Professor and student decipher Holocaust document
Last year, Associate Professor of German Tessa Lee and her then-student Shawn Peaslee ’12, a German studies major, got a rare chance to translate from German to English a historically significant document from the Holocaust. It was written by a female inmate of one of the concentration camps, and given to Lee by another Holocaust survivor, who had found this manuscript among the belongings of his deceased sister. Lee and Peaslee’s work is now in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. We asked the professor the story behind the translation.
Tell us about the project.
The project started as a request for translation by a Holocaust survivor, Michael Gruenbaum. In his possession is a 12-page manuscript that a woman named Selma from Vienna had written in 1941–1943, during her internment in Theresienstadt [Terezín], a concentration camp in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. He wanted to have it translated before turning it over to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Mr. Gruenbaum himself survived Theresienstadt as a 14-year-old through the efforts of his remarkable mother, who got him off the deportation list to Auschwitz four times. In this manuscript were a few lines that describe specifically how Mr. Gruenbaum’s father, a respected lawyer from Prague, had been murdered in Theresienstadt. He wanted the exact translation of that particular sentence since he was going to quote it in his biography (scheduled to be published in 2014 by Simon & Schuster).
How did he find you?
Mr. Gruenbaum asked the program coordinator of Schechter Holocaust Services (in Waltham, Mass.) if she could help out. The coordinator happened to be the mother of one of my students, Ezra Krechmer ’12, and she emailed me to ask if I was interested. I was, but I also wanted to make it a learning experience for one of my students, Shawn Peaslee, who was advanced enough and interested in the subject matter and in the experience of translating a document. We made it into an independent study.
What drew your interest in this?
In her first letter to friends a few days after the camp liberation in May 1945, the mother of Michael Gruenbaum, Margaret Gruenbaum, expressed how lucky they viewed themselves to have survived, but added, “yet we here have the feeling that we will never be able to find a bridge to those who have lived on the outside and who, fortunately, will never be able to grasp what horror, fear and deep sorrow we experienced through the years just passed,” which was quoted in Nešarim: Child Survivors of Terezín by Thelma Gruenbaum [Vallentine Mitchell, 2004]. Since those first days of liberation, we have learned quite a bit about the Holocaust and the Third Reich, and yet, true to Mrs. Gruenbaum’s words, we, the postwar generations, could never fully understand what really went on. But this manuscript is a sort of bridge that links us with the past world, and I do believe that it gives us an insight into this world, however small that insight and narrow the bridge might be. This journal is of significant importance historically. There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to take on the task when I heard that this was an authentic manuscript from one of the darkest hours of human history. There are lots of stories, films, biographies and other narratives, but what made this stand out for me was the fact that it was a diary that was kept from 1941 to 1943 from within the camp. Most of the personal accounts that are known were usually written after the liberation of the authors, not during their internment. And this is what got to me. How on earth did she manage to keep a diary? She was overburdened with work, struggling with disease, malnutrition and inhuman conditions. Where did she find the time and strength, let alone the writing materials? She knew what punishment awaited her if she was caught trying to document the atrocities there. Her entries end abruptly in July of 1943 and nobody knows what became of her.
What challenges did you face on this project?
The first challenge was to make sense of the content altogether. This document was written in haste, as you can imagine, and there are many typos and errors in syntax. Although the language was German, it was the German spoken by a Jewish Czech 70 years ago, so some of the words and phrases were outdated. Shawn took on the first draft of translation. He did a marvelous job of trying to figure out the missing letters and what some of the antiquated words meant. We went through several drafts. The second challenge was to remain calm and objective while reading and translating what is simply just a horrifying account of the daily struggles in the Theresienstadt ghetto. The third challenge was one that all translators face: to bring it into a readable and idiomatically correct English and yet remain true to the original.
How does this fit into your Wheaton work?
Since I was raised bilingually and biculturally, I have always been a translator of sorts. Translation is what I did professionally since my graduate school days when I worked as an interpreter and translator for television news and other media, as well as at the Olympics [Seoul, 1988]. At Wheaton I teach German language and literature and culture in translation. As someone who is professionally involved in Holocaust studies, I felt it a moral as well as a professional obligation to take on the translation.
Read an interview with Shawn Peaslee ’12 and see the document at wheatoncollege.edu/.quarterly.