Thursday, July 3, 2008

Gayle Wald's Letters Project

The following arrives from Professor Gayle Wald. One of our best teachers, Professor Wald is an expert in American and African-American literature, as well as music and cultural studies. She is also the Deputy Chair of the department and the chair of our Planning and Development Committee.

Professor Wald is the author of Shout, Sister, Shout: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a critically acclaimed biography of gospel music’s first breakout star. She thought she was finished with biography, until she unexpectedly inherited a large family archive last year. Now she is working on a new book, tentatively titled Identity Papers: A Jewish-American Daughter and a 21st-Century “German” Problem.

The book will combine cultural criticism with excerpts from a large and remarkable correspondence between Hermann and Frieda Jacob, German Jews, and Edith Wald, their only daughter (and Prof. Wald’s grandmother). In May 1939, Edith and her two children fled Frankfurt am Main and the Nazi regime. Their ship, the U.S.S. Manahattan, took them to Ellis Island. From there, they joined Edith’s husband Charles Wald (who had emigrated a year earlier) in Philadelphia.

Edith’s departure marked the beginning of a two-year correspondence between father and daughter, which ended when the Final Solution was implemented and writing became impossible. Hermann wrote to Edith weekly, usually on Sundays, describing his and Frieda’s increasingly futile attempts to secure emigration papers, their struggles to negotiate various German and international bureaucracies, the rhythms of severely curbed daily life in Frankfurt, the fates of their Jewish neighbors, and, above all, their wish to see their children and grandchildren. Hermann’s typewritten letters—routinely opened and scrutinized by German censors—are replete with an anxious foreboding born of the knowledge that, barring alternatives, they faced certain deportation. Indeed, at some point in late 1941 or 1942, Hermann and Frieda were sent to various concentration camps, eventually landing in Auschwitz. Frieda survived the War and eventually joined her family in Philadelphia; Hermann is presumed to have died in the camp.

Hermann’s typewritten letters to Edith constitute a fascinating transatlantic conversation between German-Jewish refugees and the family they left behind, conducted in the shadow of the Final Solution. Because Nazi censors are scrutinizing the letters, Hermann and Frieda are forced to communicate in tacit language their knowledge of arrests, deportations, and concentration camps. They convey a poignant sense of the futility of their attempts to find countries that will accept them as immigrants. They reminisce about pre-1933 German-Jewish life and fantasize about their children’s and grandchildren’s lives in a new country: Are they learning English? Can they afford to buy a house or must they rent? Are the parks in Philadelphia like the parks in Frankfurt?

“As a scholar of literature, I’m especially interested in how these letters say things that cannot be said,” says Professor Wald. “How do they manage to talk about issues without talking about them? How do they use the 19th-century language of sentiment to narrate dread and uncertainty in the face of unprecedented modern disaster?” “I am also interested in what the letters reveal about Jews who desperately wanted emigrate, but who were ironically frustrated in their attempts by the very Nazi bureaucracies that had made life in Germany unbearable.”

Here is a digital scan of one of the letters, as well as a (partial) translation:

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                Frankfurt am Main

                October 21, 1941

My dearest, Heinz and grandchildren!

In the hour of our deepest despondency yesterday we received your dear letter from September 16, from which we gladly gathered that you are well. We now have your new address and wish you lots of luck and well-being in the new apartment. You write that you have often thought of us; however we have certainly thought about you more. A telegram is already ready to be sent to you at the moment when we and many others we know forever leave our homes and Frankfurt. Possibly we will move near Hienz’s sister Lotty.

Right now I’m sitting and writing with the neighborhood woman to whom you were once so nice, who sewed so many clothes for you, and to whom you sent coal to keep her from the frost and cold the last winter you were here. You certainly know her address on the corner. I have given her your address, and should the expected change happen to us, as it will to many of our sisters and brothers, you will receive notice. Don’t needlessly worry, dear children. We hope to God to be strong enough to withstand all the difficulties of our time and life.

No doubt a move brings with it much dirt and work, but now you’ll be more comfortable and will breathe more freely, Edith. You don’t know what this is worth. You live close to a lovely park. How lovely it must be there. Do you have the house to yourselves? How happy Mother and I would be to have the smallest of the five rooms for ourselves, if only to see you every day. Mother is not strong, she has rather broken down, Aunt Bella no less in her double pain. Then there is our bothersome subtenant, so you can imagine what rests on my old weak shoulders. Just the thought of you, the thought of being able to see you once again after all, gives me comfort and hope. Many people have emigrated by means of Cuba, which should be significantly easier and cheaper. I am sending two addresses to you for this purpose, dear Heinz. Something should be available from the Joint [Jewish charitable agency]. Perhaps I will find out something more about Cuba by midday, which I can then enclose in this letter?

Dear Edith, for the time being refrain from all attempts to send us packages; we are already thankful for your good will. With regard to your former housemate you write, All’s well that ends well. Wouldn’t we be happy if this could be said of us. Write us steadfastly, and we will do the same as long as we’re able. All our hope and trust lies in your hands, dear Edith and Heinz. Always remember us, as in these dark hours we think only of you, of how we endlessly love, greet and kiss you many thousand times in the hope of a happy future.

Most affectionately, your Vater und Opa mit Mutter

And here is my problem as department chair: I would very much like to support Professor Wald in her project of translating these letters and writing a book that puts them in their cultural and historical context. While such an endeavor seems self-evidently deserving of funding, the department does not possess the monetary resources to enable Professor Wald to start the project. I have published this entry on the department blog in the hope that one of our readers will recognize the value of her research. To support the translation of the letters would require about $5000. To fully underwrite Professor Wald's project and move it to publication as a book would require about $10,000.

Speaking on behalf of a department that values the contributions of all groups to American literature and is trying to grow its strengths in the literature of the Jewish American experience, I want to stress what an important contribution could be made here. Please contact me (jjcohen@gwu.edu) or Professor Wald (gwald@gwu.edu) directly if you would like to speak about this opportunity ... and we thank you in advance for your consideration.

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Gayle Wald's Letters Project
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