Announcer: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley Community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life.
Tony Eprile: Hi. I'm Tony Eprile. I'm a novelist and I teach in the Fiction Faculty at the Lesley University, low-residency, MFA. And it's my great pleasure to introduce my former student and interview her, Lisa Gruenberg, who has written a beautiful book called My City of Dreams, A Memoir. And one really interesting aspect of this memoir is it's a memoir with a lot of fictional aspects to it.
Like Lisa, I grew up with a parent who had to flee Europe. In my case, my mother is a German-Jew and traveled to South Africa. Those of us who've had parents who escaped the Holocaust or escaped from the Holocaust grow up with a mix of being encouraged to remember and at the same time no one wants to tell you the stories because they're so painful to go back to and look at. So you're supposed to know about this history and remember this history, while no one actually wants to tell you about it.
So maybe, Lisa, you could tell us a little bit about the process of writing the book because I think one of the things that's so effective in your book is how you, not only present the history of your father and his late sister, but you also invite the reader into the whole process of uncovering these memories and this history that are, in many ways, very reluctantly released or even not accessible.
Lisa Gruenberg: Thank you, Tony. I think that what you've said is totally resonating with my experience with my father who escaped Vienna in 1939 at the age of 18. When I was growing up, it's not that he didn't tell me about what had happened or that I didn't know that his parents were murdered or that his sister disappeared when she was 15 in 1941. It's not that I didn't know that a lot of his family was killed or had to flee.
It's just that when he talked to me about growing up in Vienna, he really talked about it as being just wonderful. And he and my mother, who was not Jewish, they went back to Vienna and visited many times as tourists. Which, when I started researching the book, I discovered most Viennese survivors do not go back.
So, looking back, it's clear my dad suppressed a lot of the worst memories of that time and also his sadness about discovering what happened to his family when the war ended. But he always—what sticks with me and what he, into, well into old age, were the stories that he would tell over and over and over again. And I think it's best expressed in a quote from a song from that time that starts his unfinished memoirs where he says, "Vienna, Vienna, only you will always be the city of my dreams in spite of the hardships my family experienced and the times when there was not enough money for food." I feel I had a very happy childhood and most of all, I was in love with Vienna.
It wasn't until old age, the late '90s actually, when my dad was suffering from Parkinson's, that he began to have flashbacks. And, looking back, I think some of them were triggered by discovering the nature of his parents' murder. He had thought they were deported to Theresienstadt and then went to Auschwitz, but he discovered, when the Austrians released new documents, that they had actually been deported to Belarus, to Minsk, and that they had been taken on a truck to killing fields where they were pushed or shot or jumped into a mass grave and were buried.
The few people who survived these deportations to Maly Trostinec, the few people who survived, survived by jumping in the grave and getting themselves out later. So he began to have nightmares about being buried alive. And he also began having flashbacks, only when I was in the room, about events that happened around the Anschluss, when the Germans arrived in Austria and also when, after Kristallnacht. Some of these episodes were really quite horrific, and a lot of them I couldn't really understand because he was speaking in German which he never spoke when I was growing up.
So, over time, it became clear that his sister had somehow, and his sister's memory, had somehow gotten confused with me. And he would often mix our names up and it became clear when I talked to him after these episodes, that he had no real recollection of her, even though family letters would reveal that they were actually very, very close. And finally, her name emerged, Mia. That's when I began to really think about what was going on.
Tony: How young were you when you first encountered this identification of your—that your dad had between you and Mia? I believe you said that he often referred to her by your name?
Lisa: He referred to her by my name, just Lisa, or my cousin's name, which was Maya. So it's kind of a—
Lisa: But he often called her "my sister." But he actually, if I think back, rarely talked about her. And when he described her, it was always these vague things that were really descriptions of me. So, she was intelligent. She was pretty. She had a good sense of humor.
So I don't think it was until her name came out. And I was videotaping him a year before he died. I really had trouble having him keep on task with describing these missing stories and missing pieces of the story. I suddenly realized that in his genealogy research, and in his memoir, she doesn't have a mention other than that she disappeared. There's—he has pages on people who died before the war, but he has no separate page for her, or for his brother, who got out to Palestine on a children's transport in '38.
So, it wasn't really until a year before he died, so 2004, when I was doing these recordings when I said, "Just tell me something about her," that it became clear to me. He said, and he actually was crying, "I have no real memory of her."
Tony: That's almost as if the most important person in the photograph, family photograph, is presented with a blank outline. I think, again, because it was so painful for your father to think of what happened to her that he suppressed that. But the burden then gets—the burden of memory then gets passed along to you. The legacy gets passed along to you. And I think the way you resolve this in the writing is through finding access to her voice.
I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you went from trying to learn the factual outlines of her and the, sort of vagueness, of your father's descriptions of her to really feeling comfortable with being, or at least able, to inhabit Mia's voice. Which, it's so interesting because he—it's as if he essentially saw her in you for much of your life, and here you are now. Now being the interpreter, now being that voice.
Lisa: I think initially, all this was happening when a lot, and it's in the book, a lot was going on with my family. Particularly, my youngest daughter who was sick at the time. I was struggling with depression, and I'm a physician. I really do not believe in the supernatural, but I do. I was having terrible problems with insomnia, and during that time, it was also after 9/11.
I began waking up in the middle of the night just with this feeling of terror and I couldn't go back to sleep, I had to get up. And I was never a writer, but I would be writing down these words. And in fact her first words in the book, are words that came to me that I wrote down as if somebody spoke to me. So that was a weird experience for somebody who's a) not religious and really I don't believe in ghosts and things like that, but I do—
Tony: You can chalk it up to epigenetic, if that will make it more scientific.
Lisa: [laughs] Yeah, I do, I do think there's a piece of inherited grief or loss that does get embedded in your chromosomes. I think most people have a heritage where a parent or grandparents suffered greatly. And I think a lot of people are carrying around these bits of grief that's sort of embedded in who they are.
But for me, I really didn't want to hear her voice, honestly, and I really had no intention of being a writer. And I think when we met, I think I was a year into the program. I'd taken one English class as a Pre-Med, and I loved reading, but I really didn't know how to write. But the pieces that came to me from her have stayed in the book verbatim. Because I think they were different to me in a way.
Tony: They're clear and they have a drive to them. I was Lisa's mentor and, occasionally, tormentor.
Tony: And um—
Lisa: Yeah, I was getting him that—that let's see, "okay" was really the highest compliment. So sometimes things would, you know, I'd say, "Just throw me a bone. Just say it's okay."
Tony: [laughs] Well, that's my family legacy.
Lisa: Right, right!
Tony: So we all pass them along.
Tony: But I remember how—what you were doing to try to write the—tackle this history and to write this book was in the early stages was just swirling around because there's so many, so many unknowns. And also the, really meant each description and each exploration was peeling away a layer of flesh. I would get letters from you that were actually longer than the writing sample.
I just remember thinking, this is, this is an enormous task. I think one of the wonderful things about the finished product here, there's a lot of bravery, it's a brave book. There's a lot of bravery in exploring this past that was being held sometimes at arm's length and then suddenly just shoved in your face.
And then also, exploring the impact or the various things going on in your own life, in your own family. Particularly with depression, particularly with your daughter. I think what happens is you incorporate that into the exploration. So you invite the reader in many ways to share the process.
Lisa: I think people who know me, who've read the book, are actually quite frightened by the personal nature of it. At the time, at the time I was writing and I would go to those workshops at Lesley and they say, "You're not on the page. You're not on the page." I actually got quite angry cause I felt like if I were a man, did I, do I really have to bear myself quite this much?
Now that it's done, I'm actually, I'm comfortable with it, and my family's forgiven me, largely. I had to run it by my daughters particularly and make sure they could live with what was on the page. And they've been really generous about it. And they realize that they, really the book is about them, but they move to the background after the first third.
Tony: It's an interesting point about how differently this book would have been written, if written by a man. I hope I bear myself on the page, but I do think much of what you write about here is also about women.
I'm not sure I have a direct question on it, but I'm curious about how your own exploration of Mia and this history, how is personal history told, especially the erased history of women.
Lisa: I think I get at Mia and the other women in the book, and myself, a lot of it's based on those letters. So Mia has a particular voice in the letters and I didn't get them translated, got the translation back on her letters. And there were a lot of them running from ‘39 to ‘41, very early in ‘41. I didn't get those back till a month after my dad died, and so any confusion I had about events or how things happened, he wasn't there to ask about.
So I think some of her voice was really informed by those letters. She's definitely, she's going from age 12 to 14, and it's full of exclamation points and lines under things. And I don't have my father's side of the conversation or his brother Uri, who was at that time in Israel, so some of the letters are to him.
I think the letters after January ‘41 were destroyed. My dad had told me he had a bunch of letters to the Red Cross. He was eventually interned by the British in 1940. They were afraid of spies and he was sent to, actually, a POW camp in Canada and he was imprisoned until late ‘41, so a couple of years. And, in that interval, they were writing on Red Cross stationary. I can't find any of those letters, so I don't know if he destroyed them or they're hidden somewhere. I just could never find them.
Tony: Could you read us one of Mia's letters.
Lisa: I could.
Tony: Since that voice is so powerful and important.
Lisa: So a quote from the first letter that comes up in the book. So I don't quote her letters until after my father's death in the story. This is the first one, it's a letter to her brother, Uri. Uri was 15 when he went alone on a children's transport to Palestine. This is the first letter to him in 1938, so October 16th is after the Nazis have taken over Austria, or Austria gladly annexed with Germany. That was in March of '38. And this is before Kristallnacht, which is the beginning of November ‘38.
"Dear Uri Punzi, your letters are very interesting. I hope that I will soon get a certificate. Then I will also go to Palestine. Such a ship journey must be really classy! I went to sicha [discussion group] My guide (madricha) is Irma Korper. Perhaps you know her? She's terribly nice. We sang, danced the Horah and played. Now I must ask you many questions. Does the kibbutz consist of one house or a number of houses? Are there gardens and field? Approximately how many people are in the kibbutz? What are their ages? Where do you work? Did the immunization hurt? Do you have friends? What are their names? And now, finished! Many, many Bussi"
And my dad puts in parentheses “kisses, from your little Punzi."
My dad makes a note. He did translate for me a few of the letters. Anyway, he says these were their nicknames. Uri was “Big Punzi” and she was “Little Punzi,” and he has no idea what that means.
Tony: And there's something very different writing a letter that you know is going to have to pass some kind of censorship or someone's—
Tony: And how do you convey those family secret codes. It's often small things that do that. It's wonderful that we get her voice in here even if it's not her voice in the letters and then we get her voice that you are recreating.
Lisa: I think what happens is that as I—I think as I matured as a writer, and also as I made the journey after—in 2006, I made my first trip to Vienna. Then again in 2007 to Vienna and to Magdeburg, the place that my father thought she was sent. I think as I begin to collect documents that actually have her name on them, which there were a lot of documents about deportations, about how Jews were to be treated.
More family letters because my dad became sort of—and photographs—my dad became kind of the repository when he was alive. All these survivors' children had no idea what to do with any of this stuff that they had, so they would send it to him. So when I went through his office after he died, there were just tons of pictures and letters.
So I try to weave those in and the last third of the story, which is really the original story was called, Searching For Mia or Finding Mia. I changed that, and I'll get into that later, but just to tell Mia's story. I really try to incorporate myself at that age moving forward. Then I alternate her story with mine. Her story is told in first person, mine in past tense.
And as I meet various survivors and relatives of my father's who survived, and people who might have known her, but ended up not being able to identify her. I try to take pieces of that and incorporate it in the fiction. For me reading it, I feel it's true, which it's certainly not true. But I'm clear this is a memoir. I'm writing her story as we go, so I think it's clear as a premise that I'm becoming a writer. These are bits of writing that is her story. But in my own head, it's true.
I think you've probably experienced that with fiction as well, that you know these characters. Even I had to rearrange my dad's flashbacks to make coherent sense in the first part of the book. Even now that's solidified in my mind as what's true.
Tony: One thing that happens is you process those stories that come up for some reason. One story might have occurred in 1938, and one might have occurred in 1934, and you'll hear the 1938 one before the 1934 one. Part of your work as the writer is to take all this jumble and turn it into coherence.
Lisa: Right, and you were always telling me about structure.
Tony: Who's that? [chuckles]
Lisa: There's something with a structure here. You take me into a room and then I have to go out the same door. Like it doesn't move forward. I think I was trapped in that for a long time.
Tony: Now that you've gone through the painful process, do you say "I'm so glad I did that?" Do you ever say "why did I do that to myself?"
Lisa: No. I am so grateful. I have to say when I finally got a piece published in Ploughshares, which was an excerpt from this book, which really for me encapsulated --- it wasn't so much about me it was about another relative who was put in a mental institution in 1942 and died there. Her admission there was written by Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man's Search For Meaning.
It really comes from the same place which is -- I started out this book as Searching For Mia, but the book is really as a friend of mine put it who knows me well, it's really a love story. It's really about misplacing my father's love and finding it. It's about seeing my husband clearly, and my family clearly and how grateful I am for that. I think that that's the reward of the book. The fact that I have the book in hand, I'm just amazed that it's done. I actually reread it and it's not bad. Maybe even okay.
Tony: It's really even okay.
I can say it's a beautiful book and beautifully told. More than okay.
I do have to say that the physical presentation of the book is wonderful and adds so much to-- The front cover is gorgeous. The photographs and the documents are very powerful, and it helps, again the reader goes through a little bit of a process of exploration. Seeing those documents brings a right home and makes it feel very real when you look at the starkness of those documents.
Again, it's something I've experienced myself. I have a document that my mother received from the head of police of Frankfurt, and it says that she's not a beggar and has never been a criminal and never been arrested. She's 16 at the time, and had been a school girl and it lists all these things attesting to the fact that she didn't rob people on the street and she wasn't a pickpocket.
Lisa: [laughs] I mean a milder story is when we moved to the United States from Canada. I was born in Ottawa. My mom was Canadian, and my parents met there. When I was 10 or 12, I had to renounce my Canadian citizenship in the U.S. Although it was never really renounced, that was on U.S side, you just had to say it. They asked me had I been married, and I was 10 or 12 years old. My brother as well, three years older than me. Then they told me I had to give up my allegiance to the queen.
I'd only heard about the Queen when my mother was talking to us about table manners. What if the Queen were there? Then later, what if President Kennedy were sitting there, which used to just crack us all up like, the absurdity of that, but anyway.
Tony: Now you can rest your elbows on the table at dinner and it's okay.
Lisa: No, not when I'm with my mother, who's 98.
Tony: This is a little bit of a difficult question. Is there a question that you wish you could ask your father?
Lisa: There's so many things. I think the person I've always wanted to find out about is Susie. They had next door neighbors, the Harband's with two children, Paul and Susie. Susie was the younger sister, and she's written about in the letters. She was about me as the age, maybe a year younger. My father in his writing, the genealogy work and his brief memoir, describes her as being kind of a pill. My mother's word actually, and that she was always coming over and nosing into his stuff and was this bright spark.
When I read the letters, there's actually some letters from Paul Harband to my uncle. Paul and his mother who was Christian, escaped U.S in '39, but there's no mention of Susie in the letters. I wrote Susie into the fictional story because she was a fun character and somebody my father remembered. She disappears from the story because I discovered in the present day story that I'm telling, that she wasn't Paul's sister.
I had extrapolated this whole idea that she got taken in by Christian relatives, and they got caught and shared time with me and her family in Vienna before. I found out she wasn't really the sister, and so I made her disappear from the fictional story. I found that I did find a Susie that was from a different family. I don't know if she was a relative of my parents or relative of the Harbands, but she went to Cuba on the St. Louis which is a boat that got turned back. Some people got out in Cuba and some people got to the U.S and then got turned back and sent back to Europe. I don't know what happened to her and I'm actually hoping she'll turn up.
Tony: Maybe she'll read the book. [chuckles]
Lisa: Maybe she'll read the book or one of her children will read the book and they'll make a connection. I'd like to ask her to look at the letters and also explain -- he had this clear idea that she had gone to Magdeburg. He thought she'd gone to a camp in Magdeburg, and then when these documents came up from the Austrians in the late '90s, she was on the deportation list with his parents.
There was a lot of confusion. There were a lot of documents that said she wasn't on that deportation, she was on something different, but there was also records that my uncle was on that deportation and he'd already gone to Palestine. There was this confusion and it was clear after he died that he was trying to figure out what had happened, but that he was convinced she was with his parents at the end.
He couldn't figure out how she got where she was in Germany and how she got back to Vienna, and that's a lot of what this last part of the book is about, all these various things that could have happened to her probably ending with what probably did happen to her. I did, really up until tracing her to Magdeburg in Germany, hold a hope that I might actually find her somewhere behind an Iron Curtain that she somehow went crazy or was institutionalized or something or was still alive.
I'd really like to ask him where he got that information that she went to Magdeburg because I think the letters are missing. He said his father wrote him that she got sent there. The other thing my father said over and over again that his father didn't let her leave because he was an optimist. You read the letters and it's very clear that they wanted her to leave and they were asking my father to help them get her out and she was asking him as well.
Tony: The age he was when she was asking him I think he was--
Tony: 18 and in a POW camp or before the POW camp?
Lisa: No, at 18 he was working on a Zionist farm in England trying to get to Palestine and then he was arrested in '40. A lot of those letters fell on deaf ears because he was arrested so the letters didn't get to him for months.
Tony: He was probably struggling to make a living and just to survive himself.
Lisa: If you think about what you're like at 18 and his brother being 16 at the time she's writing to him-- My father is a very polite reticent person-- to go knock on doors and try to get somebody to sponsor her, that's a lot. Then he got arrested and there is not much he could have done.
I think he died thinking he should have done something. I think that's how it froze in his mind that his dad kept her too long which is also true. Which was also true I think, she did have a chance to get out, but she would have been taken care of by Christians in England, and I think he didn't want to do that.
Tony: Well, just imagine sending your child out into the unknown, you have to really be convinced that the world you're living in is too dangerous. I think one of the reasons people got caught so late is-- I don't know if optimism is the right word but thinking, well, this will pass to being pogroms before, or there's been anti-Semitism before. This will eventually pass, and they just kept thinking this for way too long.
Lisa: They were also all veterans of the First World War. They'd fought for Germany in the First World War. All my grandfather, his brothers, my grandmothers' brothers were all getting pensions.
Tony: As federals.
Lisa: Soldiers pensions up until the days they left or were deported.
Tony: That's an enormously painful thing to think about. I know that we for years had an iron class, first-class from World War I that my mother's uncle earned as one of the Jewish flying aces fighting the British. It's a reminder that this was a world that, for a very long time, looked completely normal the way we think of the world we live in as well, but right now we may not.
Tony: But the way we may be used to try and think of it as normal.
Lisa: I think so. There are pictures in my father's boxes, photographs of a distant cousin as a toddler dressed as the Kaiser.
Tony: That's wonderful.
Lisa: I think they really felt they were part of the-- They were citizens.
I think this whole idea of survivor's guilt is a misnomer. I do think that people who survive things like that don't have a language to express the emotion that they're feeling. It gets cast in something that's more palatable like guilt when I think it's maybe closer to terror.
Tony: Yes. Going back to something you deal with, and very openly, and thoughtfully in the book which is your own depression. Do you see that related to your father's terror or is that hard to even sort out?
Lisa: I think it's hard to compare. It's like saying my dad's a survivor, but if I speak in survivor communities, I've had people stand up and talk about Theresienstadt and have people who went to Auschwitz stand up and say, "Theresien, Theresien. This is a country club.”
Lisa: My dad's experience, he survived. He always told it like this lucky hero traveling on his own and just lucky. I think if you move from the first to the second generation to the third generation here in the U.S, you often have trouble finding a voice because your story-- it just doesn't sound like much. That's what I struggled with in the book. Depression is difficult, but it's nothing like the Holocaust. I do feel I inherited sort of a big void that I was constantly trying to figure out.
Tony: It's a beautiful way to put it.
Lisa: Right. I think I do at the end of the book come to the point of saying it's not emptiness or a void. I think it's yearning for things you've lost and people for that feeling of connection. Again, I think that's hard to put a word to it. Yes, I think I internalized this story and it's a lot, whether I'm wired for depression anyway, but I do think it is a piece of it. It is definitely a piece of it.
I think what I've struggled with since then is that sometimes we feel sad. It doesn't necessarily mean we're going to feel sad for months, and months, and months. I think sometimes you should feel sad.
Tony: Yes. Okay. [chuckles]
Tony: I will.
Tony: I know you mentioned earlier that one of the writing teacher things, I would say, is it's not on the page. [laughs]
Tony: It is now on the page so maybe this would be a good time to have you read something from this really lovely book, and the audience can have a feeling of your words on the page.
Lisa: I'm going to read a piece from the fictional voice of Mia. As my father thought, and it is in letters from other family members that she went to Magdeburg or what they call the Altes Reich, the old Reich, which is Germany in May of 1941. I discovered in my research that Mia had gone to a Jewish school run by the Youth Aliyah, the organization for children planning to go to Palestine.
This school was run in the first district until May of 1941 when it was closed. I put into this story a story about her the day before she's leaving that she's walking to meet her lover.
I have Mia have a love affair with an unnamed person and they go to meet on the Danube River at the Donoff, she calls it, where my father used to swim with his cousins, and once got caught up in the current and almost died hitting a bridge. I give that story of my father to Mia.
“The boulevards of the second district are empty, but I avoid them anyway. I walk North and West defining a way through narrow streets and alleys towards the fields along the broad Donau. The tall grass rustles and he stands next to me, thick hair off his thin face. A bruise marks his left cheek, and I see the muscle twitch below it. As the sun elevates, the downy hair on his face glints. Behind him, the river slides by like the back of a lazy snake. I pull my dress over my head and lean over to unbuckle my shoes. I fold my dress and put it next to the trunk of an oak.
I unclasp my locket, with my brothers’ pictures within, and put it inside my shoe. I walk to him in my slip, feeling damp air on my arms. I unbutton his shirt and help him pull it off, keeping my eyes on his, I fold the shirt and lay it down with my dress. He sits down in the tall grass and yanks at his shoes. His lungs draw in the skin between his ribs.
He stands again, and I take his hand and lead him to the water. Our feet sink into the mud and the river swirls around us. He puts his hands on the side of my face, then kisses me on the forehead, and then moves down to my lips. His tongue is sweet and salty. I lie back and wrap my legs around his waist and smile to the sky.
His hand moves under my slip and along the concave surface of my stomach. The river lifts me and I unlock my grip. I hover next to him for a moment. 'Mia,' he cries as I slip away.
The sound of my name wakes me as if from a dream I flip over and throw my arms out and try to grab his outstretched hands, but the current drags me out. I fight a little, but I don't have the strength I had when I swam here with my brothers. I float beyond a bend and the sound of my name becomes the sound of the waves hitting the banks. I lie back and let myself drift into the center of the river. Clouds roll over me, and hunger and time fall away.
I'm like a bird caught in the warm updraft, suspended over an ocean of sky. Buildings line up on the water's edge. The sun moves behind a cloud and the air around me chills. I sense the Reich's Bridge is accelerating toward me and I'm falling toward it as if back to the earth. If I smash into one of the buttresses, I will die instantly, but if I go through the arches, then the Whirlpool beyond will drag me under and drown me.
I pull myself upright and tread water. Soldiers run onto the bridge. I aim for the wall of stone between the arches, then lie back and close my eyes. The soldiers’ voices are above me shouting, 'It's a woman, a woman.' I open my eyes again and see their faces in a line peering over the railing. I see the girders of the bridge and as I shoot through. On the other side, their faces hangover, open mouth. The weight of the water sweeps me around and it looks like their heads snap upside down, and then they vanish as I am pulled under and far below."
Tony: Thank you. That was lovely. There are many of these terrific stories in the book. Thank you, Lisa Gruenberg. I again, highly recommend going out and reading My City of Dreams, A Memoir.
Lisa: Thank you.
Announcer: Thank you for listening to Why We Write. For more information on Lisa Gruenberg and her debut book “My City of Dreams”, visit our podcast page. The link is in the show notes. Next week, we’ve got a Creative Writing Master Class with acclaimed young adult author Jason Reynolds.