CNF Conversations: An Interview with Ellen Cassedy

We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust. University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust tells the story of Ellen Cassedy’s personal journey into the Jewish heartland of Lithuania – the land of her Jewish forebears – and then expands into an exploration of how Lithuania today is engaging with its complex 20th-century history.  Probing the terrain of memory and moral dilemmas, the book shines a spotlight on fragile efforts toward mutual understanding and carries a cautious message of hope.

Ellen Cassedy has explored the world of the Lithuanian Holocaust for ten years.  She is a former columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Her articles have appeared in Huffington PostHaaretzJewish JournalHadassahThe Jewish ForwardJewish Telegraphic AgencyLilithBridgesUtne ReaderPolin, and Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. She is a frequent speaker about Jewish and Lithuanian issues, and a regular contributor to VilNews, the international web magazine based in Vilnius, Lithuania. She lives near Washington, DC.


Julija Šukys: The frame for your book is a trip to Vilnius to study Yiddish at a well-known summer program there. Tell me a little bit about your relationship to the Yiddish language. How much Yiddish did you speak or understand before arriving in Vilnius? How did your relationship to the language change over the summer? How much Yiddish did you encounter in Lithuania?

Ellen Cassedy: My mother used to sprinkle Yiddish words into conversation like a spice. At the window on a rainy day: “A pliukhe! (a downpour.)” In the kitchen: “Hand me that shisl (bowl).” On the telephone:  “The woman’s a makhsheyfe (a witch).” After she died, I missed those homey syllables. I began studying Yiddish as a kind of memorial to her, a way to hold on to my Jewish heritage.

By the time I arrived at the summer program run by the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, I’d progressed far enough to be placed in the second-to-highest level – where I held on by my fingernails! Spending several hours a day in class and doing hours of homework every night was a mekhaye – a great pleasure.

Within a few weeks, I became able to conduct interviews in Yiddish – with a Holocaust survivor from my ancestral town of Rokiškis, with the leader of the Jewish community in the city of Šiauliai, where my family members had been imprisoned in the Shavl ghetto. And occasionally I’d encounter a Yiddish-speaker on the beautiful streets of the Old City in Vilnius.

The Yiddish scenes that I weave through the book serve as resting places for both me and the reader – places of laughter and love.

The central focus of this book is the Holocaust bystander. You seek to consider the role of the bystander in a nuanced way and struggle to understand what it meant to be a non-Jewish witness to the Holocaust.  In the end you arrive at a kind of reconciliation or entente in your understanding of the opposing forces and tragedies that were at play in Lithuania during World War II. Tell me a little bit about how you came to take this path.

On the brink of my journey to Lithuania, I learned there was an old man in my ancestral town who wanted to speak with a Jew before he died. In 1941, when he was 17, he watched as the Jews of the Rokiškis region were rounded up and marched off into the forest to be shot. Those memories had tormented him all his life.  He wanted to tell what he knew, and he wanted a Jew to hear his tale. Would I be that Jew?

The time I spent with this haunted witness – and with numerous other Lithuanians who shared with me their family stories of the Holocaust – showed me that “bystanders” are not an undifferentiated mass. We need to look closely enough to understand each person as an individual. And our goal must be to create the kind of society where it is easier to stand up than to stand by.

I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that you discover that your uncle was a member of the ghetto police force in the Shavl Ghetto. The ghetto police forces were and are, of course, extremely problematic – they are both victims and oppressors. You cite Primo Levi’s term “the gray zone” to describe the moral space that people like Efroyim Gens (head of the Shavl Ghetto Police) and his brother Jakob Gens (head of the Vilna Ghetto Police) inhabit. To what extent should we, from our perspective, suspend our judgment of those in the gray zone? What conclusions have you come to about people like your uncle and the Genses? Do your uncle and the Genses belong in the same category?

I don’t think I’ll ever stop wondering about my uncle and the complex truths he embodies. I’m less interested than I used to be in assigning people to one category or another. Maybe, when it comes to people like my uncle and the Genses (who had more power than my uncle did, but still faced inhuman and impossible choices), the answers are less important than the questions we continue to ask ourselves. Maybe it’s the moral attention we pay that will help to prevent future genocides.

Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands caused a firestorm when it appeared in 2010, because some historians and other readers considered that he equated Nazi crimes with Stalinist ones, thereby minimizing or excusing the former. He was accused of “Holocaust obfuscation,” among other things. By contrast, you, like Snyder, seem to view Nazism and Stalinism and the ways in which those eras are remembered in Lithuania as interconnected. Wartime and postwar Lithuania itself is portrayed in your book as a kind of gray zone. Is this a fair characterization of your position? Could you expand?

I learned a great deal from Bloodlands, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the cataclysms of the 20th century. To examine both Nazi and Stalinist crimes, to explore the connections – that’s a basic job for a historian.

The term “gray zone” doesn’t mean we turn away from morality. When we see things going wrong, we must speak up loud and clear. Bloodlands can help us do that.

In Lithuania, it was hard for me to open up to “the Other,” to hold in my head the reality of non-Jewish suffering alongside Jewish suffering. Hard – but essential, especially for those of us in the successor generations. Can we honor our diverse heritages without perpetuating the fears and hatreds of the past? Can we appeal to one another not as victims, bystanders, or collaborators, but as fellow beings with the capacity for moral choice? Those are the questions I hope my readers will ask themselves.

My final question is about the Lithuanian language and the ways in which you had to use mediators to “access” Lithuanian narratives and memories of the Holocaust. With the exception of Yiddish speakers, you interviewed most of your Lithuanian contacts in English or through translators, and employed third-party intervention to collect and work through archival sources. What risks does working through mediators in this way bring with it? How do you account for or deal with what necessarily gets lost, censored or simplified in translation?

By the time I left Lithuania, I had a Lithuanian vocabulary of about 60 words – pitiful!  I don’t know Russian, German, or Hebrew, either –all of which came into play in the writing of my book. But I’ve always been intrigued by what happens when people from different cultures, using different languages, make the effort to communicate. My experiences with translators and interpreters turned out to be utterly fascinating encounters in themselves. I make sure the reader gets to meet Regina, Hirsh, Emil, Natasha, and others who helped me make sense of what I was seeing and hearing.

When you think about it, aren’t we always mediating, always translating – no matter who we’re talking to, no matter what languages are involved? Reaching out and attempting to understand, even when it’s a challenge – in the end, that’s exactly what We Are Here is about.

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Author Interview in Foreword Reviews this Week

Here’s an interview I did with ForeWord Reviews, a great publication that focuses on books published by independent presses. You can access the original here (scroll down to the bottom of the page):

Conversational interviews with great writers who have earned a review in ForeWord Reviews. Our editorial mission is to continuously increase attention to the versatile achievements of independent publishers and their authors for our readership.

Julija Šukys

Photo by Genevieve Goyette

This week we feature Julija Šukys, author of Epistolophilia.

978-0-8032-3632-5 / University of Nebraska Press / Biography / Softcover / $24.95 / 240pp

When did you start reading as a child?

I learned to read in Lithuanian Saturday school (Lithuanian was the language my family spoke at home). I must have been around five when, during a long car trip from Toronto to Ottawa to visit my maternal grandparents, I started deciphering billboards. By the time we’d arrived in Ottawa, I’d figured out how to transfer the skills I’d learned in one language to another, and could read my brother’s English-language books.

What were your favorite books when you were a child?

E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come immediately to mind. These are books that I read and reread.

What have you been reading, and what are you reading now?

I recently finished Mira Bartok’s memoir The Memory Palace, which I found really extraordinary. I’m now reading Nicholas Rinaldi’s novel The Jukebox Queen of Malta, which was recommended by the writer Louise DeSalvo. My husband, son, and I are nearing the end of an eight-month sabbatical on the island of Gozo, Malta’s sister island, so I’m trying to learn more about this weird and wonderful place before we head home to Montreal.

Who are your top five authors?

WG Sebald: To me, his books are a model of the possibilities of nonfiction. They’re smart, poetic, restrained, and melancholy.

Virginia Woolf: I (re)discovered her late in life, soon after the birth of my son, when I was really struggling to find a way back to my writing. She spoke to me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

Marcel Proust: I read In Search of Lost Time as a graduate student, and the experience marked me profoundly. This is a book that doesn’t simply examine memory, but enacts and leads its reader through a process of forgetting and remembering.

Assia Djebar: I wrote my doctoral dissertation, in part, on Assia Djebar, an Algerian author who writes in French. Her writing about women warriors, invisible women, and the internal lives of women has strongly influenced me. Djebar, in a sense, gave me permission to do the kind of work I do now, writing unknown female life stories.

Louise DeSalvo: I discovered De Salvo’s work after the birth of my son when I was looking for models of women who were both mothers and writers. DeSalvo is a memoirist who mines her life relentlessly and seemingly fearlessly. She’s a model not only in her writing, but in the way she mentors and engages with other writers.

What book changed your life?

There are two. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and her collection Women and Writing, especially the essay “Professions for Women.” I read these at the age of thirty-six when my son was approaching his second birthday. My work on Epistolophilia had stalled, and I was exhausted. I was trying to create conditions that would make writing possible again, but I was struggling with some of the messages the outside world was sending me (that, for example, it was selfish of me to put my son in daycare so that I could write; or now that I’d had a baby, my life as a woman had finally begun, and I could stop pretending to be a writer).

I remember feeling stunned by how relevant Woolf’s words remained more than eighty years after she’d written them. What changed my life was her prescription (in “Professions for Women”) to kill the Angel in the House. Before reading this, I’d already begun the process of killing my own Angel, but Woolf solidified my resolve. There’s no doubt that she is in part responsible for the fact that I finished Epistolophilia and that I continue to write.

Continue reading “Author Interview in Foreword Reviews this Week”

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Home and an Interview

Home

I’m home. It’s been almost 9 months, and we’re home!

I’ll tell you all about our epic journey back from Gozo and about our impressions after such a long absence once I’ve processed the change and had a moment to reflect.

But for now, here’s an interview with me that appeared recently in VilNews. It’s conducted by fellow U Nebraska Press author Ellen Cassedy.

You can read it here.

[Photo: davebloggs007]

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Julija Sukys Talks Epistolophilia on CBC Radio

Radio Lancs BW 08 by musgrave_archive

Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of making a whirlwind trip to CBC’s studios in London, England, where I had an appointment record an interview with Michael Enright, the host of CBC Radio One’s Sunday Edition.

I’ve heard other writers talk about what a pleasure radio interviews can be. This certainly was the case for me. The cocoon-like atmosphere of the studio appealed to me, and the intimacy of the conversation was heightened by the use of headphones. I had a bit of feedback (an echo of my own voice) in the beginning, but this disappeared as we started to talk.

I’ve always loved radio, and grew up with a constant soundtrack of documentaries, newscasts, interviews and even radio plays in the background. Now, my son is experiencing something similar in his childhood. What a weird pleasure it was for us (even though I would have loved to go back and erase some “umms” and finish a few truncated sentences) to hear my voice coming through the box in the kitchen that delights and informs us each day.

Thanks to Michael Enright and his producer Peter Kavanagh for making the conversation happen. You can listen to the interview here. My part starts around minute 26:15.

[Photo: Radio Lancs BW 08 by musgrave_archive]

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Two New Books: Antanas Sileika Reviews Epistolophilia and We Are Here

The insightful and generous writer Antanas Sileika offers his read of two new books about Jewish Lithuania published by the University of Nebraska Press. One is mine, Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė. The other is Ellen Cassedy’s We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust. Sileika is an accomplished writer, with four books under his belt. His most recent title, Underground, tells the story of the anti-Soviet Lithuanian partisan war that raged for a decade after the end of World War II. It’s a fine, character-driven book that made me want to try my hand at fiction. Perhaps book #4.

Of Epistolophilia, Sileika writes:

If the life of Simaite is incredible in itself, the writing in this book is exceptional as well. I first found chapters of it published in the Baltic journal, Lituanus, and was so taken by the quality and intelligence of the prose that I looked up the author to find out when the biography was coming out, and have been waiting expectantly ever since.

My own enthusiasm is echoed in Publisher’s Weekly, which gave the book a coveted starred review.

Of Cassedy’s book:

What’s so satisfying about this book is that it declines to argue from a fixed position. If I can polarize the extremes of the discussions on the Holocaust in Lithuania (discussions, often heated, that I have had in Vilnius streets, bars, and restaurants), on the one hand I hear accusation against Lithuania as a criminal nation which refuses to acknowledge fully the crimes of its people in the Holocaust and to compensate justly, insofar as possible, those who suffered at the hands of Lithuanian murderers. On the other hand, the argument goes that nobody knows about Lithuania and what it went through in the Soviet period and Stalin’s crimes were as great as those of Hitler (the double genocide debate, which remains a fiery topic).

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Epistolophilia: A Few Thoughts on the Occasion of a Book’s Birth

The day before yesterday I received a note from my publisher saying that copies of my book had arrived in the warehouse, and that I could begin announcing its publication. Though my official date of publication is March 1, 2012, the baby’s come early. It’s a strange and great feeling to know that my book is now ready for readers.

The process of writing and shepherding Epistolophilia through the production process has been long and sometimes difficult. The germ of the book began sprouting some twelve years ago when I first came across a collection of letters archived in Vilnius. Their author, a woman named Ona Šimaitė, had saved the lives of hundreds of Vilna Ghetto children and adults, and then had been arrested, tortured, and deported by the Gestapo.

The title of my book, Epistolophilia, means “a love of letters,” “an affection for letter-writing,” or “a letter-writing sickness,” and it refers to Šimaitė’s life-long dedication to her correspondence. She wrote on average 60 letters per month (therefore between 35,000 and 50,000 letters over her adult life), and not always with joy. The letters weighed on her. She often resented them and blamed the time-consuming correspondence for her inability to complete the memoir that many of her friends and colleagues were after her to write.

But to me her letters were utterly compelling. From the fragments I read in that first archive twelve years ago, I could tell I loved this woman, and I wanted to know more. Eventually, I raised enough money through grants and fellowships to collect the rest of her life-writing corpus, scattered as it was to archives in Israel, America, and other Lithuanian institutions. In the end, I suppose, I developed my own case of epistolophilia.

Now that the book is officially out, I should perhaps celebrate. But I’ve been here before, and I know that this is simply another beginning. Just as a manuscript has to be tended and cared for, so does a newly published book. And switching from an introspective and solitary way of being (that writing necessitates) to a bold, confident, and even crassly self-promoting one (that a newly published book requires) can be hard. Really hard.

Writers have fragile egos and are easily wounded. I’m no exception.

Just yesterday I sent out an email announcement to friends, acquaintances and colleagues telling them of the book’s publication. I received many kind and celebratory responses. Some people reported buying the book, others had suggestions for reading venues, and even requests for interviews. But among the sixty or seventy congratulatory emails, there was a terse one, asking to be removed from my “mailing list.” It was from a woman I’ve known for a couple of years, and someone who I genuinely thought might be interested in at least knowing about the book. I was stung. I felt stupid. I obsessed for an hour or so. But then I shook it off and moved on.

The last time around, with the publication of my first book, I did virtually no publicity to support it. I was pregnant and my newborn son beat my book by about three weeks. By the time the second “baby” (the book) arrived, I had my hands full. That said, I’m not sure I understood the importance of promotion back then, and may not have proceeded differently under alternate circumstances.

But this time, I’ve vowed not to abandon my book to its own devices just when it needs me most. I’ve vowed to be brave, bold, and even crassly self-promoting when necessary. And I won’t let the odd terse email get me down. I owe at least that much to Ona Šimaitė.

So, in the spirit of supporting and nurturing my new baby, please note that you can buy the book hereEnter the code 6AS12 to receive a 20% discount. Of course, you can also purchase it through your local bookstore or preferred online retailer.

If you enjoy Epistolophilia, I hope you’ll spread the word.

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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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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This is Who-Man: On Writing, Play, and Fun

This is Who-Man. My son and I invented him over breakfast this morning.

Who-Man is a superhero whose arch-enemy is a many-eyed monster called “Crime.” Who-Man wears a bumpy suit (as you can see in Sebastian’s rendition of him above). The suit can shoot fire, but our hero rarely has to use this weapon. He has other ways of defeating his enemies: confusion.

Here’s an example of one of his crime-fighting encounters:

Who-Man hears a bank’s silent alarm and rushes to the scene of the crime. He succeeds in intercepting the robbers just as they are about to jump into their getaway car.

Who-Man: Stop! In the name of Justice and Who-Man!

Robbers: In the name of who?

Who-Man: Who-Man!

Robbers: What?

Who-Man: No, Who!

Robbers: Who?

Who-Man: Yes, that’s me! Who-Man!

Robbers: Oh man, what?

And so on until they’ve wasted so much time that the police arrive and arrest the bad guys.

Sebastian was laughing so hard when we acted this scene out that he could barely talk (he’s definitely ready for “Who’s on First”). Then he said “Let’s write a a book about Who-Man! We can make the first page right now!”

As we giggled and added detail upon detail to our story, I had a feeling in my chest that I recognized. It was the elation of creativity and play. It’s the way I feel when my writing is working.

When I started writing my first book, I spent months reading and researching and sitting on my hands, trying to resist the scholarly impulses that graduate school had hammered into me. I had just completed my PhD, and won a coveted postdoctoral fellowship. I should have written a dry literary study, gotten myself a tenure-track job, and settled into a life of literary analysis. But no.

Instead, I wanted to write something that could never be mistaken for an academic book. I decided not to give in to my training (better to write nothing than to write stuff that made me unhappy, I reasoned), not shush my creative impulses, and allowed myself to do some preposterous things. Some of the more insane ideas got cut during the editing process, but others were just crazy enough to work.

Fun and play are not concepts that would naturally be associated with the kinds of books that I write, because so far, I’ve only written about tragedies and atrocities. (Though Who-Man may change all that!)

For example: my first book (Silence is Death) is about an Algerian author who was gunned down outside his home at the age of 37 in a growing wave of violence against artists in intellectuals during the 1990s. My second (Epistolophilia) is about the Holocaust in Lithuania, and my third (working title: Siberian Time) will be about about Stalinist repression.

Nonetheless (and at the risk of sounding psychologically unbalanced), one of the ways I know I’m on to something good is that I start having fun.

In Silence is Death, I wrote a posthumous interview with Tahar Djaout, the subject of my book. A chapter of almost pure invention (though I still had to do a lot of research), it was great fun to write. I visited then wrote about shrines full of saints’ bones, interviewed nuns about the meaning of relics, and dragged my husband on a weekend trip to a funny little Iowa town called Elkader that was named for the Algerian national hero, Emir Abdelkader. All of this made its way into that first book, which turned out to be my first big step into creative nonfiction.

For Epistolophilia, I recorded the trips I made with my infant son to find my heroine’s various homes, including a French nursing home where Ona Šimaitė (the subject of the book) lived out her final years. I wrote about my pregnancy, compared the pronunciation of my heroine’s name to a Leonard Cohen song, and immersed myself in a friendship that only existed in my head. I circumnavigated the globe, collecting archival documents along the way.

That too was fun.

In the Guardian’s famous “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” (or nonfiction, for that matter) Margaret Atwood says, “Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

I would add: enjoy it. Living a life of writing is a great privilege. Whatever way you manage to do it, remember to have fun (in the name of Who-Man!) and to play once in a while.

Your writing will be better for it.

[Image: Who-Man, by Sebastian Gurd. January 19, 2012]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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Countdown to Publication: The Work of Promoting a Book

My new book, Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė (cover seen above) will appear in four months.

A few nights ago, I had a great conversation with my press’s publicist. Cara told me how she sat down on the couch to leaf through my book and was so drawn in that she ended up reading the whole thing in a matter of days.

Now, if you’re a writer, you’ll know how great it is to hear anyone say this. To hear it from the person who is tasked with promoting your work — in my case, a book that took me about a decade to complete — is like salve to the soul.

The publicist and I agreed to take a collaborative approach to promoting Epistolophilia. She and one other person are responsible for the University of Nebraska’s entire list, so the publicity department is stretched thin. Cara will therefore take care of getting the book to reviewers, talking it up, and submitting it for prizes; I will research and set up readings and lectures. Once I’ve got gigs lined up, she’ll step in to support me with books for sale and signing, posters, leaflets and the like.

Knocking cold on people’s doors and asking them to give you and your book a chance can be humiliating. I’m learning this, but trying not to let the process get me down. Having studied how writer-friends of mine have gotten their books noticed, I’m now doing my best to emulate their processes in a way that makes sense for Epistolophilia.

More than anything, I’m trying to be brave.

Lucky for me, I’ve made friends over the years of researching and writing this book, and have great supporters at libraries and cultural institutions that serve my readership. These are the doors I knocked on first, and I haven’t been disappointed.

Slowly, but surely this do-it-myself book tour is starting to take shape. It will start with a spring launch at Paragraphe Bookstore in Montreal, and then carry on through the fall with appearances at the Library of Congress, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Washington DC), and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City.

I’ll keep you posted as to appearances and interviews as things progress.

Update: There’s now a tentative Toronto date as well. Details to follow, closer to the event.

If you’d like me to come to your town, library, university, bookstore or other venue to read or talk about the life and writing of the Holocaust rescuer, Ona Šimaitė, write me a note via the Contact page!

Click here for a description of the book.

Wish me luck!

As always: happy writing; happy reading.

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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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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