“Just when we might have been old enough to learn something about the events that had shaped our parent’s lives before we were born,” writes Caroline Heller in her book Reading Claudius: A Memoir in Two Parts (Dial Press, 2015), “their quest to provide a sense of belonging for us in this postwar suburbia kept them largely silent about the past.” In Reading Claudius, Heller describes her parents’ ordeals before, during and after World War II and her own experience as a child of Holocaust survivors. Heller spoke recently at Temple Beth Sholom in Framingham at an event sponsored by the Framingham-Natick Chapter of Hadassah.
Born in Czechoslovakia, Heller’s father, Paul, spent six years in concentrations camps, including Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz. His brother, Erich, escaped just as the Germans completed their invasion of Czechoslovakia, which began in 1939 and ended in 1939. Heller’s mother, Liese, fled from Germany to Czechoslovakia before the Czech invasion, where she met her future husband and his brother; she emigrated to the U.S. before war broke out. Liese’s parents were supposed to join her, but their plans fell apart and she never saw them again. The book’s title refers to German poet Matthias Claudius (1740-1815), whose poems Heller’s parents had loved and later read to her and her brother.
The first part of Reading Claudius beautifully evokes the lost era of the pre-war Czechoslovakian coffee house scene, where artists and intellectuals talked, lectured, debated, argued and traded ideas about politics, literature and philosophy. “Central Europe was like Paris,” said Heller in her talk to Hadassah members. “For them, the social, political and cultural scenes were all the same.” World War II brought this world to a devastating end.
Heller explained that her mother met her father and uncle after she escaped to Czechoslovakia from her native Germany, when Czechoslovakia was still relatively safe for Jews. When the Germans invaded, Erich managed to escape to England. Paul, who delayed his departure to wait to get his diploma from medical school, was arrested by the Germans.
One of the incredible stories in the book is how Erich found out, after the allied victory in 1945, that Paul was alive. For six years, he assumed his brother was dead. Days after the concentration camps were liberated, Heller explained, famed broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow reported from the scene. Heller played a recording of part of Murrow’s broadcast. “Permit me to tell you what you would have seen and heard, had you been with me on Thursday,” Murrow intoned in his distinctive, resonant voice. “It will not be pleasant listening….” Later in the broadcast, he says, “As I walked down to the end of the barracks, there was applause from men too weak to get out of bed. It sounded like the hand clapping of babies.” As he tours the camp’s makeshift hospital, Murrow says, “The doctor’s name was Paul Heller.” Erich, listening to the radio in his apartment in England, learned at that moment that his younger brother was alive. Murrow later helped Paul emigrate to the U.S.
“There is a history which hovers over our lives,” said Heller, “especially those who experience war, dislocation and the destruction of their way of life. My family needed to recreate themselves and learn how to raise kids in countries in which they didn’t expect. Because their world no longer existed.”
In her talk and in her book Heller explained how her parents talked very little about the war and hid the fact that they were Jewish; something Heller was unaware of until her late teens. “My brother and I didn’t ask questions,” she said. She had been told that her father had been a soldier in the war and then a POW and that her grandparents died of natural causes. Then one day a high school history classmate made an anti-Semitic remark. The teacher asked, “Is anyone here a Jew?” “I spoke up,” said Heller. “I had an out-of-body experience.” This was the moment she knew who she was. She described such experiences as “the unthought known.”
“Unlike my schoolmates’ seemingly imperturbably and chirpy mothers, my mother, though emanating kindness, seemed sad and restless,” writes Heller in her memoir. “Unlike my school mates’ fathers, who seemed brimful with ease and confidence, my father seemed like a man in a race he was sure he couldn’t win.”
Heller also talked about the process of writing, the “long pregnancy” of “giving birth” to a book. “There is loneliness in publishing,” she said. “Writing is a lonely activity, but you separate yourself in order to concentrate. You have an intimacy with the text. You have a deep relationship with the words and how they convey what you want them to. Then it’s out in the world and you don’t know if others will love it as you do. I imagine it’s like having a child. Your life is calibrated differently. You are more vulnerable.”
On a personal note, my husband’s parents survived the Holocaust. Heller’s memoir had great resonance for me. Anyone who is interested in the experiences of Central European Jewry before and during and after the war or who loves literature and evocative, poignant memoirs will enjoy Reading Claudius.
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