Five Amber Beads - the true story
After my mother's death, a crucial piece of evidence emerged. My father, sorting through her possessions, came across a cloth-bound diary and I knew immediately that this was the journal that she had occasionally mentioned as I got older.
A diary - written in Sternberg labour camp in East Prussia
She had never shown it to me nor, as far as I know, had she ever read it. She always said that it was the diary that ‘Uncle Isy wrote in Auschwitz’, but she was wrong: he wrote it in a small labour camp in East Prussia called Sternberg. Perhaps, in her mind, Auschwitz had become the one word governing the terrible reality of ‘the camps.’ My father, knowing my fascination with my past, gave me the diary and I suddenly knew what my years of studying the German language had been for. I spent weeks and months deciphering my great-uncle Isy’s handwriting, reading the whole of the diary’s more than three-hundred-and-sixty pages and translating long passages of it into English. Isy’s words form the backbone of this book and I am indebted to him, beyond words.
My mother always spoke in vague generalities about her past and I, self-appointed scrutiniser of our family history and keeper of the collective memory as a child, wanted concrete, specific particulars. What was her father’s name? What happened to him? What was her mother’s name? What happened to her? Who did my mother live with when she came to England? I fired off staccato questions like a round of machine-gun fire, and they hurt her. Her answers were not always clear: ‘He went to America before I was born; I never met him.’ ‘Her name was Mary. I got a letter one day during the War from the Red Cross, saying that she had been killed in the camps.’ ‘I lived with an assimilated English-Jewish family in Somerset.’
I always got the impression that she could not understand my curiosity about her past that so obviously upset her. When I started a degree in German and later spent a year at university in Heidelberg when I was twenty-one, a year that saw my mother’s death from cancer, her only advice to me was: ‘Don’t get a German girlfriend.’ But I was always drawn to the German language, to its rugged, rasping beauty; I always loved it more than the obvious charms of French at school: a strange atavism; a peculiar perversion of taste; a deliberate contrariness, perhaps. My mother did not teach my brothers and me German at home, although she remained fluent in the language until the end.
The diary’s story is one of survival
the surfacing of evidence; the living-through of tragedy; the legacy of individuals who, by extraordinary personal sacrifices, allowed their family names to continue down through the generations. What miracle allowed this diary to survive the upheavals of war, the mass movement of millions of individuals through the camp system; the confiscations; the book-burnings; the air raids and the bombardments? I can now never know its secret history for sure: nearly all of those involved with its story are dead. Only Fishel Rotstein, whom Isy introduces at the very end of his diary, is still alive and living in Haifa. The diary sits on my bookshelf and it compelled me to write this novel, a book woven out of the threads of real and imaginary stories and histories.
‘Ibergekumene tsores iz gut tsu dertseyln': ‘It’s good to tell about past troubles.’ This is the only Yiddish phrase that I know and I did not learn it from my mother: I learned it from a book.