Archive for the ‘Yenny’ Category

Follow-up for Jeremy

Thank you for your response!!

I’m also wondering about Jewish identity before and after WWII; how it was altered or how criteria for identifying as a Jew was skewed by the Holocaust. For example, the Nazi’s targeted any who were remotely Jewish by blood.


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Since my grandmother Susi’s passing four years ago, my parents and I have been digging up articles of her past — journals, newspaper clippings, photos, wallets. They’ve all been well-used and each bear the delectable feel of a cherished hidden item unveiled at last; smelling of old wood, dusty and wrinkled in their own way; utilized by someone whose body was once fresh and young. Written in these journals are scenes of the war, poems, letters, stories—and having heard of these in obscure snatches from my father and others, they are strange to see in reality. I must stretch my imagination as I read the handwriting that is so different from what I have ever seen. It feels there is a block between me and her stories (in large part because most are written in German, which I cannot read or quite comprehend my grandmother living with).


In the process of this discovery-project I hope to extinguish what I can of that wall. When I was younger I never indulged in babysit-days at my grandparent’s house (they were frail in their old age), and rarely visited them, which I regret tremendously. But through this, perhaps I can become closer to her as a Jewish woman and as a girl my age in an environment so far removed.


My grandmother Susi (my father’s mother) was born in 1923, peace time. Several years before, herDSCF0164 “Uncle Paul” — known then to Susi as her parents’ close friend — had come home from the war. A prisoner of war, Paul had wandered free when the revolution pulled Russia from the war. He was deeply in love with Mitzi Stiassni, Susi’s mother. But because he was not Jewish and because he was a soldier, an officer, he was not considered a suitable match. After traveling by foot a thousand miles, selling his gold dental work to return to his halted life, he found Mitzi married. Nevertheless, they resumed their romance and continued it many years into Susi’s childhood, leaving her factually ignorant until she discovered it in her 60’s….

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Hi Jeremy!

I’m curious about the “qualifications” of being Jewish. I have always thought of myself as Jewish but I know very little about Jewish culture. I don’t celebrate the religion. I feel strange being the end of Jewishness in my family — my grandmother identified strongly as a Jew and my father less so, but is still quite connected to it. It turns out, because my grandmother’s blood father wasn’t Jewish, I’m only an eighth Jewish, barely at all. It’s funny to think about… my grandmother fled the Holocaust and left journals and stories about it. It had a huge effect on our family.

I know people have really different ideas about what makes them Jewish. Is the definition still that your mother has to be Jewish?

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by Yenny Martin

For the final display of this project I’m making a 3-minute film. This is its narration so far:

As I grow, death seems to push its way into the light, cropping up more often: The death of elders who were the base and tone of the family changed my perception and environment. Change led to a loss of solidity: it’s hard to find a grip in a changing environment as I myself change—it seems, now, all roots are flushed away. I did not have a well-formed view of my grandparents—I was young, or I was not able to consciously form a strong tie. But maybe the simplest feelings are most genuine and maybe the unconscious connection that perhaps existed more than I can guess, was most natural. I am trying to again glimpse into their lives, to understand them. I want to know how I was made, to uncover the blur that expands boundlessly behind and in front of me.

My memories of my grandparents, Susi and Leonard, are peaceful, connected with the festive, the familiar—the openness of their home. They sat around talking, near the French doors of the living room or out on the rough glass tables. Susi would push her way behind her walker, which was padded with tennis balls on the leg bottoms. It’s funny how I mix her images —the image of her swimming freestyle in her pool, in a black cap and old-fashioned bathing suit, with the one of her in the dining room offering ice cream, much frailer and much slower. Somehow I view the two with no distinction of time. With Leonard I remember his red face and square gate. I wonder if my picture of him is also through the eyes of a very little girl, for looking at his later photos, he was hunched in the upper back and his face much more aged.

As a small person roaming a tall-ceilinged and spacious house, I seemed to be focused on its lower regions: I would observe the floor, tiled with wide clay hexagons. The dining table was eye-height and when I moved around the room past Susi’s portable heating tray and past the Mexican sculpture upon the counter, I remember, at the head of the table, seeing the back of Leonard’s head with fine and smooth white hair, so purely white. It would be neatly combed and parted against reddened ears and neck.

After Leonard’s death, I remember lunches at that dining room table. We would stop by briefly and Susi would offer me chocolate ice cream or fruit. I don’t know why these times seem more often now than they probably were, but every time going there, I was anxious to leave—because of homework probably. I would stare at the foggy yellow bulbs on the dining room ceiling, which, in rows, mirrored the length of the table.

This table, now, is at the house we are moving into. It looks much smaller there. This house, very modern and very clean, is much different from Susi’s, or the house I grew up in, different from anything familiar. Spaces, family and traditions seem to haze in the background as we move from the past.

In a delicate world origins are easily forgotten, but I am trying to grasp what I had not collected in the first place, and to fill in the quick-in-passing, the gap within growth. Since my grandmother’s death we have found boxes and boxes of journals and letters, albums and stories— belongings with the mark that lasts for all time. It is so rich in there. Susi and Leonard established our family’s connection. Their own connection was deep: underneath open conflicts was a bond that harnessed them together into old age.

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My sister sent from London another of my grandmother Susi’s writings, from Susi’s personal journal. This was upon the same subject: her mother, blood-father Paul and presumed father Alfred. Susi says how she remembers coming across the second journal: it was some time after Alfred’s death and Leonard, returning from a visit in Los Angeles with Mitzi, brought it to her. Thinking it was her mother’s, she put it away. Mitzi’s journal excludes any mention of Paul, and Susi writes, “I don’t know how she could have left him out of it in this cruel way. Who was she lying to? Me, an unborn child?” Paul’s journal describes Mitzi with affection, and about one of the book’s parts Susi says, “Throughout the whole story runs a pathetic refrain concerning her life in Brno from which he was excluded.”

Impressions that last after death—that can be re-adopted in cycles and by future generations—can be so easily sculpted. Here, so much is left out; Mitzi’s journal covers nothing of her child’s father, and she presents her daughter with slanted information. What the combined journals leave is confusing—with the content Mitzi chose to bequeath. I suppose it would have played much differently if Susi had read Paul’s journal when Mitzi was still alive. But as it was, there was no dialogue beyond her written pages. Susi herself chose to leave her family with much to understand her with—insights into her thoughts that perhaps none of us had known. What she does not display remains with her, private.

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Yesterday, rummaging through yet another box of photographs and books, my dad came across Mitzi’s journal—the counterpart to a thin, red-bound book of Uncle Paul’s. Both were written in German, but a section of Uncle Paul’s had been long translated by Susi and filed away in her drawers. It was a story called “Spacek,” of a tiny twirling dwarf made of wood. It was written for Susi still resting in the womb, to a daughter who would not realize their blood connection until many years into adulthood. Uncle Paul’s Spacek spins in arches across town, fleeing from his ferocious wife. My father very much appreciates “Spacek” because it reminds him of his own inch-high dwarf drawings.

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Twin Journals

by Yenny Martin

Amongst my grandmother Susi’s many stories, written as she neared old age, was a short piece addressing her blood-father, known to her as “Uncle Paul.” Before the war Paul and Mitzi were entwined in a romance, interrupted when Paul left for the front. Upon his return, he discovered Mitzi married to a man who her parents dubbed “acceptable”: Alfred was a well-bred Jew. Mitzi and Paul continued their relationship some years into Mitzi’s marriage and into Susi’s childhood. Feeling a need to begin a pledge of loyalty to her husband, Mitzi finally broke it off when Susi was nine.

In her writing Susi speaks of two journals: each a token of her mother and of Paul, each written to her in the months before her birth. Her mother gave her the first journal when she could easily read on her own. Susi was very touched by it—it described the calm of a beautiful marriage and the strong love between her and Alfred. This journal, as Susi wrote, “was the basis of my stubborn belief that I was Alfred’s child, even when Leonard tried to tell me otherwise after Alfred’s death in 1961.” But as Susi grew into teenage years she became embarrassed by the book’s sentimentality and let it lie on her shelf, untouched. Many years later, in America, her mother again handed the book to her and Susi returned it to the shelf.

Past the death of her parents, and as her family dispersed—as her own marriage was set off course and her sons steered toward college—she re-visited this journal. Her therapist had asked her to search through papers or letters to try to uncover “something hidden and strange about [her] early childhood.” Returning to the dust-gathering shelf where the journal housed, she was “flabbergasted” to find with it another book of the same binding. This was Paul’s. It was a documentation of the time before Susi’s birth and “incontrovertible proof” of their relationship. Susi, with so many questions, had no answering-source. Her parents no longer lived: what remained were only facts. The two solidly inked journals provided fragments of her blood-parent’s states—further details were left to fade with them. . . . “It makes me sad [that] I did not respond to my mother’s giving me his book. What must she have thought? That I was angry at her?” She felt if she had known this when she was younger, she would have treated Alfred more softly during the depression of his end-years. She said, “Mieze told me many times that I would never know how noble he was. I guess she referred to his making it easy for her, always treating me as his own child and Opau [Paul] as a family friend. When in 1923, she wrote so glowingly about their love and their deep understanding of one another, perhaps that is what she meant, and it was true.”

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