I had been interviewing her for the book I wrote about the Holocaust, and by the time I had the brief conversation I am about to tell you about, I knew of some of the things she had suffered, and I can tell you that they were the kind of things that strip all sentimentality away, that do not leave you with any mushy illusions about the value of Western culture, of “civilization” and its traditions. I just want you to know that before I tell you what she told me, which was this:
We had spent a long day together, talking about sad things — talking, in fact, about the erasure of a culture, the unmaking of a civilization, as total and final as what Vergil described in Book 2 of the Aeneid; there are, after all, as many Jews left today in the city this lady had lived in as there are Trojans in Troy. We were tired, night was falling. Because I didn’t want to leave her with sad thoughts that night, any more than I want to leave you with sad thoughts today, I tried to lead the conversation to a happier time.
“So what happened when the war was over?” I asked softly. “What was the first thing that happened, once things started to be normal again?”
The old lady, whose real name had disappeared in the war along with her parents, her house, and nearly everything else she had known, was now called Mrs. Begley. When I asked her this question Mrs. Begley looked at me; her weary expression had kindled, every so slightly. “You know, it’s a funny thing,” she told me. “When the Germans first came, in ‘41, the first thing they did was close the theaters.”
“The theaters?,” I echoed, a bit confused, not dreaming where this could be leading. I didn’t know which theaters she meant; I thought, briefly, of the great Beaux Arts Pantheon of an opera house in Lwów, with its Muse-drawn chariots and gilded victories, a mirage of civilization, the 19th century’s dream of itself. She had told me, once, that she had seen Carmen there, when she was a newlywed. But she wasn’t talking, now, about operas in Lwów, or about the 1930s; she was talking about theaters in Kraków, where she and her husband and child ended up once the war was over.
“Yes,” she said, sharply, as if it ought to have been obvious to me that the first thing you’d do, if you were about to end a civilization, would be to put an end to playgoing, “the theaters. The first thing they did was close the theaters. And I’ll tell you something, because I remember it quite clearly: the first thing that happened, after the war was over and things got a little normal — the first thing was that the actors and theater people who were still alive got together and put on, in Polish, a production of Sophocles’ Antigone.”
— UC Berkeley Classics Department: 2009 Commencement Address by Daniel Mendelsohn. Please, please read the whole thing, if you have any interest in what makes the humanities human.