Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Few Words Saying Goodbye to Paul Bonart from Madeleine FLETCHER

It came as a great blow to me when Paul Bonart died because in the last few years I had come to depend upon his kindness, good sense and long life experience against which I would check my own conclusions and hypotheses on world history themes that I am writing about. He would disagree or point out other sides of the issue, but always helpfully, never disparaging or contentiously. It was an easy relationship because we had known each other for a long time, since my childhood in Rochester, NY and he had been a family friend. For me it was quite heartening that the grown-up I had known and admired when I was nine or ten or so did not develop feet of clay when I got to know him again almost half a century later. Indeed, I as an adult was able to appreciate him much more as we exchanged stories and views about the “real world” about which a child is ignorant. Even as a child, I had benefited from his encouragement. I recall that one day he was waiting in the living room for the adults to get organized and I was trying to read music at the piano, I forget whether at his suggestion or not. I became frustrated at my slow progress and I was at the point of giving up, shifting my weight to get down from the piano bench, and he said “no, no, stay, keep on going, you will get it”, at which point I did continue at it. This is somehow for me an important memory, a statement of moral value, and resembles my sister Pat’s memory that I read in her e-mail in the sense of its having been an essential encouragement, not as adults often try to curry favor with children by flattering them about their accomplishment, but simply in the act of giving the child a moral certainty that even in the face of present failure, persistence and continuous effort is a norm. I remember Bertha Bonart, his first wife, having come over many times for dinner and later while Paul (violin) was playing trios with my mother (cello) and grandmother (piano) Bertha would come in to my room and visit with me and ask me about my books and toys. Whatever we were doing, some project would occur to us and so very often there was some impediment to its realization, and I will always remember, the clearest memory I have of her, saying very often in her strong German accent, “Vee try”. Again, this is the same idea, the normalness of making an effort without being guaranteed success. It is not given to many people to have come through the level of hardship and horror which those two faced with an undamaged faith in the possibilities of mankind. But this emotional strength, in its simplest form, was clear to me as a child.

There were clearly scars from the Nazi years for both Paul and Bertha. My grandmother, for whom two years spent studying piano in Berlin before the First World War had been a marvelous experience, adored Paul and really enjoyed speaking German with him. He and Bertha had kind of given up speaking German together because of their bad experience in the resistance to Hitler, which Paul relates in his book. But Paul indulged my grandmother, speaking with her in German and I think her friendship meant a lot to Paul who had lost both parents in the war.

At this point, a recent experience of mine illustrates another quality of Paul’s, his heroic discretion. In these last years, when I flew to L.A. to visit my son and his family, Edward would go with me to visit Paul who was working on his memoirs and we would listen to Paul’s reminiscences of his early years in Germany. He would speak about his birth in Erfurt and his childhood and about later years in Iena. He spoke about both of his parents and of the wonderful feeling of security it gave him that his mother was always there at home waiting for him when he came home from school. He told the story of his flight from Germany to Switzerland, about rowing with Bertha across a lake pretending it was just tourism, and that they were coming right back after the excursion. Then he said, “I never saw my parents again.” This past year I was watching the Ken Burns PBS Series “The War” and I saw that it said that at the end of the war, the Americans carpet-bombed Erfurt. But Paul never told us how his parents died, if he knew. Of course Thuringia being in East Germany, Paul would have been extra-sensitive to and probably informed about the failings of the East German government. In spite of his rhetoric he was by no means a dogmatic man of the left, although Bertha was much more ideological. I remember back in my childhood in Rochester we had a folksong book, which included Spanish Civil War songs of the ‘30s (from the “popular front” period when many people were enthusiastic about the Spanish Republican cause). I was playing one of these political hymns with great enthusiasm. Paul just looked at me quizzically and I could see just from his somewhat dry, skeptical attitude that there was a great deal more to it than that. His reticence influenced me more that a million ideological speeches would have done because there was absolutely no falseness in it. He was smart. Paul never spoke cynically, but he was very aware of the inconsistencies and absurdities of politics both at home and abroad. As I say, he was heroically discrete and I don’t think I will ever know his entire story, but these two qualities which made him able to encourage people and foster hope, but also to employ skeptical intelligence and extreme discretion to see behind the superficial appearances and get to the bottom of things were what I admired him for, both in my childhood and later when I talked with him at the end of his life.

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