June 08, 2015

Helena Wisniewska Brow and Daniel Mendelsohn in "Family Matters" at AWF15

"Stories, stories. There isn't enough paper in the world to tell our stories."

This was a sober session. How could it be otherwise? Two authors who followed the threads of family stories through time and history to places rent by sorrow and loss, violence and evil. Daniel Mendelsohn had replaced the scarf he'd worn to talk about the art of translating poetry the day before with a necktie. Maybe a coincidence, but it seemed right, as he evoked members of his family who were denied a funeral, a grave, even; but for whom he was able to create a place of remembrance, 500 pages long.

His book The Lost: a Search for Six of the Six Million relates his quest to find out what had happened to his grandfather's brother, who made the decision to stay in Galicia (then Poland, now Ukraine) when the rest of the family emigrated to the United States in the early years of the 20th century, and who, along with his wife and their four daughters, disappeared in the Holocaust.

Helena Wisniewska Brow is a kiwi, whose book Give Us This Day: A Memoir of Family and Exile is about her exploration of the stories she heard from her Polish father while growing up. He was 10 when the USSR invaded Poland. Two years later, he, his mother, and his brother and sisters were deported by the Russians to Siberia, and from there shipped to an internment camp in Iran, where his mother died. The children became part of the group of Polish evacuees who had been offered refuge in New Zealand.

In both cases, the seeds were sown early. The black moods which would overcome Wisniewska Brow's father on Christmas Day, or his obsession with not wasting food. Mendelsohn started his story, as indeed he starts his book, with an early memory which he phrases, touchingly, as he would have perceived it as a child; "I'd walk into a room and people would start to cry".

It was, as we have instinctively understood, because of how he resembled the brother who had stayed behind, reminding the gathered family of their lost ones, who in some way were doubly lost, for no one knew how their story had ended.

"At a certain point in my life around when I turned 40, I was suddenly possessed of an idea, to know exactly what had happened to them."

"No one is a statistic. Specific things are done to people by specific people. It becomes a sort of ethical duty to get them out [of the statistics], to restore to these people their own specificity."

He decided to look for these "six needles in a giant haystack", and eventually tracked down 12 survivors of the population of this little Polish town, scattered among three continents. It took three years. "Each one had a piece of the puzzle."

Peter Wells, chairing the session, asked about how they had gotten to the point where they wanted to ask about the past. They both came back to the stories, the stories of a past they hadn't been a part of, but were somehow being made a part of.

Mendelsohn's take, like all his takes, was clearly thought out. "You have to get to a point where the past becomes more important, and the mysteries are less able to be dismissed. You have to have developed the imagination." His had been fertilised by his grandfather, who couldn't go to the corner store for milk without coming back with a couple of new stories as well. "I was lucky to grow up in the presence of a great storyteller."

On his book tour, he said, someone told him "I think your grandfather knew you were listening and had decided you were the one to tell the stories".

"In every family there's someone who loves listening to the old people", he says. "I was that kid."

One of the thing that Wisniewska Brow found most compelling about her father's stories was how they were not linear. "They are like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes."

Mendelsohn added, "You think of history that it starts at A and ends at B, but actually there is no end. Every story goes on."

"I'll never forget. A survivor in Sydney told me in the course of a difficult interview, 'Stories, stories. There isn't enough paper in the world to tell our stories.'"

"Man plans and God laughs", his grandmother used to say.

Still they persisted. If Mendelsohn had likened his search to solving a puzzle, Wisniewska Brow used another metaphor for piecing together and joining up. "Writing the book was like building with a giant lego set, " she said. "All these bits of information. I put them all together, and shuffled them around a bit at the end."

At the end, the two authors were asked by a member of the audience if they could describe the places of their family origins. Mendelsohn called the population of that part of Europe the first multiculturalists. His grandfather spoke seven languages.

"For my father it was Paradise, and now it's gone," concluded Wisniewska Brow.

A sober event, as I said. But not comfortless. Even if only as slightly as an hour can allow, the encounter with these two writers, their dedication and their empathy, was  -- there's no other word for it -- uplifting.

Daniel Mendelsohn told a wonderful story. He was interviewing a Polish woman, one of the survivors, in her home in Israel. Describing a certain dish to him, she stopped and said, "I'll make it for you".

"So I waited 1 1/2 hours for her to make this dish. It was so important to her. She said 'I want you to know what this tastes like, because no one will ever cook this kind of food after I'm dead'."

He didn't tell us what it tasted like, and despite the widespread cynicism audience Q and A seems to inspire these days, let me tell you that no one was silly enough to ask.

-- Karen

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 15:54


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