Archive for Los Angeles Review of Books

Syrian Writer-in-Exile, an interview with Yasmine Merei

Posted in Human Rights, refugee crisis, Syria with tags , , , , , on December 22, 2015 by Louise Steinman

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THE IMAGES of the Syrian migrants go from harrowing to devastating: families facing batons of Hungarian police, a drowned three-year-old face-down in the surf of a Turkish beach. Then we try to grasp the reality of people still in Syria, the place that drove these refugees to risk the death of their children on foreign shores — Assad’s thugs; the black flag of ISIS; rogue militias; Russian bombs; US (and now French) air strikes.

Maybe I would feel less powerless, less despairing, if I could understand more, understand better than I do. When I heard that a Syrian journalist and human rights activist named Yasmin Merei was staying at Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, I jumped at the chance to talk with a woman recently arrived from the front lines of the turmoil.

No one answered, however, when I rang the buzzer for our appointment at 520 Paseo Miramar on a quiet afternoon in late October. Just the sound of a few leaf blowers and the occasional passing car broke the silence on that winding street high in the hills of the Palisades. I peered through the barred iron gate. No activity at all. I glanced at my watch; I was half an hour late. Perhaps I had the date wrong? 

The Villa Aurora was once home to another writer-in-exile, Lion Feuchtwanger, a German Jewish playwright and novelist who recognized — and wrote about — the Nazi threat as far back as the early 1920s. By the time they assumed power, the Nazis named him “Public Enemy Number One.” Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta moved to the south of France, but once that became occupied territory they barely made it out of Europe in time. Their salvation came at Roosevelt’s bequest and with the canny assistance of diplomat Varian Fry. Once they arrived in the United States in 1941, they moved to California and, in 1943, Marta was able to purchase the rundown villa — built in 1921 and modeled on a “Castillo” in Seville, for $9,000.

The villa became a focal point and a regular salon as Lion and Marta opened their home to European and German artists and intellectuals in exile: among them the writers Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel, and composer Ernst Toch. Now the Villa is an international residency program for artists, administered by the nonprofit Friends of Villa Aurora, with partial funding from the German government. Marta donated her husband’s library, now The Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, to USC.

This year, Villa Aurora invited Merei, a founding member of the Syrian Women’s Lobby, to be their “Feuchtwanger Writer in Exile.” She travelled from Turkey, where she had been living since 2012, and where she edits a magazine called Sayyidat Suria (“The Lady of Syria”).

My interview prospects were starting to look dim. No response to texts. The driveway was gated and stairs off the sidewalk lead down to a locked boiler room. I wrote out a note to leave in the mailbox, and tried the buzzer one last time. To my surprise, this attempt summoned a courteous young man, who told me he was an artist from Berlin and welcomed me inside. I followed him through the large tiled kitchen, out the back door onto a brick patio with an expansive view. My guide knocked politely on a closed door, then rapped his knuckles again: “Yasmin, you have a visitor.” 

A woman opened the door a crack. She was in her pajamas, just awakened, and understandably abashed. I countered her string of apologies with reassurances: I was not in a hurry; I knew she keeps difficult hours, editing through the night via Skype with her magazine colleagues in Turkey and Egypt. I know you have to sleep when you can.

I seated myself at a wooden table on the patio and stared out at the Pacific coastline. Fruiting orange trees lined the terrace below. The bougainvillea gleamed translucent scarlet. The blue sky was cloudless.

In a few minutes, Yasmin emerged from her room in a pink embroidered blouse, glossy dark hair brushed back from her the oval of her pale face. She offered a warm smile and more apologies as she joined me at the table. Her eyes, I noticed, looked weary, even haunted. With her permission, I turned on the tape recorder. Her English is “not perfect,” as she says, but understandable. I’ve largely maintained her word choice and syntax, which struck me as lilting, at times poetic. 

I’d never interviewed a Syrian revolutionary before, someone whose family was made to suffer gravely because she decided to fight for a better Syria. How to talk to her about so painful and fresh a period in her life? I took my cues from Yasmin, and, when she needed to, let her cry in peace. Interview (originally published in Los Angeles Review of Books) follows… MORE

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Being Heard

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Los Angeles, Poland, reconciliation, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War with tags , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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It’s been an emotional and gratifying week, giving my first book talk on The Crooked Mirror, being interviewed by the wonderful Jack Miles at ALOUD (video, podcast to be posted soon) and receiving two deeply thoughtful and beautifully written reviews– one by poet Piotr Florzck in the Los Angeles Review of Books (and thank God for LARB and the possibility of the existence, these days, of a long review) and the other by Rabbi Haim Beliak– a mover and shaker in the cause of Jewish renewal in Poland– in the Jewish Journal

So here are links to both reviews. Here’s giving thanks to those who’ve already attended a reading or a talk… I’ve been buoyed by the response, the sense of a community eager to hear and talk about this work. There is so much need for reconciliation in so many parts of this planet, so many parts of our lives. I remember when “The Souvenir” came out in 2001, after 9/11, and when a young film development person told my agent, “No one wants to hear stories about reconciliation — we’re at war.” Well, I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.

photo: Misterium: Poem of the Place, Lublin, TeatrNN

Yizkor Bucher (The Glatstein Chronicles)

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Literature, Poetry, Poland with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2011 by Louise Steinman

[published in the Los Angeles Review of Books]

27th Jun 2011

Louise Steinman

Spring in Gościeradzu by Leon Wyczółkowski

Jacob Glatstein
The Glatstein Chronicles
Translated by Maier Deshell and Norbert Guterman
Edited by Ruth R. Wisse
Yale University Press, November 2010. 432 pp.

On my trip to Poland this past winter, I brought the perfect book as my traveling companion. The Glatstein Chronicles was written in 1934, after the author, celebrated American Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, was summoned home from New York to his dying mother’s bedside in Lublin, Poland. Recently retranslated, edited, and published in English by Yale University Press, the poet’s travel narrative is both first-rate reportage and a fever dream of Europe on the brink of disaster.

Glatstein (named “Yash” as the book’s narrator) travels back to the Old Country by trans-Atlantic steamer. “The ship seemed to be carrying me back to my childhood,” he writes, “as though we were sailing back in time.” His is a half-forgotten, mythical childhood, where, “in the center of the synagogue, the fearful shadow of a hanging lamp swayed back and forth, like a body dangling from a rope.” These sometimes ominous, sometimes joyous memories are both interruption and counterpoint to Yash’s encounters with an international cast of characters as he crosses the ocean and travels across Europe by train.

As I picked at bland fare on the Lufthansa flight from Los Angeles to Munich, I savored Glatstein’s Eastern European culinary metaphors: a man “chooses his words as if he were sorting chickpeas, and rejecting the inferior ones,” a head is propped on a man’s neck “like a cabbage,” and a pair of eyes are “cloudy like herring milt.”

One of the ship’s passengers lauds Yash for being such a great listener. “You have golden ears,” he says. “Your ears are worth a million dollars.” I resolved to follow his example. The pale young man with spiky dark hair next to me had asked me to wake him up when dinner was served. After nudging him awake at dinnertime, I listened to his tale and learned he was traveling to Sofia, Bulgaria, to the bedside of his sick mother. A journey of return. I was returning as well — if it’s possible to return to a place where one has never lived. I was returning to the little town of Radomsko, Poland, where my grandparents were born. After six visits, I’m practically an honorary citizen of this homely but heimish town in the hinterlands between Częstochowa and Łódź.

On the second or third morning of his ocean crossing, Yash learns of alarming news from the ship’s paper. Hitler has purged his paramilitary force and murdered its leader, Ernst Röhm, along with at least 60 of his associates. It is the Night of Long Knives. Yash’s buoyant mood is shattered. He goes in search of fellow Jews, certain they will understand what Hitler’s grab for power bodes for their brethren.

The first passenger he buttonholes “stops in his tracks like a stunned rooster.” It’s not the news, however, that alarms him: “‘How did you know I was Jewish?’ he asked, as if some misfortune had befallen him.” The stunned rooster then admits that he is indeed Jewish, but “not one of those common Polish Jews. I’m Dutch.” Yash also embarrasses the single Jew among four stalwart young Bolsheviks traveling home to the workers’ motherland, by blurting out the compliment “Yevreyskaya golova, a Jewish head!” As the others smile in discomfort, his new comrade apologizes for Yash’s use of an expression “that was a relic from tsarist days.”

Why have we never heard of Jacob Glatstein, a modernist whose prose is as mordantly humorous as Philip Roth, as eerie as Kafka, as weighty as Bellow? The answer is obvious: Glatstein wrote in Yiddish, and as Ruth Wisse, the editor of this volume, reminds us, “to a writer, language is fate.” Though he published more than six hundred essays in the New York socialist-Zionist weekly Yiddisher Kempfer and won the most prestigious prize for Yiddish literature (for this very work), the fate of Glatstein’s oeuvre was inextricably bound to the dire fate of the speakers of his language.

Over the last several years of research for my own book about Poland’s Jewish past (and present), I’ve been increasingly impressed by the profound consequences of that severed link to the vital language of Glatstein’s poetry and prose, to the language in which my grandparents conversed, joked, and read. I grew up knowing nothing about the Polish town my mother’s family came from, imagining it as some kind of Dogpatch. Before my first trip there, I Googled its name and came up with a 600-page memory book, the Radomsk Yizkor. I was astonished.

The memorial books (yizkor bukher) were all written in the wake of the Shoah, and few of them were translated from the original Yiddish and Hebrew. This is one of the main reasons why descendants of Polish Jews — who, like me, aren’t versed in those languages — have been cut off from our ancestral past, our Polish-Jewish cultural patrimony. Translations from Yiddish to English now make it possible to reconnect with a lost history, both personal and literary. The Radomsk Yizkor offered tantalizing fragments of stories, which I have been fleshing out by using archival research and interviewing Jewish survivors and Polish rescuers.

Now I can at least imagine a prewar evening at the famous meeting hall of the Warsaw Literary Union at Tłomackie 13, where, on any given afternoon, I might have seen the aesthete Yosef Heftman eating marinated herring, the essayist J.M. Neuman drinking tea with challah, or the poet Y. Segalowitch sitting in a corner with a “literary supplement” (as the young women who attached themselves to the writers were called).

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LISTEN to Jacob Glatstein reading his poem, “Goodnight, World” (thank you Kostek Gebert for pointing me here…)

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