Hunger, terror and fear. Those were the recurring themes in a batch of letters describing the life of a 15-year-old Jewish girl and her mother as they fled through France and Italy a step ahead of the Nazis in the 1940s.
“The voice in the letters was so different from the voice I heard, the voice I knew,” said San Francisco poet, novelist and memoir writer Alan Kaufman of the letters, written by his mother — at his request — the year before she died in 1994. “It was a beautiful voice.”
Kaufman will talk about his mother’s wartime trauma and his own emotional journey in retracing her steps in a talk at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15.
In his memoirs “Jew Boy” (2000) and “Drunken Angel” (2011), Kaufman, 61, has written candidly about a mother who beat him so badly bruises continually festooned his body, much as mosquito bites might deck the arms of other kids. Even before he was 6, he would coax his mother from their apartment window as she threatened to jump, in bouts of suicidal depression.
But when he finally read his mother’s letters — “for 19 years, I couldn’t bear to read them and they lay unopened in a drawer,” he said — he met a person much different from the woman who raised him, first in the Bronx, then in San Francisco.
He discovered, for example, that his mom had an exceptional facility for language, and that she also possessed uncanny instinct. In one of the letters, she wrote about crossing from her native France into Northern Italy with 30 other Jews in an Italian army truck. All but two of the Jews disembarked in Borgo San Dalmazzo, and all of them later perished. Something had told Kaufman’s mother to stay in the truck with the soldiers, and that instinct saved her and her mother’s life.
Kaufman began looking at the letters after receiving an invitation to participate in a festival in Austria. He decided to seize the opportunity and use that trip to Europe to retrace some of his mother’s steps.
He found the town square in France that his mother wrote about, where the Nazis hung a Jewish partisan she admired. He visited a small church in Italy and got to see the hayloft where his mom and grandmother took shelter for one night.
Kaufman traveled with an Austrian whose father was a Nazi and another man whose father was a German soldier during World War II. At the end of the trip, all three men shared a robust toast to life.
“I felt liberated,” Kaufman said. “It showed me the need to rejoice. My search for my own liberation helped them find theirs.”
“Drunken Angel,” which will be part of Kaufman’s talk next week, details a sad, painful childhood that erupted into a violent adolescence, followed by an emotionally stunted, drunken adulthood with all its attendant miseries, abuse and bungled opportunities.
Even after hitting rock bottom, he balks when a friend, a recovering alcoholic, tells him the 12-step program requires belief in a “higher power.”
But today, an accomplished, award-winning writer, he balks no more. He starts each morning by putting a kippah on his head, and reciting the Shema.
“Jewishness invites us to establish a unique bond with God and humanity,” he said. “Abraham was an iconoclast … He says, ‘I’m going to have a personal relationship with one god.’ That makes him a spiritual outlaw, and that’s what we are supposed to be: spiritual outlaws.”
Kaufman is working on a new book based on his mother’s letters.
After reading them, “I understand how smart she was, and what good intuition she had, which broke down later in life,” he said. “It wasn’t her fault. She went through hell. You can’t come out of that OK.”
While Kaufman once suffered second-generation guilt — how can any problem rival having endured the Holocaust? — he now realizes he has much to say about how the second and third generation wrestles with the effects of the Holocaust.
“Jew Boy” was pronounced unmarketable by Hollywood in its first go-round some 10 years ago, but times have changed. A screenplay is in the works.
Once counseled by professors at City College of New York to avoid becoming a “Jewish writer,” he did not consider that a career hazard — then or now.
“I’m a Jewish writer,” he said with obvious satisfaction. “I don’t think there is any doubt about that.”
Alan Kaufman, in conversation with Joanne Greene, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15 at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Free. www.marinjcc.org or (415) 444-8000