clare burson

silver and ash

Archive for beginnings

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.


sophie’s choice

i spent the summer before my senior year in high school at the sewanee summer music center in sewanee, tennessee. orchestra camp. instead of band geeks, we were classical music geeks. of course, we didn’t think of ourselves as geeks . . . classical music is cool!

anyway, the summer of ’92 was actually a pretty important one for me on at least two levels. first, it was then and there that i met my first germans who were not part of my grandparents’ demographic. and on one of these germans – a beautiful cellist from the southwestern corner of germany- i developed a long-lasting infatuation. in part because of this crush and how it directed me towards my own connection to the vaterland, i decided to spend my time in college learning german, studying german cultural/ intellectual history, and spending a year+ in germany digging through my family history there.

(for those of you clamoring to know how things turned out between me and the beautiful german cellist, well . . . we sent letters back and forth over the atlantic for a few years and then finally met up again a few months after i arrived in germany in the fall of ‘95. we had a lovely time, but i handled myself poorly, to say the least, and i have seen/ heard neither hide nor hair of him since.)

but the point here is not to dwell on my thwarted romance with the german cellist. rather, in thinking about my last post, jew-y/ jew-ier/ jew-iest, i remembered another important experience from my time in sewanee. each summer, while 200 or so aspiring classical musicians are practicing under the magnolias, the sewanee writer’s conference gathers ‘a distinguished faculty to provide instruction and criticism through workshops and craft lectures in fiction, poetry, and playwriting.’ every once in a while, one of these faculty members gives a talk that is open to the public.

william styron was a member of the faculty during the summer of ’92. and one day, by some strange lapse in my usual lack of attention to such things, i noticed that styron was giving a lecture – open to the public. i hadn’t read or seen sophie’s choice at that point, but i knew all about it. okay. that’s a stretch. i knew that it was a book about the holocaust. or at least, that’s how i identified it. i had to go. i was particularly curious to listen to a non-jew talk about his motivation for writing a book about something that i then considered quintessentially jewish – despite the fact that so many victims of the holocaust were not jewish, including the heroine (if we can call her that) of sophie’s choice.

to paraphrase what i heard (and i’ve had enough therapy to know that what i heard was not necessarily what was actually said): william styron had not set out specifically to write a book about a polish victim of the holocaust. first came a theme, a question of the human experience: the moment of a choiceless choice and that moment’s deep and far-reaching implications and repercussions – both on the players and those around them. only then came the setting, the historical and social structure within which to ensconce this set of human experiences.

and suddenly, writing made sense to me in a way that it never had before. i understood what moves me when i read a book or listen to a song. beyond the essentials of plot and language which draw me in, lies the emotional and psychological experience, the internal struggle that resonates on a deep and fundamentally human level.

and so i began to write. and so i do still.

perhaps it is a given that this still untitled collection of songs chronicles more than the historical upheaval experienced by my jewish grandparents and great grandparents. i don’t mean to say that the ‘jewishness’ or the historical background of this project are simply foils. they are no more foils than the setting and circumstances of sophie’s choice. theme, setting, language, and narrative are inextricably linked and intertwined. and, here it seems relevant to add, so is the identity of the artist/ creator. but it seems to me that what these extreme moments both in history and in art do is expose the rawness of what it is to be human, force us to feel and act in ways that test both our limitation and our boundlessness.


in my family, we did not wax nostalgic about things german. case in point, my grandmother, helga. she has spent the past 70 years downplaying the fact that she was even born in germany – not to mention the fact that she lived there until she was 19. when asked where she’s from, she replies, without a second thought, “memphis.”

of course, certain things were unavoidable growing up. my great aunt rita, for instance. married to helga’s brother, axel, she never missed an opportunity to romanticize her german heritage. (she was born in the united states and grew up in a jewish household, so her attachment to germany still flumoxes me – despite the fact that she’s from missouri.)

and certain things were undeniable, like my grandfather eric’s german accent.

one of my earliest memories of him is of his coming to speak to my violin class about one of the pieces we were learning – the two grenediers, which was based on a heinrich heine poem. (granddaddy loved heinrich heine – a jewish german poet from the early 19th century, heine’s lyrical poetry was often set to music by composers like strauss, brahms, schubert, mendelssohn, and even wagner.

he sounded so different from my teachers with their thick southern drawls. my classmates didn’t know what to make of him. “what is he saying?” they asked repeatedly.

i loved it. i loved the gutteral sounds of his ‘r’s. i loved to hear him pronounce the names of german composers. i loved his handwriting.

i loved that it was different, that he was different. this difference represented a lost world to me. and granddaddy was my link to this lost, magical place – strange for a school kid to think of pre-war, weimar berlin as a glittering fantasy world, but that’s what it was for me. his germany was so storied and full of music and thought and word. perhaps most compelling for me was that it was a place and time impossible to recover.

when i was 13 and he was 84, he died of bone cancer. his last words were from the robert frost poem, stopping by woods on a snowy evening:

and miles to go before i sleep . . .


what i know of my grandfather’s life in germany comes from black and white photos of a young leder-hosen-clad boy posing with his zuckertuete (the candy filled cone that german children receive on the first day of school) and long dead austere-looking 19th century relatives, stories filtered through my aunt and my mother, a handwritten poem from 1928 on the occasion of eric’s older sister hella’s marriage, and his memoir, entitled, the lord is my shepherd. (a highly assimilated german jew from berlin, granddaddy changed his last name from cohen to cornell when he settled in the united states. that said, the great appreciation he had for life here eventually led him to a deep attachment to his judaism. for as long as i knew him, he was the loudest voice in the temple choir, a friend of the rabbi, and quick to quote psalms whenever the opportunity arose.)

i know that eric’s family had been in germany for generations – from the northwestern region of the country, if i’m remembering correctly. his father, levi/ leo, was a banker who died in 1932 and is buried in the weisensee friedhof (cemetery) on the outskirts of berlin. granddaddy had a little boat named ping-pong that he sailed along berlin’s river spree. he always regretted not having had a proper education, as his school days were interruped by the first world war, when all of his teachers left for the front.

when my grandfather was old enough, he began to work as a salesman. clothes, i think. this was an occupation that ended up facilitating his escape from nazi germany. on a buying trip in switzerland in the mid-thirties, he was able to view the goings-on in his country from a different vantage point. he surmised correctly that the situation in his beloved homeland was only worsening, so he began making plans to leave.

he took the train to rotterdam and back again to berlin countless times, on ‘buying’ trips. (incidentally, my cousin does a hilarious impersonation of granddaddy saying, ‘i took ze train to rotterdam.’ emphasis on the ‘r’s, of course.) 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 decided to get out while he still could.

of course, there were complications with obtaining a visa. there was waiting. but eventually, in 1938, he made it out. and from new york, where his sister hella and her family had settled in kew gardens, he was able to arrange for his mother’s escape as well.

He would have been 105 years old today, April 13, 2008.



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