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A memoir of family and the enduring impact of the Holocaust

On the Why We Write podcast: Caroline Heller's memoir explores not only her family's experiences during World War II, but also how the Holocaust affected her as the child of a concentration camp survivor.

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Episode notes

Professor Caroline Heller's book, Reading Claudius: A Memoir in Two Parts, explores not only her family's experiences during World War II, but also how the Holocaust affected her own life as the child of a concentration camp survivor (Buchenwald). In this interview, she talks about her family history with Rachel Kadish, author of the award-winning novel The Weight of Ink. Hear more from the two authors in this episode, in which Caroline interviews Rachel about her book.

Hear Edward R. Murrow's full report from Buchenwald:

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  • Transcript


    Announcer: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Each week we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life. Today, Lesley Professor Caroline Heller talks about her book, Reading Claudius, a memoir on her family, the Holocaust, and its impact on her as the child of Holocaust survivors. She's joined by Rachel Kadish, author of The Weight of Ink, and a member of our creative writing faculty.

    Rachel Kadish: I am so happy to be here with Caroline Heller. Before we launch into our conversation, I just want to say a bit about your bio, your background. Caroline Heller is our very own professor here in the Ph.D. program in Educational Studies in the Graduate School of Education at Lesley. She served as director of the program from 2010 to 2017. In addition to Reading Claudius, which is published by Dial Press-Random House and came out in 2015, she's also the author of Until We Are Strong Together, which was published by Teachers College Press at Columbia University. She's also published her work in The American Scholar, Biographile, and The Boston Globe, and she's been a staff writer for Teaching Times.

    Caroline, thanks so much for being in conversation today. I wanted to start off talking to you about Reading Claudius, and I just want to say this is such a beautiful book. It has a very unusual structure which is encapsulated in the full title, Reading Claudius: A Memoir in Two Parts. I thought maybe I'll start off by just asking you to describe what the parts are, what the structure is that you chose?

    Caroline Heller: Thank you, Rachel, for all those comments. It's particularly lovely to be interviewed by you because I'm a great fan of yours.

    Well, I can give away something about the process by talking about the parts. My partner and I had a big party after part one was done — which talked about the history of my parents and through the war years and out of the war years before my birth — and handed it in to Random House. Random House said, "No, no, no, you're not done. You have to enter into it." Thus part two, which is about an-- It tends to focus on how my parents' Holocaust history impacted me.

    It brings forth that second part in pieces of self-revelation, Rachel, that I did not anticipate getting into. I think it became a much better book because of that decision, but it was the first part and the prologue, which does allude to me but doesn't really offer much up about me, that I somehow envisioned originally would be the whole book. It's so interesting that the kids of Holocaust survivors tend to feel so eclipsed by that iconic and monumental history, that it is quite symbolic that I thought of keeping me out of the book. I think it's very revelatory of my psychology as a child of survivors and of many heirs of the Holocaust's psychology.

    Rachel: Absolutely. That really rings true. That question of who am I to speak in the aftermath of all this? You have a quote early on in the book. You say, "We were strangers to our parents' darkness, yet wholly formed from it." I thought that was so powerful. It's interesting to me that you mentioned the book's foreword because I will confess now that normally I dread the forewords of books because often they feel like throat-clearing before the actual start of the story. I turned the pages not knowing what I was going to encounter, and this one I found fascinating.

    You talk about the rationale for the artistic choices you make, the problem of memoir when it reaches back into lives that aren't yours, the lives of your parents. Do you say only the things you absolutely know? How much do you fictionalize? I felt that I was hearing your voice, a three-note chord. I was hearing your voice as a child of survivors, I was hearing your voice as a writer, and I was also hearing your voice as a teacher. You do a beautiful job explaining the choices you made. I wondered if you might want to share just a little bit of what your approach was.

    Caroline: Thank you, Rachel. Yes, it is. I never thought about it that way, but it does bring all of me into the room in terms of explaining those choices. Will I open that foreword? I have the same response to forewords. Like, let's just skip over this. In terms of wanting people to understand the license that I took in imagining certain aspects of my parents' and uncle's lives, they are the key players in the book. That is a risky choice when one aims to be writing something that one calls non-fiction. Ironically, it perhaps seems like a bit of an oxymoron that it was very important to me that this book be seen as non-fiction, not a novel that really novelizes real lives.

    What I felt I had to do in writing the book was imagining those details, as I just said. The way the light comes into a window, what people actually said to one another. I talk about the rationalization for that being that everything is filled with that idea of verisimilitude. One can never get at exactly what happens. If one wants to render a story that really makes things available to the reader in terms of those lovely details, one has to imagine.

    I explained taking that liberty and I pull forth some words by Hannah Arendt, who in our age, Rachel, is considered such a feminist philosopher, but she was really a very conservative philosopher of her time. She has this quote, “the subjective in between,” about the land that we all travel in order to communicate what is here to what is there, what is part of the reader's sensibility to what one wants to communicate. That was an interesting thing to do because Hannah Arendt was also a very good friend of my uncle, one of the players in the book. To have her come back to help me to organize the book was a very special thing.

    Rachel: That's a beautiful symmetry. I just thought it was one of the clearest statements I've ever read of a writer's intent and a statement of the writer-reader bargain. Here is what is absolute fact, here are the details I needed to fill in. It established a real sense of trust at the beginning of the book. In those sections where you did have to imagine details, the reconstruction, those details you added felt really like an act of love. You were bringing your parents' world back to life through a force of imagination. I was going through it and I was marking these details. They go into the cafe, and there's the glass-domed nut dispenser. I don't know to what lengths you needed to go to to research those details, whether they were readily available or whether that was a lot of looking at old photos, but it really worked. It really brought that one to life.

    Caroline: Thank you.

    Rachel: Then, when I was reading, I think one of the most moving parts of the book to me was the juxtaposition of your father's letters with your uncle's letters. One is in a concentration camp-- I guess those weren't technically letters at the time, they were some of his recollections that he wrote later. Still, his writings about the camp contemporaneously set alongside his brother who's safely at Cambridge University, in a world of love and letters and philosophy and poetry. I just kept wondering what it was like for you to write that, to set those letters side by side.

    Caroline: That is probably the section of the book, because it covers the war years, that we talked when you opened the interview with your questions, Rachel, we talked about that, what Sebald calls the wrongful trespass into the Holocaust of the next generation or anyone. Of course, the war years particularly because my father was in the throes of the emperor of evil in right there for a long time, you feel the most sense of trespass. Because of that juxtaposition of their lives, this older brother getting out and leading a rather ideal like university existence while his brother was in Buchenwald in Auschwitz, of course, it brought up a lot of feelings for the daughter of the prisoner who is also the niece of the idyllic graduate student.

    How does one juxtapose that without judgment? Some might say that I juxtaposed those two arenas of the letters of my uncle and my father's diary entries that by doing it in such a straightforward way — here's what they wrote about — is, in a way, the most judgmental act because they lived such different lives. It felt like the appropriate way of letting them offer up this experience so that the reader could make the judgment themselves.

    Rachel: To me, it didn't-- It felt almost like the only way you could have done it is to lay those things side by side without commentary. I didn't feel, although there are plenty of moments where Erik does come across as very self-absorbed, but I felt that what was on trial there wasn't necessarily Erik. It was this whole book and, in a sense, when we look at this period of history you're looking at societies with so much respect for high culture, poetry, philosophy, and then this absolute complete degradation of human spirit and body on every level, and these two things coexisting.

    By laying the brothers’ letters, brothers’ accounts side by side, it's not just individuals that are being compared, it's a society being called to account for how can this high-flown rhetoric and a sense of, you know, the beauty of the upper reaches of the soul be coming out of and existing the same society that was doing this.

    Caroline: Absolutely. Someone once said, Rachel, and I can't remember who but, in reading the book that, Erik's descriptions of his own life through his letters were in fact evoking the life that my father might have had had Hitler not come on the scene, which is, in a way, exactly what you just said: that this is what was lost. This was what became unavailable. It looks like a luxury when you juxtapose it with what my father was experiencing but in fact, it was the real way that all of these individuals deserved to immerse themselves in.

    I will say that my father, toward the end of the war, what Hitler did, was sent people who were prisoners on these death marches and in a way, having Hitler having this illusion that he could cover up his tracks about what was happening in the concentration camps. My father was on one of these death marches between Auschwitz going back to Buchenwald. During that march, and it may say a bit about that in the book, he just collapsed one night in a farmhouse. All of the people who were surviving the death march collapsed every night.

    In this farmhouse, it was a barn, my father was lying under a calendar with a pencil attached and he thought, "I'm just going to put that in my pocket because I'm going to die anyway. If I'm going to die because the Gestapo catches me writing, so be it. I'm going to die anyway," and that is the excerpts that I present in that middle chapter, they are my father's translations from that farmer's calendar.

    Rachel: From what he scribbled on the calendar.

    Caroline: What he scribbled on the calendar, right.

    Rachel: It's, I'm having trouble with words, I want to say it's an unbelievable story, it's all too believable and it's unbelievable as all these stories are unbelievable. As with so many stories of survival, there are all these things that happened by chance that if this one thing didn't happen, if that other thing didn't happen, people wouldn't have made it out. When he finds the sugar cubes and that sustains him for a while. I couldn't get over that moment where Edward R. Murrow comes and does his broadcasts and interviews him and then his family in England hears. I wonder, were you ever able to hear that that broadcast?

    Caroline: Yes, I did Rachel. As a matter of fact, when Reading Claudius first came out and I did a series of readings, I have played that broadcast and it does send chills up my spine again and again and I could see the audience responding to that firsthand account of Murrow being there and meeting my father, so yes, I have. The first time I ever heard it, I had no idea it was still available, was when I was living in Berkeley, California, and it was, I don't know if it was the 30th anniversary or the 40th anniversary of the broadcast itself, but someone contacted me that it was on KPFA radio and I should pull over. No one had a cell phone at that time. I should pull over and find a radio right away and listen to it. That was when I recognized that, my God, I can listen to this. Yes, it was a very moving moment.

    Rachel: I understand we might actually get to hear a bit of that broadcast.

    Caroline: We are about to, Rachel. This is an excerpt from the Edward R. Murrow broadcast where he is standing outside the gates of Buchenwald. No outsiders have entered yet, and my father has been liberated enough already to be tending to patients in a small building right at the gate. Edward R. Murrow was encouraged to go in and talk to my father.

    [Begin radio broadcast]

    Edward R. Murro: Permit me to tell you what you would have seen and heard had you been with me on Thursday. It will not be pleasant listening. If you were at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio for I propose to tell you of Buchenwald.

    There's on a small hill about four miles outside Weimar. It was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany, and it was built to last. There surged around me an evil-smelling horde. Men and boys reached out to touch me, they were in rags and the remnants of uniforms. Death had already marked many of them, but they were smiling with their eyes.

    The doctor's name was Paul Heller. He had been there since ‘38. As he walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others, they must have been over 60, were crawling towards the latrine. I saw it but will not describe it. The doctor told me that 200 had died the day before. I asked the cause of death. He shrugged and said tuberculosis, starvation, fatigue, and there are many who have no desire to live. It is very difficult. Dr. Heller pulled back the blanket from the man's feet to show me how swollen they were. The man was dead. Most of the patients could not move.

    [End radio broadcast]

    Rachel: Thank you so much for letting us hear that.

    There is so much in this book about the richness of the life of the mind, and we've alluded to that a bit before. I wonder what it was like for you to grow up in being raised by parents for whom literature and philosophy and poetry had been at the center of everything. In American culture, did it did you experience a cultural gulf and how do you think that played into your development as a thinker and as a writer?

    Caroline: A great question. Yes, I grew up in a very Republican very Christian, not that that belies intellectualism, but at that time intellectualism was not part of the fabric of the life that surrounded me. It was very oriented towards sports and the culture of that time in America, which was a very Ozzie and Harriet, for those of us old enough to remember that. Here I was not really knowing how different my family was culturally from that which surrounded us, but seeing all these books and all these classical records, and just feeling, absorbing my parents' devotion to all of that, but being too young to place it in a larger context, and yet it was.

    What I felt, Rachel, in growing up was I am different. I embraced what my parents embraced, but I didn't know how singularly that element of our lives added to my sense of difference. My sense of difference was much more amorphous than that. Also, you alluded to my uncle's intellectual life, even during the war, that it was particularly focused on that because he was re-immersing himself in the humanities and in German literature and philosophy, exactly when all these atrocities were taking place. He took that out of those years with a great sense of mission that he wanted to keep German philosophy and the German humanities before Hitler alive in the Western world.

    He carried that forth with a certain arrogance and elitism. That added to my complex response to European intellectualism because at once, it was my Yiddish, it was my home culture, and at once, it was held with a certain kind of male elite authority by my uncle. It took me a long time to really embrace my own identity within that and my own hold on all those ideas, all those philosophers.

    Rachel: To compound that, there's that extra layer which you talk about in the book about gender. One motif of the book is your mother's struggle, Liza's struggle to be taken seriously on an intellectual level by the men in her life who dismissed her ideas. There's a line in the section of the book, in your own memoir part of it, you talk about your own impulse, you say, "To develop my mind and disavow my body," and here, you're the American born daughter of a mother who went through a version of this struggle, and you're a writer.

    Caroline: Yes, a very perceptive catch.

    Rachel: I could feel all the layers of struggle and I thought you handled them beautifully in the book. I was also very moved by your description of the remoteness of survivor parents. I'm thinking, in particular, of that scene where you have the opportunity to win a swim trophy by being the first to swim down to the bottom of the pool and grab a brick and swim up. It's such a powerful moment, and you do it. It's a glorious moment. You do it. You come to the surface with a brick.

    Then there's that moment where your mother is-- I referred to remoteness a moment ago, but this isn't a moment of remoteness. It's a moment where there were witnessed cracks at her pride in you is almost too much. It's almost unbearable, and it's one of the most beautiful representations I've seen of the impossible weight of responsibility for one's parent's happiness when one's parents are survivors. I wondered if there were other works of art, books, or music or anything along the way that helped you recognize where this feeling came from.

    I'm thinking of Art Spiegelman's Maus or Helen Epstein's Children of the Holocaust, works that gathered up these experiences from children of survivors and helped people understand what they were dealing with.

    Caroline: Both the books you mentioned were very important to me. I read Helen Epstein's book, Children of the Holocaust when I had gone back to graduate school in Berkeley. The voices of the second generation were just beginning to come out. That book that she wrote, I believe in 1976 or '78, it was a while back now, was the book that brought those voices forward. I read it, and I read it, I remember, rather dispassionately. I just read it, read it, read it, read it, read it, and then I finished the last sentence and convulsed in tears.

    I didn't know that that was coming because, in a sense, I tried to keep a distance. It was all just -- went in so deeply that I couldn't bear it, and then it all just came flooding out. I think that these writers, Helen Epstein, certainly Art Spiegelman who does a very unique job with being the child of survivors with his Maus books, which I hesitated to read because I couldn't comprehend that he could write a comic book about being the son of survivors, but oh my God, it is such a successful rendering, and I think writers like them, Rachel--

    There was a book by, the little character of Momik, who is a beautiful little boy who sees his grandfather's tattoo and thinks it's a combination to a safe, and if only he can figure out the combination, he'll know everything about why he feels the way he feels, and who this grandfather is who he loves so much. That story, almost more even than I'm sure Helen Epstein and Art Spiegelman's work, had opened the portal. That little guy, Momik, in David Grossman's book really, really became my totem in understanding myself, in relation to my parents.

    Rachel: That's fascinating that you mentioned that. I had similarly strong reactions to all three of those works, and The Summer of Aviya that Gila Almagor, I think, film, so powerful.

    Caroline: I don't know this. I'm writing it down as we speak.

    Rachel: The Summer of Aviya, Israeli film with subtitles.

    Caroline: Art did, not Art Spiegelman, art in general did-- That became also the portals to conversations with my parents. When I was a student at the University of Chicago, I met my mother at a movie theater in Chicago, my parents were living in Evanston, to see The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and my mother fell apart. I remember going out for hamburgers afterwards, and staying for just four or five hours, and she started talking. Art for their generation and art for my generation were the portals for our finally connecting and having the conversations that we couldn't have earlier or without those openings, I think.

    Rachel: I was struck by the passages where you talk about your grandfather's patriotism as a German. It reminded me of my own grandfather's patriotism as a Pol, in a sense of absolute belonging and this is my culture, this is my home. Then, what happened to him, as that betrayal emerged, it just felt like one of the most tragic elements of your book. Both men, I'm thinking of my grandfather, your grandfather, Jewish men who felt completely bonded to the country and culture that they came from, and then their countries turned against them. I wonder if there's anything that you want to say about that.

    Caroline: In all the research I did for the book, there's a book by Amos Elon called the Pity of It All about the history of German Jews. That was a book that helped me to really understand my grandparents' responses that you allude to, Rachel, where that sense of devotion to German culture, and the fact that Germany and the parts of the Western European lands that were ruled for a long time by the Habsburg Empire. A monarchy but a monarchy that liberated the Jews to enter civic culture.

    Germany was one of those countries it wasn't Germany yet at the time when it happened but my grandparents' generation really reaped the rewards of that liberation from the ghetto and liberation into the professions. They felt, and this book by Amos Elan really pointed that out, they felt more German than non-Jewish Germans felt German because they experienced it as such an opening to the world. Of course, they didn't realize it was all going to collapse again and antisemitism would show its horrors again. They had the privilege or the delusion of believing that those were just moments in history from the past and now it's over.

    I do think a lot about that in terms of today and what is the proper level of fear and caution? I don't know the answer, but I certainly think all the time of my grandparents whom I didn't know, and neither set of grandparents did I know and my parents and particularly my grandparents' generation, not being able to comprehend that this is what's happening now, and therefore not getting themselves to safety because of that sense of devotion to their land and how much of that is getting repeated in our own American culture through the present administration and kind of the tone of politics now and it's wearing all of us out.

    Rachel: Yes. It is. I thought maybe I would close by just switching to a different topic. When I was getting ready to speak with you, I looked at your CV and one of the things that struck me, that kept jumping out was the word mentoring. Clearly, Lesley students are very lucky to have you, you've devoted so much of your energy to mentoring, teaching, helping students along. I wonder if there's anything you want to say about your work as a teacher or how the work as the teacher and your work as a writer dovetail or don't?

    Caroline: What a great ending Rachel, to give me a chance to think about that. Well, I am teaching a writing course right now, to begin with the more abstract aspects of mentoring, where I am able to really talk about some of the decisions that I've wrestled with as a writer as I'm guiding students in their social science research, which I think most professors who have a niche in the social sciences and my role at Lesley is in education which does claim the mantle of the social sciences rightly or wrongly. Most professors really try to synthesize the research that they mentor their students in. Start counting, start some statistical charts, et cetera.

    I'm much more in the spirit of the ethnographic approach, the literary approach toward real research which Reading Claudius is and try to expose my students to archival research which was a big part of my getting into Reading Claudius and trying to teach them how to write well, which in the social sciences is not done much. I feel very happy and proud of that orientation in my work and I think my students do really appreciate it and are very happy with it. I am so happy as a young writer, although I am hardly young, I don't have much time to write so my production level isn't huge. I am just so happy to be in a profession where there is a little bit of time to do that and where I can bring that orientation to my students.

    I also think, Rachel, that being able to hang out with the students at Lesley who are so immersed in life now and in the issues of now and particularly in education, it really grounds me even as I want to produce more literary works. It grounds me in the super real, which I think is important for every writer to have a life that grounds them in discussions of the now and discussions of the issues of the now. My students really provided that for me and I feel very lucky to have them.

    Rachel: Well, they're clearly very lucky to have you. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

    Caroline: Rachel, thank you so much.

    Announcer: Thank you for listening to Why We Write, a production of Lesley University. Check out our episode page for photos of Caroline Heller's family and to hear Edward R. Murrow 10-minute broadcasts on Buchenwald from April 1945. You can also hear more from Caroline and Rachel in an episode from earlier in the season, where Rachel talks about her award-winning novel, The Weight of Ink. You can check all that out at The link is also in the show notes. Next week, we close season one with a recent graduate Nicole Mello. Nicole talks about self-publishing, imposter syndrome, and ghost-hunting lesbians. Here's a clip.

    Nicole Mello: I had a lot of imposter syndrome of like, people being like, "You got a book out, that's so great," and me being like, "Yes but," like all these “yeah buts”. "Yeah, but it's not a real book," or like, "Yes, but it's not like it's with Penguin Publishing," or "Yes, but it's not that big of a deal." I felt like I was lying and I'm not lying. I wrote a book and published it, but there's so many-- Every step of the way there's always a, "Yes, but," unless I'm like JK Rowling putting a book out there like I'm always going to be saying, "Yes, but, it's not exactly the same."

    It was still a lot of growing that I had to do and being able to assert myself like," I did write that." That's something to be proud of, and there's still space to grow and figure things out while I'm accomplishing things.