Living History: The Millions Interviews Jason Sommer

February 1, 2022 | 2 books mentioned 12 min read

Most readers know Jason Sommer from his poetry. But the author of five poetry collections—mostly recently Portulans—is publishing something a little different this March: Shmuel’s Bridge: Following the Tracks to Auschwitz with My Survivor Father, a memoir that documents Sommer’s relationship with his father while exploring his painful family history.

The book, which Sommer began, in part, due to his father’s failing memory, also documents a trip the father and son took to Eastern Europe in 2001: from the town where is father was born to the labor camp he escaped to Auschwitz. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly praised Shmuel’s Bridge, saying “This stunning tribute isn’t to be missed,” while Kirkus said, “The author provides an undeniably intriguing tale of travel and remembrance, filled with fascinating characters and places caught between the war-torn past and the post–Cold War future.”

coverThe Millions caught up with Sommer to talk about the genesis of the book, the importance of preserving memories, fathers and sons, and a whole lot more.

The Millions: Can you tell us a little about the genesis of the book and your desire to preserve your father’s memories of the events that defined his life?

Jason Sommer: This book’s immediate beginning was in the imminent threat of loss. It wasn’t just my father’s mortality—he’s 98—or mine, but the mortality of memory. Dad had begun to forget, to confuse his personal history. What he had told me had changed perhaps in emphasis over years of telling, but never in substance, but now details were getting alarmingly muddled, and significant incidents were vanishing utterly, beyond anyone’s prompting. Besides his memories, I wanted to preserve the record of our experience together, our 2001 trip through Eastern Europe that had further illuminated the things he had spoken of for such a long time, reviving memories for him, and making me a better preserver and conduit for them.

But in a very real sense this book has been on its way much of my adult life, certainly since I began to write. The events of my father’s life, his memories of them, also did much to define my own life in a family where narrative was dominated by the Holocaust. I felt compelled to do my part in preserving what are, after all, extraordinary accounts for their own sake, and for my sake I needed to understand what they had made of me. That need is at the heart of this book and its inception.  So, what my father, as well as my aunt and uncle, had gone through had been the subject of poems of mine over the years. These survivors had charged me, sometimes quite explicitly, to write about these things.

TM: Your father’s life story is remarkable and documents the horrors of the Holocaust—and it’s probably a story you heard many times during your life. How did hearing these stories from your father impact you, both when you were younger and today?

JS: Around my family was an aura of story even before I began hearing the specifics of his, a sense of mysterious things at the margins, things that had happened that were not addressed directly, at least not near children. My father often seemed angry and didn’t sleep well. There was a recurrent, if intermittent, sense of unease around the family, a kind of haunting. Eventually the ghosts, and the demons, were named.

At a fairly young age, almost randomly, I was getting a sense of the general dimensions of the catastrophe—I had seen pictures, glimpsed newsreel clips on TV; I’d gleaned information, furtively, from the adult section of the library. I was drawn to what was barely comprehensible to me and frightened me. My father began speaking in my presence, often to adults, sometimes to other survivors, but to me, too. I overheard and heard what he went through as a child, the anti-Semitism around him that gave what followed—the massacres, and the camps—a terrible logic.

He spoke about what happened to him and others more frequently, feeling the responsibility of witness as his contribution to “never again.” So, often, I was present for accounts of suffering, endurance, and accomplishment, accounts of a life that therefore had more authority and authenticity than mine might ever have. Certainly, in my adolescence I began to feel, on top of its ordinary resentments, the pressure of the stories, which reiterated, reaffirmed, how inhospitable the world could be for Jews and how people could literally do anything to one another—and had. Any torture that could be imagined had been imagined and applied. This is what I learned and could not unlearn but, at times, simply wanted to escape. It made an ordinary life and ordinary pleasures seem trivial.

But I came to understand, as an adult, how significant my father’s narrative was, in part because it was so various: he’d escaped from a labor camp, been in hiding, had been coerced into the Russian army. Though I could admire and appreciate the courage and tenacity he had mustered to survive, and his subsequent achievements in America, I also had a better idea of how his difficult experiences had marked and scarred him. While I had been drawn deeply into his story, it had also been a barrier between us. The trip we took together promised the possibility of more authentic communication, to arrive where we are now with each other, with a clearer path between us, a less complicated love.

TM: Can you speak to the importance of preserving memories of this sort—the importance of not letting individual stories of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust be lost to history?

JS: Of course, we must preserve these memories, they are the testimony of witnesses. My father’s experience, in fact, is a chronicle of some lesser-known aspects of Holocaust history as concerns the Hungarian contribution to the war against the Jews. The Hungarians had their forced labor battalions, were effectively brutal in their roundups and deportation of Jews. What German Nazis instigated was not accomplished without allies like the Hungarians. But in a sense the larger history is the background of often remarkable individual stories. But that history lives with vividness when we focus on the person in the midst of it. It’s a sort of commonplace to speak of the human tapestry with each thread a person’s life story. I’d alter the metaphor a little and think of the threads as nerves in a neural net that bind us all together in one feeling body. Because that’s what the individual stories do, make us feel for each other, move us a little closer to feeling for the other as we do for ourselves.

TM: Did the current political climate in both the U.S. and in parts of Europe play a factor in your writing the book?

JS: The political climate during the writing of the book certainly lent something to my determination to do what I was doing. It’s hard not to feel added purpose given what I was writing about when around me, nationwide and worldwide, authoritarianism was rising and encouraging the old hatreds. One of the oldest hatreds gave us the 11 dead at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and evidence of more threats at every monitoring. In Hungary, Orbán is driving the rewriting of history and the whitewashing of Hungary’s enthusiastic collaboration in the Holocaust. In Poland, too, the so called “politics of memory” has seen scholars brought to court for examining the facts of Polish cooperation with the Nazis in wholesale murder of Jews. The assault on history is a sign of something already well underway in Europe just as the big lies and the smaller ones undermine us here. That said, it’s hard for me to believe that whatever summons to memory is implicit in my book contributes much to the resistance. Maybe I can imagine the book as a single voice seeking to join a chorus of those who support the truth, or at my most hopeful, I might think of it as I do of poems, moving through the culture almost secretly, headed to individuals and inward, aiming to exert some force for good.

TM: Can you tell us a little about the trip to Eastern Europe you took with your father in 2001 and the role it played in writing the book?

JS: The trip is at the root of the book, but obviously that root and this book took a while to come into being.

In the writing of the book, and in the living of our lives together, my father’s and mine—there is this pilgrimage that had turned quest, so important to both of us. During our travels I had no book in mind, as focused as I was on the purposes of the trip, personal ones. I thought the experience might come into my poems and I certainly took notes, but I had never written book-length nonfiction and wasn’t considering it. Initially my father proposed a sentimental journey of a sort, where some of the sentiments would be quite dark.

Dad had been eager to have me visit his homeplaces for some time. He wanted to go to his mother’s grave and to have me with him. He also wanted me to see the site of the labor camp from which he had escaped, and there would be other places in Eastern Europe, too, along the way. He had been on the run in Hungary and later traversed the region as a translator with the Red Army. He had asked me to go before, and I had found plausible reasons to refuse. I finally felt able to go, and I wanted to. But I also wanted—with a little trepidation—to add something else to the trip.

My father’s greatest loss was his younger brother’s murder in 1944. The fact that Dad’s family homes, a hut in Kustanovice and then a basement in Munkacs, would be among our destinations would naturally bring us to where Shmuel had lived, too. My father’s love and admiration for him was evident every time he spoke about him: the youngest brother but physically imposing, a protector, and as devoted as Dad was to their mother and to the labor that allowed the family a bare subsistence. He was attuned to nature and adept with animals. Moreover, Shmuel had resisted deportation, attempting to escape from the train to Auschwitz. He’d become a hero to me, almost a mythic figure. Yet my father would tell me on occasion that I resembled him. I supposed it was some physical resemblance. Around the survivors in my family I’d learned an etiquette: one didn’t probe in painful memories. And here I was, in 2001, urging what hadn’t been in Dad’s plan, something that could be seen as more for me than him, for whom it might be distressing.  Still, I asked that we arrange an itinerary that included a search for the place that Shmuel had died. We could visit all the places that my father had detailed, and from Munkacs follow the tracks through Slovakia and Poland to Auschwitz. Though pointing out the difficulties, my father agreed. And that is what we did and what I wrote about, which gathered to it and tended to so much of what mattered to my father and me, and so much that was the matter.

TM: Your book is about memory and history but also about the relationships between fathers and sons—relationships that can often be fraught. Can you tell us about your relationship with your father and how it has changed over time?

JS: I believe the book is most about the father-and-son relationship in it, though it’s a relationship greatly impacted by history (and long enough now to think of as having a history of its own).

I want to start by saying that we have arrived at a good place in our relationship, and that continuing gift, as I indicated, was at least in part granted by our travels. I arrange for his homecare; he is relatively strong and well in body, but his memory has become very impaired. He knows me, but when I visit, if I leave a room for a moment and return, he is likely to be surprised to encounter me again.

I’ve said that my father seemed angry when I was a child, and on occasion his anger at me was expressed physically. It was not merely the disciplining that so affected me then, but that the eruption of rage during felt almost out of control, gigantic. Those incidents colored my relationship with him, though I think I had some sense even then that there were other forces working in him. I had witnessed similar episodes with my cousins; my aunt and uncle were also survivors.

Conversations among those survivors in my family were an important part of my introduction to the Holocaust and what my father and others had been through. Those grim revelations, his pain, also dictated the character of the relationship. We children—seen as gifts, compensation for suffering—tried not grieve the parents who had grieved enough.

Yet, I was proud of my father. A penniless refugee, he’d arrived in America in 1948, and holding down menial day jobs and going to night school, he graduated from Brooklyn College in 1956. I was there. I remember. It took him only eight years in America, though I wouldn’t have done the math then. Later, I would remind myself through the math—in 1945 he was still in danger of his life in Europe, in 1950 I was born. Five years. I made an effort to keep that math in mind.

The omnipresence of his difficult personal history, which made such a claim on my awareness, seemed to require a curb on happiness. On and off I would avoid the subject and therefore him. The trip central to the book marks a change in our relationship and changed it further. I suppose I felt I had enough substance in my own life that I could manage, and be open to, such a full immersion in his past.

TM: The title of the book stems from your father’s brother, Shmuel, who was killed on the way to a Nazi camp. Can you talk about how the book’s title came about?

JS: I wrote a long poem in the mid-90s that had a section entitled “Speaking of the Lost,” and it was about Shmuel, from what his brothers—Dad and Uncle Harry—had told me. In it I made a sort of promise—“I have a plan to follow rivers/ if only on the maps until they intersect/ the lines of track, and I will have the place/ How many trestle bridges can there be…/.”

The hedge to the promise was “if only on the maps.”  I left myself an out, as if I might never make the effort in the world the maps represented. But I registered my desire there. I had a “plan.” In the event we hadn’t followed the rivers, but the tracks themselves.

It was strange that I hadn’t immediately thought that the centrality of Shmuel to the memoir ought to be reflected in the title. But I hadn’t. The working title had been “Joining the Story,” from a poem of mine with that same title. It had a lot of resonance for me, which probably derived principally from my own associations with the poem, which concerned a survivor and his child in America. But my editor, Kevin Stevens, in his customary wisdom, pointed at its almost generic quality. I could see that I needed a title that led the reader more directly to something essential in this book.

The bridge was Shmuel’s because it was the place he attempted his escape: a railroad bridge over a river in Eastern Europe that my father and I had been determined to find. We were guided mainly by one story: the account of Shmuel’s girlfriend who had been with him in the boxcar and she had survived. Other survivors added a few additional details about that transport and I had done further research. So, Shmuel’s bridge was, indeed, at the heart of the narrative. But that was the literal bridge. How could it not have occurred to me earlier? It was a figurative bridge too, a bridge between my father and me.

TM: Your previous work has been poetry. How was the writing process for a memoir different? Do you prefer one form over the other?

JS: The power of poetry most often depends on compression, getting a great deal of meaning into a relatively small area. So, typically for me there’s a first wave of language—call it inspiration—that touches the poem off and carries it along as far as I can ride it. That might be an image, a detail, a fragment of speech, something that happened. I might be going over that same ground, a few hundred words perhaps, for hours and hours. It’s not just words that need to be managed, but the way words are formed into lines: lines to be rewritten, lines to be excised. A poet will pay all kinds of attention to sound, and I might be refining for a pattern of rhythm, too, and of stress, the traditional five stress pentameter for example. And I sometimes use rhyme. I’ve written sonnets. There seems to be lots of subtraction in the process and, for me anyway, lots of times I put an entire poem away for a while, or forever. A day might end with very little to show beyond the respite of my having had the self, in that ego-y version, disappear into the concentration of the act of writing—even if I am writing about myself. That, happily, was just as true for the memoir.

The language of a memoir, as opposed to that of poetry, seems to have more to do with accretion and impetus, what keeps a reader going onward to get to more of the story. I felt very aware of crafting motion, as I pushed forward, intuiting and planning where I needed to be next at each point in the entire narration. Working with events distributed over so much time made the memoir a very different proposition even to a narrative poem. Attentive as I had to be to prose rhythms, they are different rhythms than poetry, at the sentence-level and over the course of a whole work. So much energy goes into detail, above all the rendering of scene, with the people, with the surroundings, the inclusion of what’s been called the furniture of the world in as much tangibility as can be managed. And that’s the immediate writing process: there were also hours of research—done in years past and more recently—hours and hours with maps, histories of the region, films, testimony of various kinds. I loved it, though. If the labor was considerable, the satisfactions were also great. I could work just about every day, which never happened with poems. The pages grew—and remained—survived the editing process even if scenes sometimes ended up moved around in the book.

In the end I can’t say, shouldn’t say, I enjoyed writing the memoir more because the process was easier. (Four out of the nine muses have to do with poetry of one sort or another. I wouldn’t want to risk their displeasure.)

TM: What do you hope readers take away from Shmuel’s Bridge?

JS: I want my readers to have come along with me: to marvel at how people, a person like my father, can endure, survive, and prevail—can go on to outlast evil and make a worthy life. I do want them to remember what happened to him, to remember how many were lost and maybe sniff the air for danger even now.

I’d like my readers to remember some of the names—to remember Shmuel for his courage—and if the names themselves are not retained, then I’d have them hold onto the idea that there were names—and to keep in mind the places, that there were particulars, a world of particulars just like we live in now where what happened was allowed to happen.

I also would have them understand how history, even the most truthful of histories, can intrude and distort what should be the closest of relationships, and to see how important it can be to push toward whatever understanding that can be reached. I’d also want my reader to take some pleasure in the story, and to feel the language I tried to find for it served well.

TM: What are you working on now?

JS: I’ve been doing several different sorts of writing since completing Shmuel’s Bridge. I’ve returned to poetry in a way I hadn’t been able to do for several years. After I had completed the work for my latest volume of poetry—Portulans, published in 2021—I became totally absorbed in this memoir and had attempted very little poetry. But I think the intense revisiting of the time with my father—and my late mother—has sent me back to some wells of psychic energy, evidenced and impelled by some pretty vivid dreaming, and that has lately been channeled into poems, specifically about my parents. But writing nonfiction was such a good experience for me that I have been looking for ways to do it again and have tentatively begun some trial pieces about estrangement. I believe it’s a commonly unspoken feature within many families that hasn’t been well explored as a subject.

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