Tanya Josefowitz, I Remember
Welcome to my blog,
Writing post-Holocaust remembrance day, after the 27th of January, that is, I only need to mention that this year, at Leer, the commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945 was devoted to gay men whom the National-Socialists as of 1935 had totally criminalized. So Oscar Wilde’s predicament is present among us even if he died already in 1900. Having just completed the translation into English of biographical sketches of detainees held in Esterwegen and other Emsland Concentration and Convicts’ Camps between 1933 and 1945, I was reminded more than once of Oscar Wilde – in particular since the men detained for that reason were not prominent at. Unlike Wilde, or, the Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1936, Carl von Ossietzky, they had no-one to “talk about them”. At the same time, Wilde’s prison writings are a constant reminder of what literature can do. It is in this vein that I want to introduce another book which has now arrived at the production stage.
I am going to talk about Tanya Josefowitz’ memoir, suitably entitled I Remember. It is a “brief life”, a book containing one narrative telling the story of the family’s flight from Worms on the River Rhine to New York plus some other sketches of key-moments remembered from her life before 1938. Since the book is going to be published by Elsinor Verlag (Coesfeld) in the spring, beginning its “life” by being studied in two classes at Ulrichsgymnasium Norden, I thought it was necessary to prepare some notes Didactic Notes which may well be up-dated later.
It is unusual in the context of teaching to preface didactic notes on a particular subject with remarks on the author’s personal approach. Here this is in order because instead of overpowering your captive student audience you need to win its attention to whatever you set out to teach.
As it happens, creating attention in the classroom is both practically the most important and theoretically the least regarded aspect of the teaching profession. In my teacher’s training period of two years, this subject was mentioned only once by my supervisor in French, to be dropped instantly after she had conceded I had that talent. Once teacher’s training had ended, however, I quickly noticed the importance of developing one’s personality as a teacher and what it takes to change that part of oneself along with all the other personality changes undergone in the course of a life.
Born in March 1962, it took me a long time to realize that this was only 17 years after the end of the Second World War. Simultaneously, though, I also understood that all my life had been overshadowed by the repercussions, both public and private, of this conflict. It was in 1995, fifty years after what is known as VE Day in the rest of the world and which was the day of unconditional surrender on the Germans’ part, that I started a project that has kept be busy ever since. One aspect of this project is concerned with the collection of documents.
Collecting autobiographies and memoirs by Jews from various countries in three languages, English, French, and German, since the 1990s, I have become aware of this special Jewish tradition of recording one’s life for the children and grandchildren as well as for posterity in the context of survivors of the Shoah. While I have collected as well as read many such books, I am surprised to realize how many I still do not know whenever encountering a new one.
It needs to be said that I have kept some of those works I acquired quite early on when nothing as yet pointed into that direction: The Unfinished Journey, the autobiography written by the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the novel The Manor by Isaac Bashevis Singer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978 of which I own a reprint issued in 1979. I also recall having had a novel by Chaim Potok, The Chosen, first published in 1967.
For the Menuhin autobiography I am sure to have bought it in London in late September 1979 when, during a school trip in year 12, I attended a concert in the Royal Festival Hall in which he both played the violin and acted as conductor. In fact, the concert was on the 2nd of October 1979 as the programme notes confirm which I have kept, so I bought the book the same day or later when still in London. I devoured Menuhin’s book and have cherished his image of life as a journey ever since, while in rereading the beginning recently, I noticed how little I must have understood then. From what I grasped as a seventeen-year-old, Menuhin was an individual whose career I could only read about and follow rather than imitate or emulate, whereas in reality he has become some sort of role model for my own quite different journey.
At the same time, the number of memoirs and autobiographies written by non-Jews who lived in the same historical period, are few and far between, often limited only to such people who have hit the headlines, as if representatives of the “majority” did not have feel the urgency at all to record their lives for their children and grandchildren. There are people, however, such as Willy Brandt, another early influence, whose stance as a man who had spent the war in Sweden and Norway made him an outsider in the Germany I grew up in even when he had eventually become Chancellor.
My own parents, for example, like many of their generation, never got round to telling their life’s story, though both spent a life reading and writing in various capacities. The only time I recall they simultaneously told me their disparate traumatic stories from the Second World War when my mother was in her teens and my father was a child under ten was also in 1995 when somehow their hearts had been reached to make them raise their voice about that early period of their lives.
So while on the one hand the very first few books of memoirs I bought had been written by Jews who were of world-wide renown, which is why I became alerted to them, most of the others titles in my collection on the other hand do not share this high profile. All these stories of survival, however, share the approach to life as being their own “unfinished journey”, whether touching on various concentration camps in particular or on death marches, or whether they are stories, both fictitious and factual, of how they survived in hiding, or simply such texts supposed to help their offspring to piece together their father’s or mother’s lives.
Hardly any of these authors lay claim to any religious intent, while there are some who do so explicitly. Many are artists or scholars, just as traditionally it was rabbis who recorded their lives for posterity, while most of them seem to be linked to the Jewish religious tradition only in terms of wanting to write their lives as much as to keep alive their memories by telling them to various audiences in person.
As a person as well as a writer, translator, and teacher, I have attended many occasions when survivors talked or read, not least since 2013 when I began to attend the autumn and spring meetings of the Relais de la Mémoire Juniors where contemporary witnesses as well as artists, writers, film makers, journalists, and scholars convene to discuss the subject of remembering the Shoah, Resistance and Deportation. It has become part of my personal life to pass on the word about such events to others, to people both young and old, in writing as well as in speech, in German as well as in English and French.
Thus it was a pleasure to encounter Tanya Josefowitz’ memoir I Remember in the early summer of 2016. I had been waiting for it, it seemed, and given that it was written in London and finished there in 1999, something had come full circle for me as well. Only while working on these notes at the same time as correcting the proofs of her memoir, did I think of Menuhin’s book again, perhaps because it is housed in our living room where all the music books sit beside the piano and not in the shelf where I keep my Jewish collection.
Anyway, on browsing in it I discovered George Steiner’s preface, which is entitled “Not a Preface, But a Word of Thanks”, and in it the reference to Yehudi Menuhin’s visit to the former Concentration Camp Bergen-Belsen where many Jews had died, not least Anne Frank. She was Tanya Josefowitz’ exact contemporary – just as Steiner is whose literary work I came to appreciate only later on.
Rereading Menuhin’s reminiscence of that visit, I felt shivers sent down my spine, as has happened several times with respect to the Shoah when I re-encountered a first moment that with hindsight had done its bit to shape my own life’s journey. That is why it is worth while quoting that passage at length:
Before leaving London, Ben[jamin Britten (1913-1976)] and I made an attempt at rehearsing a repertoire, only, after five minutes, to abandon it: there was so much more than we could ever do, our understanding of each other’s approach seemed so intuitively sure; we put our trust in luck and musical compatibility and set off for Germany. We took with us more or less the whole standard violin literature – concerti, sonatas, little pieces – and played it, without rehearsal, two or three times a day for ten days in the saddest ruins of the Third Reich. At Belsen we played twice in one afternoon. I shall not forget that afternoon as long as I live. The inmates of the camp had been liberated some weeks earlier, the prison huts burned down, and the ex-prisoners transferred to the adjoining SS barracks, which had, among other comforts, a theatre. Men and women alike, our audience was dressed in army blankets fashioned by clever tailors among them into skirts and suits. No doubt the few weeks since their rescue had put a little flesh on their bones, but to our unaccustomed eyes they seemed desperately haggard, and many were still in hospital. Among these was a little gypsy boy whose sweetness and pathos so struck me that had my domestic life not been a shambles, I would have adopted him there and then. In the thirty years since that afternoon several members of the Belsen audiences have come backstage to make themselves known, restored to the living in Israel, Australia or elsewhere; but the gypsy boy I never saw again. (Unfinished Journey, London: Futura 1978 (1976), pp. 239/240).
This reminiscence was written by a Jew who had never been persecuted but who with the British composer and pianist Benjamin Britten early on encountered survivors of the Shoah – and was not aware of the fact that Anne Frank had died at Bergen-Belsen before the liberation of the camp by British troops.
Tanya Josefowitz felt an urge to write down her story of survival – suitably following the death of her mother who had led Vladimir and Tanya on their flight from Germany to the United States. Such a situation is often the moment when people who do not write in principle, or are artists such as Tanya Josefowitz and others, turn to writing in order to record their own memories of the deceased for posterity – or, as in this case, for her immediate family. It is only now, twenty years later, that her moving brief memoir is eventually going to be published for the world at large.
Reading and re-reading are required activities in publishing any book. So one day I realized that any ideas I might have about how to introduce Tanya Josefowitz’ memoir into the classroom would need to be set out in writing as well. While the book is going to be issued in its entirety, both in English and German, perhaps later also to be translated into other languages, the need to annotate it will increase rather than decrease as the time described recedes into the past. That is why I chose to prepare these didactic notes for publication on the Internet rather than in book form. Having said that, the classroom itself is a secluded space, not quite the classical hortus conclusus, but a protected space where various flight of fancy are still possible and where, depending on the personalities of students and their teachers, freedom of choice in terms of the teaching approach is a necessary virtue. So I outline possibilities rather than stating certainties. And, finally, I refrain from formulating particular teaching objectives in order to allow room for development within the scope of the project as a whole.
On a personal level, both the text, the photographs included, and the index of names and places allow for a first reconstruction of the journeys undertaken by the Kagan family in 1938 and beyond, whether in Germany, Europe, or in the United States of America.
On a more abstract level, inspired by the subjects of geography and history, one might think of drawing up maps of cities, regions, and various countries to symbolize their journey. Put up on the walls of the classroom, these maps would become points of reference when preparing other parts of the projects, for example, a talk with Tanya Josefowitz herself.
Thinking more in terms of politics, one might put side by side the events of the family life – as recorded here – and the political restrictions as imposed on Jews in National-Socialist Germany since 1933, looking, for example, also at photographs of the family circulated on the Internet (Vladimir’s website, for instance) with captions that after having read the memoir of his sister need to be corrected. These findings could be juxtaposed with information gleaned from the lives of other Jews such as Anne Frank, Tanya Josefowitz’ exact contemporary.
A more literary approach would look at the structure of the memoir in general as well as its way of telling little stories that came to mind while writing, whereas they have not been integrated into the overall chronology. I am thinking of chapters touching on incident in Germany before their flight as well as on how Jewish legends are integrated into the narrative. All this could be done in either English or German, where the aspect of translating American English spelling and British English vocabulary into a German close to the period described also enters the picture.
To establish the personal and cultural context of their life in New York, it would be interesting to find out more about the people and places the Kagan family frequented in the late 1939s and early 1940s.
Another quest would be to identify the gaps in the narrative, for example, the several weeks spent at Metz, Lorraine, France, in the spring of 1938, to perhaps identify the Jewish family they stayed with. This would need to find people in France or Jewish descendants of those deported from Metz to obtain a list of the deported from the Synagogue in Metz.
In terms of artistic approaches, one might think of drawing the portraits of the family, based on the photographs as well as on the reading of the memoir.
Another artistic approach would entail looking at Tanya Josefowitz’ own works and seeking to put them in relation with her writing.
A different approach altogether would be to think of translating her memories into modern dance.
In terms of re-writing, one might think of copying her memoir in either English or German in long-hand, with students taking turns doing so as well as noting their reactions in various ways before presenting their own work in public. Such a project might help to raise funds for further projects.
This exercise of re-writing might be coupled with a similar one based on Anne Frank’s Diary, so that students’ reactions to both girls in their early to middle teens could be juxtaposed and studied.
Other, equally fruitful and perhaps also more demanding approaches include “marathon” readings of the book in both languages as well as turning it into an audio book or play, or even a film. While a “marathon” reading can be done with the help of students and perhaps some of the teaching staff involved, translating a text into other media requires both more qualifications and more funds.
It is certainly highly rewarding to trigger and later have all these different creative or critical reactions on the part of the students, while it is perhaps equally important to have them discuss and evaluate their results as well. So time should be allotted throughout the project to both report on and comment on what they are doing.
The school subjects concerned could be German, English, arts, history, geography, political sciences, ethics, philosophy, religious instruction. Ideally, all the teachers concerned are made aware of the interdisciplinary approaches beforehand, discussing the project in its progress. On the whole, this project requires creative as well as critical skills on the part of the teachers as well as on the part of the students, while the discursive side should not be neglected.
Jörg W. Rademacher, January 2019