Professor rediscovers his past – and gains a new life
Martin Beck Matuštík was born in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. As a teenager, he knew his mother and father were atheists and communists, but he did not find out until much later that his mother was Jewish, and that many of her relatives had perished in the Holocaust.
Matuštík, the Lincoln Professor of Ethics and Religion at ASU, said, “She made a great effort at assimilation. She concealed the impact of Shoah (the Holocaust) on our family by never telling me the names of anyone but grandfather and grandmother, not the names of those who perished or the names of those who survived and left the postwar Czechoslovakia for Austria, Israel and Sydney.”
Matuštík’s mother died when he was 14, and because of divorce in the family and with no one to tell her story, he only began to learn for himself the history and fate of his family when he was a doctoral student in the United States in the 1980s.
In a sense, Matuštík had to begin recreating his memories, and this passion became his life work intellectually, spiritually and philosophically.
His quest has led to a major international research symposium that he is co-hosting at ASU Nov. 6-8, titled “Memory & Countermemory: Memorialization of an Open Future.” Co-hosting is Hava Samuelson, professor of History, director, Center for Jewish Studies, and the Irving and Miriam Lowe Professor of Modern Judaism.
Prominent scholars such as Cathy Caruth, Lewis R. Gordon, Sandor Goodhart, Marianne Hirsch, Lawrence L. Langer, Leo Spitzer and Alexander Etkind will discuss the relationship between trauma, memory, representation, memorialization and education, and there will be films, art exhibits, a play and various sessions of interest to the public, at both ASU’s Tempe and West campuses.
Sponsoring departments at ASU are the Center for Jewish Studies, Center for Critical Inquiry and Cultural Studies, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, Institute for Humanities Research, and the faculty research cluster in Philosophy, Rhetoric and Literature. The symposium is among the featured events of the ASU-wide "Project Humanities, Perspectives on Place."
Matuštík’s life took an unexpected turn when he was a freshman at the university in Prague, planning to study psychology.
“In January 1977 I got involved with the underground dissident movement, but I was just an unknown young man, not a dissident. I got drawn into it,” he said. “I was detained by the secret service. The university wanted me to make a public statement in the fall at the university to denounce the ‘Charta 77’ movement as a price for staying. So that was the context under which I had unattractive choices – become an informant and break my character as a person – or let my life be destroyed.”
Then, Matuštík had an unplanned opportunity to get an exit permit for a working summer camp in India. In 1977, the branches of secret service that interrogated him and those that granted exit permits did not have computerized files, so he slipped through the cracks.
Instead of going to the camp, he used the permit for India, and transit visas through the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to take the southern route to Austria. There, he requested political asylum, and after eight months in the refugee camp, he immigrated to the United State at age 19, alone and on his own.
His life at the time was like “fragments of broken glass – like something that was not available to me,” he said.
Before he left Prague in late August 1977, in the secrecy of the night, Matuštík had hidden a suitcase full of his mother’s notebooks, correspondence and literary works, which he had never read, with a friend. “Mother was a playwright and journalist. She had things that were passed along from her father,” Matuštík said.
“The story of family annihilation and survival would remain shrouded in Mother’s silence for eight more years after my return to Prague was open again.”
Matuštík began reconnecting with his father during clandestine meetings in Budapest in 1986. A distinguished historian of modern art, his father was expelled from the Communist Party and then his university teaching post in 1970 for his political unreliability.
After the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution of 1989, Matuštík was finally able to go home. “When I came back as an adult I could visit with my wife where my mother lived. We interviewed people – and the story emerged and became bigger and bigger,” he said.
“In 1997, I stumbled over the lost tracks leading to my surviving family who left Slovakia for Israel and Australia in 1946. I met them face to face for the first time in 1998. Since 1999 I have been trying to put together history of three generations and the Holocaust that wiped out all the family. I never heard any of this before.”
In his memoir, “Out of Silence,” Matuštík said his mother became a communist and severed all her ties to her Jewish origins in 1945 “after having spent her early teens on the run from the Nazi transports and growing up fast with partisans in the Slovak Mountains. Communism brought anti-Semitism back and my mother was very afraid.”
As he learned of his past, and immersed himself in philosophy, Matuštík said he “faced never before asked questions: Where, how, to whom do children of Shoah survivors return from diaspora? How do I, a child of my mother’s silence, journey to myself?”
He adopted a new middle name, Beck, in tribute to his grandfather, Nathan Beck, one of 10 children, who was a beloved village physician, an organizer of the partisan hospital during the defeated Slovak Uprising in 1944, and a true survivor. The new name and its memory created even more questions.
“In 1997, I completed my second philosophical monograph, ‘Specters of Liberation.’ With a new, chosen middle name, Beck, displayed proudly on the book cover, I incarnated not only Mother’s hidden maiden name but also the lost genealogy in my flesh.
“This new choice has already challenged my adopted mantle of philosophical secularism marking my long academic rite of passage. Should I now disown my baptismal middle name, Joseph, which I chose for my Catholic conversion at 15 during the intense communist normalization years in Prague?
“Should I be ashamed of bearing two middle names, each with its own spiritual significance? Ashamed of which part in me: the native and later chosen periods of atheism? The decade and a half of self-chosen Christian quest? My phantom limbs of Jewish life?”
Also in 1997, Matuštík made his first trip to Auschwitz, where, he now knew, many of his relatives had died. That trip was to have a profound affect on his work and his life, as he recounts:
“Returning often to that moment when in early summer I stood next to the pool with ashes of millions of Auschwitz bones, I have been unable to silence a strange sense that all cheap versions of immortality—that highly prized headiness of making good arguments, that arrogant analyticity of philosophy—somehow offend the dead.”
The November conference will, for the first time, bring together scholars in disparate fields such as holocaust, memory and Native American studies, and it will, possibly, open new vistas of study, Matuštík said.
“By bringing them together, some people anticipate that there might be a new stage in this work.”