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When Memory Comes: The Classic Memoir

When Memory Comes: The Classic Memoir


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A classic of Holocaust literature, the eloquent, acclaimed memoir of childhood by a Pulitzer-winning historian, now reissued with a new introduction by Claire Messud
Four months before Hitler came to power, Saul Friedländer was born in Prague to a middle-class Jewish family. In 1939, seven-year-old Saul and his family were forced to flee to France, where they lived through the German Occupation, until his parents' ill-fated attempt to flee to Switzerland. They were able to hide their son in a Roman Catholic seminary before being sent to Auschwitz where they were killed. After an imposed religious conversion, young Saul began training for priesthood. The birth of Israel prompted his discovery of his Jewish past and his true identity.
Friedländer brings his story movingly to life, shifting between his Israeli present and his European past with grace and restraint. His keen eye spares nothing, not even himself, as he explores the ways in which the loss of his parents, his conversion to Catholicism, and his deep-seated Jewish roots combined to shape him into the man he is today. Friedländer's retrospective view of his journey of grief and self-discovery provides readers with a rare experience: a memoir of feeling with intellectual backbone, in equal measure tender and insightful.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781635420500
Publisher: Other Press, LLC
Publication date: 08/04/2020
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 7.93(h) x 0.58(d)

About the Author

Saul Friedländer is an award-winning Israeli-American historian and currently a professor of history (emeritus) at UCLA. He was born in Prague to a family of German-speaking Jews, grew up in France, and lived in hiding during the German occupation of 1940–1944. His historical works have received great praise and recognition, including the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945.

Helen R. Lane was a renowned translator of Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian literary works into English. She translated works by numerous important authors, including Jorge Amado, Marguerite Duras, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Octavio Paz. She received the PEN Translation Prize in 1975 and 1985. Alternating Current, Lane's translation of Octavio Paz, shared the 1974 U.S. National Book Award in the Translation category.

Read an Excerpt

Part One


I was born in Prague at the worst possible moment, four months before Hitler came to power. My father was also born in Prague, while my mother came from the Sudetenland, from Rochlitz, a little textile town near Gablonz celebrated for its glassware. My maternal grandfather, Gustav Glaser, had set up a factory in Rochlitz that soon became unusually successful, thanks to a simple idea. He had behind him a career as a schoolteacher — a very rare attainment for a Jew from the Sudetenland — that was to lead indirectly to his making a fortune. He had witnessed the miserable lot of sewing teachers in Austro-Hungarian elementary schools, who were obliged to furnish all the cloth needed in their classes themselves. Once his factory had been set up, my grandfather went to see some of them, in Rochlitz, Gablonz, and other neighboring towns, with a proposal: in exchange for remnants that would be useful in their sewing classes, they would act as unofficial representatives of the new firm. Success soon followed. In a few years’ time, most sewing teachers in the Austro-Hungarian Empire had become representatives of Gustav Glaser textiles: tablecloths and napkins with the initials GG woven into the cloth could be found from the Carpathians to the Adige. This story serves to illustrate a certain Jewish ingenuity that, as everyone knows, aroused formidable hatred. Some Jews, it is true, were less honest, and others less ingenious than my grandfather, yet he is fairly representative of a certain type of minor Jewish industrialist at the beginning of the century. One may well wonder, however, whether it might not have been for his good and that of all his people if they had had less imagination. Jewish ingenuity did nothing to change the fact that everyone in our house felt German. Shall I cite an example of this “Germanness”? Like all the children of our class, I was unable to escape piano lessons, though they were given to me by members of the family. The first song I was taught to play — and the only one I remember — was “Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden”: a funeral march, the one most often played in the German army and one performed at great ceremonial occasions during the Third Reich. I have often thought about this recently, and perhaps understand the attachment of my family to things German. Both my father and my maternal uncle had served during the First World War as artillery officers in the Austro-Hungarian army; that was how they met each other and how my father came to know Elli Glaser, my mother. It may well be that for my father, as for my uncle and for tens of thousands of other Jewish veterans of the German and Austrian armies, “Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden” expressed first and foremost the feeling of a certain brotherhood in arms that they had (as yet) been unable to overcome. And also — strange as it may seem — the marvelous kitsch of German military melodies has an almost spellbinding quality; the product of a nation’s love for music, they have an effect on behavior that has yet to be studied in depth. For these first years of my life, my mother remains less vivid in my memory than my father, who from the beginning appeared to me to be an extraordinary person, doubtless because I saw him through a child’s eyes, but also because he kept his distance from all of us. The total upheaval that was soon to come did not change my original image of him at all, and when I think of him I quite naturally see in my mind’s eye the reserved figure of this early period in my life. Although he was born in Prague, my father spent several years with an uncle in Lemberg, in Galicia; it was there that he completed his secondary studies. I deduce from this that he was familiar, for a time at least, with a Jewish milieu that was still Orthodox for the most part; yet he bore no apparent traces of such a background. On returning to Prague, he hesitated between law school and the conservatory, for he was a very good pianist. I can still see him leaning over the grand piano playing some transcription of Wagner, some piece by Chopin — the latter was the name engraved on the personal book plates in his library. My father seems to have had two passions: music and books. He chose law and insurance, however, and later became vice president of a large German insurance company in Czechoslovakia. A bourgeois aesthete perched on the edge of a volcano, he foresaw nothing of what the future would bring. My father’s reserve no doubt concealed extreme timidity. In any case, he did not have the slightest idea of how to approach me. I have been told that for my fifth birthday he went into a toy store and ordered ten kilos of toys suitable for a five-year-old child. He showed me no signs of tenderness that I can remember during our life in Prague. In the years that followed, a different tie was created between us, but I will always regret not having had enough naturalness and spontaneity as a child to take the initiative, leap up onto my father’s lap, and throw my arms around his neck. I sometimes wonder, above all, how my father experienced his Jewish identity. There were certain signs that betrayed the fact that he was not entirely indifferent to his origins. I have just mentioned the personal ex libris pasted in his books. It depicted a piano, a score by Chopin, and a carpenter’s square, all standing out against the Star of David, which served as the background, the foundation of all the rest. This is as clearly symbolic as anything can be, and yet in our family, if memory serves me correctly, Judaism as a religion had completely disappeared. We observed none of the rules of life that Orthodoxy laid down, celebrated none of the holidays, respected none of the customs. I remember visiting a good many of the churches of Prague with Vlasta, my Czech governess, yet I have no memory at all of the Altneuschul, the famous synagogue, said to be the oldest in Europe, though it was very close to where we lived. Nor do I have any memory of the Jewish town hall with its clock marked with Hebrew letters and hands that turned counterclockwise (I read about all that much later), or of the Jewish cemetery, as old and as famous as the synagogue. In a word, of all this heritage I remember nothing. Or almost nothing, for at home we used a few Yiddish words, in particular meshugge, crazy, and nebach, down and out. In short, we were typical representatives of the assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie of Central Europe. In Israel I found — and still find today — almost nothing of this very special Judaism that I had thus come to be familiar with. I say “almost,” because on my arrival in Israel I was taken in by my uncle and lived with him in Nira, a village on the Plain of Sharon where certain traces of this atmosphere still remained. (I will speak later of my arrival, at the age of fifteen, a few weeks after the creation of the State of Israel.) I discovered there a milieu that even then struck me as being very odd. The inhabitants of Nira, Beit Itzhak, and other villages round about had come, for the most part, from Prague, and some from a few large German cities, shortly before the Second World War. Out of thirty heads of households in Nira, at least half were “Herr Doktors.” During the day they were all transformed: one might well have mistaken who they were, had it not been for the fact that they were just a bit too peasant, too unbuttoned. And there was also the language problem: their guttural accents, incomprehensible in any other context, represented, not a flight of recently acquired Biblical eloquence, but some typical Berlin speech patterns. Their German was punctuated, however, by a number of Hebrew words, the ones for chicken yard, sprinkler, tractor, or orange grove. What is more, only those practiced in Hebrew possessed this vocabulary: the majority of the inhabitants of Nira and Beit Itzhak were like good Herr Nehap, our grocer. Herr Nehap from Hanover . . . An obese man, he moved slowly behind his counter, an eternal dead cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth, a majestic figure against a background of canned goods and jars of dill pickles. “Shalom, Friedländer!” he would say good-naturedly, the moment I crossed the gleaming threshold of his perfectly polished shop. And we both felt that by some miracle the shalom pronounced so naturally would this time be followed by a flood of Hebrew words, mysteriously stored in Herr Nehap’s cerebral lobes for nearly fifteen years. But the shalom remained suspended for a few seconds in an expectant silence, and then, as though he had come up against some invisible inner barrier, Herr Nehap’s enthusiasm would wane: his triumphant smile would grow vaguely apprehensive once more, and after the pause that had signaled linguistic conquests to come and inevitably ended in defeat, he would continue, in a discouraged tone, “Also, wie geht’s?” It was in the evening, after long workdays in the sun, that the world of “yesterday” came to occupy its true place once again. Over their bridge game, surrounded by the few pieces of furniture and books that still belonged to “back home,” our peasants took on their real nature once more and dropped their masks, so to speak. Heller, Fleishman, Prager, or Glaser seemed to forget the mosquito bites, the drone of the sprinklers, or the smell of orange blossom, and they must all have had the impression that they were back once again in those large, rather dark apartments that I had known for such a short time, but whose scent, that discreet charm made up of old things, wax-polished wood, and wellworn leather, I can still describe today. Heller and Fleishman represented a disappearing species: it scarcely survives in Israel nowadays. Nira and Beit Itzhak are still there, but things aren’t the same any more. The way of life of the Jews in the Prague of my childhood was perhaps futile and “rootless,” seen from a historical viewpoint. Yet this way of life was ours, the one we treasured, and there is no point in pretending otherwise. Its collapse was unexpected — however strange that may seem — and spectacular. But that is another episode.

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