“Life is truly known only to those who suffer, lose, endure adversity and stumble from defeat to defeat.”
— Anais Nin
I don’t think I’ve ever met one person who hasn’t suffered in some way or who hasn’t been forced to face those extreme hardships that come hand-in-hand with the territory. And I definitely can’t imagine someone not having a story to tell, because there’s one in all of us.
Perhaps some are more glamorous, more intriguing, more heartbreaking than others, but it’s there, nevertheless. Right below the surface of our everyday moments. Filled with such sweeping colors, magnificent light, gusting winds, music, beauty, and misery across those Grand Canyon plateaus that somehow mark us with their presence then propel us forward, despite our feet begging not to go one step further.
But we must. So we do.
I’ve always imagined a shorter life than the one I’ve been given. Maybe the man upstairs decided my sorry ass had a greater purpose. And so in the interim, I stand on my own little piece of terra firma as a witness to everyone else’s story, doing what I do, soaking in all that surrounds me like a precious gift. Because I think that’s what life is, a gift. It’s easy for us to not always view it that way; especially when we’re drowning in despair or dodging all those curveballs suddenly in our faces. But it is. It’s another joyous moment where we get to breathe and if we’re lucky enough, we just might also do something miraculous.
This past April, I saw the movie, Woman in Gold. It was impactful then, and now months later seeing it again, I found it to be no less so. Based upon a remarkable true story of one woman’s quest to seek justice for what had happened to her and her family during WWII, Maria Altmann’s (Helen Mirren) story unfolds sixty years after she fled Vienna as she hires a young and inexperienced lawyer, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to help her retrieve several family-owned paintings that had been seized by the Nazis. However, the movie focuses on one in particular. It was of her aunt and titled: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. The artist was the masterfully talented Gustav Klimt. Not only had this particular painting become famous (the Mona Lisa of Austria), but it had been on display in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, for decades.
As a little side note that some of you might already know (especially if you’ve seen the movie, The Monuments Men with George Clooney), during the war, Nazi Germany had implemented a systematic and widespread looting campaign of valuable artwork belonging not only to the Jews, but all occupied countries. Over the years, they amassed so many pieces that it took more than 1000 repositories across Austria and Germany to secretly house them all. And when the war ended, the artwork was discovered and international laws dealing with art restitution were soon passed. The project itself was and still is a colossal undertaking. And while numerous pieces have been identified and handed over to the respective countries from which they were confiscated in the hope of eventually finding their way back to their rightful owner, unfortunately as of today, it has been estimated that well over 100,000 works of great art still have not been returned.
Perhaps some might view the retrieval of stolen property as insignificant in comparison to the bigger picture; being that Maria Altmann was luckier than most—she lived. And yes, in the grand scheme of things, they would be right. However, as I sat in the movie theatre becoming more and more entrenched in the layers of her story peeling away, something else became glaringly clear.
What had been taken from her wasn’t the tangible at all. But the link to her history. And without it, Maria knew she would remain lost in the shadows of a life where blissful memories and terrifying experiences would lay buried, if she didn’t do something to make it right.
Okay. Sure. This is a message we’ve heard countless times before. Told through stories by Holocaust survivors, movies, books. Khmer Rouge’s “Killing Fields,” Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Native Americans. The genocides, the mass atrocities. Stories we’re not likely to forget, and yet like most things, they somehow still manage to get muted into the background, like yesterday’s news. And it’s exactly because of this inevitability that I believe every now and again it’s vital that we bring them back to the surface to remind ourselves, and more importantly to educate the next generation, our children and our children’s children; before lovingly passing it into their arms for safekeeping.
No, my dear friends, we can never forget. I don’t ever want to forget. Because if I do, then, well, I deny its existence and, therefore, I deny myself. It’s as simple as that. The past might be in the past, but it is who we are.
There’s a scene near the end of the movie where Randy Schoenberg is in Vienna standing before the Restitution Mediation panel, with the eyes and ears of all Austria watching on as he delivers his final plea before a ruling is made on who is the rightful heir to the painting: Maria Altmann or Austria. It’s one of those compelling David versus Goliath moments we all love. Whether it comes to us in life or in a movie, doesn’t seem to matter. The effect is the same. Rousing some unseen force from within, and shakes us silly. And in this case, in this eloquent “sins of our father” speech, the new world thinking of the present was reminding the old world values of the past that a war had been waged, that millions had undeniably been exterminated, that the citizens of Austria blindly participated, and what they now needed to do in order to bring about a healing closure, not only for Maria Altmann or the Jewish people, but for themselves as a culture, once and for all. Acknowledge their wrong.
Many years ago, as a young woman living in Mexico, I remember being in a restaurant with some people I knew, some I’d just met. Upon introduction, I realized that the young man sitting to my right was from Germany. All throughout dinner, I couldn’t look at him, let alone say two words. It wasn’t as if I’d led a sheltered life or that I’d lost people in the war. Because that wasn’t the case at all. And yet, for some inexplicable, some irrational reason, at that moment, his face and Hiltler’s were one and the same. All night I fought against this misplaced anger. And he obviously sensed my inner turmoil, because at some point afterwards, when I was standing alone near the bar, he came over to me, and just like that, he apologized.
“For what?” I asked, confused. “For what my people did to yours.”
Woman in Gold isn’t just a story about the Holocaust or the importance of family heirlooms. It’s about reclamation of heritage. It’s about justice, plain and simple. Standing up for what’s right. That’s what Maria Altmann did in such a Herculean way against so many forces, despite the undeniable odds. And that’s what makes this story so powerful, so inspiring for me. I wanted to pick up my stick and do battle, right there and then.
Many times in our everyday lives we’re forced to face the unthinkable. But does that standing up to those things make us better human beings or simply hammer in how far we still need to go? It’s not enough just to do the good deeds, to live the right life. Giving a helping hand to a friend, working at shelters, caring for those human and non-human beings who can’t help themselves, yes . . . are commendable acts—even necessary. But I somehow don’t imagine these things alone are enough. We must do more. We must stretch our moral fiber beyond those comfortable borders, when the moment arises.
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
— Haruki Murakami
All of us share this same type of desire: to stand up against what’s wrong in the world. I think it’s part of our DNA. And yet many cannot, many do not—for whatever reason.
Look, I don’t feel that my pain is greater than anyone else’s. We’ve all had a look at the dark side. It’s not pretty. And the moment I rest on that lollapalooza, I’m finished. Okay? Standing in judgment is simply not the way to go. Not for me anyway. How each one of us chooses to lead the best possible life is a decision only we can make and, ultimately, something we all have to live with. Whether it’s standing on the sidelines or in the thick of those messy things, wielding a sword, I will love you all the same.
Me? I prefer messy. But, hey . . . what do I know? I’m the girl walking around with the fuzzy Dumbo hat on her head, sipping fruity martinis.