clare burson

silver and ash

Archive for September, 2008



my first year in germany was an archeological expedition – in terms of uncovering the lives of my grandparents and great grandparents but also in terms of beginning to uncover the extent of my own entanglement with this buried inheritance.  in studying german and german history in college and going to germany to live, i wanted to connect with the country that had shaped my grandparents, and, in turn, shaped my mother and me.  i wanted to understand the societal relationships that existed in the past and the ones that did and could exist in the present and future.

i was very much alone during my year in germany, but i did end up with a network of friends who became guides of a sort as i muddled through the year. one of these guides was gottfried, a colleague at the fritz bauer institute in frankfurt.  the fritz bauer institute is a research and documentation center dedicated to the history of the holocaust and its continued impact on contemporary society.  i was an intern in the education department, learning about how the holocaust is taught to german school children.

a week or so into my internship, gottfried, who split his time between the institute and teaching high school, invited me to join him and his class on a trip to buchenwald, i jumped at the chance.  i would be a couple of years older than the kids on the trip.  i would be the only american.  i would be the only jew.  we would stay for one day and two nights in former ss barracks that are now used to house and give workshops to school groups visiting the camp.

the morning that we toured the camp was bitter cold.  the wind cut through my thick wool pea coat.  the frost on the trees was heavier than any i had seen.  the structures left at the camp seemed to frame a vast space of emptiness – a field of black and grey pebbles and dirt stretching into the frosted forest beyond.  i remember the word ‘nichts’ (german for ‘nothing’) repeating itself in my head.

there were five minutes early in our tour during which our guide talked to us outside in the empty field that once had been the camp’s roll call area.  he gave us an introductory history of the camp and some details concerning what had happened there.  we huddled together, heads down, listening.

at that moment and thinking back on it now, it seemed like we were all essentially involved in the same process of trying to understand and come to terms with something that only confounds.  it felt like we were all on the edge of a deep abyss, looking down into nothingness.  we stood on different sides of the abyss, them and me, the germans and the jew, yet the choice confronting us was the same: dive in, walk away or become paralyzed at the edge, unable to act.


long way down

it’s a long way down

look out the window
fields blur by
bare from the harvest
blackbirds fly

it’s a long way down

arrive by the river
bright and strange
dirt roads to nowhere
far-off places

it’s a long way down

confused conversation
thick slow words
waiting for letters
but noone’s heard

distract me
don’t ask me

it’s a long long long way down


in december of 1938, shortly after arriving in the united states, my grandmother and her brother took a train from new york to their new home in memphis, tn.  one Saturday afternoon in early 2008, i called and asked her to tell me about the train ride and her first impressions of her new life.  9 times out of 10, when i ask my grandmother for details about her childhood in germany or her departure from there, her response is, “i don’t remember, clare.  it was so long ago.”  but every once in a while, especially when i am particularly relentless with my questioning, she will surprise me, and herself . . .


it was december when we left new york for memphis. i came from germany, a cold country where december is a cold month.  but here, in america, we travelled by train through areas where children played outside in short skirts and short pants and no jackets like it was springtime!

i remember how long it took to get there.  it was such a long train trip to memphis. nobody goes by train any more, but in those days, that was the only way, and it took us a day and a half! i just couldn’t imagine anything being so far away.  and that’s only a portion of the united states!  it was such a long way down!

once we got to memphis, i really don’t remember who picked us up or who introduced us to whom.  there were so many people. my experience was one of a whole new beginning – something very thrilling when you are so young.  it wasn’t like our mother had said, ‘okay, next week you leave home for a new life in the united states.” we had to wait a long time to leave germany, many many months  and there was so much excitement in the fact that it was finally happening. i’m sure people felt quite sorry for us.  it was a sad thing, what we left behind.  but there are so many different sides to one happening, and everybody was lovely and helpful and nice.


after she was finished, she laughed and asked if i was going to write a song with what she had told me.

altered images

over the past couple of months, i’ve turned my attention from songwriting to script writing and photoshopping.  i have been working with a wonderful woman, jill samuels, who, in her role as dramaturge/ acting coach/ cheerleader is helping me craft a coherent narrative out of the storied silence documented by this blog. i have also been futzing around with photoshop, which has been pretty exciting.  below are some photos i have been playing with as of late . . . enjoy!

the world turns on a dime

at a small café
in a big city
sits a man with his life in his hands
watch the nod of his head
his eyes, heavy-lidded

cause the world turns on a dime

there’s a girl
with a smile
on a boat with her brother
sailing for a visit of a year
she says goodbye to her home
and all things familiar

cause the world turns on a dime

take a train
back and forth
over the border
with suitcases piled overhead
will the officer scowl and stop before passing
will he stop before passing

cause the world turns on a dime

at some point in the late 1870’s and after years of study and hard work, young yehezkel wainman (my great great grandfather) acquired all of the necessary papers to begin medical school. so one day, with papers in hand, he went to register with the appropriate authorities.

along the way, yehezkel stopped at a café for a cup of coffee or to meet a friend. while he was waiting, he fell asleep. maybe he had traveled from his home to register and was tired from a long journey. maybe his friend kept him waiting. either way, the coffee didn’t do the trick.

while he was sleeping, someone stole his papers. there were no other copies. crazy to imagine a world without xerox machines or computers . . . anyway, without the papers, there was no medical school. so back he went, to pushville, in kovne guberniia, and opened an inn.


a year or so ago, my aunt showed me an old photo album she had recently unearthed. in it were pictures of my grandmother and her brother from the first few years after arriving in the united states. the album begins on the boat taking them from england to new york city.

i was struck by how happy they looked, my grandmother and her brother, how carefree. my grandmother strolled arm in arm with a handfull of different young men. she was stylish, in heels and a smartly tailored coat. her stunning smile belied nothing of the grim reality: she and her brother left germany on november 9, 1938, the morning of krystallnacht, and said goodbye to their parents in the chaos of the leipzig train station.


elsewhere in this blog i have written about my grandfather’s escape from nazi germany: my grandfather, eric, was in retail or manufacturing – i forget which. anyway, planning his escape, he took the train to rotterdam and back again to berlin countless times, on ‘buying’ trips. on weekends, eric carted luggage full of his belongings to holland, where he left the contents with friends. he then would return to germany with empty suitcases. a dangerous proposition, what with nazi soldiers monitoring travel. these trips stopped when he was approached by a hostile officer inquiring as to why he was returning to berlin with an empty suitcase. somehow, granddaddy talked his way out of a potentially damning situation and made it out of germany shortly thereafter.