clare burson

silver and ash

Archive for February, 2008

time travel (or something even more extraordinary)

november 9, 1998

my mother was invited by a friend to a krystallnacht memorial concert at the library of congress. the piece being performed that night had been commissioned by the library and the german consulate.  the composer was present that evening: a jewish pianist/ composer from leipzig who fled germany in 1934 and was living in washington, d.c.

after the concert, my mother went up to the composer, congratulated him on his piece, and told him that her mother was also from leipzig. he asked my mother for my grandmother’s maiden name. helga rabinowitz. did he know her?

before he could respond, other admirers surrounded him, begging for his attention, and his conversation with my mother ended.

the next day, my mom spoke to my grandmother on the phone:

‘mom, i went to a wonderful concert last night, and the composer was a man from leipzig. have you heard of him? his name is herman berlinski.’
‘well, did you meet his wife?’
‘no.  why?’
‘she’s my cousin.’

my mom was floored. as far as she had ever known, the only family members to make it out of leipzig were my grandmother, her brother, their grandmother and two aunts (and their young families). now there was a cousin too! and she lived practically around the corner from my parents!

my mother looked up the berlinskis in the phone book, called them up, introduced herself, and invited them to thanksgiving dinner.

apparently, when my grandmother’s cousin walked in the door, she took one look at my sister, turned to my grandmother and said, ‘your mother! she is the spitting image of your mother!’

my great grandmother, malka, mary.

i missed out on thanksgiving that year. i was in germany, encountering my great grandmother’s ghost in a different context. but upon hearing the story, i was struck by the idea that my sister could find pieces of herself in someone else’s face. i was envious. i imagined that, in seeing herself in malka’s cheekbones, my sister could access a solid sense of place and belonging – something i yearn for. i imagined that my sister could locate herself within some kind of almost tangible historical trajectory.

it felt like time travel. or something even more extraordinary, like my sister was more than just my sister – a beautiful composite existing in a dimension of time far more expansive than the one we know.


home of the cheese

i flew down to memphis last spring to interview my grandmothers. we did a lot of talking. we did a lot of driving, visiting old haunts.

i asked jojo a question i somehow had never asked before:

“jojo, where did the cheese come from?”
“oh, some little podunk town in lithuania. it probably doesn’t even exist any more.”
“well, did it have a name?”
“yes. pushville.”
“pushville? that doesn’t sound lithuanian – or yiddish.”
“well, clare, that’s what papa always said – he came from pushville. pushville in kovne guberniia.”

i was in the midst of planning a trip to eastern europe, so i scoured the internet for any mention of ‘pushville.’ there is a pushville road in greenwood, indiana. but no pushville of note in eastern europe.

i went anyway. i started in kiev, where my paternal grandfather’s family was from. i took a day trip to berdichev, where mimi’s mother was born. i made my way up to vilnius. my last stop was riga, latvia.

while i was in vilnius, i started feeling guilty for not having made more of an effort to find my great grandfather’s shtetl. i was so close. not to find the home of the cheese and go there seemed almost like adolescent irresponsibility on my part. there had to be another name.

so i started asking around.

it wasn’t long until i found the town of poswohl/ posvol on a map in the jewish history museum in vilnius. the lithuanian name is pasvalys. the next day, i boarded a soviet era bus bound for kovne guberniia.

i arrived at dusk in the middle of a rain storm. no one spoke a word of english. there was one room left at the only inn in town. i had to leave for riga the following afternoon.

when i awoke the next morning, i stumbled upon the town’s agricultural museum. there, i found some english speakers who took me on a tour of pushville (small town, short tour) and informed me that the main industry of their town is: CHEESE!

this is what i saw:
the bus to pushville

the oldest road in pushville – of course, it wasn’t paved when my great grandfather lived there . . .

the synagogue of pushville used to stand on this spot. if you can read lithuanian, you can tell me what the current building houses . . .

the stone wall of this building is the only structure remaining from the time my great grandfather lived in pushville.

i think this is the beginning of the svalia river – seen with my back to the stone wall

mailboxes – no relevance – i just liked the way they looked

pushville cheese! being lactose intolerant, i didn’t buy both – just the processed version. it was tasty – nutty – something of a cheddar/ havarti blend.

pushville logo/ mascot/ town seal



in november 1938 my maternal grandmother (in the leopard-y coat) and her brother (far right) left their home in leipzig, germany for the united states. after a presumably long journey, they arrived in new york city, spent a week in far rockaway with distant relatives, and boarded a train to memphis, tn.

in pictures of them from their trip across the ocean, they are young and smiling. my grandmother in particular looks to be quite the catch – impeccably stylish and constantly canoodling with one or another dapper looking fellow . . .

my great grandparents eventually left germany as well. however, as it was too late for them to escape to the west, they headed east to riga, latvia. in 1940 the soviet army invaded latvia. the wehrmacht followed one year later. my great grandparents did not survive the war.

my childhood was marked by an uneasy silence surrounding my grandmother’s escape. it was a silence that eventually led me to pick up and move to germany on two separate occasions in the late 1990s. while there, i lived in munich, frankfurt, berlin, and cologne. i did a lot of digging. i filled in the spaces as best i could.

my experiences from this time could constitute an entire blog’s worth of reflections on their own that aren’t worth going into now. however, i will mention, that while i was there, i had the opportunity to visit leipzig with my grandmother, mother, aunt, uncle and cousin. we walked through the market square and by the town hall. we stopped in the rain at the empty lot where the old synagogue had been. we found my grandmother’s old neighborhood, amazingly still intact. as was the apartment building where she had lived with her parents and brother. we rang the doorbell of the apartment, hoping for a glimpse inside. no one was home.

seven years later, in november 2003, 65 years after my grandmother left leipzig for the first time, i returned again. i was on a two week tour of germany, and one of my shows was at a club in leipzig. i remembered the address. i also remembered that the building was not too far from the train station. when i arrived, i asked my driver to take me there.

to make a longish story somewhat shorter, someone was home this time. a single mother with two daughters welcomed me into her home, where i spent close to an hour in the rooms my great grandparents had shared with their children generations ago.

the next day, i wrote the following song:


here where the cold wind blows across the fields and the magpies gather all that glitter – here where the old men speak of long lost things in a language that never seems to matter – i think of you – here where your white walls color in the past and the windows are looking in on yesterday – i hear your voices quiet like the night – i picture you in everything – i think of you – sometimes i think that you might have been something like rainbows on water – sometimes i think of how life must have been for you here – what life could have been like for you here – what life should have been like here with you