by ERIC BECK RUBIN
Photo by Dahlia Katz
Who gets to tell your story? Who has the rights to your memories?
Thinking about these central questions in Joshua Harmon’s play, Bad Jews, brought me back to one of my first writing jobs: ghostwriting the memoirs of a Holocaust survivor.
I was just shy of twenty-two when I got the call to meet a man in his sixties, at his offices on Park Avenue South in New York City. As I waited to be called in, I paced the entranceway (it was a two-person operation, the secretary had left for the day), and spent the time ticking off the many plaques on the wall. American Jewish Congress. Anti-Defamation League. American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors. Big macher would be the words I’d use, if I spoke Yiddish.
The man who eventually called me into his office was about 5’ 4”, with a crown of white hair, and mischievously youthful expression on his face. He told me had been thinking about publishing his memoirs and been advised that he needed a writer to put them on paper. His English was more than fine for conversation, he said, but he’d need some polish when it came to ordering words on a page. Could I do that? he asked. I had devised a plan beforehand and, sitting across his desk, laid it out for him, as though I were an old hand at all this. He would record his recollections with a Dictaphone (he already had one) and I would transcribe the recordings, noting where the draft needed more (or less) information, and edit as I went along. He asked me for a fee, we shook hands, and within the week I had, courtesy of US Postal Service, the first three chapters in audio format.
He was born in the Polish city of Łodz, between an older brother and young sister, and was only six years old when the Germans crossed the border on September 1, 1939. His parents were clear eyed, but their planning couldn’t keep them from being swept into the Łodz ghetto, the second largest in occupied Europe. For nearly four years, this child and his siblings were reduced to ever more constricted quarters, fending off disease, starvation, kapo and German. They worked odd jobs, planted and harvested potatoes and radish, and somehow stayed alive. Their parents, used as slave labour, did not, and at just nine years old, he saw his father’s body carried away in a cart that regularly made the rounds of the ghetto streets. Not long after, he and his siblings were sent to Auschwitz.
Less than a month later, the next installment of audio tapes arrived. These recalled the fourteen months that he survived in the concentration camp system. Less than a third of the way into the transcription, I noticed a change. Where I had a clear picture of his childhood dining room, the cobbled streets of the Łodz ghetto, the fear and disdain that followed the ghetto elder Chaim Rumkowski, once the setting changed the voice seemed to ‘zoom out’. He noted his arrival at Auschwitz, his placement with other Jewish children in the gypsy part of the camp, the fact that he was with his brother throughout (and later reunited with his sister in Sweden), but the prosaic details of how he, as a child, survived in Auschwitz were notably absent. Or rather, they were being blocked out. I kept on transcribing, wondering whether he had made this decision consciously, or from some other motivation. It wasn’t that I was looking for introversion, philosophy, religion, or any kind of reasoning, only some sense of how he lived through the days. I thought these were necessary parts of his story. I left a message at his office that we needed to talk about the draft.
For a while there was no return call. Then I received the next set of tapes. Emigration to America; how he made it from a ‘greenhorn’ in Atlanta to an importer-exporter in Manhattan; family life. Having left the camps behind, the memories once again became fuller, more detailed. The name of a professor at Emory college. The winding path of the road in California where he drove his first new car. What it sounded like when he heard, over the phone, that his brother would need to undergo brain surgery. The project was becoming something like the tale of an immigrant made good. The story I thought he had intended to tell, the ‘memoirs of a survivor’, were receding from view.
I called his office again. This time he answered, but before I could tell him we needed to consider the direction of the manuscript he spontaneously invited me to his weekend home in Stamford, Connecticut. We drove up the next day with his wife, talking about everything not related to the project.
The same went on through the weekend, as he introduced me to acquaintances around Stamford and we played tennis on his private court. It was not until the last night, after the three of us had dinner in the small kitchen in his weekend house, that I brought up the problems in the manuscript. As soon as I said the word, I regretted it; I didn’t think I was wrong, but it was tactless. His faced turned stormy, and before I could speak, his wife started shaking her head. There was no problem with anything her husband did, she snapped. None! And especially not when it came to this. She stood up from the table and before leaving the room reinforced the point: it was his life, his story. ‘What right did I have to know these things?’ she said.
After watching his wife leave, he asked, in weary tone of voice, what I wanted. Taking care with the words, I explained that there were certain periods of his story that wanted to be told, and that, as a reader, a student, someone interested in this history, I wanted to know more. Like what more? he asked, not sounding like he actually wanted an answer. I pulled out the manuscript and showed him some examples. At the camp, I asked, was there ever a time when he came to understand how it worked, or what the future held? How about the reunion with his sister after the war – how did she survive, how did you reconcile? He didn’t address the first question. For the latter he said, ‘I looked at her, made sure it was her, and we moved on.’ Then came that stormy look again. All the counter-arguments I’d formulated deserted me in that moment. He stood up from the table, shut off the kitchen light, and wished me good night.
The project broke down shortly after. I sent him the final transcription, with edits and prompts, but he returned it to me almost immediately, in the same envelope. I later learned that he submitted the transcription to several publishing houses without making any of the suggested, or even agreed-upon, changes.
A number of years later, married and in a different city, I wrote a PhD dissertation on the way we use works of literature to carry the memory of the Holocaust. Shortly after, I worked on an exhibition of photographs by Henrik Ross, who secretly took pictures of the Łodz ghetto during its operation. Both projects asked how we preserve and disseminate the memory of the Holocaust; during both, I found myself arguing with others about who is authorised to tell this history – those who were there? those who came after? witnesses? historians? artists? Do we even need authorisation in the first place?
Two years ago, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a delegation of survivors was sent to the camp, and their procession was broadcast on television. BBC, CNN, CBC. While watching, I was surprised and not surprised to find my friend in the very first row, addressing the audience from a podium, giving statements to the press, still looking determined, impassioned and youthful. His voice sounded the same.
As for the memoirs, they were received by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which accepts all survivor testimonies. It was also self-published and is available on Amazon.
Though it’s not the widely-read book he envisioned, the memoirs are never far from my thoughts, nor the story behind them, of a person who commissioned an autobiography but did not want it to be written. Or rather, who wanted it partially written, keeping the real story, his personal story, to himself. Which brings me back to Bad Jews. In the play, three grandchildren fight over a similar legacy, their grandfather’s war-time history. Though there’s room for each to interpret, none can tolerate the others making any kind of claim, and it’s as if sharing in some way diminishes them, the story, the legacy. The questions fall down the generations.
Eric Beck Rubin is a cultural historian who writes on architecture, literature, and psychology.
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