Selma and Her Friends
by Pearl Fichman
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Selma and Her Friends
Among my earliest recollections of sunny afternoons and childhood joys, of climbing rocks and running along steep hills, in the late 1920s, they all happened in the large park known as Habsburgshöhe (Hapsburg Heights), in my native town Czernowitz, in the province Bucovina, Northern Romania, formerly Austria. Mother used to take my older sister Sali and myself on that long walk to the park, from early spring, around the middle of April, till the end of autumn, until the snows set in. As I grew older, I spent just as much time there in the company of my friends.
That park was a heavily wooded area, from which the Austrians had fashioned a recreation section called the Plateau, with flat surfaces for sandboxes and playgrounds and for vendors of pretzels, sunflower seeds, sodas, and ice cream. The park area spread very wide; people would decide to meet in different sections. There were locations like the broad, high rock named Kaiserfelsen (Emperor Rock). At the age of six or seven, I felt proud to be able to climb to its top. Many nannies would bring their charges to spend a few hours in the fresh air of the woods. As you went down the steep hills, there were benches along the lanes, along the quiet, shady walks. One could have as much playground as one desired and as much quiet and privacy as one felt like.
This was a favorite meeting place of poets, of lovers, of people who would get together and just talk or discuss books or politics, and of thinkers and brooders who spent undisturbed hours communing with nature. It was also favored by groups of young Zionists who would discuss, sing, socialize there. The other two parks in town: Volksgarten (People’s Garden), which was in a different part of Czernowitz, with a skating rink and soccer fields and a carefully tended flower garden; and Schiller Park, a hilly but small park—these two had none of the natural attractions of our beloved Habsburgshöhe, with its atmosphere of peaceful forest. In my life and that of my friends, nothing compared and ever will with that place. The chestnuts, the beeches, the fir trees and pine trees exuded an aroma rarely matched anywhere. Whenever I happen to take a vacation in high mountains, that aroma returns as a smell of delight from years long gone.
I got to know, at least by sight, many other faithful lovers of that place. Some people sat on a certain bench daily. Their muse met them at that particular spot. I remember going to the park with Paul Celan (back then Antschel) and he carried a volume of Rilke poetry. He stood up on a bench and started reading a poem, while I was standing and enjoying the poetry as well as the lyrical sound of his voice. Something romantic as well as intellectual permeated our activities. We talked of matters of feeling and of the intellect; nobody paid attention to making money or considering jobs; we were teenagers then; we lived frugally, left the making of a living to our parents. If we did some tutoring, it was not worthy of mention. Many romances started there and many ended there, too. What outpouring of ideas, of political convictions –Socialist or Zionist; what poems were written there; what declarations of immortal love were offered; what deceptions, what quarrels followed; we poured our hearts out in this forest.
Among the younger people that I often saw in the years 1938-39-40 spending time in the park were my cousin’s friends, a group of boys and girls who belonged to a Zionist Youth Organization named "Shomer Hatzair," Hebrew for "The Young Watchman." They used to meet in town, in the Zionist Center, but in the summertime they preferred the park. All were four years younger than myself and made up a group called in Hebrew "Kwootza."
The original organizer of this Shomer group, the one who brought these boys and girls together, was Abrasha (nickname for Abraham) Gimpelman, a high school student, my own age. He was a dedicated activist who instructed the young members of the group in Zionist-Socialist ideology and how to prepare for life in Palestine. In fact, he had left high school two years prior to graduation in order to take agricultural training, to be ready for life in a kibbutz, a collective settlement in Palestine. Besides his capabilities as an inspired organizer, he happened to have been unusually handsome, a very attractive personality, a rare human being, trusted and admired by all who knew him.
Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, who lived not far from me, just a little closer to the park, was one of the girls in the group. I often saw her with Renée, Abrasha’s girlfriend. Among the young men in the group was Leiser Fichman, my husband’s younger cousin. I remember Selma as a lively girl, short, with long, curly, dark brown hair, often in the company of girl friends. Her appearance was striking, a little sloppy; she was rather careless about her appearance, with her brown windblown hair. When walking alone, she looked preoccupied, oblivious of the world around her. Leiser, or Leisiu, as she called him, was a quiet, serious, introverted youngster, very handsome, somehow in the shadow of his older brother Arye and older cousin Yuda. When Selma and Leiser would walk together, they stood out as contrasting types: he was tall, impeccably neat, all in control, while Selma seemed rather lost in thoughts and oblivious to her appearance. They looked like different types of individuals, yet she absolutely adored him.
Selma, a highly gifted poet, started to write at the age of fifteen. Whether by coincidence or as the result of a family trait, Selma was a cousin of Paul Celan. The themes that permeated her poetry were nature, in all its shades, shapes, moods; she wrote about the rain, the wind, the night, flowers, dreams, fall, summer, storms and the deep, and her all-consuming love for Leiser, who seemingly did not reciprocate her ardor. From the age of fifteen to the day she was deported to Transnistria in June 1942, she wrote of her joy and suffering resulting from unrequited love.
When the Soviet Union occupied Czernowitz in June 1940, all political organizations were banned with the exception of Communist activities. The group led by Abrasha continued to meet, unofficially, in the park, as a couple of friends who just got together, with no agenda. However, people became aware that anything connected with Zionism was suspect in the eyes of the Soviet authorities. Somebody drew Abrasha’s attention to the fact that it may be dangerous to get together, even as a small group, for not all former members participated any longer. Renée and Selma came regularly and, perhaps another two or three.
One of the young men in the group, sure that Labor Zionism would be acceptable to the Soviet regime, wrote a long letter to Stalin, in which he explained that Shomer Hatzair believes in Socialism and communal living in kibbutzim, where there is no private property and thus no exploitation of workers, for they are all agricultural laborers, all equal members of a kibbutz. The only difference between a Soviet kolkhoz and a kibbutz would be that Shomer would encompass Jewish people in Palestine. This naive young Zionist wrote that he was sure that the leaders in the Kremlin were not aware that his ideology corresponded with that of the Soviets.
Little did he suspect the viciousness of the authorities. That letter, I am certain, never reached Stalin. The post office probably handed it to the N.K.V.D. (later K.G.B.) and the writer of the letter was arrested. He implicated Abrasha and another member of the group. All three were swiftly put on trial, found guilty, and deported to Siberia. Abrasha was never heard of again. He perished somewhere in the frozen Far East.
Needless to say, after the arrests they never met again as a Zionist group, although some remained friends and some were classmates in high school. Selma finished tenth grade in June 1941, a few days before the German attack on the Soviet Union. The airport of our town was bombed on the dawn of the first day—we were living at the border—and within days the area was occupied by the Germans.
The Romanians and the Germans herded us into the Ghetto (October, November, 1941) and the majority, but not all, of the Jewish population was deported to the Ukraine. Leiser and his parents came back to town on the authority of a permit signed by the governor of the province Bucovina; Selma and her parents received a permit issued by the mayor of our town, Trajan Popovici. Half a year later, in June 1942, the Jews who remained on the strength of a Popovici permit were deported to Transnistria, the name, coined by the Romanians, for the territory east of the river Nistru—in Russian Dniestr, the western part of the Ukraine, today called Moldova. The territory between the rivers Nistru and Bug were newly named Transnistria and became the dumping ground for the Jews from our province. They were deposited there and abandoned to die of starvation and disease—no shelter, no food, no medical facilities.
In June 1942, the Romanians handed over the new deportees to the Germans at the stone quarry, called in Romanian, Cariera de Piatra, near the river Bug; some were sent to the village Mihailovka. Of the thousands from our town deported that summer, just a few individuals survived. Before the Germans retreated in defeat, in March and April of 1944, they shot the ones who were still alive and, in some instances, set dogs upon stragglers in the forests.
Before the deportation, Selma handed to her girl friend Else a notebook in which she had neatly copied her poems. She asked her to give them to Leiser Fichman, who was at the time in a labor camp in Romania. The title page bears the name of the collection: Blütenlese (Anthology). The Romanian motto stems from Lorelei, a novel by the Romanian writer Ionel Teodoreanu and reads as follows: "I sing hoarsely below the windows of your house as the Italian children sing, in the streets of our towns, in the misery of their beauty, with Mediterranean eyes." On the next page was the dedication of the poems: “To Leiser Fichman, in remembrance and thankfulness for a lot of unforgettable beauty, dedicated with love.”
Upon his return to Czernowitz, after a few months in the labor camp, the notebook with its fifty-seven poems were given to him. Selma had fifty-two original poems, two translations from Yiddish, two from French, and one from Romanian. All were handwritten and were dated from “May or June 1939” to December 23, 1941. Whether any other poems existed but had not been transcribed into the notebook will in all probability never be known. She was deported half a year after the date of her last poem.
The poetry showed an unusually sensitive person, one who experienced nature in its most delicate changes and moods. She experienced great joy in living and laughing and loving. The love she felt so deeply so overwhelmingly was expressed with tenderness in “Lullaby for You”:
I’ll braid a cradle out of my hair
here a cradle, see.
You sleep in it without despair,
dream there painlessly.
. . . .
These eyes of mine I give to you
as a twinkling toy.
These lips of mine I give to you,
drink from them with joy.
(undated; page 66)
Although so young, Selma expressed the whole range of feelings that people experience in a lifetime. Her joys, her happiness, her moods, her doubts, her despair—all blend in with the moods of nature—the winds, the rain, the rustling of the leaves, the softness of the sand, the opening of a blossom, the crackling of the snow underfoot, the clouds, the withered leaves like brown gold, the trees, the changes of the seasons—all of nature around her was part of her. A burst of color, the sight of yellow daffodils, brings forth this exuberant verse:
A Song for Yellow Daffodils
They’re looking at me brightly through the rain
so bright that they replace for me the sun.
. . . .
Bursting with laughter, they bend amid the green,
accompanying their laughter, fresh and clean.
I lay my song down at their feet today
because they’re bringing joy my way.
(June 30, 1941; p. 6)
This poem is all the more remarkable since it was written at just about the time when the German troops were about to invade our territory and nobody knew whether we would be alive the next day. This was composed a week after the outbreak of the war, and yet the sight of flowers could fill her with such uninhibited delight.
In the poem “Chestnuts,” she muses about nature and the melancholy passing of summer, the end of the life cycle:
Scattered on the smooth, bright path
wearily they lie around,
brown and smiling like a tender mouth;
. . . .
As I pick one up and put it in my hand,
a little girl caressing it with glee,
I think about the wind, about the tree
. . ..
and that the chestnuts must have taken this soft song
as the summer, which left unnoticed, sped along,
and as its last farewell has left this tone.
She hears the song of the wind through the leaves of the tree and the loss of vitality, the loss of color and tightness of the chestnut, as fall approaches:
. . . .
Slowly, step by step, as if unwilling
I let my feet go wandering on ahead.
(September 24, 1939; p. 7)
A later autumn scene comes alive with a word painting of all the colors of the leaves, trees, an eagle flying high above, and, down below, a half-frozen patch of grass:
All’s calm. And many withered leaves here lie
golden brown, in glowing sunshine dipped.
. . . .
The reddish beeches, slender, bold,
hear the eagle calling in his flight
and keep on climbing in the cold.
Now and then a bench, a lonely sight
and here a little patch of grass, half-frozen,
that the sun as its beloved now has chosen.
(December 8, 1940; p. 5)
The scenes describe perfectly Habsburgshöhe in all the seasons. The music of steps on frozen snowflakes, nightfall in the icy landscape, nightfall and the dark-looking fir trees. All these are depicted in the short poem “Colors,” written on December 18, 1939, at age fifteen:
Blue hovers over the snow-white snow
and the green fir trees are so black
. . . .
Steps crackle in the music of the snow
and on the white-veiled trees the wind does blow
translucent snowflakes as if it were planned.
And like dreams the benches stand.
In the twilight bits of light descend
playing ring-a-rosies with a friend.
The distant lanterns twinkle, a faintly glimmer,
a light they borrow from the snow’s bright shimmer.
However, at times, sadness and sorrow overtake this unusually sensitive poet, who expresses her despair, fright, and inability to cope with the utter hopelessness of life at the time. “I Am the Rain” (page 30) was written on August 8, 1941. I still remember that summer, when we, the Jewish population, were forced to stay in our houses except for two hours a day, forced to wear a yellow star on our clothing, and did not know whether we would live another day. At night, one heard shooting and could not tell whether the Germans or the Romanians were killing people in our street or a block away. That was the summer when they burnt the Temple, when the flames lit the night with a fire that was to extinguish the Jewish life in our town, indeed, in some cases, our very lives. This was the atmosphere in which the poem which follows was written:
I Am the Rain
I am the rain and I am walking
barefoot along, from land to land.
In my hair the wind plays gently
with his slender, brownish hand.
My gossamer dress of spider webs
is grayer than grayest fear.
I am alone, though here and there
I play with an ailing deer.
After these two stanzas, she brings forth the feelings of a young girl who weeps lonely in the night. Besides the sorrows of everybody around her, the loneliness and longings and her awakening as a young woman in love burst out in deeply sad tones:
I hold these threads tight in my hand,
and on them there are strung and kept
all the tears that lonely pale
girls’ eyes have ever wept.
I’ve snatched them all
from slender girls, who late at night
trod hand in hand with longing,
on lonely roads, with fright.
The last stanza of the poem is a repetition of the first and frames within it the grayness, the sense of poverty and deprivation: "I am walking barefoot from land to land" and the horror of homelessness. She gave expression to a time and place when all the grown-ups were too petrified, too numbed, to put into words what the world around was inflicting on them. She never mentioned the words guns, army, war, Nazis, ghetto, deportation—all the horrors that afflicted her and the world around her were never actually named, yet they loom threateningly in her metaphors.
Selma’s unusual talent, blossoming at so young an age, had no chance to fully ripen, to mature. Her poems were the creations of a girl from the age of fifteen to seventeen. When one considers that she was educated in Romanian public schools and, in tenth grade, in a Yiddish school (1940-41), where Ukrainian and Russian were taught, too—it is all the more amazing that her poems were written in perfect, rich, literary German, the language she spoke at home and among her friends. One can not draw any conclusion whether her focus in poetic creation would have taken a different turn, away from the trend in which she had started. Like Anne Frank, who expressed herself in prose, Selma poured out her feelings in poetry, at that same time, under similar conditions, in a different part of Europe.
Her awakening feelings of love, of loss and a mood of resignation and quasi acceptance show in “Lullaby for Myself”:
I sing and I sing and I sing me a song
a song of hope and good fortune,
I sing like the one who walks along,
not seeing he cannot return.
. . . .
I play and I play and I play me a tune
of days I’ve left behind
and run away from the naked truth
and act as if I were blind.
(January 1941; p. 27)
From the start, it seems that her deep feelings of love for Leiser were not reciprocated and caused deep pain. Whether this experience made her express her feelings in poetry may be just conjecture on my part, yet I am inclined to think so. Among her first poems, entitled “Song,” dated December 25, 1939, at age fifteen, she started out with the statement:
Today you hurt me so.
Around us there was only silence,
only silence, and snow.
. . . .
Today you told me: leave.
Her eroticism in the love poems reveals not the feelings of a youngster but those of a woman: they are full-blown, deeply felt and painful. In the poem “Red Clouds,”1 which was not dated in the collection, the depth of her passion as well as the poetic images just overflow, like a torrent of emotions and sights, too full, too rich to be contained in words. The full gamut of love, fear of loss of the beloved, implorations, and fervor gush forth overwhelmingly. Here are some of the lines:
I am afraid. I am oppressed by the darkness of every sultry night.
It is so quiet and I am smothered by the heavy splendor of the vast silence.
Why? Why are you not here? I have trifled, I know—forgive.
. . . .
Being alone causes so much pain. . . .
I want you as the grape wants, when it is ripe, to be plucked.
My hair is waiting. My mouth wants you to play with it again.
See, my hands beg you to envelop them in yours.
They long for your hair and they long for your skin
just like a child yearns for the dream that she only sighted once.
. . . .
See, everything waits for us: all the lanes, all the benches.
All the flowers are just waiting to be plucked by me and offered to you.
She feels stronger in his arms, feels sheltered by his height and strength, she longs for every facet of his being, of his appearance, and sorrowfully begs for his return: “You’ll come, won’t you? I won’t weep any longer. Oh, no, I won’t / feel empty any more.” Doubting again that the reality would change, she continues:
I am still here. The dream is over. I am alone—like red
wine, my hot blood is seething.
You are not here and were so near and we were such sweet tempestuous fire.
Spring is weeping. It weeps for us. Will you let it weep for ever?
In the “Song of Longing” Selma attempts to bring forth, to compose a song, yet no melody arises, no tone comes out, and in the final stanza she sadly tells herself:
You will always long for the note that was never played,
long for the happiness that had only lightly touched you
in the quiet nights, when the moon rocks you
and the silence does not understand your tears.
(January 9, 1941; p. 25)
The last two short poems, both dated December 23, 1941, show Selma so devastated by the unresponsiveness of Leiser, whom she so deeply loved, that she invokes no metaphor from nature, no element that could soothe or temper her heartbreak, alleviate her pain. They are terse and devastating. One has no titles, just:
Don’t you feel it when I cry for you,
are you really so far away?
And you are the beauty of my life, the only one,
for whom I endure it, my loneliness.
The second, entitled “Tragedy,” also contains only four lines:
This is the hardest: to give yourself
and know that you are unwanted,
to give yourself fully and to think
that you vanish like smoke into the void.
While all the turmoil of love and desire was filling her own world, the large world around her was in just as much turmoil. The political events were tearing the world apart and were tearing the remaining Jewish population into shreds. Thus, in June 1942, Selma and her parents and thousands more were cruelly chased to their doom, the last bloodletting from among the small number that had remained in Czernowitz. In that last transport were also her relatives, Paul Celan’s parents. Nobody knew exactly where they had been taken or what their fate would be. Needless to say, the expectations were dismal, yet the reality turned out worse than ever imaginable.
Since the deportees had no way of communicating with anybody anywhere, the known data are sparse. After a short stop at the stone quarry Cariera de Piatrua, the Eisingers were sent to Michailovka, a village near the river Bug. Selma managed to find a person who would take along a letter to her friend Renée, who was in another locality in Transnistria, a village called Obadovka. This letter reached Renée and has been preserved, the last anybody heard of her, her last piece of writing, last communication. (Renée would be deported from Czernowitz in October, 1941.)
Rena, Tatanca, it is so hot here that I am too lazy to close my eyes, that I am not able to hold the pencil, and I find it hard to toss a thought through my head. Nevertheless, I want to write to you. Actually, I don’t even know whether I will have a chance to send you this scrap of paper—never mind. Now I have at least the impression that you are sitting next to me, that I can talk to you after almost a year. What do I say: almost a year. Actually, the last year in Czernowitz was as if we were far from each other. Actually, it is over two years since the time when we spent long afternoons together, without talking; afternoons when you were playing [the piano] and I was listening and both of us knew how the other felt.2
Perhaps it is no good bringing back these memories. But never mind. I don’t know how you feel, but sometimes I long for the unspeakably sweet pain of such memories. There are moments when I try to conjure up anespecially hot, live picture and don’t succeed. At most, once a fleeting touch of a face or a word, but without really grasping or absorbing it. I sometimes think: Berta. Or—Leisiu. Or—a kiss. I don’t grasp the meaning of these notions. Let’s leave it. I have a poem here, the author of which I don’t know. It is beautiful.
The title of the poem is “Heimweh” (Homesickness). The pervasive feeling expressed is one of utter desolation, of wrenching pain felt by a person who longs for every stone, bench, house—everything that was home. She felt that this poem put into words her own extreme longing for what used to be home. Then the letter continues:
Nettchen, how long will this go on? How do you bear it? I have been here less than three months and I imagine that I will surely go out of my mind. Especially, in these unspeakably bright and white nights that overflow with longing. Sing sometimes, late at night, when you are alone: “Poljushka.”3 Perhaps you will understand my frame of mind.
Do you remember the fifth chapter of The Home and the World?4 I’ll copy a few sentences: “Why can’t I sing? The faraway river glitters in the light; the leaves glisten; the morning light spills over the earth like the love of the blue heavens, and in this autumn symphony I alone remain silent. The sunshine of the world hits my heart with its rays, but it does not hurl them back: August is here. The sky sobs wildly. And streams of tears crash on the earth, and, oh, my house is empty."5
I feel as if all my coming days are freezing together into one solid mass and will lie forever on my breast. Rena, Rena, if only you were with me. I don’t know, maybe, if we were together, it would be too much. Maybe not. Anyway, we could still endure it for a month if we were together. Of course, one bears it anyway. One endures, although one thinks again and again: Now, now it is too much. I can’t bear it any more, now I am breaking down. Just now, Tunia brought me a note from Rochzie. I am using this chance to send you this incomplete outpouring.
Kisses, Chazak Selma
This letter reached Renée, whom Selma addressed by her Hebrew name Rena, and has been preserved intact.6 Chazak was the greeting of the members of Shomer Hatzair and means: be strong.
The letter, written in August 1942, speaks for itself, her own words say it all—the brutality of tearing people out of their homes, just to let them perish of hunger, of sickness, of exhaustion, of despair. Yet, in the letter there was still a slight expression of hope.
One of the few survivors of this camp, Arnold Daghani, kept a diary, which he published on his return to Romania.7 In it he wrote on Wednesday, December 16, 1942: "Toward evening, Selma breathed her last." On December 17, 1942, he wrote: "Professor Doctor Gottlieb died of malnutrition. He and Selma were buried at the same time." As an explanation, he added that: "her real name was Meerbaum; the name Eisinger is that of her stepfather, I learned. She died of typhus, in her teens." On that page, he drew a picture of her body, wrapped in a shroud and mourned by people around. The original of that drawing is kept in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. It is entitled: "Pieta." Daghani wrote that her parents, too, died soon after of typhus.
When Leiser returned from the labor camp, he received the notebook with the poems. Since he was forced to return to the camp, he was not in a position to take along anything besides his clothes; again he left the poems in the hands of their common friend Else. Yuda and his cousin Leiser spent months in the same location, doing compulsory work: digging trenches. Leiser never learned of Selma’s death.
In 1944, when the Russians approached Romania and the German armies were retreating westward, toward their final defeat, Leiser escaped from camp and reached Bucharest. After contacting the Zionist Organization, he was granted first priority to board a small boat of illegal immigrants on their way to Palestine, from the Romanian port Constantza. The ill-fated boat Mefkure, on which he was traveling, was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean Sea and none of the passengers survived. A few weeks later, when Yuda reached Bucharest, the fate of the boat was already known.
Thus the three young people about whom I wrote initially, Selma, Leiser, and Abrasha, were all gone by 1944. At the age of twenty-one, Abrasha was lost in the frozen wastes of Siberia; Selma, at eighteen, perished in the steppes of the Ukraine; and Leiser, at twenty, in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. The three young Zionists, idealists one and all, never saw the land that they were yearning for, never lived to reach Palestine. Abrasha’s father remarked in great sorrow that his son, like Moses, tried to lead his people to the Promised Land, but he did not live to see it.
There is no grave, no marker for any of them, yet they live in the memory of those who loved them. Selma left her poems, the spark of her vital personality, the fullness of her lively mind, and the memory of Leiser, whom she adored.
In the poem “The Storm” (March, 1941) Selma dwelled on the gentleness, the fragility of a rosebud and the expectation to see it open and bloom, and about the precariousness of all life. The verse is her own epitaph:
. . . if now a frost comes, it dies,
dies and has never lived its life.
When we write nowadays that six million perished during the Holocaust, the number is awesome, but no less abstract; it is hard for the mind to comprehend that number, yet each one was a world. Can we fathom what we lost, what the world lost?
For years only her small group of friends knew about the existence of the poems. Her two close friends who kept the manuscripts, and her former mathematics teacher from tenth grade, Hersh Segal, got together and published the anthology, Blütenlese, in Rechovot, Israel, in 1976. This privately financed publication reached a larger public and her name and fame spread, but very slowly. A second edition was published by the Diaspora Research Institute, Tel Aviv University, in 1979.8 The translations are all my own, from the original text: Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger (1924-1942), Blütenlese.
8 The prominent German publisher Hoffmann & Campe published it in 1980, edited and with an introduction by Jürgen Serke, and with a new title: Ich bin in Sehnsucht eingehüllt: Gedichte eines jüdischen Mädchens. It was reissued by the Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag in 1984 [ed.]
Postscript March 2005:
Selma oder Die Reise um den Tisch.
Eine szenische Recherche mit Musik
In the year 2000, to my great surprise I received a call from Fürth, Germany, with news of an intriguing project. The caller explained that his wife, an actress, had read the poetry of Selma Meerbaum—a small volume of her writings published in Germany.
The actress, Jutta Czurda, and a group of friends—a composer, a writer, and his actress wife—decided to create a play about Selma and put some of her poems to music. However, they knew very little about her, other than that she had died of typhoid fever in Ukraine in December 1941. Mr. Minasian, the husband of the actress, decided to turn to the Internet for information. As soon as he entered Selma’s name, there appeared the chapter from my memoirs, Before Memories Fade. He found my address and telephone number and the connection was established.
Mr. Minasian informed me of the group’s plan and asked whether I would cooperate in the creation of the play. I enthusiastically agreed. I wanted Selma to be famous, if only posthumously. For a year we spoke almost every week, about the town, the community, the war, Selma’s love for Leiser (my husband’s cousin). I answered their questions, in German, and some of my statements were incorporated into the play.
In March of 2001, I was told that the premiere would take place on April 21, in the Stadttheater Fürth, Studio auf dem Theater. The theater invited my husband and me to attend the premiere, all expenses paid! We were of course moved and were excited to have the opportunity to be there. We took along our older grandson, Michael, who was seventeen at the time. We arrived on April 19, 2001, and were met by Mr. Minasian at the railroad station in Nuremberg. We had talked for a year, for hours at a time, and now we met in person.
On the morning of the day before the premiere we were received at the theater. There was a crowd: actors, musicians, the press, radio and TV reporters. That was the only time in my life that I was interviewed in German. Fortunately it worked out well. On the following day, the day of the premiere (which was only open to invited guests and the press), a long article, with photographs, appeared in the Fürth newspaper. It was a wonderful performance, on an open stage with musicians all around and the composer at the piano. The writer’s wife, Katharina Teuffert, played Selma.
The play was performed often in Fürth, then at a film festival in Munich, and in 2002 in Zurich. And then in Czernowitz. On the anniversary of the world premiere the cast traveled to Selma’s hometown, where it was put on in a theater very similar to the one in Fürth. As Jutta Czurda reported in a letter to me, both performances were almost sold out and the audiences were very enthusiastic: “Almost 1,000 people saw Selma . . . After the play we all signed countless programs and answered questions. And so for us, you, too, returned symbolically to Czernowitz with your voice, and built a direct bridge to Selma for the audience.” She is right. Although German is not spoken in Czernowitz today, Selma and I came home somehow.
This is chapter 23 of Pearl Fichman’s memoirs, Before Memories Fade. Her Prague, Paris, and the Journey to America(Fall 1947) appeared as No. 7 of the Cincinnati Occasional Papers in German-American Studies. Additional chapters can be found online: http://www.ibiblio.org/yiddish/Places/Czernowitz/Fichman/
Of the photograph (May, 1940), the German edition remarks: “This is the only one of the few surviving photos [of Selma] that offers more than a fleeting impression.”