Academic journal article Shofar

Bracelet, Hand Towel, Pocket Watch: Objects of the Last Moment in Memory and Narration

Academic journal article Shofar

Bracelet, Hand Towel, Pocket Watch: Objects of the Last Moment in Memory and Narration

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. One indicator of increased public awareness of the theme "Kindertransport" is the fact that this event gradually is making its way into literature. Aside from the few fictional accounts (Cynthia Ozick, The Messiah of Stockholm, 1987, and W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, 2001) there are numerous autobiographical texts about the "Kindertransport." These describe -- in the form of keepsakes and clothing -- an important landscape of remembrance and relating that contains entire thematic complexes symbolically solidified within it. Objects make a child's experience concrete; they become links to parents and later they support remembrance; with greater distance, such items serve the function of bracketing an experience. As special "transitional objects" (Winnicott) they still have not found their place within the psychology of personal objects.

In February 2001, the Jewish Museum in Berlin received a packet containing a small towel, folded delicately and neatly, ironed and embroidered with the monogram: "MK," for Margarete Kuttner. It was sent by Paul Kuttner from New York; the hand towel was his last girl from his mother when, as a 16-year-old, he left Berlin on February 8, 1939 on a Kindertransport bound for England. "It is still folded today as it was on the day that my mother placed it in my suitcase."(1) It belongs, continued Kuttner, in a museum, where it will be an "eternal" reminder of his mother. He wanted to be sure it would not simply be discarded after his death. His mother, saying she was "only being taken to a work camp,"(2) had refused all offers of help from the Berlin family that hid her daughter Annemarie up to 1945. In 1942, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she was murdered in 1943. At the end of the 1940s, Paul Kuttner immigrated to America after living for about a decade in England.(3)

Objects as Bearers of Memory

Why does this essay begin with the story of a hand towel? Paul Kuttner's towel can be seen as an "object of the last moment,"(4) which earns a special role in the remembrances and narratives of former Kindertransport children. Because there has been too little analysis of autobiographical and fictional texts, aside from theoretical debate on the Kindertransport, these specific forms of memory and documentation by former Kinder stand at the center of this essay.

Besides singular, unbroken experiences recounted in books such as I Came Alone,(5) there are partial experiences, with textual and structural similarities in the recounting of events. For example, "Kristallnacht" virtually unanimously is accepted as the triggering event for what children saw as their sudden departure for England; their collective memories include the very cold winter of 1938 and arrival at the holiday camp in Dovercourt.(6)

A structural similarity between some texts from survivors in Berlin, Munich, Vienna, and Prague lies in the fact that they tell their story all along to a (beloved) object. Objects in the form of keepsakes, mementos, clothing, and tools take on what one can initially describe roughly as "a symbolic function, in relating to the many, barely imaginable losses."(7) The object not only presents a connection to childhood experience, but it also forms a link to the parents, later becoming a support for memory and still later, with greater distance from events, functioning as a bridge to memory or a bracket for an event. Feelings of love, childhood, and home attach to the object, revealing in a flash entire thematic clusters: "What has a tapestry got to do with the death of my father, mother, sister, uncles, aunts, cousins and six million Jews? If you bear with me I will tell you its story,"(8) Ester Friedman (née Müller, from Vienna), says in introducing her memoirs. What follows is the history of the tapestry that her mother embroidered and gave to her as an heirloom, which thus links past generations of a family, while representing her parents' preparation for marriage, and serving for her mother, a seamstress, as the last task to fulfill for remaining clients before her deportation; in short, as a tangible reminder of family, it becomes the central object in Ester Friedman's account. …

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