Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Holocaust memoir - Charlotte

When tender hearts are open


Today is Anne Frank Memorial Day, as the 12th of June is the anniversary of her birth.

This past spring, a genealogy friend Joy Rich introduced me to Robert A. Warren who has compiled a compelling work titled
CHARLOTTE, A Holocaust Memoir: Remembering Theresienstadt published Nov 2006 by Paper Tiger, Santa Fe, New Mexico. The book follows Charlotte Guthmann Opfermann (inmate Number XII/5-11) from the times before her German-Jewish father’s home and attorney’s office was ransacked and gutted, through the terrible years of incarceration, including painful descriptions of soul-numbing experiences of starvation and deprivation. We learn how Charlotte became affiliated with the Ghetto Youth Barracks during her confinement from January 1941 to May 1945. Her story is a memorial to those who died during that dark part of Germanic history, particularly those who experienced Theresienstadt.

One also reads of incredible feats of creativity in the midst of despair and exhaustion.

The prologue describes Charlotte’s association with Robert, and their attempts to publish a book during her lifetime. Both were apparently frustrated by the project which took over four years to discuss before a decision to abandon the project was made. Unfortunately, Charlotte passed away before Robert completed the publication.

Charlotte had not been a silent witness, having first ventured out at the Annual Scholar’s Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches (Provo, Utah March 1995). Robert reports her to be “a popular teacher of students of all ages, in several difference countries” on this tender topic.

Robert assesses Charlotte’s rendition of her life as a German-Jew during the holocaust thusly: “She could speak of the most wrenching instances of degradation, embarrassment and loss with the tone of a grocery clerk reciting purchases at a check-out counter. In all the time I spent with her, which was several hundred hours face-to-face and perhaps another thousand connected either by computer or telephone, I do not believe that I never knew her to cry. As she candidly admitted to me more than once, she had killed her feelings, like they murdered her family and friends, in order to survive.”

Putting his efforts as the compiler of the book into perspective, Robert continues “
At some level I could accept that, but at another I was foolish and arrogant enough to believe that I could break through her self-erected emotional barriers and get at the real truth. That was silly, stupid, off-putting and self-defeating, not to mention hurtful. I simply should have settled for the facts and relented on everything else.”

Speaking in the first person, as if he was Charlotte, Robert tells her story in what I believe is Robert’s way of demonstrating honor and respect for the woman he came to know and love through their years of collaboration.

Perhaps the most compelling paragraph appears on page 113 as follows:

Ashes in the Stream
“Soon after relieving the ghetto of the majority of its living residents, the SS decided to rid us of our dead too. In the early months of KZ-Ghetto Therensienstadt, there had been some attempt to properly bury our deceased. Limited space, an eventual daily death rate of more than 100, and the scarcity of wood for coffins soon dictated a more expedient approach. With typical SS efficiency, Therensienstadt’s four-oven crematorium was installed in September 1942. Thereafter, all bodies were promptly and efficiently incinerated. At first, the ashes were placed in small wooden boxes, later in simple wax-paper bags, the kind you would bring home from the delicatessen. Each, wood or paper, had the essential information written in pencil or chalk on the outside of the container: name, Ghetto number, birth and death dates. The remains were then stored in casement near the Zentralmaterial-Lager which, in a classically bizarre allocation of space, also housed the main bakery and central food storehouse. By the fall of 1944, more than 17,000 such containers had been accumulated.”

Not being privy to a first-hand discussion with Charlotte, it is impossible to tell how much of the book is Robert’s careful retelling of Charlotte’s testimony or where the text is his interpretive conclusion from their discussions. What leads me to believe Robert’s sincerity is the fact that this book is offered free, without copyright restrictions in .pdf format for all to read.

At the time I received a copy, I expected the book to be a resource for those wishing to understand more about the Holocaust. The memoir ended up helping me personally deal with the death recently experienced in my own family. In an email to the author, I explained:

While I should
“not compare our family’s current tenderness with the gruesome facts of the torture and murder of millions of Jews, it is that tenderness of an open heart that perhaps best prepares one to read of Charlotte’s life. Reading Charlotte at this time in my life will prove helpful in putting both my current family experiences in perspective and for beginning to comprehend Charlotte’s experiences.

You speak of your concern for Charlotte’s detachment and yet I already marvel at her ability to even speak the unspeakable.

You are very right to offer the .pdf file free of charge for it clearly removes profit as your motive and places a stamp of respect for Charlotte on every page.

Muting one’s own bias IS practically impossible, isn’t it? Whenever we read, we bring our individual personal experiences to the table to compare and contrast, and to determine how we feel about the words we’re reading. Even little children learn by such a process of comparing the unknown to the known.

Thank-you for not shying away from compiling this book and for taking the time to read a little about my background as I begin reading.”


Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt :)
Your friend in genealogy.

(c) 2007 Pat Richley All Rights Reserved.

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