Monday, June 3, 2013

Linen and Memory

At the Museum we have been contemplating an exhibition we hope to mount in Fall 2016 on "Cloth and Kinship,"  associated with a traveling show of Chilean ariplleras, organized by poet and activist Marjorie Agosin-- applique works that highlight stories of the desaparecidos (disappeared people) and other human rights atrocities in Chile since the 1973 coup.  We have been especially fascinated by the power of textile to evoke memories of profound injustice and social rupture within family and extended kin networks, as well as the capacities of cloth to help sublimate or redress agonies of loss. We may be able to incorporate the remarkable community quilt, Unraveling Miss Kitty's Cloak, created by the African American artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, which I discuss in my book, The Accidental Slaveowner.

In this connection, I have been puzzling over a lovely piece of linen recently given to me and Ellen by my father's cousin Joan.  The linen, lined by a complex motif sporting winged lions, was given to her mother Celia (my great-aunt) by my grandfather Dr. Jacob Auslander when he returned from the Bukovina region in Romania in 1936, following his failed effort to convince his parents to emigrate from Radautz (Radauti), Bukovina to the United States.  The linen takes on particular poignant effects given the knowledge that, five years later, in 1941 my great-grandparents were deported from Bukovina, by Romanian officials acting in collaboration with the Nazis, to the killing fields of Transnistria, in the historical context of the Holocaust/Shoah. 

First, I hope to learn more of the cloth itself. Celia believed that Jacob ("Bi" as he was known in the family) acquired the linen in Vienna, which would make sense as his most likely route in and out of Bukovina (Bi had studied in Vienna and in 1936 had relatives and friends living there.). Or it may have been acquired within Romania  itself. The yellow linen has one each edge an elaborate device, perhaps a heraldic emblem, showing two winged lions facing a central device, perhaps an urn. Each of these sections is linked by a braided design around the edge of the cloth; a similar braided design forms a square in the interior of the cloth.  My aunt Judy (Bi's daughter) has similar linens which Bi had given her mother upon returning from Romania in 1936.

Perhaps the winged lion is itself a clue. The winged lion, an ancient symbol, is most commonly associated  in Christian traditions with St. Mark, who became the patron saint of Venice; the winged lion column monument of San Marco (St. Mark) is one of the best known icons of the city. Venice was a component of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the political entity into which my grandfather was born, so the emblem might have familiar in Austria during the period. By the time Bi re-visited his hometown of Radautz/Radauti in 1936, the region of Bukovina had been incorporated into Romania; I don't believe the winged eagle was an emblem of the Kingdom of Romania at any point, though.

I would love to know more about Bi's trip in 1936. A committed anti-fascist, he was politically astute and had long recognized the threat Hitler posed to Jews throughout Europe.    He very much wanted to bring with him, not only his parents, but also his young nephew, Dan Pagis, who at that point had lost his mother and who was being raised by Bi's parents; Dan would survive the terrors of Transnistia, 1941-45, then emigrate to Palestine, and go on to become one of Israel's most important poets.

Bi did report afterwards, my father and aunt recall, that there were several reasons his parents refused to emigrate. They refused to leave young Dan behind, and US immigration authorities,who would have allowed Bi to bring in his parents, would not allow him to bring in a nephew. Bi's father also asked rhetorically if Bi's wife Rebekah had servants in New York, contrasting the New York family's financial circumstances to the secure Bourgeois lifestyle of the family in Radautz.  I see from on line Passenger lists that Bi arrived back in New York, on September 1, 1936, on board the Aquitania, from Southampton, England.  He  returned without any family members.

Two years later, Bi did successfully facilitate the emigration to America of Marta Edith Klinghofer, his niece, daughter of his sister Tsuli.  She arrived in New York on September 12, 1938 from France, and I believe traveled to Canada before returning to the US; she lived for a time with my grandparents in Manhattan. During the war she worked for the Voice of Freedom radio, broadcasting in Romanian, and then married and had children. It may be that during his visit in 1936, Bi laid the groundwork for Marta's journey to America.  (Marta's birthplace in the 1938 manifest is listed as the village of Storojinet, but I believe that by the late 1930s her family was in Czernowitz, the cultural capital of the Bukovina region, before Bukovina was riven by the Molotov-Ribbentrip Pact. )

I wish I knew more about what befell our family during the deportation period of 1941-1945. There are chilling documents now available on line, at    displaying telegrams sent by Romanian security officials in 1941 in Radautz, detailing their efforts to round up the local Jewish population. One telegram, dated July 2, 1941, orders that six Jewish leaders of the community, including my great-grandfather Isaac Auslander (listed as a "wholesaler") be confined to the Boys Boarding School as hostages.  My understanding is that by Fall 1941 most of the Jews of Radautz had been forcibly deported within railway cattle cars across the Dneistra river to the Transnistria river.  Dan Pagis, who survived the deportation, never spoke explicitly of what befell him or the rest of the family during these terrible years. Conditions on board the train car are hinted at by one of his most famous poems,

here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him that i
The unfinished final line remains, of course, one of the most uncanny absences in the literature of the Holocaust.
Bi's sister Tsili, who spent the war in the Soviet Union, told me that she knew little of what precisely  happened to her parents and to Dan during the Transnistria period; the one thing she recalled is that like her, her mother had a deep fear of going into air raid shelters, and that she attributed their common survival to this anxiety.
It is clear that conditions for deported Jews in Transnistria were horrific, characterized by labor camps, starvation, mass shootings and death marches.  It appears that both my greatgrandparents survived the war, although I believe my great grandfather, in a severely weakened condition, died soon after he returned to Czernowitz or Radautz; Marta's parents and brother survived, spending much of the war period in Czernowitz (in part because Marta's father was a Doctor and his skills were valued) before being forced into Transnistria. They later emigrated to Israel.
I hope to learn more about these heart-breaking historical episodes and about the evocative linen that has inspired this inquiry; I would be most grateful for any help or guidance readers might be able to give.

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