Remembering Mother's Legacy
by Susan Sachs Fleishman
During her lifetime, my mother rarely spoke of her experiences as a Jewish girl in Frankfort am Main in the '20s and '30s. In the more than four decades that I knew her, her adolescence in Hitler's Germany was a dark shadow, a vague but undeniable presence. I knew my mother had written poetry as a teenager no big deal; I had, too, and my daughter in her adolescence but I never knew this material still existed.
Shortly after her funeral in 1991, her sister, my aunt, sent me a small volume of poems mother wrote as a teenager, a seven-by-nine inch hardbound volume with original typed, not printed, pages. "Ruth Rosenfeld Gedichte" ("Ruth Rosenfeld Poems") was crudely stamped in gold leaf on the spine. When questioned, my aunt vaguely remembered that three copies of the book were originally assembled but couldn't recall why or what had happened to the others. She also sent a diary, similarly typewritten, a blue carbon-copy on translucent onionskin paper.
From the time I was a child, I knew not to inquire into my mother's life in Nazi Germany. When I was older, therapists said if I really wanted to know, I could ask. But I was not prepared to open floodgates of memory and grief. Much was left unasked and unanswered when she died at 71. So when I received the long-hidden poems and diary, I yearned to hear my mother's voice interpret the events which shaped her lost adolescence, the rest of her life and much of mine. But her long delayed answers were in German and I couldn't read them.
Although I did not realize it at the time, a magical journey was beginning. Even meeting the translator seemed predestined. When a friend ran into a former German instructor she had not seen for more than twenty years, her small talk included my recently discovered manuscripts. Although my friend didn't ask, the teacher had a suggestion; he knew someone with experience translating German poetry.
The message was relayed; and I called Thomas Dorsett, who agreed to look at the poems. I could not know that the tall, graying man with a boyish face who appeared at my door a week later would become a friend and colleague, a valued guide on a magical, mystical journey. Although he has the rumpled, discombobulated look of a preoccupied professor, Thomas is a pediatrician with the renowned Johns Hopkins Medical Systems, a poet, essayist and translator of poetry with several books to his credit.
Sitting in my living room on an autumn afternoon, Thomas was immediately captivated with the melancholy charm of Mother's poems.
I stand at the window, looking beyond.
The evening sky becomes golden and red;
Pale stars appear between dark clouds
The sun sinks like a ball of molten lead
A steeple reflecting my magical mood,
Radiates the play of light and dark
This vision is a gift from God
I wake up with a jolt; dogs bark.
Suddenly I see how things really are.
the sky is gray. the fire's dead.
Sunsets aren't just God's gifts, they just are.
And again I recall that deep red.
As Thomas continued the translations, his initial impressions were confirmed. He told me he had been shown, many years before, the early, unpublished works of Robert Frost and other well-know literary figures, writings that showed little of the exceptional talent these famous poets were later to demonstrate. Thomas compared these efforts to my mother's poems with their elegant phrasing and complex structures, written during her adolescence a formidable early talent disrupted by social and political upheaval. "Another casualty of the Holocaust," he said. "A tragic loss."
As a former English teacher, I delighted in the beauty of my mother's poems. As a daughter, however, I was more intrigued by the young woman behind the words.
Stop trying to figure life out.
Truth's an abyss; why walk off firm ground?
Just try to enjoy nature without doubt
No other answer is found.
With the diary, a more complete portrait of this complex individual began to emerge. While the poems were written in the 1930s in Frankfurt am Main, she wrote the journal in 1940 when she sailed from London to New York. My mother and her older sister, Carol, had left Germany in 1939, one month before the borders closed, to work as domestics in England. A year later, Ruth traveled to America alone. It was another month before Carol could complete the required paperwork.
Ruth's shipboard diary reveals a twenty-year-old woman who is at once a youthful flirt and a war-shocked survivor:
I think the stewards are taken aback by our appetites and wonder if we're always going to eat so much. The stewards make me laugh and they tell me everything I want to know. They're all very handsome young fellows.
After dinner we take a walk on deck. Some sailors . . . tell us about their wonderful country, Scotland. I envy these young men because they have a country; I envy their love of their native land. They know where they belong; we belong nowhere. I don't know if everyone feels the same, but I am almost ashamed. Will I ever feel at home in America?
But the young woman speaking to us through her poems and diary was not entirely familiar to me. The mother I knew was neither introspective nor coquettish, but practical, industrious and somewhat stern. Her tools were the range and the mop, not rhyme and metaphor. A working mother in an "Ozzie and Harriet" era, her pencil drafted ledgers, not journals.
She and my father, Charles Sachs, had separately emigrated from Germany and met in the United States. They shared a love of family, passion for travel and enjoyment of the arts for almost 50 years. My father, a shy, reserved man, was singularly unsuited for his job as a traveling salesman; so for many years, we depended on Mother's salary as well as her cooking and sewing.
Ruth Rosenfeld Sachs had a dark aspect filled with buried memories. Like the far side of the moon, the face of her melancholy was hidden from me but clearly affected my world. Dramatic tearful outbursts and the slamming of doors still echo in my memory. I learned at an early age that I could help her maintain composure, if not happiness, by being a very good little girl, compliant and unquestioning. When I reached adolescence, she let me know, implicitly and explicitly, that any distress over the vagaries of puppy love and popularity was inappropriate and unfounded compared to what she had gone through. "How can you be upset?" she'd say. "That's nothing."
There were a few stories she had shared. One is set on the terrible night of November 10, 1938, now known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when raging German mobs destroyed synagogues, Jewish businesses, cemeteries and schools, viciously attacking Jews in the street and in their homes, at work and at prayer. Nearly 100 Jews were killed, hundreds more were injured; and thousands taken off to concentration camps.
My mother was at home with her mother. Her father as well as her much-older brother and sister were away. A terrified aunt and uncle arrived, seeking the shelter of family. When the SS came in the night, searching for Jewish men, 18 year old Ruth sat on a daybed feigning calm as her uncle hid beneath. She told me that she spied her uncle's sock under a chair, a dead give-away that they were harboring a man. And yet she remained placid, giving no indication of the fear she felt. My high school dramas were no match for this.
Her impossibly lofty standards stripped my youthful achievements of value. When I scored 90 percent on an exam, my mother insisted, "If you could get a ninety, you could get a ninety-five. You should have studied harder." Predictably, when I got 95, she demanded 100 percent. Later, I came to understand that she was as easily disappointed in herself as she was in others. "I should have known that," "I should have said . . .," "I should . . ."
My mother kept to herself, inviting few friends to our home, even on holidays. She was wary and distrustful, lost in a time when close friends betrayed her trust at Hitler's behest. Another of the few incidents she shared with me involved a close childhood companion with whom she regularly visited and studied. When Hitler came into power, the same boy "crossed the street so he wouldn't even have to say hello. He never spoke to me again. Ever." She simply ceased to exist to former friends. At 17 years of age, she wrote "Loneliness" which begins,
It creeps inside and turns you into stone.
Cruelly, with hands as hard as wood,
And even if a thousand people stood
Waiting to address you, you're alone.
Plagued by survivor guilt, my mother would ask why she was allowed to live when so many perished. God must have spared her for some special purpose. She concluded she had failed Him and her people. Although she loved us, neither Dad nor I could heal the huge emotional wound that festered inside her.
Whenever I feel joy, more
Demon doubts soon follow
Inside me they gnaw and gnaw
Leaving me hollow.
My incomprehensible soul,
You're like a Word no one can read
I'd lie down on burning coal
If I could get what I need.
Before he even finished the translations, Thomas introduced me to David and Margaret Diorio, principals of Icarus Books, a small publishing company specializing in poetry. Within two weeks, the Diorios offered to publish a book including 14 of the 60 poems and entire diary.
In January 1996, I held the first copies of Beyond These Shores 1934-1940 by Ruth Rosenfeld. On the back cover were prepress comments by popular author Rabbi Harold S. Kushner. A review by Booklist declaring "This small gem of a book is a haunting personal testimony," resulted in orders from all over the US, while reviewers drew parallels between my mother's writings and those of Anne Frank and Robert Frost.
Reporters called and local newspapers featured in-depth articles about my mother, her life and art. Bookstores invited Thomas and me to speak and sign books; and local schools began to include Beyond These Shores in their curricula. The Baltimore County Department of Education asked Thomas and me to speak to high school classes, many just beginning to comprehend the incomprehensible Holocaust. We supplied historical and personal background, but it was the words of Ruth Rosenfeld, a girl their own age, that touched their hearts:
No longer heed their center. Tearing peace asunder,
they rush on, greed obsessed, to plunder
Everything. What's good they godlessly ignore
And God remains beyond us, more and more
In classroom discussions, the students asked thought-provoking questions. "How would your mother feel about having her writings publicized, examined, discussed?" "Haven't you betrayed her trust?" They forced me to examine my heart. To some extent I agreed. Had we discovered the material during her lifetime, she may have prevented its release, unwilling to put so much of herself up to public scrutiny. I approved publication only after writers, scholars and others whose opinions I respected validated the material's literary excellence as well as its historical significance.
Although she rarely recounted her experiences in Hitler's Germany, Mother often repeated the watchword of Holocaust survivors: "We must never forget." I am convinced she would have taken great pride in knowing that her words deepened many people's understanding of the Holocaust and sparked animated discussion. Perhaps that knowledge would have helped still the gnawing survivor guilt.
Classroom discussions underscored what I missed while growing up. When young women referred to conversations with their mothers about Ruth Rosenfeld's writings, the child I had been threatened to betray me with tears of frustration.. There were so many important conversations I never had with my mother. She never showed me her poems, never shared her love of literature (Thomas pointed out where she was clearly influenced by Ranier Maria Rilke and other great German writers), never described her adolescence nor how she felt about being Jewish. In the classrooms, I silently confronted my hurt and resentment.
As time went on, however, my heart opened to the magic of her legacy. My mother had indeed given me what I longed for. Today, I learn from poets and other writers I have met through her poems. In the schools, young people challenge and energize me as we share her story and bring history to life. My mother has introduced me to wonderful people like the Diorios and Thomas and his wife who are now great friends. She has become an enchanted genie, freed from her earthly lamp of anguish; the book is a magic carpet, taking me to exotic places I may otherwise never have visited. Thomas and I have introduced her to book clubs and Jewish sisterhoods, We were invited to speak to an interfaith group at a Carmelite Monastery and I was asked to read her poems during a service at a large Catholic seminary. We were privileged to contribute to a book, recently published in her home town of Frankfort, chronicling her life and writings. Ironically, Ruth Rosenfeld was born in the same city as Anne Frank, exactly ten years earlier.
In time, Mother inspired me to return to my own writings, long hidden like hers. In classes and workshops, I share my work and hone my skills.
Although we belonged to a synagogue, my parents taught me, by example, to be non-observant. My mother never let me know how strongly she identified with the Jewish people.
We have been sown. We continue to grow
Despite being stamped upon. Like
The old, the young die, laid low
By a whirlwind. And the scythes strike.
The storm has destroyed many: whole crops fell
With countless seeds onto the ravaged earth.
They still fall --Yet the ground beneath our hell
Makes us rise again, demands new birth.
Ruth Rosenfeld's impassioned young voice challenged the religious ambivalence with which I was raised. My mother is leading me back into the Jewish community where I now study, attend services and participate in programs. She has brought me home.
Truly, I am blessed. Other "children of the Holocaust" tell me certain subjects were never discussed in their homes either, dark memories never exposed to light. Survivors explain they only wanted to protect their children from the horror stories. Every time a survivor shares another astonishing account of terror, tragedy and heroism, we see the darkest and brightest faces of humanity. It is almost too late. Soon there will be no survivors left.
They made us die a thousand deaths
And we died then to rise up and soar.
We gained from death an understanding;
We cannot forgive nor forget what we saw.
I received these magical gifts later rather than sooner perhaps when I could better appreciate them. After losing my mother to a debilitating illness, I found her again: young, strong and eloquent. Through the years following her death, she is still changing and shaping my life.
* * * * *
To purchase Beyond These Shores 1934-1940: Poems and diary of a
Jewish girl who escaped from Nazi Germany, by Ruth Rosenfeld, Icarus
Books 1996, contact David Diorio, firstname.lastname@example.org
from the February 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine