A mother's silent past hid the soul and words of a poet

February 15, 1996|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Susan Sachs Fleishman knew very little about her mother's early life in Nazi Germany. She didn't know that her mother had sat calmly atop a daybed hiding her uncle while the Nazis searched the house for him during Krystallnacht. She didn't know that her grandparents had died in concentration camps. She certainly didn't know that her mother, as a teen-ager, had written poems so stunning that some would call her another Anne Frank.

Shortly after her mother's death in 1991, she began learning these things. An aunt sent her 58 poems, neatly typed on heavy paper and stitched in a black book -- seven inches across, nine inches high -- bearing the words, "Ruth Rosenfeld: Gedichte" ("Poems").

A year later, Ms. Fleishman received her mother's journal, kept from Aug. 30 to Sept. 10, 1940, while she was on a ship en route to America. Ms. Sachs struggled with the original German, but she was able to understand enough to be moved by her mother's torment, echoed in her own feelings: "Yearning for my mother lies like an almost unbearable burden on my shoulders."

"I wanted to hear my mother's voice again," Ms. Fleishman says. From her desire came a book, "Beyond These Shores: 1934-1940, Poems and Diary of A Jewish Girl Who Escaped From Nazi Germany," translated by Thomas Dorsett, a pediatrician who is also a poet. Ms. Fleishman and Dr. Dorsett will read Ms. Rosenfeld's work at 7:30 tonight at Bibelot.

Ruth Rosenfeld Sachs was a devoted wife and a caring mother. She went to PTA meetings, attended synagogue, and was always there for her family despite working long hours in a factory and, later, in a doctor's office.

But she only said so much about her tragic past, Ms. Fleishman says, explaining that many Holocaust survivors are reticent about their history.

Ruth Rosenfeld was born April 22, 1920, and grew up in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. She had what she called a "heart bond" with her mother, Cecelie. Cecelie was in her 40s when Ruth was born, and some of their most joyous moments were spent quietly, tending the canaries they both loved.

A brother, Heinz, was born in 1906; a sister, Carole (to whom Ruth would entrust her poems and her diary), was born in 1904. This sister, more forthcoming than Ruth, would eventually tell Ms. Fleishman most of her family history. Ruth was the "fussed-over nestling," as she put it in her diary. An introspective girl, she sought refuge in reading and writing poetry.

In 1939, just before Germany closed its borders, Ruth's parents struggled to raise the money to get their children out, planning to follow later. Ruth and her two siblings fled to England, leaving their beloved parents. They didn't know it would be for the last time.

In 1940, Ruth came to America, where she married Charles Sachs on Feb. 15, 1942 -- the Bibelot reading occurs on their wedding anniversary. With her sister, who came later, she tried to pull together enough money to bring her parents to America. Their hard-won earnings were turned over to someone who said they would help get their parents out; not only did the money disappear, but Ruth and her siblings' discovered that their parents had been killed in the concentration camps.

In 1944, Ruth bore her only child, Susan, and lived with her family in northwest Baltimore until she died at Sinai Hospital. But she said nothing to her daughter about her early writings.

"I didn't expect to hear such moving poems," Ms. Fleishman says, as she recites the first lines of "Loneliness": "It creeps inside and turns you into stone/ Cruelly, with hands hard as wood."

A mutual friend put Ms. Fleishman in touch with Dr. Dorsett, the author of "Dance Fire Dance," a collection of poems, and "der Schlangenstock," a German translation of poems by Jim Wayne Miller. He favorably compares Ms. Rosenfeld's poems to early work by Robert Frost.

The poems talk about the fancies of youth: "Bright disc of the full moon, / Patient receiver of longing. / In spring you should not be allowed / To shine from dusk till morning." They talk about the nightmare of growing up Jewish in Nazi Germany: "We've always yearned for light / Yet we've been raised in almost endless night."

They talk about a young poet feeling disconnected from herself in "Cruel Doubts Dwell Inside Me": "My incomprehensible soul, / You're like a Word no one can read."

"Ruth would have become a major poet, had she continued writing," Dr. Dorsett says. But her life was so disrupted by the Nazis that she never wrote again. Her later silence gives her young voice in such poems as "To Be Brothers And A People" even more resonance:

" Like spokes of a wheel

In and around which all turns.

The height of ecstasy mixed with the plight

Of being chosen -- the suffering, the dreams

Of those cast out. In our darkest night,

Grace: to bear witness, our near-hopeless task

To mine from granite depths what's meaningful."

Poetry reading

What: Susan Sachs Fleishman and Thomas Dorsett read the work of Ruth Rosenfeld

Where: Bibelot, 1819 Reisterstown Road, Festival at Woodholme shopping center

When: 7:30 tonight

Admission: Free Call: (410) 653-6933

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