A few years ago, Eleanor Reissa told me about a book she was planning to write. A book called The Letters Project, prompted after her mother died, when Eleanor did what we all do when a parent dies: we pour through and pull out all their possessions for some purpose or another. I suspect we’re all looking for the mysteries concealed by our parents, mysteries we haven’t yet learned about them, mysteries which we believe will clarify our own lives. Most of us don’t find a lot. Eleanor found everything.
In the back of a bureau drawer, Eleanor discovered an old leather bag. In it was a sheaf of letters written by Eleanor’s father, Chaskel Schlusselberg, to her mother. They seemed to be love letters, written in German and mailed from Germany to America, where Eleanor’s refugee mother had landed shortly after the end of World War II.
That’s what I learned from Eleanor during that conversation. Fluent and spontaneously witty in Yiddish, Eleanor couldn’t read German. She determined to have the letters translated. I believe I told her how exciting this, the beginning of The Letters Project: A Daughter’s Journey, sounded.
“Exciting” turns out to be a monumentally inadequate word for Eleanor’s pursuit, which became a voyage backward, into her father’s life and, of course, her own.
She had known her father had been an inmate at Auschwitz but knew not much else. He and her mother had divorced and although Eleanor had spent time with her father until his death, she’d never asked about Auschwitz and he had never talked about it.
He does now, in The Letters Project. Eleanor traveled through his life, contacting relatives, friends, names of people mentioned in the letters. Her posse of assistants expanded into Germany, where her father had lived as a post-war refugee, patiently working through bureaucracies on the paperwork he needed to get to America.
The Letters Project. What a mild title for a riveting, emotionally churning story which caused me to tear up frequently. And laugh at times. It’s a powerful story of love, lives, yearning. And what it meant to be a European Jew during and after the Third Reich.
But as gigantic as that scope sounds, the most remarkable aspect of The Letters Project is how astonishingly intimate it is. In Germany, Eleanor finds remarkable archives which, like the letters, she had translated into English: her father’s own words after he applied for German reparations and was solemnly, pedantically deposed to evaluate what his wartime horror might be worth in post-war currency.
Now look. I am well read in 20th century history, especially WWII history. I’ve read memoirs of concentration camps, each of which is, as it must be, both an unimaginable reality and a nightmare.
And I’ve visited (although that’s a stinking word) a concentration camp in Austria, which had preserved a row of wooden bunks, its gas chamber and a couple of its ovens. Nothing like becoming suddenly conscious of being a Jew while looking around a neatly tiled gas chamber to put one into the kind of intellectual and emotional deep freeze out of which pops up all sorts of black comedy — because what other reaction is possible?
But nothing I’ve absorbed has been like Eleanor’s story, her father’s story. It’s that intimacy I mentioned, the closeness one gets to an ordinary man’s extraordinarily horrible experiences. And how rational and calmly articulate he is in relating to his German auditors each step in the Auschwitz part of his life.
And then, summing it up, is the analytic report on Eleanor’s father, on his…what should we call it?… permanent “trauma” as described by German psychiatrists who interviewed him. Their clinical professional concern made me scream.
Eleanor Reissa is an entertainer, a multi-faceted entertainer. The best entertainers weave themselves, their vulnerabilities into their performances, exposing their innards to us. I’ve seen Eleanor perform Yiddish songs and chatting about the songs in a flowing solo conversation which zips all over the place, often hilariously.
And that’s what she does in The Letters Project. She gives us her father’s painful memories and also gives us herself, equally exposed and intimate, in a flowing conversation that zips all over the map of her discoveries, her feelings, perceptions, guilt, pain, sorrow and rage. Often hilariously.
It’s as if Eleanor could not expose her father in his worst memories unless she equally exposed herself, too. If Eleanor’s father becomes as close to us as our fathers, Eleanor herself becomes our closest friend.
While I wrote this, I was playing one of Eleanor’s albums, Songs in the Key of Yiddish, recorded in 2002. I don’t know Yiddish at all and the songs are unfamiliar to me. Except for one which, years ago, had become an implausible pop hit in an English translation.
As I looked through the album notes, I noticed that only this one song had originally been written not in Yiddish but in German, by Swiss composer Paul Burkhard. The Yiddish translation on the album I was listening to was made by Eleanor herself, who sings it tremulously, as it must be sung.
The song is “Oh Mayn Papa.”