Edith Bruck. Letter to my Mother I(Lettera alla Madre) Translated by Brenda Webster with Gabrielle Romani. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2006
Edith Bruck, well-known in Italy where she has lived most of her life, has born witness to the Holocaust through a prolific outpouring of writings, public appearances, and several films, including a documentary about her childhood. Although she has written over twenty books, only one other book, Who Loves you Like This (Chi te ama cosi), has been translated into English.
Born in a Hungarian village in 1932, she was the youngest child in a poor Jewish family. When she was twelve, she and members of her family were deported to Auschwitz. Her parents and one brother died in the camps. After the war, she immigrated to Czechoslovakia, where an older sister lived, and from there went on to Israel. By the age of twenty, she had married and divorced three times. Disillusioned with Israel, “the earth dreamed about for a lifetime, for all the lifetimes of the Jews”, she moved to Rome in 1954, and has lived there ever since. In the 1950s Italy was going through a time of reconstruction after devastating years of Fascism and war. A vibrant culture thrived, with Rome at its center. Bruck immersed herself in the intellectual life of the city. Here she met her fourth husband, the poet and film director Nelo Risi. She became acquainted with leading writers, including Primo Levi, who became a close friend, as well as with film directors such as Rosselini and de Sico, whose films of working class life contributed to contemporary influences upon her work.
She chose to write in Italian rather than her native Hungarian language. As she explained in an interview:
Just because [Italian] isn’t mine, it permits me certain things that I couldn’t do in my first language, the one in my blood, my veins, my culture. Between a writer and the maternal language there is a sort of shame, a brake that keeps you from saying certain things. The language that isn’t yours removes that brake.
Written in 1988, Letter to my Mother consists of two parts. The first is a passionate imagined dialogue with her mother, who died in Auschwitz. The second part, Traces, tells of two Holocaust survivors’ abortive journeys back to the past: Bruck’s own journey and that of a fictional Hungarian widower.
In the first part, memories of childhood, her family, of Auschwitz, mingle with accounts of post-war and present life. “I warn you, Mama,” she writes, “I’m going to write anything that comes to mind. I’ll say it all. I won’t hide anything from you. . . No, no don’t get mad now, don’t go, listen to me!” The dialogue follows an emotional and associative rather chronological organization. Certain things are described over and over again, much as one would replay them in one’s mind
She begins by telling of their last moments together, marked by violence and by rejection that saved her life.
‘Obey! Obey!’ you shouted, letting my hand go, letting me go, pushing me away from you, letting the soldier’s blows drive me to the other side, in the opposite direction . . . Neither of us knew that you were going to the gas chambers and I to forced labor, toward a probable survival that happened who knows how or why.
Bruck’s relationship with her mother was tormented. “The brief time we had together,” she writes, “is an indissoluble bond, but also painfully, unbearably extraneous. . . .You were the being I most loved and feared.” In contrast, her father appears as a quiet, marginal figure in her mind. A traveling peddler, he took long journeys to sell goods, leaving the family to fend for themselves.
Their lives were difficult. Bruck tells how her mother, fiercely religious but ill-educated, struggled to feed and clothe her eight children on barely nothing. They had a tiny plot of land where her mother grew a few vegetables. They raised chickens and a few livestock.
I went to school hurriedly drinking a tea with saccharin—you were already suffering, Mama, because there was no sugar, bread was scarce, and you didn’t know what you were doing to cook for lunch or dinner.
‘Don’t torture me, don’t say a word,’ sometimes you said, shutting my mouth before I opened it. I complained all the same, but at least we talked, we fought and you hit me. ‘Eat me,’ you would say every once in a while, opening your arms wide in a heroic gesture.’
She remembers that her mother patched and repatched a hideous old coat of hers, darned and mended their tattered clothing, that her mother dyed a rag yellow to cut “perfectly formed” Jewish stars, which they had to wear, the taste of her mother’s bread, cooked over a wood fire, that her mother had no time for play or love.
In contrast, her youngest child, Edith Bruck, is filled with curiosity, brilliant, rebellious, and cynical of her mother’s faith. “If God is just, why does He permit this suffering?” Her mother would respond with blows.
The harshness of their lives gave Bruck toughness that children with more cushioned lives lacked. “I’m stronger than the children of the rich; I survived even Auschwitz, where the bourgeois children fell first.”
Memories of struggles with her mother are inseparably woven together with memories of her struggles to survive in Auschwitz. That she lived was due to a combination of physical and emotional hardiness, skill, cleverness, and luck.
I was an almost exemplary prisoner. Even the guard at times couldn’t resist my humility, my age, or my way of begging with my eyes and would throw me an extra potato, a leftover, an apple peel (not even he wallowed in food). And I thanked him with bent head, bowing with a woman’s smile, an ass kisser’s grin, anything so as not to die. How disgusting, Mama!
. . . Didn’t you tell me that it’s best if [a Jew] walks on tiptoe, not letting anyone know he exists? This was the game I played with Mengele, the invisibility game. . .
While Bruck’s father lives on the fringes of their lives, the interchange between Bruck and her Mother reeks of anguish, rage, love, and occasional tenderness.
“No one understands you,” you said with delighted irony, half a century ago. “Poor thing. Go away. Go on. You don’t know what you’re saying. Nothing you do is blessed.”
. . . [I used to tell you stories]...when you could tolerate the sound of my voice—how I would be, grown up, rich, and happy and would give you everything. . . sometimes your tears would turn into a half-smile of pity for your dreaming child.
. . . I know at one time you[and Papa] loved each other. . . You married for love.
“It’s impossible to love in poverty,” you said. “Poverty quarrels,” you added, speaking in Yiddish to give a deeper truth, a tang to the words. . . .“Only the rich have love.”
Her mother, a pious peasant, has never understood her. “Where do you come from?” she would say. Her mother could not fathom a being so different from herself.
Bruck maintains that her father was a silent, marginal figure, “the most solitary man I ever knew,” She also writes that she loved him, that she would attack him with caresses when he returned from a journey—arousing the jealousy of her mother. Despite her disclaimer of his influence, his religious skepticism and his education, superior to her mother’s, must inevitably have played a part in the formation of her character.
Memories of her mother are woven together not only with her struggle to survive in the Lager but with of her post-war and present life. She has said that she will tell her mother everything, and she does. She tells of being a dancer in a troop of traveling survivors, talks about her husband, a poet—although she is married, she evidently lives alone with her beloved cats—about Edy and Golda, her surviving brother and sister, tells of abortions, lovers, a lesbian interlude, resistance to being a religious Jew, and of her need to write.
“Write write, write,” you say, unable to take any more of my writing. “Nice thing, nice profession to spread on the four winds what ought to be kept in the family...you always wanted to stand out. Haven’t they singled you out enough?
. . . If you had listened to me once to the end, maybe I wouldn’t be writing to you now, maybe I would never have written a book. I owe this, my writing sickness, to you, and to Auschwitz where you let go of me, rather pushed me away, screaming at me to obey the man who was beating me with his gun.
. . . If I didn’t discuss things, how could I forgive you? Tell me. Speak to me! Say something. You who had an answer to every question. Your own. The only true and right answer drawn from the Bible.
. . . “What good did it do you to pray?” I asked you, moving away with a lump in my throat that didn’t go away even when I cried.
“Cry! You dare to cry. Idiot! First, you don’t let me pray in peace and then you cry for nothing. Listen to her. She acts as if someone were skinning her. Be quiet. Stop it! The crown has fallen from her head. She’s offended. Suffers! But what’s wrong? Why are you crying? Eat. That’s enough already!”
How could I tell you why I was crying? After all, you hadn’t really done anything to me. How could I have told you about that sensation of universal unlove that my friend, the writer (Primo Levi) who committed suicide, must have felt too.”
His death was a tremendous shock to her. They had been close friends, united by their bonds as Holocaust survivors. If Levi, who had given such powerful testimony and was so widely read and respected, felt that it was futile to go on living, what of her own efforts? In the end, however, his death seems to have served as a catalyst propelling her forward with her own work.
Finally, exhausted by her internal struggles with her mother, she attempts reconciliation.
Sometimes I realize that I’m thinking like you, walking and cooking like you. . . I want to make peace with you without selling my soul. . . Let’s meet halfway. Don’t judge me. Leave everything concerning me to God. Let’s us two make peace.
. . . Your children bent to your will until the end when you told me, “Go! Obey! Go away, obey your Mama.” And I did obey. And because of that I lived. . . You gave birth to me with unspeakable pain for the second time.
Bruck now takes on the parental role. She soothes her mother, tells her to sit down and rest, to play a little for the first time in her life. And at last Bruck is able to give her mother the ceremony she demands. The dialogue ends with a recitation of Kaddish, written in both vernacular and transliterated Hebrew.
The second part of the book, Traces, describes two Holocaust survivors’ journeys back to the past forty years later. The first one describes Bruck’s visit to Munich and Dachau. The second is a fictional journey: that of a Hungarian widower living in the U.S. who no longer speaks English or recognizes his present family. In an effort to help, his daughter, who knows nothing of his past, takes him to back to Budapest. The story ends in the middle, a fragment.
Both journeys are failed attempts to come to terms with the past. The old Hungarian remains stuck in the past, unable or unwilling to return. Bruck’s visit to Dachau is so overwhelming that she flees. Only afterwards does she realize that she forgot to pay tribute to her father, who perished there.
In terms of form, Letter to my Mother falls somewhere between memoir and fiction. Names have been changed, and the reader does not know precisely what is emotional truth as distinguished objective truth. “It is a story situated at the boundaries of different literary genres: memoir, testimony, epistolary fiction, and historical biography.”2 The excellent translation retains the immediacy of the Italian as well as vividly conveying the writer’s voice and tone. Webster, with Gabrielle Romani, has used her skills as a novelist to create a powerful rendition of Bruck’s experience.
In both Letter to my Mother and Traces, description of physical surroundings is minimal, subordinate to emotions and thoughts which are so intense that they seem to run pell mell over awareness of outer reality. This primacy of the inner world, a kind of floating ambiguity as opposed to hard-edged realistic description of surroundings—may perhaps be encountered more frequently in the work of European than in North American writers. Marguerite Duras, Annie Ernaux, Anais Nin, the early writings of Jean Rhys come to mind. It may be also more closely allied with a feminine sensibility, and might be a fertile subject for literary gender studies.
The book provides a significant contribution to the complex task of representing the Holocaust. Through dialogue with an internalized mother, Bruck achieves a synthesis of personal and collective experience.
Causes Maria Espinosa Supports
Amnesty International, KPFA, anything to ameliorate homelessness and to make shelters more livable