The Year of Goodbyes: A true story of friendship, family and farewells is a beautiful book by Debbie Levy inspired by the “poesiealbum” kept by her mother as a little girl in pre-WWII Germany before her family escaped to the US. Levy’s book includes the translated inscriptions from the girls, her own beautiful poems interpreting the circumstances around them, and a touching, heart-breaking, and inspiring description of her journeys, physical and emotional, to discover the stories of the girls and their families. It led to a joyous reunion as her mother saw some of her old friends for the first time in 60 years.
Levy was nice enough to answer my questions about the book and her mother’s story.
What is a poesiealbum? How did it differ from American autograph books of the time or from Facebook and other social networks today?
First, let’s get this out of the way: It’s poesie, or poetry + album, or album = poetry album. Pronounced: po-eh-ZEE album.
A poesiealbum is a little book in which you have friends and relatives write verses of poetry, proverbs, other inscriptions, and drawings. My mother’s poesiealbum, featured in my book, dates from 1938. Poesiealbums were popular among European children–mostly girls–in the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century. I think they differ from the typical American autograph book of the time primarily in the seriousness of the endeavor. You didn’t just dash off a ditty in your friend’s poesiealbum; you might quote a few lines from Goethe. If not Goethe, you might quote or compose a similarly high-minded sentiment. You probably took your friend’s poesiealbum home overnight, so you had time to write in your best handwriting, and also, perhaps, to add a drawing or stickers known as called oblaten. (Bakers among your readers may also know an oblaten is also a type of thin cookie.)
Typical entries from my mother’s poesiealbum from 1938, translated from the German, include: “Noble is man/Helpful and good” and “Oh, take advantage of the happy hours of youth/They will not return/Once slipped away, once disappeared/Youth will never return.” By the next year, she was living in New York, where Americans wrote things like: “I love/I love/I love you so well/If I had a peanut/I’d give you the shell” and “Roses are red/coal is black/do me a favor/and sit on a tack.”
I’m not saying the European kids were smarter or more thoughtful. They just were writing in the context of the poesiealbum tradition; they were also writing in the context of their world falling apart around them–by 1938, because of the discriminatory and separatist laws and culture of the Nazi regime, my mother only had Jewish classmates and friends, and anti-Semitism was destroying the relatively comfortable, nice lives they had known.
It’s funny you should ask about how the poesiealbum tradition compares to Facebook and other social media–because I’ve been preparing presentation and interactive materials for tweens and teens who read The Year of Goodbyes that examine just that question. In some ways, I think the poesiealbum is the great-grandmother of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and all the rest–okay, if not a relation as direct as a great-grandmother, then maybe a great-great-aunt. In both social media and poesiealbums, the writings are brief. They’re personal. Both can have accompanying illustrations, or links. Of course, there are significant differences (apart from the technology): Social media are casual; poesiealbums, more formal. I find that social media are used mostly to share news; poesiealbum entries are likely to share feelings, or at least quote someone else’s sentiments. And even though the Library of Congress just announced it’s archiving Twitter forevermore–social media strike me as transitory. Think how quickly a post on Facebook is pushed to the bottom of, and then off, the screen. In contrast, poesiealbums are permanent, so long as the paper doesn’t disintegrate.
One can fairly ask–what’s the point of comparing poesiealbums and social media? The point is that I’d love my readers to think about whether there’s room in their lives to express themselves in ways that don’t get pushed off a page. Are they preserving their thoughts and feelings in a more permanent way? I’m not advocating the return of the poesiealbum! I wrote my book to tell a story about what it was like to live in a time and place of intolerance and racial hatred, not to promote a message. And yet–the way the entries in my mother’s poesiealbum connect to the goings-on in the world around her does make me want to have this conversation with tween and teen readers about how they are documenting their own lives.
When did you first see your mother’s poesiealbum and what did she tell you about it?
When I was growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s, there wasn’t much talk in our home about my mother’s childhood in Nazi Germany. If I saw the poesiealbum back then (and I don’t think I did), I certainly didn’t examine it. That happened more recently. In 1998 The Washington Post ran an article I wrote about the night my mother and her family fled Germany on a midnight train out of Hamburg headed for Paris. A couple of then-70-somethings, one in New York, one in Maryland, read the article. They happened to be my mother’s classmates from Hamburg, Germany from the 1930s. Many phone calls later, in 2000 my mother and six of her girlfriends from the Jewish School for Girls in Hamburg, Germany reunited for the first time in Silver Spring, Maryland, more than 60 years after they had all been dispersed by the rise of Nazi Germany.
My mother brought out her poesiealbum to share with her girlfriends. I was there, too, and I found myself really moved by this battered little brown book full of handwriting and drawings by 11- and 12-year-olds–many of whom did not survive the Holocaust. After I got the poesiealbum translated, I knew I wanted to use it as a jumping off point for a book about my other’s story.
What other formats did you consider for telling the story and why did you decide on blank verse?
I started writing the book as a straight prose narrative. That lasted for maybe three pages. The story seemed to have a will of its own, and practically insisted on channeling itself into the free (and blank) verse format. As you know, nearly every chapter in The Year of Goodbyes begins with one of the handwritten entries from the poesiealbum. Writing the narrative in free verse seemed to flow naturally from, and echo, the poesiealbum entries. Also, one of the things I love about poetry is how much expression can be packed into an economical package. Each word matters so much. I wanted to write my mother’s story in that way–where each word mattered, the way each friend and relative mattered to her.
The story is told in the first person–the reader is in the head of my mother as narrator. Although people, including pre-teen people like mother at the time of the story, don’t walk around talking and thinking in poetry, I do think that free verse is good at capturing something essential about the way we think and react, especially under stressful conditions. It’s urgent and attentive. It creates rhythms, and then changes the rhythms, like a heartbeat that quickens, and then calms, in the face of danger.
What can educators do to make Holocaust stories meaningful to today’s students?
I think it’s important for people of all ages, not just students, to grasp that so many of the Jews of Europe had full, rich, European lives before they were caught in the maw of Nazism. Under Nazi ideology, they were turned into aliens, but in fact their lives were woven into the fabric of their home countries. It is easy to say, “Well, why didn’t they leave before it was too late?” “Why did they stay and let this happen to them?” As if something like the Holocaust could be predicted or even imagined, as if the lives these families had in Germany and the countries overrun by Germany were compartmentalized, trivial, easy to leave behind. They were not, and I think if students don’t grasp that, then they don’t see the victims of the Holocaust as anything but victims–and they won’t see the next group that’s singled out for persecution (and, unfortunately, it seems there’s always a next group) as complete human beings, with lives and concerns that aren’t very different from their own.
You ask the question, “Does the world need another Holocaust book?” Why do people ask that? What is your answer?
I voice that question only because I think there often is this unspoken undercurrent of “oh, no, not another one,” when a book is published about this era. Sometimes it’s expressed out loud, too: Not long ago, I read a column in Gawker, the online magazine, that began, “Remember when you were in like sixth grade and your teacher asked you to read Number the Stars and you quietly thought to yourself, ‘jeez Louise, how many of these Holocaust books are there?’”
There are, after all, a lot of so-called Holocaust books. (Although keep in mind, I’m writing about life in the years before the Holocaust.) And, Nell, you’re the movie expert–you remember the discussion and writing in 2008, when four or five big films about the Holocaust were coming out of Hollywood all at once. A New York Times essayist wrote: “The number of Holocaust-related memoirs, novels, documentaries and feature films in the past decade or so seems to defy quantification, and their proliferation raises some uncomfortable questions. Why are there so many? Why now? And more queasily, could there be too many?” An essay on the blog Jewcy that took on this question was entitled: “There is No Business Like Shoah Business.”
I’ll leave the movies to you, but when it comes to books– I think readers, especially young readers, always need a fresh way to think about identity, out-group hatred, and group-think.
I think we all benefit from reading and thinking about the consequences, including the small, personal consequences, of intolerance and racial hatred. (Remember, the Nazis viewed Jews as a separate and inferior “race”–their ideology of hatred wasn’t simply religious intolerance.) And when a book shows young readers the sustaining power of friendship and laughter, in times of upheaval and sorrow–which are important elements in The Year of Goodbyes–that’s a theme that bears repeating, too.
Finally, writers generally set out to tell stories–not to impart lessons. As I see it, there are at least six million potential stories to be told of the Holocaust, and that’s only counting the Jews who were killed.
You did a lot of research to find out what happened to your mother’s classmates. What resources were most helpful? What was your biggest challenge? What were your biggest surprises?
There is no one-stop-shopping in Holocaust research. Databases maintained by Yad Vashem (the Holocaust research center and museum in Jerusalem) and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (in Washington, D.C.) are extremely useful for finding information about people who were killed in the Holocaust, and I used them both. They have their limitations, however, and sometime include incorrect information–after all, they are based on reports and testimony filed by individuals, and human error does creep in. I also consulted various books and documents that the Holocaust Museum makes available to the public, such as memorial books published by various German entities. I used an array of directories, private memoirs, interviews, and other sources to track down survivors. Internet research was invaluable in this respect.
Even today, 65 years after the liberation of Europe from Nazi conquest, information is still dribbling out about Holocaust victims. I was fortunate to have the assistance of a researcher at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., who had access to a huge recently opened archive which had been held in Germany since the end of the war. It’s called the International Tracing Service. Even as my book was going to press, she was sending me newly discovered information about some of the people who wrote in my mother’s poesiealbum so many years ago.
The biggest challenge: Tracking down people who, liked my mother, survived their displacement from Germany. There are no memorial books or obituaries or Yad Vashem “Pages of Testimony” for them–happily. Every time I found someone–usually through some circuitous route–I celebrated.
The biggest surprise: Finding out that there is a street in Yerres, France (outside of Paris), named Rue Guy Gotthelf, after my mother’s cousin, who wrote a beautiful entry in her poesiealbum–that blew me away.
Why was it important to your mother not to change her name?
She was 12 years old when she came to this country. Although we now know how fortunate she was to have escaped her home in Hamburg, she didn’t feel that way at the time. She’d been forced to leave so much behind–home, friends, relatives, things. Why should she have to give up her name, too? So when her parents urged her to change the “foreign-sounding” Jutta to something more American–Henrietta was at the top of the preferred names list–she resisted. Strongly. It took a while for her point of view to prevail. Entries in her poesiealbum from 1939, her first year in the U.S., are addressed to “Henrietta.”
What did the women say to each other when they were reunited following publication of your article?
As I recall, there was more hugging and smiling going on than anything else!