An interview with Professor Tessa Lee about the Translation collaboration project with a student (Shawn Peaslee ’12). The full translation and manuscript is housed by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Read the first three pages of Selma’s Manuscript.
Tell me about the translation project?
Prof. Lee: The project started as a request for translation by a Holocaust survivor, Michael Gruenbaum. In his possession is a 12-page (single-spaced) manuscript that a woman named Selma from Vienna had written in the years 1941-1943 during her internment in Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in Bohemia, now 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, or Therezín in Czech, 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 (to be published in 2014 by Simon & Schuster).
Whose idea was it? Tell me a little bit about the person who brought this to you and your connection. How did the person find you?
Prof. Lee: Mr. Gruenbaum asked the program coordinator of the Schechter Holocaust Services (in Waltham) if she could help out. The coordinator happened to be the mother of a Wheaton senior, one of my students, Ezra Krechmer ’12, and she emailed me to ask if Iwas interested. I was, but I also wanted to make it a learning experience for one of my students 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?
Prof. Lee: 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” (quoted in: Nešarim. Child Survivors of Terzín. 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. Gruenbaums’ words, we, the post-war 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. My guess is that Selma did not survive and that Mrs. Gruenbaum, who shared the same dorm room with Selma, saved her notes and after the war gave them to her daughter to transcribe and keep, since it included evidence of how her own husband had been viciously killed (the official Nazi document stated that he had died of kidney failure). After the daughter died three years ago, the son, Michael Gruenbaum, inherited the manuscript and he is now turning it over to the Holocaust archive in Washington D.C.
What is your main area of scholarship and research?
Prof. Lee: I wrote my dissertation on the second generation of German Jews as well as on Turkish-German writers in contemporary Germany. My recent articles are on Turkish-German filmmakers and women writers.
How does this fit into your Wheaton role?
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.
Why is this project so important to you and why is Wheaton’s involvement important?
Prof. Lee: As someone who is professionally involved in Holocaust Studies, I felt it a moral as well as professional obligation to take on the translation. Once the translation is completed, it will be submitted to the Holocaust Memorial Museum where it will be archived and made public.
Tell me a little bit about how you are going about translating the item? What are the challenges?
Prof. Lee: 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.
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 is a challenge that all translators face: to bring it into a readable and idiomatically correct English and yet remain true to the original.
How long is the item you are translating?
Prof. Lee: 12 single spaced pages. It ends abruptly in July 1943 and no one knows if the author survived or if she died or was sent on the next transport to Auschwitz.
What is the historical significance?
Prof. Lee: This is a rare document. Not many journals survived the Holocaust and the war. Theresienstadt was known as a labor and transition camp, not so much as an extermination or even a concentration camp. This document shows how problematic that is. It offers further evidence of how inhuman conditions were in Theresienstadt, which had been hailed as a “model” camp by the Red Cross at that time.
What role is the student playing in this?
Prof. Lee: 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. First, we revised the “easy” mistakes or misunderstandings of certain simple phrases and sentences. Then the second revision took on some of the more complex sentences (German is notorious for having long sentences that can go on for a whole paragraph or page) that had to be translated more precisely. In a third draft, I looked at the general flow of the English translation, because there are often sentences and phrases that get translated too literally and that do not read idiomatically in the English. But that is still not the end of it: a final revision takes place after putting some distance between the last draft and the final one. With a clear head and fresh eyes you can finally put on the finishing touches. Overall, it takes at least three, four runs.
When did you begin this project and how often do you and the student work on it?
Prof. Lee: We received the document in February, and we met or emailed every other week with drafts and revisions.
When do you anticipate finishing this project?
Prof. Lee: It actually has been completed just now.
Will you be talking about this in classes here at Wheaton or making any sort of presentation regarding it?
Prof. Lee: Last semester the senior students of German and I read “The Reader” (by Bernhard Schlink) together, a story about an adolescent teenage boy growing up in the 1950s who fell in love with a much older, female former concentration camp guard. This document would have been perfect for that seminar. But I have most of the students who attended last year in my senior seminar this semester and I want to present it in one of our sessions. I’m also planning to teach a course on translation in one of the coming semesters, so this undertaking would benefit my other students also pedagogically.
When do you think you will meet with the person who gave you the item to translate?
Prof. Lee: I just met with him, and unfortunately he could not tell me more about the circumstances of how the manuscript got into his mother’s hands, nor about Selma. As is usual with Holocaust survivors, they don’t talk about the past until much later in life, if at all. I think it was only now that Michael found out how his father really died, namely, that he was torn to pieces by dogs that were trained by the SS for this very purpose.