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Vol. LXV, No. 43
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
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Dislocation, Memory, and Childhood Explored at Cotsen Library Conference

Ellen Gilbert

Cotsen Children’s Library Head Andrea Immel’s reference to the “complexities of memory and childhood” provided an apt beginning to a free, half-day conference at Princeton University last week. The focus was on how World War II events dramatically altered the lives of a generation of children.

Five panelists — as well as some audience members — described the profound effects of dislocation on European children who participated in Kindertransport and other evacuation plans. As a result of being separated from their homes, and, sometimes, their families, thousands of young Austrian, British, Canadian, French, German and Hungarian, children had to adjust to new languages and cultures.

Princeton University German Department Chair Michael Jennings used philosopher Walter Benjamin’s Memoirs of a Berlin Childhood as an example of what he described as “homeopathy,” rather than “nostalgia.”

Written “looking back, from exile,” Mr. Jennings suggested that Benjamin’s book, which was not published until after his death, was an effort to maintain “crumbling memories” of “gazing into courtyards,” losing one’s way in the city, and a light that “had only to do with itself.” Recreating “a world of meaning that never existed” was a coping mechanism for “an exile whose life was at any moment about to be snuffed out.”

The “formative potential of childhood reading” was the subject of Gillian Lathey’s talk, “From Emil to Alice: The Hiatus in the Childhood Reading of Exiles from Germany and Austria, 1933-45.” Ms. Lathey, from Reading University, described how “children who left behind reading pleasures” encountered books in new languages that initiated them into their new culture’s “social etiquette.” Lewis Carroll’s Alice, with her ability to alter her size, was a particularly appealing book for youngsters coping with the demands of “social acceptance.” Although these new books provided a measure of comfort, Ms. Lathey said, children often remained “haunted” by the books they had once read but were unable to now locate.

Rowan University faculty member and program organizer Lee Talley discussed the World War II evacuation of British children and the literature it inspired in a talk entitled “Operation Pied Piper.” Using letters exchanged between children and their parents — over a period as a long as six years — Ms. Talley observed the ways in which children’s literature was used to make sense of what was going on. “As a precocious child reader who had fiercely clung to the few German books he was allowed to take with him when he and his parents fled to South America from Nazi Vienna, I found my reading experience greatly expanded by the unusual variety of texts available to me in Bolivia,” noted the fourth panelist, Princeton University Professor Emeritus Uli Knoepflmacher, referring to his own childhood experience of dislocation.

Adirenne Kertzer’s talk “What Did You Expect? A Happy Ending?: The Kindertransport in Holocaust Fiction” observed differences between well-received adult novels about the Kindertransport, and Holocaust fiction for young people that “rarely addresses the Kindertransport, [and] even more rarely wins awards.” An exception, she said, is Irene N. Watts’s Kindertransport trilogy, Good-bye Marianne, Remember Me, and Finding Sophie. which she compared with Alison Pick’s novel, Far to Go, in an effort to explore “the radically different function of Kindertransport memory in adult fiction.”

Last week’s program was part of the University’s fall semester series, “Memory and the Work of Art,” held in commemoration with the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

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