February 12, 2015
Guests: Pawel Pawlikowski - Bob Simon
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, directed and co-wrote the film, "Ida," which is nominated for two Oscars, best foreign-language film and best cinematography. New Yorker film critic David Denby described it as a compact masterpiece. Pawlikowski describes "Ida" as a film about identity, family, faith, guilt, socialism and music.
"Ida" is set in 1962 in Poland, where Pawlikowski lived until he was 14. The character Ida is a young woman who was orphaned and raised in a convent. Days before she's scheduled to take her vows as a nun, the mother superior tells her that Ida's aunt, her only surviving relative, is coming to get her, and Ida should spend as much time as necessary with her. Soon after they meet for the first time, the aunt informs Ida that Ida is actually Jewish, and her parents were killed in the woods during the Holocaust. Ida and her aunt, who became a state prosecutor in Poland's Stalinist era, set out to find the grave. Pawel Pawlikowski also made the film, "My Summer Of Love." "Ida" has only played art houses, but it's streaming on Netflix.
Pawel Pawlikowski, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the premise of the movie, which is a young novitiate about to become a nun learns that she's from a Jewish family who was killed in the Holocaust. What led you to that premise, to that idea?
PAWEL PAWLIKOWSKI: Eight years ago, I came across a story of a Polish priest who discovered, a little like my heroine, that he was of Jewish origins. And he'd survived the war as a child in a monastery, then grew up to be a priest. And in his 30s, he discovered the truth about his background, and he started taking interest in his Jewish background and started trying to combine his Christian and his Jewish heritages. And I think he's still trying to do it right now. But it just got me thinking how - what an interesting case, you know, and what a good starting point for a story. I didn't want to tell his story. I just wanted to tell a story which is along these lines. So I started writing around that.
GROSS: So the character of Ida's aunt, Wanda - she survived. She's Jewish, of course, and she survived the war. Much of her family did not. And then she went on, during the Communist era in Poland, to become a prosecutor for the state - big trials - and she describes herself as having sent a few enemies of the people to their deaths in the '50s. So she's found a way to survive in the Communist state. And like, she survived World War II, she's surviving communism, but you really get the feeling that she hates herself. Did somebody inspire the character of Ida's aunt, Wanda?
PAWLIKOWSKI: Yes, in a very roundabout way. I did come across a lady in - a very charming older lady - in Oxford in the early '80s. She was the wife of a professor at Wolfson College, Oxford, roughly in her mid-70s. And you know, they invited me to their house for dinner and drinks occasionally because there were not many Polish speakers in Oxford at the time. And I became quite friendly and very fond of this lady who was warm, witty, ironic, very wise about the world. And it wasn't until 10 years later that I heard on BBC News that the Polish government was requesting the extradition of this very lady on the grounds of crimes against humanity because in the '50s - early '50s - she was indeed a Stalinist state prosecutor, and she was in charge of enduring show trials of innocent people who were just, you know, standing in the way. So, you know, that was a bit shocking and mystifying, and I just couldn't get my head around how, you know, this very warm, wise, generous older woman was once, you know, state prosecutor under Stalinism.
GROSS: So getting back to your character of Ida, the young novitiate who grew up in the nunnery and is now confronted with the fact that she's really of Jewish heritage and wants to, with her aunt, find the place where her parents are buried. You know, in the Jewish religion, you're born into it. If your birth mother is Jewish, you're Jewish. But Ida was orphaned. She was raised by nuns since she was a baby, and she grew up in the Catholic faith. That's all she knows. So what is she? I mean, it raises the question of, like, what is faith? Is it something you're born into or something you choose? Is it something you're brought up in? Did you go through a lot of thinking about that when you were writing the movie?
PAWLIKOWSKI: Yes, and I've been thinking about that throughout my life. I grew up in a secular environment, you know, in the '60s and '70s. My mother's family was Catholic, but you know, just very kind of conventionally Catholic. You know, nothing - there was nothing, you know, extreme about their version of religion. And my father was a free spirit, you know? He had no time for religion at all. I discovered, slowly, that he was actually Jewish, but not that it seemed to mean much to him at the time. He had a very secular imagination, so...
GROSS: You say it didn't mean anything to him that he was Jewish, but didn't his mother, your grandmother, die in Auschwitz?
PAWLIKOWSKI: Well, I discovered that - yeah, I did discover that in my sort of mid-late-teens, and he didn't make a, you know - he didn't tell me that straight out, you know? I found it in some paperwork that I found lying around. So, yeah, that came a bit of a shock. And clearly he was kind of, you know, hiding something or hiding or not wanting to make a big deal of it. He had a thing all his life about not seeming to be a victim, you know - not even a victim of the communist state or not a victim of anything. He was just, like, a man who could do all sorts of things and not an ounce of self-pity or, you know, sentimentalism. And he was very generous. He was a wonderful doctor, by the way. He was very, very loved by many people and very humane and understanding for everybody's reasons.
GROSS: Did the fact that your father's mother died in Auschwitz affect you wanting to tell this story, the story of two women who lost family in World War II in Poland? They weren't killed by the Nazis, but they were killed because of the Nazis.
PAWLIKOWSKI: Yes, it was one of the reasons, but it wasn't the only or the main, even, reason, you know? I think - you know, the big trauma in my life, personally, was the fact that at 14, I was taken out of Poland unwittingly because my parents were divorced. Left the country - my mother left for England with her new husband. I wasn't even aware that she'd married him. And I suddenly found myself, at 14, in England and cut off from my whole childhood - my friends, my, you know, new girlfriend and my courtyard, and there was no way I could get back there, you know? So for me...
GROSS: And cut off from your language.
PAWLIKOWSKI: From my language as well because I couldn't speak a word of English at the time, you know? I'd just arrived in London. I have - I thought we were going on holiday, and I was very excited because, you know - rock 'n' roll. And I was, you know, full of - I was into Kinks and Small Faces and all sorts of things.
But suddenly, I discover we're not going back, and I can't say goodbye to anyone. I can't speak any English, so I kind of, you know, feel a bit of an idiot. And so that's like - you know, if you talk about real traumas, you know, that was the one. And in a way, "Ida" is an attempt to recover the Poland of my childhood, among many things, you know - just to kind of re- - to evoke the sounds, the images, the faces, the situations from my childhood when I was 5, 7, 10.
GROSS: Ida and her Aunt Wanda go in search of the graves of their family - people murdered by fellow Poles during World War II and murdered because they were Jewish. Finding the graves is very important to them, and I wonder, like, in your life, what do graves, what do cemeteries mean to you? You were forced to leave your country of Poland when you were 14 after your parents divorced and your mother remarried and moved to England and took you with her. So, I mean, if you wanted to visit the graves of family, you weren't even in the country where the cemetery would be.
PAWLIKOWSKI: That's right, yeah. But yeah, the graves are important in my life, I must admit. Strangely, you know, my parents, who left Poland separately and, you know, divorced, ended up marrying other people. But then they met again abroad, and they got together again. And then they died abroad...
GROSS: Wait, wait, they got together and remarried?
PAWLIKOWSKI: ...And they remarried, yeah.
GROSS: Oh, wow, really?
PAWLIKOWSKI: I mean, it's a fantastic, complicated story, which was...
GROSS: (Laughter) That must have been so strange for you.
PAWLIKOWSKI: It was beautiful in a way because they couldn't realize that they, you know - they have much more together in this foreign world, you know? They were a couple who knew each other from when she was 17 and he was 25. And they ended up living together and dying together. So - and they died in Munich, and I remember bringing their coffins back to Poland just after the wall came down - roughly around that time. So I did want to put them back into a graveyard where I can visit them, where my children can visit them, where, you know, my other family was buried. So it's - yes, where you bury people, establishing these sacred places for future visits or pilgrimages, is very important.
GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, while we're on the subject of graves - you decided to bury your parents in Poland. They worked hard to get out of Poland.
PAWLIKOWSKI: I know, I know, it's quite...
GROSS: Do you know how they would've felt about being taken back there after they died and buried there?
PAWLIKOWSKI: They would've been touched by my heroic - they would have been amused by my heroic efforts because it was so difficult to actually organize it at the time. I don't know. I don't think - well, my father didn't really care where his ashes would be, to be honest. I mean - but I think my mother would have been - would have liked the fact. I can't tell. I mean, I didn't follow their instructions. I just did what felt good and right.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pawel Pawlikowski, who is the director and co-writer of the film, "Ida," which is nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is film director and screenwriter PaweÅ Pawlikowski. And his film, "Ida," is nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film. It's also nominated for best cinematography.
So your film, "Ida," is set in the aftermath of World War II, shortly after the Stalinist era. You were born in 1957, a little more than 10 years after the war ended. Were there kind of ghosts of war where you grew up in Warsaw? Like, I read someplace that, like, the sewer near your home was a sewer in which people involved in the Warsaw Uprising used to escape. So did you feel, like, surrounded by the ghosts of that past?
PAWLIKOWSKI: Yes, but we didn't make a big deal out of it. But there were, like, bullet holes in my courtyard. And there was a sewer outside which was used during the uprising, you know, for people - for the insurgents to disappear into because the Germans had taken over that area. And all over Warsaw - I mean, Warsaw is kind of one big devastation area, you know? And a quarter of a million people died in that uprising. So - you know, and the whole city was razed to the ground. So there's very little left that's prewar. But there are wounds everywhere, you know? So of course I grew up among that. But it just was the norm. It wasn't - I wasn't constantly taken aback by it, you know? It was just kind of - OK, well, here's a plaque where a hundred people were executed during the - in the early days of the uprising. And yeah - but you sort of grew up with this sense of history. And the strange thing, even now, when you go to Warsaw - it's still full of wounds, history, you know, full of kind of empty spaces where once was the ghetto, for example, or the Umschlagplatz. And, you know, so you're constantly aware of history without having to talk about it, you know. It's just there.
GROSS: You shot your film, "Ida," in black and white. And I'm wondering if that's because the documentation of the past was in black and white. Like, old photos are in black and white. You know, movies of, you know, the '40s and a lot of the movies of the '50s were in black and white. Do you associate that era in film and photographs with black and white?
PAWLIKOWSKI: I do. I do, of course. And I love that cinema, you know, the black and white cinema - even later, you know, even in these days. You know, I love watching old - you know, the Czech New Wave of the early French New Wave, which is all black and white and usually four-by-three format. But yeah, and I remembered that world in black and white. And my photo albums, which I carry with me everywhere I move... I always have, like, 10 photo albums with my family photographs. And from that period, they're all black and white. And they're all in funny formats and strangely framed. And they have a kind of melancholy beauty about them, you know? There's just not many things in the shot. There's, you know, two people, a dog, you know, a lamp post, one car in the distance - that kind of emptier world and more innocent world, where people were not photographed all the time, you know, like nowadays.
GROSS: So I know that when you're shooting a movie, you like to have time as you're shooting to think about what you're doing and to maybe change your ideas or, you know, change some of the dialogue. And what happened during the shooting of "Ida" was that there was a blizzard that prevented you from shooting for a while while you were in the middle of the film. Did you have any revelations, during that period when you couldn't shoot, that changed the course of the film?
PAWLIKOWSKI: Not really. It was more that when I was shooting it, I knew that some of the scenes that were in the schedule and in the script were not great, you know? They were a little bit functional. There was a character whose job was just to give information, which is never a great thing on screen. So I put all these kind of, you know, functional, not-worked-out scenes to the back of the schedule, you know, hoping that at the weekends I could rewrite them, find something else. But I was slightly panicking because, you know, usually, with most of my films, I always get this little break before the last third of filming where I can rewrite quite a bit. In the case of "Ida," because of the budgetary restrictions, we couldn't do that. So when the snows came - and they came much too early - I was relieved, you know? It was a disaster for production, but I knew that I was lucky, you know. I could now do my usual thing and go away. I'd been editing while shooting, anyway - but go away and make sure that all the scenes from now on are really focused and right and expressive. And I kind of knew what they would be by then. But I used the two months we had off because the snow was tremendous. It was the winter of the century. So I used these two months to really kind of hone down the script and find better scenes than those we had originally, find the new locations, re-rehearse some things. And then, the last 10 days of filming, I was just - it was really just kind of getting everything spot on and making the film cohere, you know, in a certain, particular way.
GROSS: The young actress who plays Ida, the young woman who's about to take her vows as a nun, was not really an actress. A director who you knew spotted her in a cafe and for some reason thought she'd be right for your movie (laughter)...
GROSS: Seems like an odd way to cast somebody. But it worked awfully well. What did you make of it when a friend called you and said, yeah, I noticed this person in a cafe that'd be great for your film? Why did you even take that seriously?
PAWLIKOWSKI: Well, no because it didn't quite work like that. It was, like, after four months of looking, I couldn't find an actress I could believe in to play Ida because Ida is so particular and unique and timeless and strange. So none of the, you know, like, 400 young actresses or drama students that I met were that. You know, I just didn't believe in them. So I told all my friends in Warsaw, keep looking for me please because I'm a bit - I've got a knife on my throat. You know, and we have to start filming soon. And so, you know, so I kept getting, you know, phone calls from various people. And then one day, this friend of mine, who's a neighbor of mine, in fact, you know, texted me - I was actually in Paris at the time - and said, you know, there is a girl sitting across from me in the cafe, reading a book. And she looks interesting. I don't know what you're looking for, but she looks interesting. Then I asked my friend to take a secret photograph on her iPhone and send it to me, which my friend did. And the girl in question didn't look anything like a nun. She had a lot of, you know, like, really cool clothes and makeup. But there was something interesting about her. So I asked to meet her via the barman in that cafe because she'd left the cafe by then. And when I met her and asked her to take off her makeup and stuff, you know, suddenly, I saw that, you know, she's kind of perfect for Ida, especially when I started talking to her and realized what an interesting, strong, grounded character she was. She was - she was Ida, you know. And the most beautiful thing was that she didn't want to act. She had absolutely no desire to be an actress. And the only reason she came to see me is because she loved one of my films. "My Summer Of Love" was, like, an important film in her youth. So she agreed to meet me because she was curious. And then I had, you know - then I had to try and convince her to be in this film. So I forced her into a couple of, like, scenes - audition scenes - with the other Agata, you know, who plays Wanda. And I realized that she's really quite calm, which was perfect. And then, suddenly, you know, we became friends. She started - she understood that it's not going to be like one of these industrial films where you just kind of shoot it, but that it's going to be a, you know, like, an interesting process that she would be part of. So we drew her in. And the rest was great, you know? She could cope brilliantly under the pressure.
GROSS: So your film, "Ida," is nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film. What does it mean to you to be nominated now?
PAWLIKOWSKI: It's brilliant. It's wonderful. It's unexpected. It feels very gratifying, you know, because honestly, the idea that, you know, some people make films for Oscars or think in terms of Oscars, whereas this film was just so not meant that way... The fact that it's kind of arrived here, it's one of these wonderful paradoxes in life. And, you know, it's thrilling. I'm really happy.
GROSS: Well, I wish you good luck at the Oscars. And I thank you very much for talking with us.
PAWLIKOWSKI: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Pawel Pawlikowski directed and co-wrote the film, "Ida," which is nominated for two Oscars, best foreign language film and best cinematography. "Ida" has played art houses and is now streaming on Netflix. After a break, we'll listen back to an interview with Bob Simon, the longtime "60 Minutes" correspondent, who was killed last night in a car accident. And Lloyd Schwartz will review reissues of Haydn string quartets. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to remember Bob Simon, the longtime "60 Minutes" correspondent who was killed in a car accident last night. He was 73. Simon had been a CBS reporter for nearly 50 years. He covered wars in Vietnam, Lebanon, Israel and Central America and was the CBS chief Middle East correspondent. He joined "60 Minutes" in 1996. In 1991, while covering the Persian Gulf War, Simon was one of those reporters who broke away from the Pentagon press pool, but he was captured by Iraqi soldiers. For 40 days, Simon and his three-man crew were kept in solitary confinement in an Iraqi prison, at times, blindfolded, interrogated and beaten. They were released after the war's cease-fire. Simon wrote about his capture in his 1992 memoir "Forty Days." When it was published, he spoke with FRESH AIR guest host Marty Moss-Coane. We're going to hear an excerpt of their interview. Marty asked Bob Simon what he was looking for on the day he was captured.
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BOB SIMON: We were just looking around because the system had already been put in place by the Pentagon's information bureau that restricted us from really doing anything, that put us all in packs that were to be led around by the nose by Pentagon information officers. So we just did - our whole idea was to find out what was going on on our own, and we had done so. A few days earlier, we'd gone up to another border position between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and found an awful lot of things that had not been reported in the Pentagon pools. We found a Saudi oil refinery, which had been hit by Iraqi artillery, which was burning. We found Saudi positions which had been abandoned by their defenders. We found a U.S. Marine unit under fire. It was clear to us then that the only way to report the story was to go out on our own, so we just did that again. We did another take. We drove up to another road, another place, in Saudi Arabia, another place along the northern frontier, and we never got back there.
MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: Tell us how you got captured.
SIMON: Well, we strolled across this border. We just were sort of - wanted to have a look at the no man's land, which is just another expanse of sand, which is all there is out there. There's nothing else, not the hint of a curve or a hill. We were just looking around. We were also - we also thought it would be sort of nice to have a Kuwait deadline - date line. So we wanted to see if we were actually in Kuwait and we were walking towards some signs in the no man's land, which we thought delineated the actual border between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. When we got there, we found they were just directional signs pointing to parking lots. And we just started heading back. And my colleague Peter Bluff said, there's a vehicle heading towards us. And I glanced around and saw that there was something kicking up sand in the distance, but I couldn't tell what kind of vehicle it was.
It was - we were, at that point, about 200, 250 meters from the border, and we didn't really, I think, have a chance to make a run for it. And I think we were already into something which would become quite prominent in our lives for the next 40 days. We were already into fantasies. The Saudis had told us that a lot of Iraqis were defecting to their Saudi forces. In fact, one of our colleagues, a CBS cameraman and Iraqi soldier, had surrendered to him the day before. So I think our first thought was, maybe these were Iraqi defectors - won't that be fun? But at the precise moment that the jeep came up and - situation, as they say, evolved very quickly. Things were happening so quickly, I don't think there was anything that could probably be qualified as a thought.
MOSS-COANE: What was your greatest fear then?
SIMON: Well, I'll tell you, it took a while for real fears to set in. In fact, if I were to answer the question very candidly, I guess - I'm rather embarrassed to articulate it - I think my greatest fear at the very beginning was I wasn't going to make it back to Saudi Arabia that night to file a good story I had. And that's how distant my mind was still from the reality which was overtaking me, and it took some time.
And this was something I tried to focus on in the book - how long it takes for, I think, a fairly normal mind to really deal with a very, very oppressive new reality, that it took some time before I really realized that I wasn't a reporter anymore, I wasn't going to go back to some air-conditioned newsroom, that the Ministry of Information in Iraq didn't give a [expletive] about us and even if they did, had no power, that we were in a very, very serious situation.
MOSS-COANE: You were first taken to some bunkers.
SIMON: That's right, some bunkers outside Kuwait.
MOSS-COANE: And what kind of interrogation were you exposed to?
SIMON: First interrogation was very proper and very correct. In fact, there was a dichotomy for - during the 40 days. For the first - that first afternoon, we were in the hands of the Iraqi army, and they always behaved properly to us. We were never beaten up by the army, were never tortured by the army. When they interrogated us, it was - we were blindfolded. It wasn't pleasant.
MOSS-COANE: What did they want from you? What kind of information?
SIMON: Basically, they wanted to know who we were, what we were doing and who sent us. And the problem, their problem - and I could understand their problem - was they just being Iraqis, having no sense of a Western press corps and what a Western press corps does or tries to do, they just didn't believe it. They didn't believe that we were journalists just nosing around. They - oh, my God, you know, four guys - particularly we were sort of in quasi-army gear as well - that to them - it's a paranoid regime. To them, anyone nosing around like that must be a spy. Therefore, they wanted to know who we were spying for, who sent us, what we're looking for, and that was the focus of most of the interrogations for the next six weeks.
MOSS-COANE: Was there any answer that would satisfy that question about whether you were an agent of the CIA except for yes?
SIMON: Because we gave - I mean, we kept on telling the truth. And one of their lines in different interrogations, in different places, was, your answers are not satisfactory. And I would say, but they are true. It turned into a, like, Samuel Beckett kind of dialogue. They're not satisfactory. But they're true. But they're not satisfactory. But they're true. It was - you know, we were on entirely different wavelengths.
MOSS-COANE: By some kind of administrative snafu, the Iraqis didn't know that you were Jewish.
SIMON: That's right. The miracles in one's life, I think, turn out to be the most minute, incredibly trivial bureaucratic errors. I think miracles these days are exercised by bureaucracies because bureaucracies have such a power over our lives. When I - I took a - I was in Saudi Arabia from August at the very beginning. And once the Americans announced that there was a January 15 deadline, then for the first time, I felt I could take a break. I could leave for a couple of weeks and go home and see my family because the war wasn't going to start until the 15 of January. So I left for a couple weeks around Christmas, and then I came back the beginning of January. And when I got back to the international hotel in Dhahran, which was the international press headquarters as it was the headquarters of the military information bureau, they were very furiously preparing everyone for covering the war - "covering the war" in quotes. And they were handing out, among other things, Red Cross cards. And I lined up to pick up my Red Cross card. Now, a Red Cross card is something that anyone carries who is in a combat zone. It has your name and rank or position, if you're a newsman, and your picture and your blood type, in case you get hurt, or - and your religion in case you got to be buried quickly. And I saw that everything was right on mine, except religion. It said Protestant. And I said to the guy, who was a major, who was sitting at this wooden desk, I said hey, that's not right. I'm not Protestant. And he was very apologetic, very polite. He said I'm sorry, Mr. Simon, you were away, you were at home, when we printed these up, and we checked with your Saudi visa application and it said next to religion it was blank, so we put in Protestant because most people are.
SIMON: And I said, well, I'm not. I'm Jewish - fix it. And he said OK, sure. I'll have a new one for you tomorrow morning. And then he looked at me - and I wrote about this and it's something I'll never understand - but he looked at me with a very intense, disquieting kind of look and said, are you sure? And there was something about the way he looked at me that freaked me out. I said, oh, forget it and walked away.
MOSS-COANE: Well, if the...
SIMON: If that press card had said Jewish on it, they would've shot me right away.
MOSS-COANE: You have no doubt about that?
SIMON: No doubt about that, no doubt about that.
SIMON: Because it is - would be impossible for anyone associated with the Iraqi regime to think that a Jew could be a bona fide American journalist. A Jew caught inside Iraq lines would necessarily be an Israeli spy.
GROSS: We're listening to a 1992 interview with Bob Simon, the longtime "60 Minutes" correspondent who died last night in a car accident. We'll hear more of the interview he recorded with FRESH AIR guest host Marty Moss-Coane after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Bob Simon, the longtime "60 Minutes" correspondent and CBS news reporter who died last night in a car accident. Let's get back to the interview he recorded in 1992 with FRESH AIR guest host Marty Moss-Coane after the publication of his book "Forty Days" about being captured by Iraqis while he was covering the Persian Gulf War in 1991. He was imprisoned for 40 days.
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MOSS-COANE: One thing that you write a lot about is the cold - the utter cold that once you were imprisoned - really the inability to get warm. Was that in part the most brutal part of it, not being able to get warm?
SIMON: The cold and the hunger because they were both persistent, and they never went away. And this is one reason why I'm very glad that I wrote this book very quickly after I got out. The advantage to doing that - even though there you're losing some intellectual perspective, the advantage, I think, is you can still capture the immediacy of the experience. And right now for example, I find it a little bit hard to remember the force of the hunger - the force of the cold.
MOSS-COANE: And it's one when you're feeling hungry like that, you can't think of anything else because you fantasized a lot about meals, about chocolate - I mean, I assume part of that was a way of trying to occupy your mind.
SIMON: No, no it wasn't at all. It was uncontrollable. It was completely uncontrollable. And I thought it was also idiosyncratic. And then when I was released, a few weeks after I was released, and I went back to my home base in Israel - Israel was a good place to go to because there are a lot of people in Israel from both sides of the divide who have been prisoners. And I found that the only people I could talk to in talks that were useful to me were people who had been prisoners before because anyone else, it just required too much explaining and I don't think - frankly I don't think it's really possible to understand if you haven't been there.
But when I'd meet another prisoner - and a lot of both Israelis and Palestinians called me and said, hey, you know, I've been there - you want to talk? And I'd say, yes, and we would. And I found that a lot of things that I thought had been idiosyncratic were not, that these uncontrollable food fantasies are - is something that is human. It's something everyone experiences who is undergoing chronic starvation.
MOSS-COANE: Did you use sleep as an escape - a way of kind of exiting yourself from your cell?
SIMON: When you're in solitary and the conditions are as dismal as they were in this cell - I mean, there was nothing there. If I'd had a pad and I found - the other thing I fantasized about was having a pad and pencil, then I could have done that forever, I felt. That's what I really wanted, but there was nothing. And no light, no nothing. You want to sleep as much as you can. But there's a limit to how much you can sleep particularly since you're not getting any exercise. And yeah - the hunger is a force that keeps you awake, too.
What I tried to do - there was no window in this cell. But there was a shaft - an air shaft that let in a little light - just enough light so I could see my hands during the day. And with as very little amount of light I could, I got to be able to figure out sort of what time of day it was - what kind of day it was. And there's an enormous difference between just having this little bit of light and it being pitch black.
MOSS-COANE: Did you get disoriented about how many days were going by or were there ways that you could actually mark time?
SIMON: There was one way, and that's very fortunate because one of the things you discover is that it is crucial to your sanity to keep track of days. All the movies we've all seen with guys making scratches on walls - it's not just a trick, it's not trivial - it's crucial. The walls in my cell were very hard - hard red bricks, polished red bricks. And I didn't have any kind of instrument or implement that - they took everything away from me - that could have made a mark in that. But what they did give me - and here's, you know, Iraqi humor - what they did give me was a bar of soap - a fresh, new bar of soap. This is funny because there was no water. So I had a bar of soap, but no water. I managed when they stripped us and shoved - before they took us into the cells - I managed to save a button I had from my safari jacket and shoved it into a pajama pocket. And so I had - the only things I had in this cell were a bar of soap - a dry bar of soap and a button. So the most important part of the day for me was as soon as I saw that first light in the morning, I would take the bar of soap and make - draw a line in it with the button.
MOSS-COANE: And would you find yourself looking at that bar of soap?
SIMON: All the time.
MOSS-COANE: You describe Iraqi humor - I guess that's Iraqi humor to give someone a bar of soap without any kind of water. But there were also acts of kindness - Iraqi soldiers that would get food to you.
SIMON: There were two kinds of Iraqis. There were Iraqis - and Iraqis go into the army like people do everywhere. And the Iraqi soldiers were human beings and some of them were very, very fine human beings. And for the first six or seven days, we were being held - after the first day which was extremely brutal, we were then taken to an Iraqi army prison camp. We were in the hands of the military. And I can't say that they treated us well because - but they did treat us well. The facilities left quite a bit to be desired. But the four of us were together. We were in a cell that was freezing and wet, so we started getting very sick. But it wasn't because they were trying to make life bad for us. That's what they had. And they didn't have much food. But what food they had, they gave us. And some of the soldiers there - the enlisted men in particular - were sweethearts. And they gave us some extra food when they could, and one of them gave us an extra blanket. And one of them even - when he saw how sick we were getting - gave us a kerosene stove he had to put in our cell. And that was - I think that that was one of the third or fourth things that saved our life because I think we would have died of pneumonia without it.
GROSS: Bob Simon in 1992 speaking with FRESH AIR guest host Marty Moss-Coane who hosts the WHYY program Radio Times. Bob Simon died last night in a car accident. He was 73. He had been completing a "60 Minutes" report about the search for a cure for Ebola. That report will be broadcast as planned Sunday on "60 Minutes."
Coming up, Laurie Schwartz reviews a collection of reissues of heightened string quartets. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Among the best-loved recordings from the 1950s fifties were 15 LPs of Haydn string quartets played by the Schneider Quartet. They originally appeared on the Haydn Society label, but they were never reissued on CD until now. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH HAYDN SONG PERFORMED BY SCHNEIDER QUARTET)
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, I discovered that Music And Arts, one of my favorite classical labels, has just reissued a series of recordings from the 1950s that have never appeared on CD. I immediately wrote to a few friends whom I knew would be excited. I'm so glad you told me about this, one of them wrote back. It's the last item from the recordings available when I began collecting records that I've still been looking for. This is a set of Haydn string quartets with an extraordinary group of string players, the Schneider Quartet, assembled by Alexander, or as he was known to his friends, Sasha Schneider, the longtime second violinist of the renowned Budapest String Quartet. He is joined by violinist Isidore Cohen, who later joined the Juilliard Quartet, violist Karen Tuttle, who headed the viola and chamber music departments at the Curtis Institute of Music, and cellist Madeline Foley, a disciple of the great cellist Pablo Casals and one of Yo-Yo Ma's teachers. Foley was later replaced by Hermann Busch, a member of the legendary Busch Quartet of the 1930s. These are some high-power credentials. But credentials alone don't make such wonderful performances.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH HAYDN SONG PERFORMED BY SCHNEIDER QUARTET)
SCHWARTZ: Haydn was essentially the inventor of the modern string quartet, just as he was of the classical symphony. He gave each of the four players an individual voice, if not always an equal one. So each quartet is a kind of civilized conversation. And with Haydn, the formal structure of the classical style allows an astonishingly nuanced range of emotions that embrace both comedy and tragedy so that even the slightest change of key or tempo can reveal a whole new attitude. Just the titles of some of the quartets suggest Haydn's great variety, "The Bird," "The Frog," "The Joke," "Sunrise," "Emperor." Some fine groups don't always tune in to these emotional shifts, and what they play sounds preciously antique. Others coarsen the subtleties by playing them up with a heavy hand. But this is where the Schneider Quartet surpasses almost every other ensemble. They are so totally with the music, inside it, that their playing offers a perfect balance between understatement and the deepest feeling.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH HAYDN SONG PERFORMED BY SCHNEIDER QUARTET)
SCHWARTZ: Haydn wrote somewhere around 70 string quartets over his long career. Scholars are still debating the exact number. The Schneider Quartet performed all of them in concert. But money for the recordings ran out before they finished the complete project. So a handful of Haydn masterpieces are missing from this set. Still, they managed to record 46-and-a-half quartets, plus "The Seven Last Words Of Christ On The Cross," a work Haydn composed originally for orchestra that has an introduction, seven wrenching slow movements and a conclusion called "Earthquake." And here they all are, impeccably, splendidly remastered.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH HAYDN SONG PERFORMED BY SCHNEIDER QUARTET)
SCHWARTZ: This set is dedicated to the memory of Fred Maroth, the cultured founder of the Music And Arts label, who died in 2013 - the perfect tribute. There's even a special deal, 15 CDs for the price of eight. I love these recordings and what they represent. And I want everyone I know and everyone I don't know to hear them.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Boston and is senior editor of classical music for the online journal New York Arts. He reviewed the new 15-CD set of Haydn string quartets, played by the Schneider Quartet on the Music And Arts label. If you have trouble coordinating your schedule with our broadcast schedule, try our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or your mobile podcast app.
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