This presentation was given in slightly different form at the 22nd IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Toronto, August 7, 2002.
I want to thank you all for coming this morning to share my interest in the translation of old family letters. Before I start, I’d like to tell you a few things about myself, to put my interest in letters into context. My family left Germany in 1938, and all of our family members who were not foresighted or fortunate enough to leave perished in the Holocaust. My parents wandered around for a number of years, in several countries on two continents, before they settled in Philadelphia just after the War. Two of my mother’s sisters settled in Israel, and my father’s two brothers in South Africa. About these latter I heard very little; I’ll have more to say about this later.
I did my share of wandering, too, and never felt that I had a real place to call home. I was born in Philadelphia, but my parents took me to Germany with them in 1951 when I was five, and when they went back to press their claim for reparations. From what I’m told, I learned German so thoroughly that I virtually forgot my English. But it was a somewhat traumatic accomplishment in two directions. The shock of the new language silenced me for almost six months, after which I began to speak perfect age-appropriate German. And when we returned to the United States, I had to learn English all over again. In spite of—or because of—what happened to their parents, my parents, particularly my father, continued to see themselves as German.
So when I was 11, I was sent to a school in Switzerland that was run by Germans who had opposed Hitler, and had left in 1934 rather than see their famous and beloved Odenwaldschule turned into a Nazi showcase. The new Ecole d’Humanité served during the war as a haven for displaced children, particularly Jewish children. Through the Ecole I got to see another facet of Germans and German culture.
In part because of these experiences, which were both very enriching and very disruptive, I have been fascinated by issues of culture, history, identity, and family. When I began translating professionally, these issues were not yet foremost in my mind. But by a stroke of luck, I was asked to translate a large body of family letters owned by a German businessman. In the process I came to see the potential that the translation of letters and diaries can have for people engaged in researching their families and their identities. My particular sensitivities, my cast of mind, and my linguistic skills enabled me make these documents come alive for other people. Even more, they enlivened something in myself, and they brought to a focus in me my various interests in history, culture, and identity. What I want to do today is show you something of how letters can do this.
Genealogy is a process of filling in gaps in our knowledge and understanding of history, especially family history. In many cases we rely on public records for dates and family interconnections because this may be all that is available to us. But this is really "bare-bones" genealogy: such records, important as they are, tell us nothing about the personalities, motivations, struggles, and defeats and triumphs of our subjects. Letters, diaries, and the like give us a unique glimpse into their world at the most personal level, and for this reason they are always worth evaluating. In my experience, even the most unpromising-looking material can yield unexpected and astonishing nuggets.
For example, some time ago I was asked to translate about 100 letters between a German Jew living in England and his Jewish legal representative and various Nazi functionaries in Berlin. These letters, which dated from the late 1930s were dry, dry, dry. But what emerged from them, dropped out the bottom, so to speak, was a glimpse into this man's inability to recognize that the rules of the game in Germany had changed. He had been retroactively accused of stock fraud based on new Nazi laws. The Nazis convinced him to place his money, as a show of good faith, in the Dresdener Bank in Amsterdam, which they controlled—whereupon they froze his account. The man innocently went through all the legal channels, sincerely believing that he would get his money back. Destitute, he somehow nonetheless managed to get himself and his family to Sao Paulo, Brazil. And what was the first thing he did there? Like any good German, he registered with the German Consulate—even though his citizenship had long been revoked. This blind faith in the continued integrity of German institutions was, of course, a commonplace among German Jews.
Another example. A client called me to discuss some short stories written by her grandfather, a labor judge before the Nazi period. She sent me five stories to translate and then came to my office to discuss them. I asked her to tell me a little about the writer and about why she wanted to have them translated. She said that her own father, the writer’s son, had refused to even talk about him, and now she felt the need to establish "contact" with this man. Her father had himself recently died, and all she knew was that his father had abandoned the family for another woman. "That's interesting," I replied. "Three of the five stories you sent me are about love triangles." So here we have a man grappling with his family transgression, trying somehow to express it or perhaps justify it in his mind. Whatever the case, this revelation proved important to my client, who subsequently used the stories in her work as an artist.
This is another filling in of gaps. As I am sure you have discovered, there are a lot of dead ends in genealogies. Sex, money, religion, and politics can break families. Politics are a matter of public record most of the time, religion sometimes is, but sex and money often are not. Often even the memory of such things as love triangles is suppressed, to say nothing of money quarrels or financial failures, and clues can only be gleaned from chance mention in private documents such as letters, diaries—or stories.
What are letters, really? (I use the term in the broadest sense here.) They are documents of the times in which they were written. They are sometimes personal, sometimes public, but above all they are full of clues about the writers and the social and psychological conventions they took part in. They are an activity of community and they define that community. For genealogists, letters hold vast potential to increase their knowledge of particulars and to expand their areas of research. They also make possible cooperation between researchers whose families may not even be directly related. For example, here are some of the names of people discussed substantively in the letters I will be discussing today: SCHLESINGER, WALLERSTEIN, LANDAU, TRAUB, WAISS, HAGEL, EMRICH, KAHN, HERZ, WILLSTAETEN, HOFFMAN, WORMS, WILAND, FRIEDMAN, SCHWARZ, NETTER. This listing represents perhaps one-tenth of the names mentioned in the letters. I can envision a sort of clearinghouse in which vast bodies of letters are searchable and cross-referenced on the Internet. Let’s say that descendants of the Pforzheim Landaus have letters from the period in question. It could very well be that some of those discuss their downstairs neighbors, the Rieses—and perhaps in some detail.
Over the past 7 years I have translated two larger bodies of German letters. The first involved 200-plus letters written back to Germany from the Midwest. Part of this correspondence has been published by the University of Nebraska Press as Lives and Letters of an Immigrant Family. The Van Dreveldts’ Experiences along the Missouri.
Today I will talk about 450 letters that I recently finished translating. They were written between 1884 and 1888 by a mother and daughter, Regine and Marie Ries, from a Jewish family in Pforzheim in the German state of Baden, where the Rieses had a small business manufacturing and selling jewelry. Pforzheim was, and still is, the jewelry capital of Germany. For reasons that are not clear, Moritz (born Moses) Ries was not particularly successful in his work, and so his sons Berthold, Viktor, and finally Otto were sent to seek their fortunes in Tucuman, Argentina. They were supposed to send back money to support the family. In 1884, their daughter, Marie, was sent to work as a governess in the home of Henry Traub, a wealthy Jewish businessman and banker in Constantinople. Traub’s wife, Anna Herz, was a relative of Marie's mother, Regine (born Rachel). The sons rarely sent word of themselves, let alone money, which was a source of constant anguished hand-wringing and the subject of many letters.
Here are 2 photographs of Marie, the second with her husband Gustav.
Since I want to use my own experiences of family gap-filling to illustrate the enormous potential of letters to genealogists, let me say that there are no large bodies of letter in my own family. My grandparents on my mother’s side lived in Mannheim, however, which is not far from Pforzheim. They were middle class—my grandfather was a small cigarette manufacturer—and I imagine that they would have recognized the way of life described in these letters. By getting to know the Rieses intimately, I have gained some understanding of the world in which my own family moved.
Here is a rough draft of the Ries family tree, which I put together almost entirely from information I found in the letters. This is not to say that there are no other sources, but this was all that was available to me. I’m not a genealogist per se, but I make note of important dates—birthdays, marriages, deaths, emigration dates, etc.—because they help me to date letters.
For instance, let’s say that a letter, undated except for "Friday," mentions that Berthold’s birthday was yesterday. If we know from other sources or letters that his birthday was on the 4th, then the letter was written on September 5th, and because over the 4 years of the correspondence, Friday only falls on September 5th once, we know that it could only have been written in 1884. In addition, information gained in this way has enabled me to reunite odd letter fragments (often only marked with a day) with the main body of the letter.
There are many perpetual calendar sites on the Internet.
But even if the information on the tree were complete, it would still yield up nothing about the particularities of the sons’ emigrations and their effect on those left behind. What I want to illustrate now is the intimate correlation between correspondence, genealogical "information," and the broader context of community and personality in which lives are lived.
Here are short sections of 4 letters from Regine to Marie:
What do you say to Berthold's letter; it hurts twice as much when one hears how easily they spend money, and here it is so terribly difficult to come by any at all. Papa said that the 200 carats in diamonds that he bought were much too expensive; our family could have lived for an entire month on a single carat. How easy it would be for the boys to think of us a little, and send us, say, 50 marks each month through Gerson, for example. Papa would positively beam. Three weeks ago I wrote them again and spoke my mind, and once again I noticed how hard it is for a mother to have to beg from her children.
We had hardly reached the Pfälzer Hof when he started with his old lament: isn't it horrid to have children who give their parents not so much as a sign of life? "I walk about half the day as if in a dream and can barely collect my thoughts for business, because I keep thinking about them. I thought I could entrust all my hopes, my entire future to my eldest sons. I don't ask for anything except a little letter every 4 weeks so that I know that they are healthy, that they are still alive, and that they haven’t forgotten their home. It is a terrible thing to be forgotten like this." My words of consolation don't help. He merely answers, "Be still, wife. You don't believe it yourself." I tell him that he should go by himself if I am only there so that he can make my heart heavy; I will forgo the walk if that is the way it is. I can cry just as well at home.
And in the following two excerpts you can see how their business becomes everyone’s business—Pforzheim was a very small town:
Two days earlier when father talked about Berthold, Landau had said to me, "All this is air, Frau Ries. Don't place any hopes in your sons; whoever relies on his children is lost." Well, that got me going, and I said, "Herr Landau, that opinion of my children is unjustified. You may be able to convince my husband by this sort of talk, but I will persuade you and him that a mother knows her children's hearts better than do their fathers. It is often the case that those who act according to their feelings do better than those who allow reason to talk, and furthermore what you are saying is very unreasonable because your words deny all hope to the unhappy." Papa was very angry that I had answered Landau this way, but Landau simply laughed and said we would see. Now he comes with a bottle of wine saying that "Frau Ries is a wise woman; she is right, once again; long-live Frau Ries and her entire brood."
I always defend the boys and follow what my heart dictates, because I say to myself, if I don't maintain my faith, who will give me the courage to live; if I lose faith in my children, where can I find the strength to keep on living? I said the same thing to Heinrich. His wife answered that it should not be too painful to have to forget such children. Since then I have not spoken a word about the boys, and I have decided that if a letter comes, whether it brings good news or ill, I will keep it to myself. If I am left so alone with my heartache, I don't need others to participate in the joys either. If only I were not so badly off materially as a result of their irresponsibility I wouldn't give them even an angry thought. The 14 days have passed again, and still no news.
There were dozens of similar passages to choose from. I have dwelt on these excerpts because they place in stark relief the heartaches that this particular set of emigrations occasioned.
This is a vivid example of how money can break a family tree. Until these letters were translated, Marie’s descendants had little idea of what had happened to her brothers. The estrangement between the Ries parents in Pforzheim and their successful sons in South America is clearly documented in these letters. When I did an on-line search of the Argentine telephone directory, I found numerous Rieses, including one very tantalizing Bertholdo. The family has not yet followed this up, but they will know where to look when they do.
These kinds of realizations are very powerful to me, given my own struggle to flesh out my own shattered family context. As I've said, there was absolute silence in my family on the subject of two uncles. I learned well on in my adulthood what the reason was—financial resentments. I was fortunate enough to have a living relative who was all too eager to tell me what happened, and who had the letters that made the situation—and the silence—clear.
11 November 1885
Last Saturday, a young lady was with us in the garden. Frau Hagel, the doctor's wife, is her sister. Their mother died recently. She is a pretty girl, but otherwise shallow, and she has no money. She would like to have a husband, and she can hardly talk about anything else. She is not even 20 years old yet and says that it is already too late and that she will not be able to get one! I thought to myself, how happy I am that even though I am older and should have more reason for saying such a thing, I am nonetheless able to think about other matters and that those who converse with me can talk about other subjects. Frau Herz knows the girl and thinks she's very nice, and she is making an effort to marry her off.
18 November 1885
This week I had a dream about someone I had really not thought about in a long time, which is why I asked myself whether I really dreamed about him. Namely, Leon Emsheimer. What has become of him?
Do you recall that I once wrote to you about a young girl (Jewish), whose only subject of conversation was, "If only I had a man"? They were here with the whole family. The girl will be engaged shortly, i.e., she already is officially with the Commander of the Austrian stationary [boat]. A Christian, of course, Baron, means, i.e., estate, insignificant; physical beauty, very little, more the opposite. Nevertheless, it is no small thing for Alexandra to become a Baroness after having been a poor Jewish girl and an orphan. She is very beautiful; her brother-in-law is physician to the Austrian legation as well as to Lloyds. She has not a penny to her name, hardly even a dowry. I don't like him even with his title, but that is a matter of taste. Frau Herz now has one less worry hanging about her neck; she took it on herself to provide for the girl.
The couple is engaged, i.e., in secret, but here everything went sans gêne. The engagement has a catch. The Commander must leave here in 14 days as his period of service has ended. Now Alexandra has to wait approximately 8 months because her intended has to get permission from his superiors. Then he has to provide a fairly large security, which doesn't seem to be in the till yet. Then there is one other major matter; she still has to be baptized. He is Catholic, and since there is no civil marriage, his career would be over if she remained Jewish. He is 40, she 20. He is a funny, intelligent person, but too Christian for my taste. I'm sure you understand what I am trying to say. But enough of this. Of course, we talk a lot about her here, and I think that I should write and tell you whatever occupies my mind.
Now, here's a Jewish girl marrying a Christian after a secret engagement and with the pressure of her having to abandon her Jewish identity. What did that do to the family trees of the two families involved? A letter like Marie's to her mother might well provide important information in bringing a dead end to life again. I am reminded here of my previous subjects, the van Dreveldts, who were the sons of a Catholic priest. Until my German client decided to "out" his wayward forebear, there had been silence on the matter. In fact, when I brought it up with the current pastor at the church in Emmerich, he got annoyed and said, "Ach Quatsch! Der will sich was einreden!" "Nonsense!!!"—much to my client’s delight.
And then on 21 February 1886 Marie wrote:
As far as I'm concerned, I can wait to see what the future brings; whether I am an old maid here [in Constantinople] or elsewhere is all the same, and much more than that I cannot expect. I used to say in jest that I would be hanged in the "chimney." I don't say it anymore, but I think it.
Marie was all of 22 or 23 when she wrote these lines filled with envy and a sense that time had passed her by.
Now, a few words about letters and translation. I speak as a translator, because that's what I do, but there are more general principles at work here. Some of you may have family letters in languages you can read; in that case no "translation" is necessary; some of you may have letters in languages that you do not know, or do not know well enough. In those cases a translator will be necessary if the true value of the letters is to be uncovered. Because the meaning of the words is only part of the worth of a body of correspondence like this, the rest lies in the context, and it is the translator (whether the translator is you or someone else) who must establish that context. I want to tell you a little about how I go about this work, as a guide for any letter-work you might do yourselves, or to help you in your search for a translator if your letters require one.
At its most basic, the craft of translation is the process of saying in one language what has been written in another. For something as complex as letters, I as translator must enter into an intimate relationship with the writer, and follow his or her thoughts and feelings until it seems almost as if I am channeling the writer, or that I have become seated within him or her. I try to immerse myself in the period. I use the reference works available to my subjects, the ones that document a worldview contemporary with theirs, and I read the books mentioned in their letters—such as Eugene Sue’s 1848 potboiler, The Mysteries of Paris, which I read in bed late at night, as Marie would have after a hard day’s work. Over the years I have accumulated a large library of contemporaneous resources, including a 17-volume 1897 German encyclopedia, nineteenth-century atlases, old travel guides, specialized business and accounting manuals from the period, dictionaries and glossaries of all sorts. These are my basic and necessary tools.
I also have to be able to read their handwriting; not always a piece of cake, particularly when the ink bleeds through:
This is a letter from Marie that I almost put on the "don’t even bother" pile…
But then I noticed an address in the upper right-hand corner: Pera 17/7 1885 Rue Derwisch 34. This was the only address found in the entire correspondence. I knuckled down and translated the letter.
Shortly before I found that letter I had ordered a 1908 German Meyers travel guide to Turkey from an English antiquarian bookseller I found through bookfinder.com on the Internet. It arrived several days later. The guide contained numerous maps, including a large-scale one of Constantinople. Look as I might, I couldn’t find Rue Derwisch. Disappointed, I thumbed through the book. And then…
There it was—just off of the Grande Rue de Pera! So now I had Marie localized.
The Internet has also been a boon in other ways.
Sinan Kuneralp is a publisher in Istanbul with a vast knowledge of Ottoman diplomatic history. I "met" Mr. Kuneralp through a contact I had made on the H-Turk list (a Humanities list run out of the University of Michigan), which I had joined when I began to translate these letters. In short order, he identified for me many of the characters who cropped up in the letters. Contacts of this sort are essential to the translator working on old letters—and to anyone doing genealogical research, for that matter.
For example, according to Mr. Kuneralp, Henry Traub had his business at Glavany Han, something that I hadn’t known. I couldn’t find this on the map in my Meyers guide, so I wrote him. He immediately responded that in fact Glavany Han had been torn down in the 1890s to make way for the Imperial Ottoman Bank on Rue Voievoda, which was on my map. Incidentally, Pera and Galata were the European section of Constantinople.
Of course, purely genealogical material abounds on the Internet. When I did a Google search for "Henry Traub" I found the following page:
As it turns out, Henry’s daughter Alice married into a Norwegian Christian missionary family. Again, what does this do to a family tree?
I would like to read from one final letter—this one from Regine—because it demonstrates clearly the sorts of sociological terrain one enters when dealing with letters of a different era. It also contains a rather puzzling detail:
Things have happened that are a constant source of talk and lamentation. Now hear this. I'm sure you remember young Schütz. Well, it seems that this young man bet his friends, all sons of the aristocracy in Eutingen—and apparently with the innkeeper abetting him—that they couldn't drink 10 bottles of champagne. In their abandon, they apparently did some things that are against the law, Schütz, of course, leading the way. The whole thing was stopped by citizens who were present, and the police were called. Young Schütz was ordered before the court of lay judges, and then immediately transferred to another court for jury trial, without even being permitted to say goodbye to his grieving mother. This would certainly have been bad enough, but the entire world would not be in an uproar about it if it hadn't been for the terrible postscript. As I mentioned, the sons of the elite were involved, and young Kuppenheim, 18 years old, went to a concert at the Museum on Saturday evening, where all of the young gentlemen involved were as well. During Carnival the Cameroon Negroes held a social event and, as it seems, they all made a long night of it. Well, young Kuppenheim gets home from the concert at 1:30, and in the morning his father tells him what he thinks of his irresponsibility. Naturally, like all boys here he gives his father a fresh answer, whereupon his father slaps him across the face. Now the terrible thing is that this vigorous young man, apparently driven by shame and fear, goes to the factory and drinks potassium cyanide—finished.
This is a truly shocking letter. It speaks volumes about the role of shame in German society...and I would not be surprised if there were a blank spot in the Kuppenheim tree—or at least an unexplained dead end—which this melancholy letter could help fill for any Kuppenheims looking to understand their own family history better.
The letter contains a rather puzzling detail as well: What are we to make of the "Cameroon Negroes"?
I found this photo in a book I bought at a used book store about a year after translating the letter. It shows a singing club (Liedertafel) in Salzburg that put on skits, etc., in blackface. Cameroon had become a German "protectorate" in 1884, and Cameroon mania swept the German-speaking lands. The women were dressed in "African" costumes, the men as German sailors.
In closing, I hope that I have given you some sense of what personal writings may have to impart and what insights there are to be gained. Like nothing else, letters and diaries allow us to flesh out the bare bones of a family tree. They are full of clues about the person who wrote them and the society in which the writer moved. Because of their potential for solving family mysteries and deepening one’s understanding of family history they are always worth evaluating for possible translation.