Egonne Roth

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Biography of a Biography

 

The biography of a writer – even an autobiography will always have this incompleteness.

V.S. Naipaul

Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.

Benjamin Disreali

The wine shone ruby in our glasses. John’s free hand rested comfortably on his round girth.

“Someone should write about Olga Kirsch,” he said.

“I thought L is planning to do this,” I responded.

“She’s been busy with Anne Frank for thirty years, I don’t suspect she will ever be able to do all the research and hunting for material that is necessary for a good biography about Kirsch,” came his frank answer. “So I think you should do it.”

“Me? Why me?” I was flattered that he should even suggest such a thing but I hardly saw myself writing a literary biography – my own memoir had just been turned down by two publishers. In retrospect I thanked the publisher for this.

“Because you’re well placed to do such a study: you live in Israel but have close ties to South Africa. You even know where Koppies is,” John said stroking his tummy. “Also you understand the Jewish side of her life.”

That was true. Before immigrating to Israel I had converted to Judaism and was active in a reformed synagogue. To what extent the adult Olga had gone to synagogue I did not know but her father had been a Lithuanian Jew and so was probably steeped in Orthodoxy. At that point I still did not know how steeped in Jewish tradition and Tenach her writings were as I was not familiar with much of it. I was more interested in Kirsch due to her marginal position in Afrikaans literature than because I loved her poetry.

“No, John, thanks for the compliment, but I can’t. Anyway I am about to start doing an MA in English Literature and Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv,” I told him. We talked a little about Olga and some of the writers John had written about. John Kannemeyer is after all the foremost biographer of South African Afrikaans writers. Little did I know that he was already thinking about his next project, the Nobel laureate, JM Coetzee.

That was the winter of 2006 and I gave little thought to John’s suggestion as I became absorbed in my new study program. Every moment was an adventure into the world of writing and books, and reading was no longer a luxury in between doing housework and fulfilling motherly duties or nowadays between finding material for teaching English – it became the prerequisite for everything else I was doing. I discovered that after so many years of reading things in short bursts of concentration, hour after hour of reading was quite difficult, but I enjoyed it. I became invigorated by it.

And then the end of the program was suddenly in sight; my thesis was a document on my computer that needed final editing and a last read by my professor. I panicked. I had kept saying that after my thesis I was going to write about my father, about Berlin and the Holocaust as it happened in Berlin. Now that that was possible I had a feeling of total angst – I wasn’t ready. Not emotionally, not as writer, not as researcher. It was too big.

“Don’t make it so big,” said my friend Rafi, a retired professor of philosophy. “The best of these stories are those written simply from the heart about how it all affected the author. You can do that. Two of the stories are already in your thesis.”

But I could not. Neither could I explain to anyone why it caused me cold sweats at night – I would need lots more help from Margaret, my most wonderful shrink in Cape Town, before I could tackle that. Yet I knew I needed a big project. I had my nanowrimo lesbian novel. I could work on that but also for that I did not feel ready to rewrite. I wanted to turn it into something much bigger than its 50000 words, written-in-the-month-of-November format – something that would spit and shriek at what really happens in the community as I had known it in Cape Town. So what did I want to do?

            Olga! Olga Kirsch! I would research a biography on Olga Kirsch. All John’s reasons why I would be able to write it came pouring back into my memory and memory being the reliable source that it is, I remembered his warm encouraging smile. The way he looked at me with great confidence and said I could do it. The open honesty in his eyes as he sipped the delicious Cape wine. Given that we were at Santa’s for dinner that night, I was sure we had drunk a Delheim Cabernet Sauvignon, the lights had been low and outside the wind had done its Cape winter thing of wrapping papers around lampposts, shifting roof tiles and flapping loose shutters. John, the great John Kannemeyer had had no doubt I could do it. So it was simply a matter of checking if anyone else was busy with it.

            I called Santa. Santa knows everything you need to know and if by some fluke she doesn’t know it, she knows how to find out about it.

            “Santa, do you remember that evening?” I asked her after explaining the reason behind my call on a Sunday morning early.

            “Of course,” said Santa. Santa could put elephants to shame with her memory.

            “Do you know if anyone is writing the Kirsch biography?”

            “Not as far as I know,” she said cautiously. “You could ask John but he’s in Australia and he gets back this week, then we’re going to the KKNK from the 4th to the 11th of April and after that he wants to visit some family near the Garden Route. I’ll tell you what – it’s his birthday in two days’ time so send him birthday wishes. Then in April when we’re back you can write to him and ask. One has to approach John in the right way.” That’s what I meant: Santa knows how things should be done.

            “Okay,” I said, “I knew you’d be able to advise me what to do.”

            “Just one more thing. You know that I am not a writer, but I’ve been around John long enough to know something about writing a biography – you have to fancy yourself as a bit of a detective because that’s what you’re going to be doing a lot of the time,” Santa said.

            “Sounds like fun,” I said in my innocence.

            “It is when people co-operate, but they don’t all, so you also need a thick skin – John’s developed that in plenty, but good luck, I’m sure you can do it. Now don’t forget to send John his birthday wishes. Start things right,” said Santa.

And so the search began - I discovered I like being a detective!!!

First I went to Google. Wikipedia had little more than 4 short paragraphs – I wondered who had written it. I found reference to an article by Daniel Hugo on Kirsch – how to find Daniel? I had met him briefly many years ago, but I doubted he would remember that.

            On google I found a reference to an article written by Prof Carrol Lasker from New York. She had written this article in the journal Metamorphosis and it included Kirsch’s “Five Sonnets to my Father” in Afrikaans and Lasker’s translation of them into English. I wrote to the editor of the journal Prof Thalia Pandiri, from Smith College Northampton MA to ask for a copy of the article and a contact address for Prof Lasker. She replied I could buy the article and that she only had a home address for Prof Lasker but no email address or telephone no. I wrote to Ben, our cousin in USA, to ask if he could find the article through their local university and he referred me to his sister-in-law (in other words my Judy’s cousin), Prof Erika Sheurer at St Paul’s University. Within days Erika had sent me the article and now we have more family. I continued looking for Carrol Lasker.

            It was time to write to John and he answered again expressing the belief that it would be an important and gripping project and that I was in the advantageous position that her life and oeuvre were complete and that I moved between the two countries that were vital to the understanding of her work.  He also assured me that he had heard nothing from L with regard her writing on Kirsch and John did not think that she would pose any threat to what I wanted to do. Finally he offered me all his support. He suggested that I contact NALM in Bloemfontein and as many of the other archives in South Africa that I could find addresses for. I did and they sent me copies of book reviews and newspaper articles that had appeared at the time when OK made her first return visit to South Africa after twenty-seven years. 

            Again I sat in front of the computer and searched the internet. This time I googled Kirsch’s husband, Joe Gillis, and discovered that he had been a mathematician of some standing, graduating from Cambridge with a Ph D and then working at Bletchley House as part of the code breaking team  that made a great contribution to the Allied Forces’ victory over Germany. Or maybe I discovered that last fact only later but what I did find that first time was a tribute written to him by Prof. Ted Eisenberg from Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva. I easily found an email address for Ted.

Ted wrote back on the 23rd of April 2009 and gave me information about Joe Gillis describing him as ‘a real gentleman from the old school’. He also helped me to make contact via the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, where he had known Gillis, with people who had been friends with the Gillis couple and would be able to help me find the one daughter who still lived in Israel. The other he thought lived in London.  In a second letter later that day, Ted wrote ‘Yes, the Gillis' are special; part of the history of this country.’ He put me in contact with Prof Igal Talmi from the Weizmann Institute who wrote back on the 26th with the email address of Dr. Ada Zohar, the younger daughter of Olga and Joe Gillis. I was beginning to realise that of course Olga was known as Mrs Joe Gillis here in Israel, he being more well-known due to his work in the field of mathematics, than she was. I wrote to Dr Zohar.

            On my birthday, April the 26th, she wrote to me: ‘Dear Egonne, Life is indeed full of wonderful things.... Let’s set a date.’ What a birthday present.

            In between working on the last stories of my thesis, I began to research the theory of biography.   One would think that anything with a definition as simple as that given by the Longman’s Contemporary Dictionary, would not be too problematic. The Longman’s describes it as “a book that tells what has happened in someone’s life told by someone else.” Or as Albert Britt defines it: ..men have looked at other men and then tried to describe them.”

I contacted Prof Karen Alkalay-Gut from Tel Aviv University because she had published an article, English Writing in Israel, in which Olga Kirsch was discussed. It took several letters and phone calls before I could make contact with Prof Alkalay-Gut and was able to make an appointment.  It was a miserable day in late April when I went o see her. I didn’t like the TAU campus at all but when she eventually arrived I liked her. She is a big attractive woman who wears arty clothes and seemed very open in her attitude.

            “A biography is not a dissertation,” she told me. “You need to decide which you want to do. We could certainly guide you in a dissertation on her work - I am sure we could get outside help if needs be with the Afrikaans.”

            When I asked her how well she had known Kirsch, she became more cagey as though she hardly remembered Olga Kirsch outside of the article that she had written about her and other English speaking writers. I felt some disappointment. As we continued talking, she suggested I contact Riva Rubin also an ex-South African and also a poetess. She gave me Riva’s telephone number but warned me, “She didn’t like Olga much – I don’t think they ever really got on.” I would later hear this from other sources too.

            In between all this I had written to Daniel Hugo who responded quickly saying that he thought a biography would be of much more use to everyone than a dissertation and promised to send me some material. Three weeks later a thick wad arrived from him with a copy of Nou Spreek Ek Weer Bekendes Aan, a selection of poems by OK in Afrikaans, which he had edited; a photocopy of her only English publication, The Book of Sitrya, a collection of poems written after the death of her granddaughter and copies of the articles that he had written about her. I started reading Kirsch’s poems and discovered that some of them I really liked a great deal. I also discovered that I had her second publication that appeared in 1948 on my book shelf. But what attracted me to Kirsch more than merely her poetry was the little I had by now discovered about her personality and her life story, namely that she was a loner, who loved passionately and who was a very private person living her life between groups rather than in them. She was a fine example of a marginal figure, the outsider in every situation in which she found herself. I soon came expect that when I asked someone if they knew her, the answer would be, “Not really well – I am not sure I can tell you much about her.”