Her Grandma’s Back Pages

Singer-songwriter Clare Burson confronts the ‘rupture’ in her family’s life with ‘Silver and Ash.’

09/15/2010
Special To The Jewish Week
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Singer-songwriter Clare Burson confronts the ‘rupture’ in her family’s life with ‘Silver and Ash.’

For a long time, Helga Rabinowitsch didn’t want to remember the home and family she and her brother had left behind in Leipzig on Nov. 9, 1938. It was the morning before Kristallnacht, and the two of them had boarded a boat for London and she vowed never to look back.

“Her parents were taken from her when she was 19,” Clare Burson says. “She had a lovely life and all of a sudden it was gone. She decided to keep moving forward and to try not to remember.”

Burson knows this story well. Helga is her maternal grandmother and in recent years Burson slowly penetrated the 70 years of willed forgetting. The story she excavated from her grandmother’s memory became the basis for the 10 songs on her superb new album, “Silver and Ash,” which will be released this week. The CD’s release will be celebrated with a Sept. 16 performance by the singer-songwriter at Joe’s Pub.

“I finally got up the nerve to ask her about that period when I was in the eighth grade,” Burson says. “I had to do an oral history of a member of my family who had lived through a different era. I knew about my father’s grandparents [who had fled Lithuania late in the 19th century], so I was much more interested in her story, because I knew nothing. I was actually afraid to ask her, but she was fine when I finally did. She said that she didn’t remember anything.”

The eighth-grader had to settle for the oral history of her paternal grandparents who were long settled into the Jewish community of Memphis, Tenn. But the questions remained, and Burson dedicated a lot of her own time to trying to research and imagine her way into her other grandmother’s life. She studied history in college, focusing her attention on 19th- and 20th-century Germany and Eastern Europe, exploring the position of the Jewish communities in those regions. And she spent a year in Germany.

“My grandmother asked me, ‘Why are you going there? Do you really want to know?’ and we had a frank and open conversation,” Burson recalls.

Surprisingly, Mimi (as Burson calls her grandmother) asked if she could visit her granddaughter in Germany. The result was “a pretty special trip” Burson says, in which Mimi showed her daughter and granddaughter the house in Leipzig where she grew up and talked about her childhood. Burson would go back for another year after college, and even manage to gain admittance to her grandmother’s former apartment. It seemed that a lot of doors into the past were opening, and in 2003 Burson wrote the first of the songs that appear on “Silver and Ash.”

When she discusses her decision to live in Germany for those two years, Burson points to the impetus behind her entire investigation.

“There was this great rupture in time and space, and I couldn’t access the world before that rupture,” she says. “I felt haunted by that gap. I felt unable to create a life that had continuity with the past. Just being in that country and learning the language — that was my first attempt to bridge the gap between the past and present.”

The process turned out to be different from her expectations.

“I had a lot of romance in my mind about the process,” she admits. “But living there I learned that it’s a country like any other, firmly rooted in the present, in the 21st century. Meeting people over there neutralized my sense that the people were either evil or phenomenal. It normalized things, and I came to feel that I was owning a piece of my family history, integrating that into my life.”

And into her art.

For Burson, “Silver and Ash” was about trying to make sense of that whole continuity of family and Jewish and German history and “to end up somewhere positive.”

Although the songs are uniformly powerful meditations on loss and the transience of both the material and emotional worlds — “She says goodbye to her home and all things familiar/because the world turns on a dime,” Burson writes — she wants the end result not to be depressing.

“I don’t want people spiraling down into despair,” after hearing the album, she says. “I hope the album creates a space where people can reflect and do their own kind of mourning.”

Indeed, by the end of the record, listeners will feel themselves standing in a place where memory is not merely possible but positive.

“Silver and Ash” will be released by Rounder Records on Sept. 14. Clare Burson will be performing songs from the album at Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette St.) Sept. 16 at 7:30 p.m. For information, go to www.joespub.com or call (212) 539-8777.

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