clare burson

silver and ash

the devil’s arithmetic

when i was somewhere around 12 or 13 years old, i read ‘the devil’s arithmetic’ by jane yolen. it was one of many similarly-related books towards which i gravitated at the time, one of many young-adult novels searching for a sensitive approach to the hard and biting reality of the holocaust. i devoured it in no time but forgot about it as soon as i moved on to the next book.

8 or so years later, sitting in a park in hamburg, germany, i remembered the book. it was another cold and grey day in a string of cold and grey german days. spring was around the corner but decidedly not yet arrived. i was alone in a new city, as i often was during that year.

as i sat, homesick and generally blue, i wondered again why i had decided to spend an entire year in what for me was such a dark place. more important, it was far from and wholly without connection to everyone and everything i knew and loved. with each day i spent in europe, i felt further removed from the world around me. college friends up and moved to the west coast. childhood friends got engaged and married. my paternal grandfather passed away.

yet on that day, for some reason, it became clear to me that the decision to move to germany was far more of a decision to get closer to something than it was a decision to leave something behind. the longer i spent in germany, the more i was becoming connected to a world long buried by time and earth – looking for and sometimes finding hidden passageways or some sort of talisman that would allow me to slip back and forth through time. a fountain pen purchased at a junk store neighboring the cemetery in berlin in which my great grandfather is buried. an old postcard. the turn of a particular cobblestone street. a doorway.

and then i remembered jane yolen’s book. set in the 1980’s, the story opens with the protagonist, hannah, at her family’s passover seder. bored and annoyed with relatives’ stories of the past, hannah gets up to open the door for elijah. when she does so, she looks out, not upon her familiar suburban street, but upon a field in a small polish village in 1942.

i could no longer recall specifics about the plot. what i could remember was that hannah experiences the horrors of the next few years along side of the people her grandparents spoke about during passover seders. i also remembered that hannah eventually returns to her grandparents’ living room just as she is sent to the gas chambers.

thinking back on the book, i was struck by a feeling of envy. strange, i know. what’s to envy? but that is what i felt. i envied hannah’s experience – viscerally. not because hannah has the opportunity to change history in this book. she decidedly does not. and even if she were to, i am under no illusions that i ever could or should or would change the past. (it has not escaped my attention that were it not for the arrival of hitler on the world scene and the subsequent flight of my grandparents from germany, i wouldn’t be here today.) however, my body ached from not having the opportunity hannah does have in the book – to meet and develop relationships with people whose lives did not cross over into the present. and how unfair that i, unlike hannah, could not truly empathize with the experiences of my grandparents. i wasn’t there. how could i know what it was like? to leave everyone and everything you knew and loved? how could i know what it was like to lose your parents as a teenager? to the whims of history. how could i truly understand the trauma of rupture and the process of starting over? how could i help shoulder the burden of this history when i didn’t experience it myself?

and then it became clear to me that this was at least part of my motivation for going to germany, for studying history in school, learning yiddish, pouring over old photographs, and now, working on this recording project – this desire to insinuate myself into the past, to go beyond assimilating my grandparents’ stories and silences and experience them as my own. it was my attempt at time travel. and perhaps, time travel, however literal or figurative, was and still is my means to empathy, care, and purpose.

(over the course of writing songs for this new recording, i have noted to myself and others that time travel isn’t a new point of fascination for me. i don’t think it’s purely coincidental that one of my favorite t.v. shows in high school was quantum leap. (i can sing the theme song in its entirety on the drop of a dime.) there is something immensely appealing about dr. sam beckett, who, to quote the opening credits, ‘finds himself leaping from life to life, putting things right that once went wrong.’)

anyway, clearly working on this project has unearthed thoughts about ‘the devil’s arithmetic’ yet again. so today i stopped by a bookstore in my neighborhood to buy a new copy of the book. holding it in my hands again after 20 years was a strangely powerful sensation. and more powerful still was the feeling i had upon reading the synopsis on the back of the book and re-discovering that hannah’s hebrew name in the book is the same as mine: chaya.

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1 Comment»

  ahna wrote @

Hi Clare ~ I found your blog through a link from Brian Siskind’s. Your writing is very thoughtful and evocative.

When I was about twelve years old, I heard on a children’s radio program, an excerpt from a book called “Freedom in White Mittens” — at least, I think that was the name of it. It’s so specific that I don’t think I mis-heard it. At any rate, the book was about a girl who came to America from Europe, but she paid her way by becoming an indentured servant. And the story centered on her plight; I think maybe her master proved to be unkind and unfair, and made her work longer than promised for her “freedom.” But somehow she escaped… likely something to do with the white mittens, but I don’t know. I can’t find the story, and I’ve always wondered about it, for over twenty years now.

Your description of the mixture of history and your present life during your year in Germany is really beautiful. I, too, lived overseas for a year, and one of my grandparents passed away while I was there. I was in Japan — a place where, unlike Germany for you — I had no ties to the past, and, seemingly, no link to the future. Your writing in this blog entry, however, makes me question whether that is actually the case. The passage of time, the connectedness of events, the intricate interweaving of details in our world is truly a mysterious and beautiful thing.

Thank you for turning my attention to this today.


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