New Review in Lithuanian-Canadian Weekly

Thanks to Ramunė Jonaitienė for this review in Tėviškės Žiburiai, the Lithuanian-Canadian weekly newspaper. Among the phrases I’m really grateful for is her description of my tone as “calm.”

Ačiū, TŽ.

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Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research 2012

Margin by Ian Koh

Established in 2011, this prize in memory of Abraham Meir Schwartzbaum, Holocaust Survivor, and his Family who was murdered in the Holocaust is awarded annually in recognition of high scholarly research and writing on the Holocaust.  Last year’s prize was awarded to:  Prof. Christopher R. Browning, for his book Remembering Survival:  Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp, and to Prof. Daniel Blatman, for his book, The Death Marches:  1944-1945.

Only books containing new research on the Holocaust, or its antecedents and aftermath, will be considered. Research accuracy, scholarship, methodology, originality, importance of the research topic, and literary merit are important factors.

Books, either hardcover or original paperback, published between 1 January 2010 and 31 December 2011 are eligible for the prize.

Five copies of the published book together with the application form, a copy of the author’s Curriculum Vitae, and two letters of recommendation should be sent to the International Institute for Holocaust Research, Yad Vashem.  Entries must be received by 1 June 2012.  Entries will not be returned.

In addition to the monetary prize, the recipients will be asked to present a paper at the award ceremony.

This prize is endowed through the generosity of Sabina Schwartzbaum in memory of her father.

The Prize

1. The prize is named in memory of Holocaust survivor Abraham Meir Schwartzbaum, and those of his family who were murdered in the Holocaust.

2.  The Yad Vashem Prize for Holocaust Research is awarded annually.  It recognizes research on the Holocaust published in the two years proceeding the year in which the prize is awarded.

3.  The prize aims to encourage excellent and new research on the Holocaust, or its antecedents and aftermath.

4. Research accuracy, scholarship, methodology, originality, importance of the research topic, and literary merit are important factors.

5. A monetary sum will be awarded to the winner/s.

6.  Recipients from abroad will be invited to Israel to present a paper at the award ceremony. Flights and hotel accommodations will be covered by the Research Institute.

7. A group of Holocaust historians chosen by the International Institute for Holocaust Research make up the panel of judges for the prize.  Judges, including their family members, may not enter the prize in any year in which they judge.

More details here.

Application form here.

[Photo: Margin by Ian Koh]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Nancy K. Miller (Part I)

Nancy K. Miller. What They Saved: Pieces of  Jewish Past. University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

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In her new memoir, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past, Nancy K. Miller tells the story of how she reconstructed her family’s missing past from a handful of mysterious objects found in dresser drawers and apartment closets after her father’s death. The strange collection–locks of hair, a postcard from Argentina, a cemetery receipt, letters written in Yiddish—moved her to search for the people who had left these traces of their lives and to understand what had happened to them. As Miller slowly pieced together her family portrait and assembled a genealogical tree, she felt connected in unexpected ways to an immigrant narrative that began in Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, when her ancestors headed for the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At the end of her decade-long quest, Miller started to imagine the life she might have had with the missing side of her family. Suspended between what had been lost and what she found, Miller finally comes to terms with the bittersweet legacy of the third generation—tantalizing fragments of disappeared worlds.

Nancy K. Miller is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She has written, edited or co-edited more than a dozen volumes, including Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death, But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People’s Lives, and several books on feminist criticism and women’s writing.

Julija Šukys: I once heard a novelist talk about how she decided to write a book about a house. One by one, she told the story of each room. I very much like the idea of writing biographies of objects or places. Your book, it seems to me, has similar origins; in your case, a private archive of objects passed down in your family, including a collection of letters, a tallis bag containing tefillin, a map of a plot of land in Israel, and a lock of hair enclosed in a soap box. Talk a little about this collection of items, and how your contemplation of them led you to write this book.

Nancy K. Miller: Not long after my father’s death in 1989, as I emptied the family apartment, I found the tefillin and the locks of hair in a drawer. More precisely, I found the tefillin in a set of drawers that resembled a secretary and that was part of the living room furniture, and the box of fancy French soap in which the hair had been preserved in a bedroom dresser. The distinction seems important, if only because following the model of the house, I now in memory recall the objects in their original location. But also perhaps because, now that I think about it, the tefillin were destined to be worn in a public place—a synagogue, or any other place of prayer—and therefore were stored in the living room, whereas the box of hair was stored in the more intimate space of the bedroom. Not that I thought then about what possible difference that made.

At that point in my life, I was about to take off for a year’s sabbatical in France, and there was little time for contemplation. All I could do in the days I had before leaving was to gather these objects—and others, the letters, photographs, and random scraps of paper—and set them aside for storage. I knew I wanted to hold on to these things, but the idea of writing anything inspired by them was very far from my mind. I was working on the book that was to become Getting Personal (1990), and while I suppose I might have contemplated, to use your word, the significance of these objects, I did not. Weirdly, though, it now strikes me, before my father died, I wrote a very short essay about his debilitating illness, a meditation I called “My Father’s Penis,” and that constitutes the last chapter of that book. Even when I wrote the book Bequest and Betrayal (1996), in which I deal with the death of my parents and their legacy, as well as other family matters that I dwell on in What They Saved, I did not turn my attention to what now seems to me a precious collection of memorial objects.

It was only when I received the strange phone call from the realtor in Los Angeles telling me that I had inherited property from my paternal grandparents that I began to realize that this small cache of objects contained, or potentially contained large stores (not yet stories) of information about my father’s side of the family. Since I knew almost nothing of these people—his people—I started to wonder about who they were, what had happened to them, and how their absence, their silence might have affected my childhood. But again, I was not thinking about a book. I related the anecdote about the phone call and the meeting it led to with my father’s nephew (I had known neither my father’s brother, nor his son, except for their names) in an epilogue to But Enough About Me (2002), saying that it was a good story. But the story, such as it was (and wasn’t) kept tugging at my mind, and I continued to research the missing family members. I wrote an academic essay (2007), in which I sketched out whatever I then knew—not much!—and interwove those bits of knowledge with stories of immigration (Mary Antin, Amos Oz) in order to create some perspective for my very slender speculations.

Still no book.

In 2008, after vowing I would never follow the path of the “root-seekers” heading for Eastern Europe, I traveled there myself. And when I returned home, I realized that I had to write this book. It was at that moment that I first understood that the objects not only grounded my story, in some sense they were the story, or at least they provided the clues I needed to construct a narrative.

While reading your book I felt a host of tensions at play in the narrative. You write how as a young woman you rejected your father’s surname, Kipnis, and took on your mother’s name, Miller (retaining only the middle initial K. from your father). Yet, here you are, many years later trying to reconstruct the very past, the otherness, and the patriarchal footprint, I suppose, that you once rejected.

There’s another similar moment: the story of the tefillin — sacred prayer boxes — that you inherited. You consider what to do with the tefillin: “Because the paraphernalia of prayer belongs to men, I could not see the point in saving this legacy, but something about putting the velvet bag in the trash along with the household garbage made me uneasy – would I be throwing away an entire tradition? Part of me said yes, and why not?” (217). In the end, as a kind of compromise, you get rid of the bag and straps, and keep the boxes themselves as a souvenir of your father’s (and your?) abandoned religious past.

It’s a big question, I know, but I wonder if you could talk about this complicated desire both to excavate the past (by tracing family trees and reconstructing histories) and to turn one’s back on it (by discarding pieces of the past like family names, languages, and religious beliefs).

The fact that all the objects were, in one way or the other, connected to Jewish history posed a conundrum. How could I pursue this research when so many of these markers—the pogrom-driven immigration, the property in Palestine, and so on, were parts of my inheritance that I had rejected, or at least distanced myself from? In particular, because of what you nicely call “the patriarchal footprint” (I love that phrase), I had rejected religious observance and, what we used to call “the name of the father.” Above all, in keeping with the seventies feminist ethos I believed in, I dreamed only of self-invention, the second-wave version of the “new woman.”

But by the time I had launched myself into this project of reclaiming the past, I could not quite so neatly sever myself from everything that had shaped it—and me. What surprised me the most and what led me to backtrack on some of my earlier positions was seeing how much closer I was to my grandparents’ immigration than I had realized. I mean that I understood in a wholly new way how much my parents were touched by the fact of their parents (on both sides) being immigrants, and then, by extension, how their manner of inheriting that immigrant past—my father was probably conceived in Russia—had been passed on to me, if only through their silence on the matter. There’s a term from psychoanalysis that one of my students (Molly Pulda) writing about memoir has introduced me to: nescience. Not knowing. The notion is that knowing that there is something you don’t know, in this case in a family setting, can have a powerful effect on one’s psyche. The further I delved into my research, the more I saw that what I saw as far from me—having nothing to do with me—was not outside me, but in me.

This is Part I of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part II.

[Photo: Nancy K. Miller, courtesy of the author]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Nancy K. Miller (Part II)

Nancy K. Miller. What They Saved: Pieces of  Jewish Past. University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

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This is Part II of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part I.

Julija Šukys: I loved reading your descriptions of how you related to “The Old Country” before this quest. “Russia, a vast faraway, almost mythical kingdom ruled by Czars, was filled with mean peasants, who lived in the forest with wolves [. . .]. Basically, Russia was a place one left, if one was a Jew, as soon as possible” (36).

As you begin to piece your family’s past together, you start to see a much more nuanced picture. Your family, it turns out, comes not from this fictionalized Russia, but from Bessarabia, present-day Moldova. Thus “The Old Country” morphs into a real place. You learn too that your family likely lived a middle-class life rather than a shtetl existence as you’d imagined. How did this process of discovery and understanding change your thinking about both about your Jewish past and your American present?

Nancy K. Miller: Like many third-generation descendants, I had pictured my ancestors as Jews from Eastern Europe were portrayed in Fiddler on the Roof. What other image was there? It took my second trip to Moldova to understand that my paternal grandparents were already modern, Westernized, and to some degree distanced from Orthodoxy (my grandmother was not wearing a wig, my grandfather trimmed and then shaved his beard): city dwellers and not living with goats. True, as Jews, they were subject to pogroms—and probably witnessed the famous pogrom of 1903 that took place in Kishinev (now Chisinau, the capital of Moldova) where they were living before emigrating in 1906, but they were not peasants; nor were they wealthy (alas). At the same time, their decades on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—where my father grew up—had to have deeply influenced my father’s tastes, and ultimately mine. When I was in Kishinev, for instance, I was amused to be served “mamaliga” (polenta), a Moldovan specialty–one of my father’s favorite foods and that he made for himself when he was living on his own after my mother’s death. I saw my father as both more Jewish—and less. In other words, he did not “lay” tefillin, he and my mother joined a Reform synagogue—horrifying my mother’s parents—but he saved what his mother had saved, the traces of their immigration. I now see myself as an inheritor of that history, not purely American, unless we understand American as always marked by ethnicity and coming from another place, never fully belonging.

I was very interested to read your book for purely selfish reasons: I too am writing a sort of family history largely based on a collection of letters that my grandmother sent to her children from Siberia. A constant preoccupation as I write this story is whether or not anyone outside of my immediate family will or should care about this narrative I’m piecing together. I imagine it’s the preoccupation of anyone writing a book based on private and invisible lives. Was this the case for you? How did you work through this question of why this story matters, and what conclusions did you draw about what family stories and private histories can teach us?

Indeed, I was tormented by the “so what” that all autobiographers grapple with. Why should anyone care about these people? The way I convinced myself that readers could care was by trying to show their story as representative—generational and historical. But beyond that, and only readers can say whether I succeeded in wrestling with this paradox, I tried to bring out the less specific, more universal aspects of my quest: wanting to know the story of one’s origins, who our parents were before we were born, where our grandparents came from, how we always come so late to wanting to know, and therefore not being able to ask. I confess that I’m always thrilled when someone who isn’t Jewish, who isn’t from an immigrant past, connects to the story as just that: the attempt to grapple with the past, with incomplete memories, with loss, with absence. I don’t expect anyone to care about my dead ancestors—as people, I’m not sure I did, either—but I hope that readers will relate to my desire to discover them, and the importance of finding out whatever one can. The book is a celebration of knowledge—maybe that’s because I’m an academic at heart. I guess that’s the lesson: there is so much to be learned, it behooves us to search for it. The search itself is probably the most important aspect of my book.

A major theme of this book is the absence of children. You are the last in your father’s line, and therefore there is no one to inherit these objects. It seems to me that your book is a kind of meditation on life, aging and death. Can this book take the place of the heir? Even if there is no child to inherit the dunams, there are the story and map of them, and these will never die. To what extent is writing about the family archive a way of creating non-biological continuity?

Yes, I hope that this book can take the place of the heir—even though I also know that that is impossible. I have found some consolation in having turned the objects into language, put them as words on the page, even though after I die, no one will want them, keep them, save them. That is a sadness but a fact of life, of my life, anyway. So it’s true that the book meditates on the meaning of loss and expresses the mad desire to hold on to whatever remains as traces of what we have lived.

The book ends with the acceptance that some things are unknowable. You can’t connect all the dots. You can’t know what caused a seeming rift between your father and his brother, but “a story about finding always returns to the places where the story got lost. It’s also a chance to begin again.” How does this new beginning look for you now that the book has appeared?

Well, for one thing, I have a different, richer view of my childhood, which always seemed mysteriously unhappy and vapid—standard issue professional, middle-class New Yorkers. But it’s not only about the past. I also feel newly excited to experiment as a writer. To circle back to your first question, in my mind, I’ve created a book about objects, from objects. I had no clue about how I was going to write this book until I did. So I look forward to my next projects emboldened by the adventure.

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Announcement: Yad Vashem Book Prize for Holocaust Research

The International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem is pleased to announce the establishment of the Yad Vashem Book Prize for Holocaust Research in recognition of high scholarly research and writing on the Holocaust and invites submissions for consideration. This prize is endowed through the generosity of Sabina Schwartzbaum in memory of her father, Meir Schwartzbaum, whose family was murdered in the Holocaust.

Only books containing new research on the Holocaust, or its antecedents and aftermath, will be considered. Research accuracy, scholarship, methodology, originality, importance of the research topic, and literary merit are important factors.

Books, either hardcover or original paperback, published between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2010 are eligible for the prize. The prize recipient will be announced in October 2011.

In addition to the monetary prize, the recipients will be asked to present a paper at the award ceremony in December 2011.

The value of each prize is $8,000.

Entry applications must include the following:

  • Three copies of each book submitted (entries will not be returned)
  • A completed entry form (in Hebrew, English, German, or French);
  • A copy of the author’s Curriculum Vitae (in Hebrew, English, German, or French)
  • Two recommendation letters (in Hebrew, English, German, or French) from reputable academics who are familiar with the book’s specific topic

Books submitted must be in the original published language. Translations are not eligible.

Books not published in either Hebrew, English, German, or French must include a 500-word abstract and a translation of the table of contents into one of the four above mentioned languages.

Entries must be received by 1 May 2011.

For questions or concerns, please contact the office of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at 972-2-6443-480 or eliot.nidam@yadvashem.org.il.

Mail submissions to:

Eliot Nidam Orvieto
The International Institute for Holocaust Research
Yad Vashem
P.O. Box 3477 (Mount of Remembrance)
Jerusalem 91034
Israel


[Photo: Werner Kunz (werkunz1)]

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Thinking journeys: On work and play

Today my son Sebastian pulled out a chess set that I bought in Jerusalem’s Old City years before his birth. He tucked it under his arm and explained to me in a very serious tone that the chess set was his “work.”

First, he set up the chess pieces like bowling pins and knocked them down with a stuffed ball. A few minutes later, he packed everything up again, said bye-bye, and headed off to “work” (in a more conventional sense this time, I suppose). He returned seconds later and plopped himself down on the chess case in mock despair, lamenting that he’d missed his bus.

It suddenly occurred to me that Sebastian was on a thinking journey.

I came across this idea for the first time in Jerusalem, and I wrote about it in my first book:

At the end of a day Yaron [an education specialist] showed me a parcel that had arrived in the mail. “It’s one of my thinking journeys,” he explained, unwrapping a book and laminated card. The card illustrated the lunar surface, and on closer inspection I could see that it was textured. The depths of outer space were covered with a regular scattering of convex pinpricks, and a series of lines and dots defined the shape of the moon. Yaron’s kit was intended to teach blind children about the concept of space. I closed my eyes and ran my fingers over the bumps, feeling for moon craters. Did he have similar cards with stars and planets? I asked. Yaron shook his head. The point of this exercise wasn’t to teach children about space in the sense of identifying constellations, but to communicate the idea of space. (Šukys, Silence is Death, 87-88)

A thinking journey has no destination in mind: on these journeys the mind is the destination.

Until now, I’ve thought of reading and writing as thinking journeys: both take you through interior territories and are their own destination. Only today, while watching my son, did I realize that play is also a thinking journey.

There’s no point to play, yet for small children, play is the only point. It’s their work, and their best way to learn not only about the world in all its concreteness, but also about the idea of the world.

If play can be work, then surely work can be play. Laughter almost always accompanies a moment of insight, and our best texts are often the ones that (at some point) make us laugh while we write them. Work and play; play and work. Toute same? In some ways.

Happy journeys. Happy play. May your work bring you joy and your littlest loved ones show you truths you’ve forgotten.

[Photo: David Ortmann]

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