What to do and read when in solitary or family confinement owing to Covid 19

What to do and read when in solitary or family confinement owing to Covid 19

Dear readers of my blog,

after all of Europe and much of the rest of the world has been subjected to a confinement in people’s houses and/or gardens with quite a few of them also with limited access as to visitors, for they are high-risk patients, I feel very strongly that I need to say something in public, since it is simply impossible to know where to begin contacting people outside your personal and local circle if the only thing is – apart from using social media – to start ringing up Tom, Dick, and Harry. It is a matter of concentration on the most vital contacts, those old-age pensioners, for example, the age of one’s parents or those parents themselves who cannot receive visits from either their children or grandchildren and whose only current personal contacts are the nursing personnel. Some of these old men and women still do their own reading and react not only like seasoned practitioners to this crisis mode of life, others cannot but recall the last great crisis they underwent in their own lives, the Second World War, that is. The problem, however, is that those who are prepared for this crisis are a small minority. For, to put it in a nutshell:

The sole cause of all human misery is the inability of people to sit quietly in their rooms.”

This sentence written by the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal I found in the collection entitled “Life I Do Not Understand You”, edited by Danny Morrison, Belfast, 2019. It is like a quip that sums up not only the causes of the pandemic, rather it also shows what is at stake at this very moment. First, the fact that man is notorious for traveling around and for overdoing this provides at least one cause of the current crisis. Second, conversely, now that people in most countries are confined to their “rooms” they need to solve problems they have always been able to circumvent owing to their natural or inborn restlessness.

For me, a recent family bereavement made me think of wanting a break from everyday life, from acting like the proverbial hamster as I last experienced it some years ago on a merely personal level. At the time, I was able to pursue and/or start writing and research projects I have been working on ever since. Now that a life-span of 92 years plus 28 years had come to a close at the end of January, I knew I would be in for a sustained period of mourning this loss as well as winding up an estate of both things in the material sense and personal writings that did not surprise me when I found them but still made me crave for a spell of rest when to sort and digest them. So when a good fortnight ago, as it happened it was my birthday, the shutdown of all kindergartens and schools as well as universities was announced I was all but shocked. It came as a kind of relief with a strong sense of what kind of challenge I was in for.

Both as teacher and as family father I am strongly aware of the odds one is up against with having to organize an everyday life without the structure an organization like the kindergarten or a school imposes on you. As I writer and translator, however, I have for a long time been accustomed to planning my day, my week on my own, and this is why I am not without hope in unprecedented crisis. It is possible to learn precious things while being confined to one’s family, one’s room, one’s circle of friends and acquaintances, one’s street even. For those lacking in ideas of what to do, I would like to point out some writings that could help up re-emerge fortified by this crisis.

Just think of Victor Hugo (1802-1885) who in 1830 resorted to more or less solitary confinement when trying to finish his novel entitled Notre-Dame de Paris – 1482 which eventually appeared in March 1831. Currently editing a translation into German first published in 1969, I can say that the simple fact of knowing how Hugo wrote the bulk of the novel helps me much to improve in terms of Hugo’s own vision in French what is a workable version in German. Not only do I seem to feel close to Hugo’s self-imposed inner exile in Paris at the time, I can also imagine him being in exile and writing for France after 1851 when he had to leave the French capital for almost two decades.

The next writer, the main subject of this blog, that is, of course, I have in mind is Oscar Wilde who more than once created an atmosphere of seclusion around him in order to finish in writing what he had already conceived in his head. This happened when he finished The Picture of Dorian Gray in the winter of 1890 when, like Hugo sixty years earlier, he needed to hand in the novel before any money would be paid, while Hugo also wrote against a terminal deadline, having procrastinated for more than two years after he had originally signed a contract. Wilde, of course, had had experience with that sort of sequestration and writing when at school and at university, and he had to undergo a much harder ordeal when in prison after 25th May 1895, so that it is not exactly surprising that but for his letter De Profundis clamavi and The Ballad of Reading Gaol he was unable to write anything but letters after having been convicted. All the same, Wilde is an example of someone who managed to survive prison not least because there were people who helped him get books and writings materials and who had enough resilience to take advantage of that privilege once it had been granted. Of course, both Hugo and Wilde were high-profile individuals who when in exile and/or prison continued to be such characters and who always lived up to their own intellectual standards both inherited and learned when attending schools whose masters taught them such techniques of surviving intellectually and emotionally when left to their own resources – often based on treasures of quotations they drew from several languages both classical and modern.

Dear readers, both writers were truly prepared to “sit quietly in their rooms”. The same applies to the next two I am going to write about today: Tanya Kagan-Josefowitz and Anne Frank. Tanya Kagan-Josefowitz, born on 17th May 1929, after her family’s expulsion from Germany in February 1938, emigrated to the USA where she studied the arts, married the musician and entrepreneur David Josefowitz and, while being a mother of three girls, carried on a life as artist in many genres before writing two memoirs.

The first, entitled Capinero, was published in 1992 and included the life story of her favorite bird, an Italian canary, as well as drawings of the bird and photographs taken by several men. The second, entitled I Remember was also published privately in 1999 and only came to be written after her mother’s death. In a very similar way, this text tells the story of the family’s flight from Worms to New York via Metz in France. It was only in October 2016 when stepping-stones were to be laid at the family’s last address in Worms before their emigration that her words as printed in the memoir were first read out in public in German.

This was when my own part in her story began. Initially asked by Elke Scheiner to choose and translate three passages to be recited at the ceremony in Worms, I had told her I would do the complete book, so that this very short memoir would perhaps one day see the light of day as a book in German, too. The book duly appeared in time to coincided with the 90th birthday of Tanya Kagan-Josefowitz in May last year. At the same time, a video in which she answered questions formulated by students from Ulrichsgymnasium Norden, where I teach, was made, and here she spoke German, a language which for many years most people around her not her family had not heard her speak much if at all. Some of those who write on Tanya Kagan-Josefowitz as a creative artist link her more with the Yiddish of her Kagan relatives in New York whom she first met on arrival in the USA in 1938 than with the Rhenish German variant she grew up with in Worms and which colors her pronunciation of the language whenever she chooses to speak it – as the video clearly conveys. If I had had the chance to have the video done while translating the book instead of having it done when my work had been completed, I might have thought of using her as a resource person for some expression that both Frau Scheiner and my own late mother and grandmother who hailed from the same region would use rather than the more generally known ones I eventually chose.

When we mounted a small student-produced exhibition on Tanya Kagan-Josefowitz and Anne Frank at Norden last year, it was clear that for April/May 2020 we would try to integrate a small show of Tanya Kagan-Josefowitz’s art works into the big traveling exhibition entitled “Anne Frank: A girl writing history” due to be shown for the second time at Ulrichsgymnasium Norden to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

As everyone reading these lines will know, neither of these projected events is going to take place at this point in time since the Covid 19 virus has led to a complete shutdown of public life in Germany for the foreseeable future. So the drawings of birds and animals as well as photographs of Tanya Kagan-Josefowitz as an artist surrounded by a mixed bunch of animals and birds as well as her works are not going to open people’s minds to the ever joyful force of life in the face of her survival of the Shoah in which thirty of her close relatives were murdered. It was agreed to have her colorful works introduce young and not so young people to the twofold Anne Frank exhibition covering both her story – the history – and her impact today – the current political situation. The reason for this was to show – not least to some young people in the school who felt doubtful about this venture concerned, as they said, with a dead person – that while Anne Frank had died 75 years ago it is through her diary written almost entirely in confinement that we know so much about her life and life in general at the time. To those whose addresses I know personally I am going to append the poster of the exhibition-to-be in the message announcing this blog.

Tanya Kagan-Josefowitz is part of a tiny minority of people surviving long enough to face almost absolute confinement to her home in Switzerland at the moment – recalling for her, certainly against her own wish, I figure, the most dramatic crisis she has ever experienced. She might say with Danny Morrison, “Life I Do Not Understand You”. Or she might say like a character in the German bourgeois tragedy “Maria Magdalena” by Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863), which I recall to have read at school, that he fails to understand the world – after his daughter unmarried and pregnant had committed suicide.

Anne Frank, for her part, is in a minority of a special kind in that she left behind so much about how she experienced that particular confinement she shared with seven people in a secret Amsterdam annex that we can and should turn to her as an example of how personal development is enhanced rather than stopped by circumstances she could do nothing to change. While her confinement was brought about by criminal policies of segregation and discrimination, the confinement we are faced with today is much more difficult to explain, and we will all need patience to develop the right forms of reactions to it – in particular in terms of speaking our minds while many human rights we are accustomed to are put on hold. Of course, writing this blog, I do not address the majority, perhaps it is only the happy few who already know how to react to such circumstances because they have always been aware of dangers to our way of life. And certainly both Victor Hugo and Oscar Wilde from the 19th century and Tanya Kagan-Josefowitz and Anne Frank from the 20th century are writers sometimes working with several languages and identities we can turn to in our search for encouragement and hope in this crisis which already asks many of us to change our personal and family lives before a more fundamental change in the lives led by various societies and by man in a global sense of the term can be envisaged. Wishing you and yours all the very best,

I am yours truly,

Jörg W. Rademacher, 29th March 2020


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