When friends tell me I’m too old to be going up on ladders, I resist.
When the storm windows have swelled over the summer with basement moisture, barely fitting in the window frames, I persist.
Yet finally, when I reach the last two upstairs windows, and the 20 lb. storms get stuck sliding into place, and I begin feeling insecure jiggling them free and adjusting them atop the extension ladder, I desist.
Resist, persist, desist. The progression of age. I must concede the limitations of my 70 years. If I were still in need of confirmation, it came when I realized that neither of the handymen I would immediately consider calling, both younger than me, were men I would feel comfortable asking to go up on an extension ladder to complete the task. I must now search out a younger, stronger, more agile person, the right man to take on the short but precarious project.
I do not yet shy away from physical labor. I was pleased to keep up with the pace of two considerably younger men as two hay ricks worth of hay (over 300 bales in total) arrived to be stacked in the barn for winter. And of course the security of knowing that a sufficient supply is on hand to get through the next few snowy months is a great comfort.
Yet with age comes more typical old man preoccupations, indoors. What has engaged me intensely the last couple of weeks, when being outside has not felt so enticing, has not been the farm, but a project of reconstructing the past.
It started when I was reorganizing my library a couple of weeks ago, having worked through most of the books in the house. I pulled out a text in Hebrew, a Talmudic commentary it turns out, which I inherited from my paternal grandmother, Eva Scherzer. Out of the book fluttered two letters, both dated in 1942, both sent from Los Angeles. One, in English, authorized my grandmother to retrieve eight boxes of books from storage, and was signed by Heinrich and Nelly Mann. The other, in German, kindly translated by Éric’s friend Francis, was dated several months later. It was also from Heinrich Mann, and it spoke of his frustration at the difficulties of trying to save the fragments of a lost library.
Growing up, we had been told by our parents that our grandmother had been somehow instrumental in saving the papers of Thomas Mann. We never knew what that meant. As my sister, Jolie, said, she couldn’t imagine that Grandma Eva, traveling as a refugee from Vienna across Russia with her baby daughter after the German Anschluss took over Austria, was somehow carrying Thomas Mann’s letters under her coat. But what did it mean? Here, for the first time, was a clue.
Heinrich Mann was Thomas Mann’s older brother, not nearly as famous as his Nobel Prize winning junior but also a novelist and accomplished in his own right. He was also far more radical than Thomas, and it would make sense that my grandmother, herself a communist, would have some association with him. His letter informed her that he had no resources to help, and he appreciated her willingness to contribute $20 to obtaining the books. He suggested she talk to the “committee” about obtaining the remainder of the $70 required.
But what committee? And what was this lost library? I’ve been on a quest the last couple of weeks to find out.
I wrote to the Thomas Mann archive at Yale’s Beineke Library, and called the Heinrich Mann archive at the University of Southern California to inquire about whether either had received books in 1942 or 1943 or could tell me anything about this. Yale has yet to reply, but the archivist at USC immediately located a file on my grandmother, containing three letters from her to Heinrich Mann, translations of which I await. The librarian there has promised me further correspondence from Heinrich regarding retrieving his books.
From browsing the letters myself, I found reference to a meeting between my grandmother and two women, Evelyn Hersey and Jeanette Siebold. A little on line research revealed Evelyn Hersey to have been a prominent social worker who died in 1963. She was the first Social Welfare Attachée in the US Foreign Service after World War II. Prior to that, she was involved with an organization which was variously known as the American Committee for Christian Refugees, the American Christian Committee for Refugees, and the American Committee for Christian German Refugees. Aha, I thought, this must be the committee referred to in the Heinrich Mann letter. I have inquired of the Peace Library at Swarthmore College, where this committee’s archives are largely stored, about reviewing their records in the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, I am acutely aware of the need to move quickly to get the story right before sources of information disappear. Francis, who immediately became excited by this project because of his deep knowledge of the Mann family, had suggested that I interview Justus Rosenberg, a professor emeritus of literature at Bard residing near here in Rhinebeck. Himself a remarkable man, Professor Rosenberg was a resistance fighter in World War II and worked with Varian Fry (“the American Schindler”) and a group that rescued more than 2,000 at risk intellectuals from Vichy France. He personally shepherded Heinrich and Nelly Mann across the Pyrenees to the relative safety of Spain, sipping from a brandy flask provided by Nelly. Sadly, the New York Times informs us, Professor Rosenberg died this week at age 100.
The ultimate details of my grandmother’s role saving this lost library promise to be considerably less romantic. They intrigue me nonetheless. And I am very pleased to think that after years of a hearing a refracted view of history, our family association now seems to be with the right Mann.
If I can only find the right man now for the storm windows.
WHAT’S AVAILABLE THIS WEEK:
There’s much less after the frost, but I harvested some stuff in advance, so there are still:
Daikon Radish, $2/each – large, great for radish salads, kimchee
Poblano peppers — great for chiles rellenos $1 each
Sweet frying peppers, also $1 each
Collard greens $3/bag
Sorrel, $3 a bag
EGGS: $5/doz Production is dropping off dramatically, but there are still a few coming in, so ask
Email us your order at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Because I’m now here full time, we’re abandoning regular pick-up times. Let us know when you want your order any day between 10 and 5, and unless there are unusual circumstances we’ll be able to ready it to your convenience. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call or text at 917-544-6464 or email.