When you know someone without knowing them well, you pick one word that you decide tells their story. Shorthand for yourself. He’s funny, say, or she’s smart. But that word can change, sometimes. It did for me, not long ago, in the Gelson’s parking lot, where I saw my friend David Schneiderman wheeling his cart to his car. I called up my word for him: Delightful. Which he is! I have liked him for more than twenty-five years; when I’d run into him I’d think “I wish I saw more of him!” But I never did, as one never does. So that one word—delightful—stuck. He remained delightful.
Then things changed. I didn’t know it then, but I do now; is Gelson’s, maybe, magic? As we wheeled our carts side by side we went through the so-what-have-you-been-up-to ritual, neither of us all that interested, each already, at least in his mind, halfway to the next stop in the day.
I went first. “I wrote a book!”
“That’s fantastic,” he said.
“I think you’d like it,” I said. I did think that, and there have been times when I didn’t think it but said it, anyway. “And I happen to have one in my car!”
I got the book, and as I signed it he said “This is perfect!”
I laughed at Delightful David, living up to his one-word description. “Wait till you’ve read it, okay?”
Then he laughed, reached into his car, and brought out a book for me.
“And I think you’d like this,” he said.
“Really?” I said, wishing I’d never mentioned my book at all. Why did I have to do that, anyway?
“My mother wrote it,” he told me.
I thought: Oh, shit.
“She’s a Holocaust survivor,” he said.
I thought: Oh, God.
“I’d love to know what you think,” he said.
We each drove off. I let the book stare at me for a few weeks. On the cover was a picture of his mother, looking about fourteen. After a week or so, I began to feel she was looking at me. So I read her book. I said I would. So I did.
And he was right. Not only did I like it, I liked it very much. But before I tell you about that, here’s a little of how the book came to be written. One night, when she was 72 (she’s 86 now), Judith Schneiderman came downstairs and told her husband, Paul, she was ready to tell her story. So she did just that; this is a determined and effective lady. I Sang to Survive is a harrowing, powerful, thrilling tale that, from the sheer propulsive drive of its narrative often left me gasping. Mrs. Schneiderman is a survivor, all right—the place where she sang to survive was Auschwitz—but I think that word, like the one word I had assigned to her son, before he gave me her book, tells only part of her story. For Judith Schneiderman—Yentela Rosenberg, in another time—is a literary artist, too. I suspect she doesn’t know that. Well, Mrs. Schneiderman? Take it from me. What I love most about her book is the joy with which she tells it, the many moments when her words and insights jump off the page, glowing, specific. She’s lived a life like no one else’s; by the end I felt that might be because she’s so full of life herself.
But let’s hear from her. (I’ve selected random moments from my heavily Hi-Lited copy.)
I have expressed myself in song. I have expressed myself in laughter… I now express myself here, through the nouns and verbs and prepositions that articulate the memories in my mind.
That’s on p. 2, just 34 words. And she had me; I was mandelbrot; this woman, who came downstairs that night knowing in her soul that the time had come to capture her life and lay it out, came down those stairs with a voice. Her words rise, fall, and rise again. Her sentences have a unique music, which makes her title that much more—right. She invites you to take pleasure in her sentences—I’m sure, as a hostess, Mrs. Schneiderman puts out quite a spread—even as she reports on the most horrifying events many of us can imagine. She has a voice. As a writer, you either have one, or you don’t, and if you don’t, it probably can’t be taught (I’ve tried). Voice is the animal that’s easiest to spot, hardest to capture. Judith Schneiderman has one. (As, I need to add, does her late husband Paul, born Pinek, who contributes a brief section that matches his wife’s in descriptive power and vivid, plainspoken language).
Although our family never starved, language was the feast on which we fed.
Feast, fed; they make a nice couple, those words. You can taste them, sense the abundance she remembers and wants to convey to you. In that sentence the author subtly earns your trust; this story is not A story, but HER story.
My father had the longest beard in town, which earned him the well-deserved and ever-so-creative nickname Jankle With the Longest Beard.
Jankle would perish in Auschwitz (perish is the word Mrs. Schneiderman uses in an afterword, to tell of the fate of her father and others, and it strikes me as one that honors the dead). She lets us know him and see him. He can never be brought back. But she brings him back.
Judith, who was Yentala, then, before history stepped in, is elated when her parents buy the seamstress-made dresses that she and her sister have begged for. She writes:
We giggled and planned for when we would parade our new outfits at school. But we never went back to school… We wore our new presents the morning that my father, for the last time, would shut the door of the little house, which had been the only home I had ever known.
You can hear the giggles, you can see the “little” house. And while this is a terrible story—watch how she offers it to us. How she keeps it simple, innocent, within the frame of the girl’s perspective. It’s sad, but not sadly told. An artist has told it.
After spending three days in darkness, where day and night were synonymous, the lights of our destination were blinding, pouring upwards from the cracks underneath our feet, as if the sun was under the earth.
She has spent those three days in a cattle car, on her way to a concentration camp. You’d think that all she had to report was her own terror, gone numb after those three days. But she selects; she sees. She calls forth from the memory of seventy years ago a picture that glows in a frame she’s made. There is something beautiful to remember, even from then.
A female guard, remembered by Mrs. Scheniderman as beautiful, hears her sing and, after teaching her a German song about homesickness, brings her to entertain the officers in their dining hall. She is lifted up onto a table, and the room grows quiet. “Shaking,” she writes, “I began to sing my song of homesickness, and everyone grow still. Some even cried; they cried for their own homes, and for their fatherland.”
Life is always wondrous, even in a place that specialized in death. Everyone knows how it is to be far from home, with no promise they can ever go back. This girl on the table saw that. She remembered it. And she lets us see it. Throughout the book, her essential self makes it through one nightmare after another. From the window of her story she calls to us, saying “This is who I am. I am my life. We are one and the same.”
So thank you, God, I guess, and Gelson’s, for bringing David and me there that day. And thank you to Yentala and Pinek, your dear parents, who as they came to this country became Judith and Paul. You did well. I know you now, and I know more of your son. I know that you raised a man who is more than delightful; you raised a wise man who knew, somehow, that yours was a story I needed, that you were people I needed to know. Yes. You did well.