Monday, March 20, 2017

Mother's Albatross

Last night, I opened my personal emotional Pandora's Box.  My mother's trilogy  manuscript, which haunted both of us for so long that we nicknamed it "The Albatross."  The heroine, Annuschka Niemand ("Nobody"), was Katinka Kuhner (my mother) in disguise, living through the turbulence of World War II in Germany.  The Albatross began as a memoir, but Katinka decided to fictionalize it to avoid possible complications.

Sometime in midlife, on a farm in Southern Ontario which she called her personal Shangri-La, Katinka decided to discover the truth about her past.  Her father had a Jewish grandmother (although Katinka did not know this until late in life).  Her mother was a chronic rebel who wore bloomers for competitive rowing at teacher's college, rejected evangelical Christianity for progressive atheism, and was briefly a probationary member of the Communist party.  From the beginning, Katinka's parents saw Hitler for who he really was.

What to tell the children as the blight spread over Germany?  The best way to keep them safe from reprisals was to lie to them about the nature of the new Messiah who was going to recreate Eden in Germany.  The more dangerous way was to tell them the truth and then teach them how to lie about it in order to survive.

Katinka was not yet a teen-ager when she first became aware of the Nazism.  The labyrinth of lies that she had to navigate plunged her into permanent confusion.  After years of reflection and thousands of pages of writing, she concluded that the whole truth was not accessible, but her experiences were valid and she wanted to share them.

In 1980, we started working together on her manuscript.  It was just supposed to be a minor editing job for me, but I got involved.  I wanted this trilogy of hers to become a best seller.  At that time, I had published a couple of articles, and was more driven by my English teacher genes than any deep knowledge of the publishing business.  I wanted to write to the market as I understood it.  She wanted to be heard in her own voice, just as she was.  We sent a lot of lengthy letters back and forth, but we never solved the problem.  I managed to finish editing the first volume of her trilogy before I became overwhelmed with other activities.  The people who read her books commented on the superior quality of the writing of the first volume.  Nonetheless, she felt that I had mutilated her baby.

After a decade of numerous revisions and correspondence with writing groups and publishers, she stashed the whole thing -- alternate versions, commentaries, and miscellaneous information -- in the drawer of a filing cabinet.  A couple of years later, the drawer broke from the weight.  By that time, she had lost interest in the project and was going to shred it.  I volunteered to adopt it, provided I could do whatever I wanted with it.  I was harboring a fantasy of re-writing the work, publishing it, and proudly dropping a book with her name on it in her lap.  

The Albatross now lives in a blue Rubbermaid container in my spare closet.  I made a couple of efforts to work on it, but whenever I did, I became so depressed that I stopped.  It is not easy reading.  The guilt that she felt for living in the midst of evil without finding a way to fight against it haunted her for the rest of her life. 

I miss hearing those stories in her own voice.  Now they exist only on paper, and I have to decide what to do.  Shred them, and try to escape?  Resume my unfinished editorial business?  Or leave things as they are and let my descendants decide?

Katinka wrestled mightily with God.  Towards the end of her life, she said, "Why should I be the prisoner of someone else's fantasy?" and gave up on religion.  She did not expect to continue existing after physical death, except perhaps as a anonymous part of an all-pervading spiritual entity.  If she did finally encounter God face to face, they had a lot to talk about.

THOUGHTS IN THE NIGHT (by Annuschka Niemand, age 19, after returning to Hamburg to                        discover that all the Jewish people had disappeared.  Translated from                                German by Katinka.)
     I want to live!
     I live in shame!
     I am refreshed and still receive my daily bread.
     With heavy heart I cannot move --
     Why don't I help?

     Far away from shelter and love
     My brothers and sisters live in despair,
     Accompanied daily by death and fear --
     And hate, the bitter enemy.

    How much longer, O God,
    Will you let your children cry?
    Why is there no help?

    Why don't you help?
    No answer? 

    Only your silence from eternity.

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