Monday, October 14, 2013

The Power of Story

Last week was the beginning of the Yiddish Fest and I attended two very extraordinary events. The first was a talk by Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. I had the good fortune to have heard him at the genealogy conference I attended earlier this year in Boston and was struck by his energy, passion and humor. Even though he touched on many of the same stories, his enthusiasm brought a freshness to them.

If you have read his book
Outwitting History, you know something about his story. As a graduate student he began collecting Yiddish books, often as Yiddish speaking elders or their children were disposing of their libraries. Many of his more colorful stories related to rescues that began with a middle of the night phone call on a rainy night alerting him to a dumpster filled with Yiddish books. Food also seemed to be a theme as each stop at a home entailed eating their way through offerings of Jewish delicacies before beginning their labor of book removal. As I listened to the reverence in which these books were held by the original owners, I thought of the groaning shelves of books that I grew up with. While not Yiddish books, I suspect they grew out of that same reverence, something deeply rooted in Jewish culture.

Lansky talked of their efforts to digitize the books to make them widely available. This effort was largely funded by Steven Spielberg consistent with his efforts to preserve both survivor stories and the stories of Jewish heritage. More recently they are working to apply optical character recognition (OCR) to be able to make them searchable. And of course this comes with a story. Lansky was contacted out of the blue by Assaf Urieli, a gentleman who lives in the French Pyrenees and created Yiddish OCR to aid in searching information on his ancestors. He offered this tool free of charge to the Center, a tool which can revolutionize Yiddish scholarship.

So that was amazing lecture number one. Amazing lecture number two occurred the following evening when I went to hear my friend Dora Eiger Zaidenweber together with her grandson Etan Newman launch her father's memoir of his 2 1/2 years in Auschwitz. A crowd of almost 200 people showed up to hear her speak. I've written previously more of this book, Sky Tinged Red, and the unusual story of its discovery. In brief, while it was written immediately after the war, the first portion was not discovered until her father's death in 1960. Dora translated this in the 1980s only to discover it ended in 1942. It was not until 2007 that she found the original handwritten manuscript in Yiddish which recounted the rest of the story. Even more amazing was the fact that Dora, now legally blind, translated it with the aid of a magnifying machine, one letter at a time. So we have a very unusual story of discovery and an unusual story of translation. The story itself is also unusual in that few people survived 2 1/2 years in Auschwitz, witnessing and participating in its creation, the bombing of the crematorium and ultimately liberation. Isaia Eiger was fluent in many languages and as a result was assigned the role of intake scribe.  Because of these responsibilities  he was in contact with many of the people who entered Auschwitz and writes of them, especially those from his town of Radom.

In addition to her father's tale Dora was asked about her own story. Dora was in both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and has shared many of her stories with me in our conversations. We frequently debate the role of personal story. I believe it is the way that most people connect and hence very important. Dora has often opted for more universal themes. I was pleased when a student asked if there was something that stayed with her from her experience and Dora shared two of her most powerful stories. Now that 200 people heard them, I feel that I can share them here as well. Both involve her mother who accompanied Dora throughout the war and was in large part the reason Dora survived.

First Dora recounted her memory of standing naked before Dr Mengele as their fate rested in his hands. Other women had preceded them and the older women were usually sent to one side, to death, and their daughters to the other. The daughters who had escaped the gas chamber often sought to remain with their mother. As Dora and her mother approached Mengele, Dora was behind her mother. Suddenly her mother pushed her in front. Surprisingly both survived the selection even though her mother was in her 40s, an age considered old in that time and place. Afterwards Dora asked her mother why she did that and she replied, " I didn't want you to try to follow me."

The second story showed a similar level of forethought that I hadn't expected. Dora's mother had hollowed out the heels of her burgundy shoes and in each heel she had hidden a small diamond ring. On many occasions they debated if the time had come to trade one of those rings for a loaf of bread, always opting to hold it in reserve. In Bergen-Belsen, typhus was rampant. Dora had become ill and recovered, but was still very weak. One day she was unable to arise for roll call and was taken to the infirmary, a death sentence. Two people shared a bed, 30 inches in diameter, awaiting their place on the pile of bodies that accumulated each day. Dora's mother returned from work and discovered Dora was missing. She went to the infirmary, diamond ring in hand and offered it to the Polish woman in charge in exchange for her daughter.

As you can gather, both Dora and Aaron Lansky are powerful storytellers and I was privileged to witness the power of story in their hands.

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