Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz

Just one room, with a high ceiling and those big English bay windows. One room to live in. The home of an exile, Mitzi, Grandmother Deborah’s niece, and her elderly mother, Emma, who had been born in Poland. THe room was allocated to them by the British refugee office when, right after the Anschluss, the government opened the border for one month to Czechoslovakian nationals living in Vienna. In a corner, behind a screen, a wash basin and, just next to it, a two-ring gas cooker. Two narrow divans upholstered in worn velvet, and a sagging armchair and two chairs around a small table. An old suitcase on top of the wardrobe, the toilet along the hall. And the electricity meter, which you have to feed with coins to have light when dusk falls or when the London sky is grey and lowering. London where, after the war, they were reunited with a cousin, the conductor Rudolf Schwartz – the sole survivor of his large Slovakian family – who was deported to Auschwitz and then, thanks to Furtwangler, released.

Only to be sent to Sachsenhausen and Bergen-Belsen.

One summer’s day, for the first time, Mitzi broached the past. Past in the present, so present, with everything it had deposited in this room that suddenly seemed so vast. Everything that the grim tide deposits on the shores of a life. A bit like picking up and reassembling the fragments of a vase shattered by history, by the Holocaust. Perhaps an attempt to alleviate so many absences.

Whatever the reason, that summer evening I quietly closed the door and paid a visit to the Bodleian Library. Perhaps because every archive in that timeless place is a memorial. At the entrance to the reading room, you hand over your pens and pencils – you are not allowed to make notes in the margins here. A place to read: lesen – which also means to gather or glean. In monastic silence, beneath the vaulted Gothic ceiling, I opened the somber chronology and turned one by one the darkest pages of the Nazi atrocities in Slovakia.

Mitzi – her large eyes the colour of night, lively and yet melancholy. A batik artist, she had wanted to enroll at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, but she was barred: because of her Czech passport? Or because she was Jewish? In London, she earned her keep making soft toys and lived in that one room, even after her mother’s death, until the end of her life. In the little courtyard, she had planted a tiny fir tree that she had once brought back from the Wiener Wald she so loved. But she knew there was no place for her in that Austria where, on each of her rare trips, she felt the unspeakable, intangible, tightening grip of anti-Semitism. She spoke in German, for her a highbrow language, as if those centers of intellectual life as she called them – Brno, in Moravia, and Prague – where ‘cultured’ Jews gathered, were still in existence. She said that word, Kultiviert, with pride, even reverence. For her, it still had the special aura it had acquired during the time of Franz Joseph’s empire and had kept intact since the age of Enlightenment, protected from the political instrumentalisation of Kultur in Bismarck’s Germany. One word, the embodiment of dignity for generations of central European Jews. And in the hierarchy of those intellectual values, Mitzi, entirely lost in her recollections, mixed up tenses and times, abruptly switching to the present as she tried to bring into focus the inner images that haunted her, drawing on that cross-border lexical crucible: ‘Prag ist ein kolossales geistiges Zentrum – auch Brünn’ (‘Prague is a huge intellectual center, as is Brno’). She added a sentence whose syntactic architecture was both rigorous and baroque, like the German spoken on the Viennese banks of the Danube: ‘Auch geistig hochstehende intellektuelle Leute sind nach Wien oder an Budapest gefahren’ (‘Intellectual academic highbrows, too, went to Vienna or to Budapest’). How do you translate the ascending movement of that spiral of adjectives extolling the spiritual and intellectual superiority of those who left for Vienna and Budapest? An ornately crafted German derived directly from the language of Joseph Roth, Franz Kafka and Martin Buber, in which she relished telling me in an immutable present tense about the villages of Moravia and the area around Bratislava where members of her vast family had settled. This relative is a sheep farmer on land he was able to acquire when the Jews were emancipated under the Empress Maria Theresa; that one works in an aristocrat’s plum brandy distillery; another farms a plot of land rented from a Christian count; several are craftsmen. In the hugely rich and versatile palette of that German, where so many languages intersected, she reveled in finding the subtlest nuances and colours to evoke the Gypsy villages, the sheep in the twilight haze, the beauty of the corn fields, and in the evenings, after sunset, the tray in the kitchen, with milk for the rabbi who came by to give his blessing. A whole world, now lost, with not one trace of a single survivor.

In the semidarkness, Mitzi reminisced quietly. She spoke almost in a whisper. In that language of memory, language of the mind, language without a home. Language in exile.


The above is an excerpt from Translation as Transhumance,  published by Les Fugitives in the UK and by the Feminist Press in the US.

Photograph of the Shepherd René Alcazar in the Gorges du Bachelard, France © Patrick Fabre, 2007

Explain Her to Me