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Ballad of Narayama

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Did you choose your religion?

This entry was originally titled, "Would you kill Baby Hitler?" Unfortunately, as several readers pointed out, most of the comments centered on the title, suggesting few had made it to the end. The entry is not about Hitler so much as about fate, chance, and luck. I'm giving it a second chance under another title.

The original entry began: Of course, you would have needed to know on April 20, 1889 that the little boy would grow up to become Adolf Hitler, and would commit all of the crimes we now know he committed. The only way you could know that, apart from precognition, would be to have traveled backward in time from a point when Hitler had committed all his crimes and you knew about them.

Then again, Hitler did not act alone. He had many skilled and dedicated lieutenants, and the willing support of millions of Germans. Some historians argue that social and political currents in Europe, deepened by the settlement of World War I, set the stage for some sort of German postwar nationalistic movement, and that if there had been no Hitler someone else would have led it. The art historian Siegfried Kracauer, in his book From Caligari to Hitler, traces the rise of such feelings in Germany and detects them in the nation's films.

The success of the movie "Looper" has inspired discussion on many web sites about the possibilities and paradoxes of traveling back in time and killing someone--or, in the case of this ingenious film, getting yourself killed. The story's stunningly sudden climax follows perfect logic, and leaves the audience debating its endless implications. On my site, the comments drifted slightly toward Hitler, as web comments have a way of doing.

It is a truism from the golden age of science fiction that if you go back in time and change anything--even, say, stepping on an insect--the result of your act could multiply over subsequent millennia to alter the entire course of history. It is a truism from the theory of evolution that if you could travel back far enough to eliminate an organism's distant ancestor, that organism might never evolve, although a similar one might evolve to exploit its evolutionary niche. Even though DNA seems to indicate that every single human on the face of the earth is descended from a pre-human female named Eve, it is presumably possible that if Eve had been killed as a baby, other humanoids would have ultimately peopled the earth with their offspring, and here we would be--although we would not be "we."

Richard Dawkins loves to play with the beautiful logic of evolution by pointing out such truths as that every single one of us has an unbroken line of ancestors who were fertile and successfully reproduced. That statement is even true, come to think of it, about in vitro babies.

But back to Baby Hitler. A fascinating 2002 film named "Max," I wrote in my review, "imagines a fictional scenario in which the young Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor) is befriended by a one-armed Jewish art dealer named Max Rothman (John Cusack) in Munich in the years following World War I. Both served in the German army and fought in the same battle, where Rothman lost his arm. The dealer opens an avant-garde art gallery in a vast abandoned factory, showcasing artists such as George Grosz and attracting important collectors--and Hitler, clutching his portfolio of kitsch. Rothman takes pity on this man and is friendly to him, moved by the pathos beneath his bluster."

In my review I quoted William Boyd from the Times Literary Supplement: "How on earth could a dysfunctional, deranged, down-and-out homeless person in pre-First World War Vienna become, 20 years later, Chancellor of Germany?"

From my review again: "The film argues that he succeeded because he had such a burning need to be recognized--and also, of course, because of luck, good for him, bad for us. If Hitler had won fame as an artist, the century's history might have been different. Pity about his art."

I am now going to make a great leap into the opening pages of my memoir, Life Itself, in which I say (to make a long story short), that what success I've had, and indeed the course of my life itself, has depended on good luck and the kindness of other people. I didn't make any of my own opportunities. All I can take credit for is being ready for them when they occurred. The recent death in Urbana of a great and kind man named Dan Perrino just about brings to an end the list of surviving people whose intervention helped me to become the person I am.

Today I saw an extraordinary film named "The Other Son," about Israeli and Palestinian baby boys who were mistakenly switched at birth. The switch is discovered when the Israeli boy is turned down by the army because his blood type doesn't match his parents. We have two boys accustomed to think of themselves as Jewish or Palestinian, and they are legally each other.

How many people choose their religion, and how many have it thrust upon them? "I was born a Catholic," I was accustomed to say. In fact, I happened to be born to a Catholic mother and a Lutheran father who agreed that I would be raised in the Catholic church. The truth is, I was born as a baby boy. The two boys in "The Other Son" have been raised to resent and hate each other, and now find out that they are each other. The "Jewish" boy is not Jewish, the rabbi explains to him, because his mother was not Jewish. The boy protests that he has been an observant Jew for every day of his life. Not good enough, the rabbi regrets. The boy has only to take a few more steps and he can convert. The boy is outraged--he, a lifelong Jew, must convert to Judaism?

The fact is that without the blood test, he would have spent his life being a Jew, and the actual Jew by birth would have spent his life being a Muslim. It is not impossible to imagine a war scenario in which the two kill each other for the opposite reason they imagine.

Now back to Hitler again. Rumors circulated that Hitler's father was a member of a Jewish family for which his mother worked as a housekeeper. These rumors have been discredited. But in 2010, and I quote from an article on this website, "Belgian journalist Jean-Paul Mulders and historian Marc Vermeeren initiated the search for Hitler's lineage, taking saliva samples from 39 living relatives, including a first cousin. The samples were analyzed under 'stringent laboratory conditions.' Experts found that Hitler's relatives have a chromosome called Haplogroup E1b1b1. "Haplogroup E1b1b1 is common among Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, as well as Berbers of Africa's Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. It is extremely rare among people of Western European descent. Also, a significant proportion of the Afro-Asiatic Jewish population carries E1b1b1. It is considered one of the major founding markers of the Jewish lineage and is carried through the male chromosome."

This finding could be correct or it could be mistaken. The point is the same. People think that race and religion are terribly important, even matters of life and death, when they may be mistaken about race and have never given much thought about why they belong to their religion. A good many people are prepared to kill on the basis of a religion that was chosen for them by a chance of birth.

The revealing thing about the particular parents in "The Other Son" is that, when they learn about the switch, it isn't religion that comes first into their minds, but biological lineage. The other son is theirs. Their desire is to regain possession of him after 18 years. The thought that the boy they raised as their own will now worship in an "enemy religion" seems less important than that their actual son return to his biological roots. All the parents and children continue to passionately love the children and parents they started out with. In the slow growth of acceptance between the families, it isn't religion that points the way, but the universal languages of music and communal meals. This doesn't play out easily, but it plays out heartwarmingly.

Revealingly, those who most quickly adjust to the new situation are the mothers. The sons eventually seek each other out. The fathers are much more resistant. Mothers are bound to the fruits of their wombs. Religions and wars are started by men. In many religions and most wars, women are seen as having secondary importance.

I know some parents whose choice is to let their children choose. They introduce them to their own religion, if they have one, and to other religions. What religion the child chooses--or none--is left to the child as an adult. I think that's wise.

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