Judt the Defiant

Tony Judt, Pensjonat pamięci (The Memory Chalet). Wydawnictwo Czarne 2012; Tony Judt, Źle ma się kraj. Rozprawa o naszych współczesnych bolączkach (Ill Fares the Land). Wydawnictwo Czarne 2011

Why is New York still the world’s metropolis? Because well-educated Ukrainians in Kiev prefer to read “The New York Review of Books”, rather than, for example, “The London Review of Books” or “The Budapest Review of Books.” This is what we learn from the pages of Tony Judt’s book The Memory Chalet. And this is how we knew him: as a subversive, convinced that he was right and indifferent to cliques, not only the ones in distant Eastern European provinces, but also those in Washington, Paris or Jerusalem.

This is the way he used to be a long time before 2008 when he became bedridden as a result of a terminal illness. He died two years later at the age of 62. Jennifer Homans, his wife and the mother of his two sons, wrote in March 2012 in “The New York Review of Books”, that the more advanced his illness became and the less he was present in public life, the more of a public figure he became. True fame came to him after his death, when two of his books, Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet, became bestsellers.

Science knows no cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which manifests as progressive paralysis of the whole body until no more vital signs can be observed. Judt compared his situation to that of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, who one day woke up in his Prague apartment to discover that he had turned into a huge insect. Gregor Samsa was aware of who he really was to the very end. A similar pattern can be observed in the case of what is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A patient affected by the disease maintains mental capacities till the end of his days. Judt managed to finish his last books just three months before his death; prior to this he dictated two others. His heroic fight against the disease gave hope and served as an example for many people around the world.

In fact, the whole last decade of his life was a race against time. Ten years earlier he was diagnosed with cancer. Fortunately, doctors managed to remove his tumor in time. Judt mentions in his book that in 2002, after radiation treatment, he went with his wife and sons to Switzerland, to a town in the Alps, nearly cut off from the world, in the place where he spent holidays as a child. I met him for the first time a year later. He seemed to be the most energetic and vital fifty-five-yearold I had ever encountered. Slim, athletic, playfully wearing a cowboy hat, he seemed to be the embodiment of the American dream. What a guy, I thought.

Obviously, I was well-aware that he was one of the most influential American intellectuals, a director of a research institute at New York University, a history professor and author of numerous publications who was permanently cooperating with prestigious magazines such as “The New York Review of Books”, I was, however, totally ignorant of how he had managed to reach his position, or, to put it bluntly, to what extent was his talent and diligence behind his success.

Wouldn’t life have seemed simpler, and our weaknesses and laziness easier to forgive, had Tony been born a descendant of the English Rothschild family? But he came to the world as the grandchild of Jewish proletarians who less than a century earlier escaped from the vicinity of Vilnius, leaving behind poverty and anti-Semitism. His parents ran a hair salon in Putney, a district of London. He claimed to have avoided a similar fate thanks to the post-war public education system developed by the Labor Party. He was accepted into Cambridge University and after graduation, claimed Judt, he was lucky enough to get a job there. Previously, he used to work as a truck driver, a brickyard worker, an assistant in a music shop, a tour guide and a sailor on a cargo ship. Thus, years later, he was credible when he said, “well-paid specialists are the first to preach on how indecent it is to benefit from the state’s welfare system, or on the advantages of hard work. Why don’t they do it for some time themselves, and try its real taste.”

Even though his domain was modern French history, he experienced a breakthrough moment when he met with Czech dissidents in the 80’s. He recalled that after a youthful fascination with Zionism he was cured by his service in the Israel army and deployment in the Golan Heights. After that he participated in the students’ demonstrations of 1968 in Paris and in London and he came to discover a new world: the world of democratic opposition in Central Europe. And so, during the revolutions of 1989, he already was one of the few well-established experts on Central and Eastern Europe in the West. But also, until then, he had arranged scores of scholarships for academics from our region of the world at New York University.

But there is more. He was also one of the last genuine social democrats. His book Ill Fares the Land expresses his belief in the welfare state and social solidarity, expressing the instinctive leftist allegiance which he did not learn at the Sorbonne, but which was instilled in him by his Jewish relatives who, even after many years spent in the London East End, would still argue over the primacy of Bund over the Poalej Zion doctrine, prophesy socialism on the Thames and curse the Soviets. One of the positive characters of The Memory Chalet is incidentally Clement Attlee, the Labor Prime Minister from the years 1945–1951. Churchill sneered at him, said that he was a modest man who indeed “had a lot to be modest about”. But it was Attlee who “led the country during the largest reforms in the contemporary history of Great Britain” and who laid the foundations for the future prosperity in the country where in 1954 food was still rationed.

The Memory Chalet could be as well titled with the subheading “How I Became Who I Am” or, “Who Tony Judt had been Before”. In the last years of his life he was declared an enfant terrible by the intellectual establishment who previously saw him as one of their own. What made him become such a harsh critic of the American invasion of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, infringement of civil liberties under the leadership of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, and finally the dismantlement of the welfare state in Western Europe under the pretense of fighting the crisis? How come he was so cheeky, or better put, so morally courageous, to describe Western and Central European intellectuals, like Christopher Hitchens or Václav Havel, who supported invasion of Iraq, as “Bush’s useful idiots”?

Havel, a dissident and the author of The Power of the Powerless, might have been a rolemodel for him. Judt was never threatened with imprisonment but he lost his position on the editorial staff of “The New Republic”, and several times was publicly reviled as an anti-Semite and a “self-hating Jew”. However, his position within academia remained unshakable. He did not care, or at least this is the impression he tried to make. Yet, he discouraged his younger colleagues from following him as long as they had not achieved his status.

He was a person in the presence of whom everyone tried to push their own intellectual limits. I guess I failed in this, or my capabilities were much too low to fulfill his expectations, as I often had the impression that he envisaged me as a Polish moderate nationalist, obsessed with the underestimated martyrdom of my country, full of distrust towards Germany and Europe, tormented by pangs of conscience over Jews and, consequently, absolutely uncritical of Israel. Additionally, suffering from an inferiority complex towards Russia which remained hidden under the veneer of eagerness to pay servile tribute to America.

Obviously, he was right. And even in the moments when he wasn’t, I didn’t try to set him straight, this would have spoiled the fun. Thus, I frequently had the opportunity to listen to Tony’s brilliant introductions to discussions and witness his cutting retorts and his ingenious conclusions.

Tony skillfully encouraged us to present our views and have them confronted in discussions. He must have had great fun once when I, infuriated by an aggressive comment by one of my American colleagues, declared that even if I was an anti-Semite like all Poles, at least I was an anti-Semite with pro-Israel inclinations. One look at the faces of most of the participants at the meeting was sufficient for me to realize that I had just committed a huge faux-pas and that I would probably have to pack my bags and leave. It was situations like that which gave color to our discussions, made them unique and in no way did they resemble the routine rambling which is so characteristic of the academic conferences that most of us have experienced before.

Judt, the way I see it now, managed to engage us in a micro-community through which he could penetrate myths, phobias, superstitions, false hopes and stereotypes bothering contemporary Americans and Europeans. Then he presented these insights in Postwar, a monumental book on the postwar history of Europe. It was a sort of social experiment, except for the fact that Tony would never allow any of the participants in the meetings to feel any discomfort. Of course he did irritate me, he did get my goat at times, but I will never stop admiring him. For me, having met him was a genuine gift of fortune.

Normally, a conversation with him resembled a seminar to some extent, which was obviously a huge privilege. After all, chatting about nonsense with someone like Tony Judt would be an unforgivable waste of time. He took the liberty to talk about “nonsense”—including memories from his childhood, his studies, his first transcontinental journey through America in a rented Buick, which consumed tons of gas—only once his disease trapped him in his own body.

Probably that’s why every detail in these stories has its color, fragrance and taste, like the Jewish dishes prepared by his grandma from the Lithuanian village of Pilvishki. Or like the streets of Prague, where in the mid-80’s undercover agents tested his command of Czech. Or like the Swiss village of Mürren, which you can reach only by cable car, that impressed him as a child and which also captivated his sons in the summer of 2002. Eight years later he wrote: “We cannot choose where our life should begin, but we can end our life where we want to. I know where I will be: I will be sitting in this tiny cable car, heading nowhere, for ever and ever.”

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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