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This article is taken from PN Review 266, Volume 48 Number 6, July - August 2022.

Selbstgefühl Alberto Manguel
The woman who taught me my first languages (English and German) was not my mother but a refugee from Germany who had been engaged by my parents as my governess when I was only a few months old. Her name was Ellin Slonitz and she had escaped Nazi Germany with her parents, her sister and her brother, shortly after the Old Synagogue of Stuttgart had been set on fire during Kristallnacht. Her father was a Czech engineer who had migrated to Germany during World War I. Ellin was born on 22 November 1914 in Rotenburg an der Fulda, Hessen. She died in Florida on 8 March 1995, four months after her eightieth birthday.

I was born in Buenos Aires, but since my father had been appointed ambassador to Israel, when I was still a baby we moved to Tel-Aviv, to a recently built house on Trumpeldor Straße. Ellin and I were allotted the basement: a large room whose windows were four small rectangles close to the ceiling through which I could see the grass of the square garden outside and a strip of sky. The four palm trees that stood in the middle of the lawn were invisible from my windows, and I always felt surprised at their appearance when Ellin took me out into the garden to play, as if I expected them to vanish while I was sleeping. Their daily rediscovered presence was very reassuring.

Once (I must have been four or five), while I was building a landscape for my lead-metal toys (I had a magnificent collection of both farm and wild animals), I told Ellin, who as usual sat at her table working at her electric knitting machine, that our room was too big for only the two of us. Our basement contained both our beds, three tables, several straight-backed and uncomfortable chairs, one plump armchair, and a colossal wooden wardrobe with looking-glass doors that duplicated the length of the room.

Ein Werdender wird immer dankbar sein,’ Ellin quoted. ‘If you’re hopeful, you’ll always be grateful.’ And she went on to tell me that in Stuttgart, she and her family were locked in their too-small apartment for months because her father thought it was too dangerous for them, as Jews, to go out into the street, but that in spite of that, they lived in hope that one day things would change. Ellin’s brother had managed to escape to England to join the resistance and his room was occupied at once by a young German soldier whom they were constrained to lodge. Ellin remembered (she was barely an adolescent at the time) the young man coming back to their apartment every night and tearing of his Nazi uniform, and trampling on it, cursing and weeping. I didn’t ask her why, but I hoped that we wouldn’t have to share our basement with anyone else, whether a soldier or not.

Ellin would have me learn by heart long poems by Gustav Schwab, Goethe and Heine: Erlkönig, Die Granadiere, Der Reiter und der Bodensee, Das Gewitter. If I said that I was tired of memorizing poems, she would always answer: ‘Des Teufels liebstes Möbelstück ist die lange Bank’, [‘The Devil’s best-beloved piece of furniture is a bench to lie on’]. And she’d tell me how useful she had found the poems she had been instructed to learn by heart as a child when, in her adolescence, she was forced to spend a year in an iron lung during a polio outbreak. She would remain motionless inside the contraption, like in a coffin, reciting to herself the poems she knew to hasten the hours. The device was developed in 1928 in the United States, so hers must have been one of the first to be used in Germany.

Her accounts of her confinements – first obliged to lie inside the iron cocoon because of her polio, then forced to stay in her apartment because of the Nazi threat – made me think of a couple of the fairy tales I loved, Snow White in her glass box and Rapunzel trapped in her tower. Since my earliest childhood reality translated itself for me into stories, and it was in stories that I learned about the world. Normally the historical and political events through which we live daily appear to us in fragments – a snippet of news, the opinion of a neighbour, an overheard comment – and only later, much later, do these fragments coalesce into a historical narration. For me the narration came first, the story with its beginning, middle and end, and only later did I identify the vicissitudes of the protagonist or the ins and outs of the plot with events in my own life. Because I knew nothing of the crippling disease nor, to my later shame, of the Nazis, I imagined Ellin’s first confinement as a coffin like the one the dwarfs had set up for the sleeping princess, the second as a prison imposed by a wicked witch. In a vague way, I compared my basement to the magical tower and judged that I could endure Rapunzel’s confinement if I had my things with me, my toys and my books. But I didn’t think I could bear being trapped in Snow White’s coffin, however convinced I might be of the arrival of the rescuing prince, if the ceiling of my basement were lowered down to my nose as I lay face up on my bed.

My childhood basement was not, of course, comparable with any of those other confinements. I wasn’t trapped in an iron box: I could move about as I wanted and I could sleep in a comfortable bed; soldiers weren’t waiting outside the door to march me to a place from which there was no return. I was taken outside often: to the beach, to the park, to foreign cities. Much later, as an adult, long after I had entered the social fold and learned the conventions of social interaction, my early sense of confinement came back to me in a rush of nostalgia. Or not confinement, but isolation rather, a sense of being in a place in which it was not necessary to learn the manners and codes of others, a sense that there was no one else there, just as before there was no one except Ellin and my books.

In a forced confinement like that of prison or a hiding-place or a hospital room, conventions and niceties have to be relearned. Common rights and freedoms, such as freedom of speech and of movement, are curtailed or entirely suppressed. A hospital has this in common with a prison (I’ve been in both): you surrender your body to others and submit to others’ handling, you have to ask permission to leave your cell or room, you have to mind your words because not everything can be said, and then not to everyone. The inhabitants of Mann’s Magic Mountain and Kafka in his tubercular ward, Boethius and the Count of Montecristo in their cells, Anne Frank and Miss Havisham in their seclusions, experience these restrictions for a vast variety of reasons, some unjustly imposed on them (Anne Frank) some self-imposed (Miss Havisham). All have to learn new norms of behaviour and new daily routines. Their customary world has been annihilated and they have to build their own new brave ones.

But in every state of confinement, there is always someone else beyond the locked door: those who knew us and miss us, or have perhaps forgotten us; those who go about their lives unaware of our cloistered existence; those who go about their business and whom we will one day, perhaps, cross on the street and get to know or not. Their absence defines us. There is always a multitude outside – in a state of war, a political crisis, an interregnum of peace, an epidemic – that makes us, even in solitary seclusion, incarnate the contrary of aloneness. In Camus’ La Peste, the narrator observes that, at the height of the pervading sickness, the priest, giving his sermon to a beleaguered flock, no longer speaks of ‘you’ but of ‘we’.

When at the age of nine or ten I read The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, I tried to imagine myself on a desert island, struggling to build for myself the things that Crusoe built to make his life endurable. Since I had no companions except for Ellin, I was thoroughly accustomed to occupying myself at the times when Ellin wasn’t giving me a lesson or taking me on an outing. I was not made to attend school where I would have met other children my age; later, when my brothers were born, they lived with their own governess in another part of the house, and I was only taken to play with them about once a week. That was the extent of my social interaction with other children. And yet, I think I enjoyed my solitude because I never felt alone. I learned to read at a very early age, three or four, so that, when Ellin could or would not read to me, I discovered that I could journey through my books on my own. I never had to wait to see how a story developed, except if I willingly chose to prolong the excruciating suspense of not knowing what came next. I was not taught patience.

Ellin would not talk much about her early years and I didn’t learn about the Nazis until well into my adolescence. My family, though Jewish on both sides, lived entirely in the present and, for me, the past was something of which I learned in history books. Ellin tutored me, among other subjects, in ancient history, and the history of Europe up to about the Napoleonic wars (she disapproved of Napoleon as a man but recognized that he was a good strategist.) Of the two World Wars she said nothing. But from time to time, a story would emerge, casually, as an illustration of a fact she wanted to teach me, or as an anecdote related to something she felt I needed to learn. I think her experiences built in her an unconscious power of resilience, a strength to survive in the most difficult circumstances. And because she wasn’t aware of that strength, I did not recognize it then. For me as a child, Ellin was merely the expected presence of someone (the only one) who looked after me, cared for me, taught me, guided me with whatever lights she had acquired. She grew to love me, I think. I never quite admitted to myself that I loved her too.

Perhaps because I had a vague sense that I was missing the daily care of my natural parents, that the fleeting images of my father in his grey silk suit, and my mother in her evening gowns were not enough. Ellin told me that once, when we had gone to Paris accompanying my mother (I must have been five at the time), I crept into my mother’s room, pulled out several of her expensive dresses from the closet and threw them out of the window, into the street. When Ellin scolded me for this, I felt furious at her. I didn’t want to understand (or maybe I was not capable of understanding) to whom my anger was really addressed.

Only after I began high school did I start to have a sense of what we call history and its sequence of interlinked events. I learned to fit details of everyday life in what appeared to be a much vaster canvas, a mural depicting ad infinitum occurrence after occurrence and character after character. Again, my vocabulary came from my books, and History (capital H) seemed to me an unwieldy novel into which I dipped from time to time, landing on a certain paragraph that I happened to find interesting but with the nagging sense that I lacked the framing story. When later I was told by one of my professors about Plato’s myth of the cave, I felt a kinship between my view of history and that of the cave’s inhabitants: we both were watching a shadow-play, not knowing if the tale that we believed to be reading was the true one. I couldn’t see the real performers, only their fleeting projections on the wall.

Ellin was not remarkably intelligent and (maybe because of this) she lacked almost entirely a sense of humour. At the age of four or five I discovered this curious dearth in her. Watching a 7-millimetre film that showed Chaplin slip on a banana peel, she would remark: ‘Why did he not see the banana peel? Poor man, it must hurt terribly to fall on his back like that!’ Later, as an adult, in Toronto, I went to see a Czech one-man clown show called ‘The Queen and Her Fool’, the single actor taking on both roles. The performance consisted of a series of sketches in which the Fool blundered at whatever he was ordered to do, and the angry Queen would punish him for his blunders. We roared with laughter. Half-way through the play, as the Fool was being beaten by the Queen, once again the actor stepped out of his role, faced the audience and said to us: ‘I am being beaten. And you laugh?’ I was reminded of Ellin, and I realized that what I had understood to be the lack of a sense of humour was perhaps an excess of empathy. In Tel-Aviv, her best friend, perhaps her only friend, was a wizened little German woman with a deep throaty laugh. I don’t remember her name. One day I noticed a number written on the woman’s arm and asked Ellin what it meant. Without explaining, Ellin simply said: ‘You must never ask her about it. It is something that belongs only to her own self.’ The word Ellin used was ‘Selbstgefühl’.

Perhaps the relationship that confinement establishes between the presence outside and the sense of self within (the Selbstgefühl) is both one of enlightenment and of opposition. The latter is implied in Christa Wolf’s notion that ‘conflicts seize the whole person, force him to his knees and destroy his sense of self.’ [‘Die Konflikte ergreifen den ganzen Menschen, zwingen ihn in die Knie und vernichten sein Selbstgefühl’. Nachdenken über Christa T. p.110]. The former is the sense I read in Martin Buber’s precept of ‘zu-sich–selber-kommen’, ‘to arrive at oneself’ – to arrive at the knowledge of oneself through the knowledge of the existence of someone outside the door, whether Elijah or the wolf. ‘In the ice of solitude,’ Buber says in Between Man and Man (p.150) that ‘man becomes most inexorably a question to himself, and just because the question pitilessly summons and draws into play his most secret life he becomes an experience to himself.’ Ellin would have agreed.

Questioning oneself within the confines of one’s own identity, and questioning oneself in relationship to others, are two very different skills or gifts. Confinement grants us Selbstgefühl, but not necessarily a sense of the others, except as a vague presence outside the door, an absence felt by implication. The confinements that Ellin underwent prepared her, perhaps, for later understandings of who she was, in a quiet, submissive manner, never interested in exploring too far or too deep her own landscapes. But it did nothing to teach her the conventions of interaction with others. Social conflicts might not have destroyed the little she possessed of self-esteem, but it made her cower before the presence of any kind of authority: her employers (my parents), the rest of the staff at the embassy, other immigrants like herself (with very few exceptions, like her German friend). Being a German Jew, Ellin believed in Kultur, in spite of what seemed to have sprung from it in the twentieth century. She never lost faith in it, neither believing it to be ineffectual because it had not prevented the rise of Hitler, or because it had not managed to make the world a better place. She was profoundly convinced that I had to recite the dates of the Napoleonic wars in order to understand what Heine’s two grenadiers were talking about; I had to know that the system of Copernicus replaced that of Ptolemy in our understanding of the skies; I had to differentiate between a mastaba and a common pyramid; I should be able to list all the capitals of Europe and all the Roman emperors. And because she believed so fervently in that need for Kultur I believed in it too, and enjoyed believing in it.

When we returned to Buenos Aires and I began my life of interaction with others beyond the confines of the basement room we had left behind, Ellin, who was now charged with looking after my sister, was forced to enter the social realm to interact with people whom she did not know, in a language that was not hers. And realizing how inadequate she was in her dealings with others, her faith in Kultur made her suppose that these skills could be learned, and she enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course (in Spanish), to learn ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. She took me with her.

The old philosopher Protagoras, in Plato’s dialogue of that name, tells Socrates a myth to explain why human beings, though they may have the skills to fashion instruments and weapons, lack the political savvy to create a just and fair society. ‘Once upon a time there were gods only, and no mortal creatures,’ Protagoras begins his tale. ‘But when the time came that these also should be created, the gods fashioned them out of earth and fire and various mixtures of both elements in the interior of the earth; and when they were about to bring them into the light of day, they ordered Prometheus and Epimetheus to equip them, and to distribute to them severally their proper qualities. Epimetheus said to Prometheus: ‘Let me distribute, and you inspect.’ This was agreed, and Epimetheus made the distribution. There were some to whom he gave strength without swiftness, while he equipped the weaker with swiftness; some he armed, and others he left unarmed; and devised for the latter some other means of preservation, making some large, and having their size as a protection, and others small, whose nature was to fly in the air or burrow in the ground; this was to be their way of escape. Thus did he compensate them with the view of preventing any race from becoming extinct. And when he had provided against their destruction by one another, he contrived also a means of protecting them against the seasons of heaven; clothing them with close hair and thick skins sufficient to defend them against the winter cold and able to resist the summer heat, so that they might have a natural bed of their own when they wanted to rest; also he furnished them with hoofs and hair and hard and callous skins under their feet. Then he gave them varieties of food – herb of the soil to some, to others fruits of trees, and to others roots, and to some again he gave other animals as food. And some he made to have few young ones, while those who were their prey were very prolific; and in this manner the race was preserved. Thus did Epimetheus, who, not being very wise, forgot that he had distributed among the brute animals all the qualities which he had to give-and when he came to man, who was still unprovided, he was terribly perplexed. Now while he was in this perplexity, Prometheus came to inspect the distribution, and he found that the other animals were suitably furnished, but that man alone was naked and shoeless, and had neither bed nor arms of defence. The appointed hour was approaching when man in his turn was to go forth into the light of day; and Prometheus, not knowing how he could devise his salvation, stole the mechanical arts of Hephaestus and Athene, and fire with them (they could neither have been acquired nor used without fire), and gave them to man. Thus man had the wisdom necessary to the support of life, but political wisdom he had not; for that was in the keeping of Zeus.’ In the case of Ellin, Zeus never relinquished his hold on this particular wisdom.

Ellin had arrived with her family in South America in the last months of 1947, the year before I was born. When the ship docked in Asunción (the port is now in disuse and has been transferred to another Paraguayan city), they were greeted by a display of flags bearing black swastikas. Paraguay (Ellin’s father didn’t know this) was the first country in South America to allow, in 1931, a political party with national-social affiliations. Later, discovering that a cousin of mine bore the name of Adolfo (in honour of my maternal grandfather), Ellin told me in passing that the Paraguayan chief of police had christened his son Adolfo Hiroito in homage to his two heroes.

A few weeks after their arrival, Ellin’s father committed suicide, and her mother died shortly afterwards. Ellin only mentioned this to me once, in later years, and made no further comment. Whatever strength had grown and spread within her to sustain like a scaffolding her Selbstgefühl was reluctant to be made explicit. The English word ‘demure’ does not convey the full sense of what is meant by the German word Sittsamkeit, which Robert Walser, in The Walk, employs to speak of ‘seine ihm angeborene Sittsamkeit zu unterwühlen’, ‘subverting his innate demureness’, but ‘demureness’ is the wrong word. In Ellin, it was an unspoken ethical notion, akin to gestures that must remain private like our private morning ablutions.

Ellin took on a position as governess in the house of a Jewish-German family, looking after two young girls. The first night at her employers’ house she fell off the high cot that she had been allotted in the girls’ bedroom, and broke an arm. Not wanting to wake her charge for fear that she might lose her job, her Sittsamkeit caused her to lie in what must have been terrible pain on the floor until she was discovered on the following morning. Throughout the rest of her life, her left arm remained weak and I remember seeing her massage it vigorously from time to time, during the long nights when, to distract herself from her recurrent insomnia, she would sit at her electric knitting-machine, sweeping the strand of wool back and forth with her right hand. The swoosh-swoosh of the machine lulled me to sleep as effectively as any lullaby.

Ellin’s sister Renate had met an Argentinian man with an English surname, who asked her to marry him and live with him in Buenos Aires. Renate suggested that Ellin accompany them. Two years later, at the beginning of 1949, Ellin answered the ad my father had placed in the Yidische Zaitung nine months after I was born, looking for a nanny to look after me in Israel, where he had  been appointed ambassador by Perón. The interview took place at the City Hotel (in which, years later, the Dale Carnegie course would take place). Ellin handed over to my father her passport and work permit. I seem to have been a very unpleasant baby, shrieking at the top of my voice, and Ellin felt unwilling to look after such an impossible child. My father, short of time, told her he would not return her documents unless she took on the position. Ellin was obliged to accept and we sailed off to the newly-created State of Israel. By then, Ellin’s Selbstgefühl was not strong.

Did Ellin see her entire life consisting of stages of confinement, of transitioning from one cloistered space to another? First, the space of her body that trapped her during her adolescence inside an iron lung, and that later prevented her from free movements because of constant pain throughout her thin body: stabs in her left arm, headaches that led to insomnia, and because of what I suspect was stomach cancer, cramps in her abdomen that made her restrict her diet to a few boiled vegetables and broth. Then her confinement in the family house under threat from the Nazis, a threat that pursued her across the ocean and met her in South America when she arrived. Finally, her confinement in our basement in Tel-Aviv, from where she emerged occasionally to take me on an outing or (very rarely) alone, to meet her German friend. When she left Argentina in the late seventies, after I had wandered off to Europe and my sister had grown up and needed her no longer, she took a position as companion to an elderly Jewish-American lady in New York. She came to visit me once, in Toronto, where she met my children. Later, my son Rupert, who must have been three or four at the time, told me that she had taught him a German rhyme, which he still remembers:
Ich bau, ich bau ein steinern Haus
vorne guckt ein Esel raus
hinten eine Kuh

[I build, I build a house of stone.
In front a donkey peeks out,
In the back, a cow:

A confined Selbstgefühl if ever there was one.

This article is taken from PN Review 266, Volume 48 Number 6, July - August 2022.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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