewish heritage,  my interest returned.   

She was only five when her father escaped from Czechoslovakia with his family just ahead of the Nazi crackdown on the Jews.  She discovered much later in her life that  her grandparents and other members of her family did not. Instead many of them were shipped off to Terezin from Prague.

Five years ago my wife and  I visited Terezin and it was one of the most moving experiences of our lives. Terezine was not an extermination camp but essentially a prison where many died and many thousands more were sent on to Auschwitz. The rows of graves and cells are more than enough to bring the most jaded to tears. 

One of Albright’s relatives who did not survive was a young girl who actually did some of the extraordinary heart wrenching drawings we saw in the town’s Holocaust Museum and were later memorialized in the beautiful book titled I Never Saw Another Butterly.  You can still get a copy.

Albright knew the great Holocaust communicator Elie Wiesel and cited his famous admonition “Not to transmit an experience is to betray it.” in her book.

With interest rejuvenated,  I tackled the chapters dealing with her relationship with Vaclav Havel, the renowned playwright and later president of the new Czech Republic.  Her personal recollections covered  both his life as an artist and political figure.  It drew me back into my own connection with Havel.  The last play I directed in the Little Theatre at Monmouth College some twenty years ago was his compelling  work The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.  

Albright's final chapters tend toward philosophical reflection on governance and statesmanship. She said that she often answers questions by first saying the issue is complicated.  That, she continues, is because most important issues are complicated and if they were simple they would already have been solved.   

She muses on how even the passage of small amounts of time weakens memory.  The young, she said,  can’t conceive of a system worse than the one they are experiencing.  “Lacking patience, they underestimate the difficulty of governing, and are quick to find fault when their needs are not swiftly gratified.”  The gap between desire and reality produces a situation that no government  can fix on a dime and thus we are hammered simultaneously by the sometimes violent pressure to produce change quickly while also yearning for a world that feels stable and familiar.  This thought certainly resonates now.  

If you do need a dose of optimism, you can find it as she closes. She still feels there are enough people. both young and old, who believe that we cannot stay much longer on the present course without doing lasting harm to our country. The final thought comes from Joseph Lowery’s rainbow benediction at Barack Obama’s inauguration in January of 2009.  

 ”Help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back; when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can get ahead, man; and when the white will embrace what is right."  


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