Here you will find occasional posts and updates about my work as a writer and oral historian, and related subjects. Still fresh and ongoing are the many public and private responses to Shirley Smith: An Examined Life. Over the past months since the book’s publication I’ve enjoyed talking to groups and hearing from many readers. My thanks to those who have written. It’s gratifying to know the book is reaching a wide diverse readership and I value your personal stories and insights.
On Tuesday 24 March The Violinist was ‘launched’ in Hungary with a public event held in Veszprém, hosted by the University of Pannonia and the Library of Veszprém County. This event was inspired by the article András Dési wrote in Népszabadság (see my previous post). András was invited to take part in the presentation. He sent me this account:
First, I have to say that I’m still under the emotional impact of the event.
It was very well organized, about 50-60 students of the University of Veszprém attended.
I can only appreciate the highest standards of the efforts of the organizers, Ms Eszter ADAM specialist at the Eötvös Károly County Library, Ms Boglárka FALUSSY, Director of the American Corner Veszprém and Ms Judit PALMANN, Director of the County Library. They really deserve all acknowledgement and honour.
The event began with music, two students played violin pieces of Béla Bartók.
After I read the message of Sarah, I introduced Sarah, and spoke about the book, and Boglarka read some excerpts of The Violinist.
Eszter found on the internet a video interview with Clare which was made on the occasion when she donated her two violins to music students in NZ.
It is an excellent video. Clare was saying that one violin was a “female one”, the other a “male one” and how much the latter one complicated her life. Some times she hated the male one, but mostly loved it.
The video was played and followed by a video message of Tibor Weinberger (Tibby Weston).
At the end of the event an old Jewish song was played from the internet, performed by a very famous Hungarian folk singer.
I think everybody attending the event was deeply moved.
Tibby’ Weston’s video, just over 5 minutes, is well worth watching. Tibby, now aged 95, was Clare’s first love and as far as I know, the only living person who knew her before the Holocaust. They found each other again decades later and he remained her dear friend to the end of her life. Tibby was hugely helpful to me in my research and I’m thrilled to have him on record here, from his home in Texas. He answers questions the organizing committee put to him, reading their questions in Hungarian, answering in English. (The questions are understood by his answers.) He illustrated his answers by reading extracts of Clare’s letters to him, again in English.
Tibby himself is quite something. It was originally suggested he should have a Skype interview, but he has a hearing problem which makes that difficult. Undeterred, he came up with this alternative idea, taught himself to make his ‘movie’, then posted it on You Tube! http://youtu.be/wcc2KwqB0Vo
During our email conversations with Klara Szentirmay, who helped organize the event from Wellington, Tibby suggested the music to end the event. He explained:
There is an old Hungarian Jewish song that people in the death camps were singing, that men in the labor camps facing death sang at night to find peace. Here is a version sang by Marta Sebesteny with a violin crying the melody. I am not sure this is being heard in Hungary today, but the song was written in the 15th century and it is the equivalent of Amazing Grace, the melody of the slaves. Listen to it and see how it makes you feel. It was part of the music I sent Clare. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siZtBxCCTDs
While Clare’s feelings about Hungary were complicated, she wished her story to be known there. And it’s appropriate that this first presentation was to a predominantly young audience. She was very involved in Holocaust education for the young, and since she donated her violins to what is now called the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University, she took a close interest in and supported the young musicians who earned the privilege of playing her beloved instruments. Here is the video that András refers to above: https://vimeo.com/53551302
I’d like to thank everyone mentioned above, and anyone else who helped make this event a successful and memorable occasion. For those working towards a Hungarian translation and publication of The Violinist, I hope the response is promising.
Late last Sunday night I was interviewed over Skype by András Dési, senior editor and reporter for the large Hungarian daily newspaper, NÉPSZABADSÁG, for an article to be published on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 27 January. The occasion this year marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. András Dési approached the subject with the understanding one one who has written about the Holocaust himself – most notably he covered the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz ten years ago. I thought that if I were to reverse the situation and interview him, I would have learned things, not least because his grandmother’s family came from Clare’s home town, Szombathely, and would have known her family.
For those who read Hungarian, here is the link for the internet version: Szólt a Csendes éj
Holocaust Remembrance Day, 27 January 2015, took on heightened significance as the world marked the liberation of Auschwitz 70 years ago. Having attended these occasions in Wellington over the years I knew the format: it is an occasion for speeches from dignitaries, witnesses and their families. One might think that everything had been said many times, but every year, as speakers strive to make the occasion relevant to the world we live in today, they somehow raise our consciousness, even though we already know and believe the home truths they speak of.
At the Makara Cemetery commemoration, for example, race relations commissioner Dame Susan Devoy stressed that human rights begin at home. ‘They are ours to hold and ours to lose.’ She told a story that illustrated how hate starts small, how it is born when a small child and his mother are abused on the street as they walk home from kindy. Her story was not about something that took place in Berlin or Warsaw 75 years ago, but in Mt Eden Auckland just months ago. Nor is it an isolated instance. Such attacks have been reported on New Zealand streets to Jewish and Muslim children alike.
The lesson we learned from the Holocaust is that hate starts small, on the streets we live in, at the places we shop and gather.
It grows when good people stand by and do nothing.
It’s up to everyday New Zealanders to stand up for peace and human rights right here at home. This is how we honour the past and guarantee a future we can be proud to leave our children and grandchildren.
Dame Susan’s speech can be read at http://www.hrc.co.nz/2015/01/27/holocaust-remembrance-day/
Last month I completed a series of oral history interviews for the New Zealand Theatre Archive with a trip to Christchurch to interview Elric Hooper, artistic director of Court Theatre from 1979 to 2000. Originally a protégé of Ngaio Marsh on whose recommendation he got into the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) in 1958, Elric’s acting career then took off in what was a most exciting era of transformation in British theatre. Among other things, he was in Joan Littlewood’s iconic musical entertainment of 1963, Oh! What a Lovely War. He recently spoke about this in Appointment with Des Wilson on Radio New Zealand: www.radionz.co.nz/concert/programmes/…/audio/…/oh-what-a-lovely–w…
Nola Millar was sometimes described as New Zealand’s Joan Littlewood. After listening to Elric, I’m not sure the comparison is apt, but they were both courageous, innovative, political and extraordinarily individual. Elric worked for Nola Millar on a visit to New Zealand in 1972/3. He was struck then by how much the general level of theatre consciousness in this country had risen since his previous trip home in 1969. ‘Best of all,’ he observed, ‘there was a school. Nola Millar, that courageous and disconcertingly honest woman, was running a sensible full-time training scheme for aspiring actors in Wellington.’ (Landfall, ‘Making Our Own Mistakes’, December 1975.)
After we finished recording his life, Elric read Nola Millar: A Theatrical Life. I share his response here, compliments and all – shamelessly wanting new readers. More seriously, Elric’s reflections and perspective of my subject are of special value.
Finished your biography Nola Millar – A Theatrical Life last night. My admiration is boundless. I began with a sense of duty but was soon overtaken by the story and the enthusiasm for this history of the formative days of the New Zealand professional theatre. For example all the stuff about the financial history of the New Zealand Players – its origins, its work and its decline was new to me. I saw all their early work and was bowled over by its decor and glamour. Also the inner story of the philandering of Dick Campion was a revelation – and so bold to publish while he was still alive.
What an enigma your central subject was! When the name Nola Millar is mentioned now all I see is a tall slender apparition going out the door. The absence of a sexual life and her constant self-neglect – teeth and fish-and-chips – is made substantial only by her obsession with racing, her distant friendships, her occasional flaring of temper – and of course her great work in the theatre and the drama school. Yet she lives centrally through the book – a kind of ever-present ghost. I thought the death sequence particularly moving. How rare it is to read the details of decline and demise.
Also enlivening was the roll call – Maria Dronke (who I always thought rather odd and grand reciting Keats in a heavy Viennese accent) Ngaio Marsh, of course (seen from a distance and not always the Easter Island statue of authority and grandeur) Michael Langham (whom I worked for at the Old Vic intellectual and beset) George Webby (whose gnat-like humour was as much
decorative as useful) Mike Nicolaidi (whose down-to-earth attitudes got things done) Michael Haigh, Ray Henwood, Don Selwyn (all good actors) Anne Flannery (whose mental decay trumped her theatrical endeavours) and so many more.
You build a picture of a city aspiring and with that certainty of superiority that is necessary to get things done. I am still surprised by the literary quality of the plays from Shakespeare to Brecht. But as you say it was easier for amateurs without pay to stage some of the great monstrous works like Mother Courage and Three Sisters. (I sometimes wondered if the theatre group actually had the rights to some of the pieces done. Brecht and his heirs were very careful of his copyright and some of the West-end hits seemed too recent to be free – but those were the days when New Zealand was at the ends of earth not the internet.)
I could go on but suffice it to say, I think you have done a wonderful job,
This morning I received an email from Clare’s childhood sweetheart and lifelong friend Tibby Weston of Texas who helped me in my research for The Violinist. Now in his 90s, Tibby has written about his own life as a Holocaust survivor in his autobiography The Vision (Xlibris Corp 2002) and continues to write on related issues. He tells me, ‘I am, as Clare was and most survivors are, a little bit insane. There is a lot of material on this issue on the Internet. One report, however, found that those survivors who wrote a book about their experiences belong to the 8% who show no significant PTDS symptoms. I am attaching my newsletter from January, when it was winter here. I hope you’ll like it.’
I do like it, and share it here:
You hear about veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan who are suffering from PTSD in surprisingly large numbers. What you don’t hear about is that of World War 2 veterans and Holocaust survivors experiencing a massive re-occurrence of PTSD with the advance of old age.
Elderly Holocaust survivors show a high simultaneous presence of chronic PTSD (91.8%), with psychotic disorders more than 50 years after the experience of the massive psychic trauma of the Holocaust.
The occurrence of chronic PTSD of such magnitude is significantly higher among Holocaust survivors than the rate reported for war veterans, which is less than 45%. This difference may be related to the unique nature of the Holocaust trauma, combining dehumanization, confrontation with death, and massive loss for a prolonged period. The exposure to such trauma puts into effect mechanisms to deal with traumatic memory and its psychic repercussions.
The weather in Europe during the winter of 1944-45 was some of the worst ever recorded in the 20th century with the temperature going below zero on the Fahrenheit scale. At Christmas, the Hungarian capital was surrounded, so that hundreds of thousands of civilians as well as German and Hungarian soldiers were trapped in the besieged city.
I was lucky that suffering from typhoid fever in the spring of 1945 wiped out most of my memory of the trauma of the winter of 1944-45. I am, however, experiencing a gradual return of memories of the traumatic experiences and I am less and less able to successfully hide or mask such memories.
Experts discovered that survivors of traumatic events could overcome debilitating psychosis and PTSD through “historicizing” their memories by facing them and writing about them. Among Holocaust survivors these amount to about 8%. In contrast, other psychotic survivors are unable to reach this calm state of balance and for them memory is a lifelong burden.
I am now faced with the dilemma of writing about recurring memories and thus prevent developing possible debilitating old age PTSD, or trusting my defense mechanism that made it possible to reach old age without burdening the world with memories that are best left untold.
Today’s world has its own horrors. Millions are in refugee camps fighting for bare survival, genocide is rampant, and billions have no access to minimum civilized standards of life. Looking at the past from the bird’s eye view of nine decades, there is really no good reason to dwell on the past horrors. History keeps repeating itself. I fervently hope that our loved ones be spared PTSD and the recurring thereof.
For the thousands of veterans, however, there is hope. Learn from the experience of Holocaust survivors. Perhaps someone somewhere will start a movement to assist today’s veterans to “historicize” their traumatic memories. It will help them mobilize effective skills for coping and adapting to social roles and prevent recurring PTSD at advancing old age. Perhaps some college, or university could establish courses in writing memoirs as a patriotic undertaking to assist veterans of recent wars.
As to myself I have a plan. Survive the cold and soon it will be spring with memories of winters gone. The red bud trees will bloom, the humming birds will buzz by again and the exciting signs of rebirth and new beginnings will wipe out memories of the winter, and all the winters before.
P.S. IT IS SPRING! HALLELUJAH!
Congratulations to St Matthew’s Collegiate School in Masterton, which this year celebrates 100 years of education. I had a happy Form II year there half a century ago. To anyone stumbling on this site who remembers me (Sarah Greville) I’d love to hear from you. I’d especially love to hear from my English teacher, Miss Bragg (Robyn?), to thank her. She’s one of many reasons why I’m grateful for my year at St Matthew’s. I was therefore delighted to be asked to write four essays for the book that was launched at the beginning of the weekend’s celebrations. I explained it to the launch gathering as follows:
For my first piece, about how the school began, I depended largely on the school archives, but I was able to add insights about the first headmistress, Evelyn Whitehead, and her sister Yetti, by talking to their relatives, including Yetti’s daughter, Kathleen Bell, now in her 90s, and Evelyn’s granddaughter, Barbara Simons. I was very taken with Evelyn and Yetti, who were both university educated in Dunedin, which was then the most progressive city in the country regarding women’s education – very different from Masterton. Aged just 24 and 21, they came here in 1914 to start St Matthew’s. They brought high ideals, and an attitude that girls can do anything.
Helen Dashfield’s comprehensive history of St Matthew’s, To the Stars published at the 75th anniversary in 1989, fills big gap between the beginning and my second narrative, which is on Senior College in the 1980s. Helen herself is an important figure in this, and in the story on integration. These were turbulent times and interesting for me to research. Others echoed Erik Pedersen’s recollection that it was a hellish period.
I interviewed many people about this decade. I haven’t referred to them all but they all helped me get a better understanding of the subject. I also waded through volumes of documents to get an overall picture that included Rathkeale and Hadlow, but my account is from St Matthew’s point of view and I don’t apologise for that bias. Ultimately it’s a triumphant story. Some of you have mothers and grandmothers who played their part as pupils, parents, teachers and old girls.
Lastly my final piece brings me to you today. I asked about the changes in society that are in turn changing school life, and I heard about the digital revolution. It seemed strange in the light of 100 years when the school struggled with two world wars, economic depression, free-falling pupil rolls and near bankruptcy that today the focus should fall on the mobile phone, but it’s a huge issue.
This isn’t specific to St Matthew’s but how it and other issues of today are dealt with at St Matthew’s are specific, reflecting the school’s Special Character as defined in the Integration Agreement. And that goes right back to the core principles Evelyn Whitehead and her sister Yetti brought to the school in 1914.
That’s one way of looking at it. The rest of the book, compiled by Jan Pedersen (Bowie) and Sue Franck (Bowie) is packed with photos, samples of writing and a timeline, telling many other stories.
For more about centennial projects, click on centenary.
As part of the New Zealand Festival, Chamber Music New Zealand presented the Kelemen Quartet last night in a concert dedicated to the memories of two fine Wellington musicians who died last month, pianist Judith Clark and especially to violinist Clare Galambos Winter.
This programme that included Kodály and Bartók, played with such virtuosity and feeling by young Hungarian musicians, would have stirred Clare’s own feelings about being Hungarian. She recalled in the 1950s an early occasion of playing a Kodály work with the New Zealand National Orchestra (later the NZSO) when conductor John Hopkins turned to her and asked, ‘Did we get it right, Clare?’ After playing something by Bartók, which was more painful, Hopkins asked her how she felt. She told me, ‘I felt the suffering in the music very deeply. It drove right to the bottom of my soul.’
For a glimpse of Clare playing with the first violins of the NZSO in 1980, see http://youtu.be/8YzIHZyObgk
One of the buttons collected for the New Zealand Children’s Holocaust Memorial project was given by Clare Galambos Winter for her brother, Mihály, whom she called Mishu. Aged fourteen, Mihály was murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau on 7 July 1944. Clare’s death this week at the age of 90 leads to reflection about this other life unlived, extinguished in its flush of youth.
How did Clare, the survivor, live with this knowledge? Initially with total disbelief. In fact she never completely accepted Mihály’s death, and it didn’t help her to wonder if he might still be alive somewhere, perhaps in the Soviet Union. So there was no closure. She asked me when I returned from my research trip to Europe in 2008, had I found any records of him and her mother? No, by July 1944 the German’s meticulous record-keeping system had broken down, so great were the numbers arriving daily at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Those selected for potential slave labour were sent in one direction, the rest in another that led to the gas chamber that day. They included children under sixteen. Mihály at fourteen was too young to live.
When she thought of Mihály, Clare would simply say ‘How could they?’ to which there was no answer. Having suppressed her memories for so long, she couldn’t remember her brother clearly, which added to her loss. What did they do together? What did they talk about? She tried to recall him in their last weeks together in the ghetto, where they lived in such close confinement, or on the terrible train journey to Auschwitz, but these memories had been buried too deep to surface at will. She recalled a bright athletic boy with an enquiring mind, a fascination for the unknown and a sense of humour. He played the accordion, which she said suited his personality. She kept his photo by her bed until she died.
15 February 2014
Written for the New Zealand Children’s Holocaust Memorial website, honouring a promise Vera Egermayer made to Clare shortly before Clare died.