Innocence is a key character trait of the schlemiel. And it is expressed through the pervading trust the schlemiel has for other people. The only problem, as we see in a character like I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” is that Gimpel is constantly lied to and betrayed. But what makes this betrayal astonishing is the fact that it doesn’t affect the character’s trust in others. Ruth Wisse argues that Gimpel is not a total fool, however. He knows that the world is full of lies but he, nonetheless, acts “as if” the good exists. He does this because he believes that, one day, good will triumph over evil. We find his continued trust of others astonishing; for if it were ourselves, most of us would become cynical or perhaps even traumatized.
And there is much to say about trauma and the schlemiel. To be sure, there is a strong case to be made for the claim that the schlemiel is a character which was born out of trauma and is, in fact, a response to it. Her trust is not a total defiance of trauma because we, as readers or viewers of the schlemiel, are astonished. Many of us think that it is nearly impossible to defy the reality of historical trauma – especially after the Holocaust. Sidra Ezrahi and even Ruth Wisse have wondered whether the schlemiel should survive the trauma of the Holocaust. Regardless of their ethical queries, however, it has.
What makes the schlemiel so powerful is the fact that she consistently trusts the other. Her image of the other is not damaged by trauma. To be sure, this is astonishing because, after trauma, the subject has a hard time staying in any relationship. Since all relationships are based on trust and her trust was violated, things may never be the same. According to Judith Herman,
the roles she assigns to others may change suddenly, as the result of small lapses or disappointments, for no internal representation of another person is any longer secure. Again there is no room for mistakes. Over time, most people fail the survivor’s exacting tests of trustworthiness, she tends to withdraw from relationships. The isolation of the survivor thus persists even after she is free. (93)
In contrast to the survivor of trauma, the schlemiel’s vision of “another person” is secure (although it is not based on reality). The schlemiel doesn’t test the other so much as the other way around. The schlemiel withstands the test of betrayal, but we can’t. And the schlemiel seeks for relationships even after she has been shamed or lied to. The schlemiel doesn’t prefer isolation.
The contrast between the schlemiel and survivor is fascinating because it brings out what is most human in humanity. When people are put into captivity, are tortured, or abused, the goal of the persecutor is to make the subject live a life in which every relationship with the other “may change suddenly.” In every relationship, the sense of deception is palpable for the survivor of trauma. Trust is dangerous. This is what the persecutor wants to instill in the victim. And coupled with this is a sense of servitude rather than freedom.
Real freedom, as the schlemiel suggests, doesn’t happen in isolation from others. This is also what Judith Herman says in her book Trauma and Recovery. If the survivor is to fully recovery, she needs to feel that she can live in the public realm with others who she can trust. Building trust can take a lifetime but it is the path that Herman, a psychiatrist, practices with her patients.
We are all very cynical. But many of us don’t know the breaches of trust that are experienced by the survivor. What we can learn from the survivor and the schlemiel is that if there is hope and if humanity has a chance, it must be built on trusting the other. Because the rupture of trust – which Gimpel and the survivor both have to address – should be a great concern to all of us. Wherever there is a rupture of trust which emerges out of deception, betrayal, abuse, and violence, there is an act of inhumanity. And we need to stand on the side of hope which battles these things. For without trust, the world will become chaos.