Thursday, October 23, 2008

Duke Anthropologist Translates Poems Lost During Holocaust

Even before she was sent away to a concentration camp, Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger sensed her fate.

In her last poem, “Tragedy,” dated Dec. 23, 1941, the Romanian teen-ager wrote:

This is the hardest: to give yourself away
and then to see that no one needs you,
to give all of yourself and realize
you'll fade like smoke and leave no trace.

Selma died a year later of typhus in a Nazi labor camp, but her handwritten album of poetry survived -- passed between the hands of Selma’s friends across Europe before ending up in Israel. Her friends eventually organized a private publishing of a small edition of her works and that edition was later picked up by a German publishing house. Slowly, Selma’s poetry and story was brought to life.

Now, Duke University professor Irene Silverblatt and her twin sister Helene have edited and helped translate Selma’s work for an English-speaking audience. Working on Harvest of Blossoms: Poems from a Life Cut Short, which was published this month by Northwestern University Press, had special significance for the Silverblatts -- Selma was their cousin.

“Although neither of us believed in miracles, it is a miracle that Selma’s poetry survived,” write the Silverblatts in the book’s introduction.

Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger was a typical teenage girl. Growing up in the cosmopolitan town of Czernowitz, Romania during the 1930s, Selma was passionate about life and art: she loved to dance, spent hours strolling in Czernowitz’s parks, and fervently discussed literature and politics with friends. She expressed herself -– from love and heartbreak over her boyfriend, to observations about nature and the world around her, to fear and anxiety over political upheaval –- by writing poetry throughout her teens.

In the summer of 1941, German and Romanian troops invaded Czernowitz and deported Selma and her family to a Nazi labor camp. But before this occurred, Selma compiled the more than 50 poems she had written in an album she titled Blütenelse (Harvest of Blossoms) and gave them to a friend for safekeeping. Selma dedicated the poems to her boyfriend, who was among the group of people who preserved the album over the years.

The Silverblatt sisters were inspired to bring Selma’s poetry and life story to a wider audience after attending a ceremony in 2004 to commemorate the building where Selma’s family lived in Czernowitz, now known as Chernivtsi in Ukraine.

“Today’s residents are re-exploring this past which they never knew about,” Irene Silverblatt says, referring to the post-war exclusion of the Holocaust experience for Jews in Ukrainian schools. “To see this new understanding, this recognition of a forgotten history, is very moving.”

A cultural anthropologist by training, Irene Silverblatt spent most of her academic career studying colonialism in Latin America. While researching Jewish communities in Eastern Europe before and during the Holocaust was a new area for her, she says her academic background helped her understand the broader historical forces that shaped Selma’s life.

“I hope that as people read about Selma, they get a sense of the tragedy suffered by anybody -- Jew or non-Jew -- who has been forced to go through this kind of hell. But I also hope they see that, in spite of all the horrors, Selma insisted on humanity and she did so by writing poetry,” she says.

Silverblatt describes herself as “a fanatic about trying to find as much as I could about Selma and her circumstances.” Through memoirs kept by Selma’s friends, the Silverblatts discovered that Selma was an “alert, sparkling, mischievous” girl full of “liveliness and irreverence.” Former friends described Selma as having “dark shiny eyes, curly, unmanageable hair, and a scattering of freckles across her shapely nose.”

“Even surrounded by the ghetto’s misery, Selma could find poetry in green-eyed flies and joyous asters, as well as in hungry farmers and inexplicable murders, and the impact [of those things] reverberated in this young person’s mind and inspired her words,” Silverblatt observes. “Writing was crucial to her life.”

Working on the project has sparked a new direction in Silverblatt’s scholarship –- an endeavor that has been supported by her colleagues at Duke.

“Duke is an innovative institution that recognizes the importance of interdisciplinary work and how thinking outside your field can help you think outside the box,” she says.

Silverblatt’s current research tries to make sense of the growing interest in Selma’s work. Over the last five years, Selma’s poems have piqued the interest of European playwrights, cabaret artists, pop stars, professors and city officials. Among those drawn to Selma’s story is J.M. Coetzee, South African author and winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, who wrote of the book, “The voice of this young woman, with her luminous intimations of the fullness of life, comes to us heartrendingly across the years.”

Silverblatt is currently teaching a course on the politics of memory and a graduate seminar on nationalism, both of which grew out of her experience bringing Selma’s poems and story to life.

“I am interested in how people make sense of the past; how history is remembered and how certain parts of history become a living presence and others are suppressed. What is the meaning of art in people’s lives? How are a nation’s obligations to the past reflected in how Selma’s issues are understood?

“I hope that Selma becomes a living presence for those who read her poetry.”

By Andrea Fereshteh

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