In the course of the last year or so I have been engaged in translating a book by Miriam Gillis-Carlebach entitled ‘Each Child is my Only One.’ The book, originally written in German, recounts the story of the Hamburg branch of the Carlebach family, and is essentially an account of the life and times of the Jewish community of Hamburg in the period leading up to the Second World War, as well as of what befell the various members of the family.
I was originally approached by the author, who is a professor of Jewish History at Bar Ilan University and head of the Carlebach Institute there. and asked to try and find a translator for the text. I was unsuccessful in my quest and volunteered to undertake the task myself, especially since there was no source of funding for the project at that stage. The first part of the book contains an account written by Professor Gillis-Carlebach of her parents, their former homes, their marriage and the life she and her eight siblings led in pre-war Hamburg. The second part of the book consists of letters written by the various children of the family to their parents, and those from their parents to them, after the five oldest children had been sent abroad, to England and Israel, in order to escape the fate of the Jews of Germany.
I personally had decided to cease translating material for Yad Vashem many years ago, as I found the accounts of Holocaust survivors too harrowing and upsetting. But I found myself unable to avoid translating this book. My own father and many relatives were originally from Hamburg, and the book containing the letters written by his mother, Regina van Son, in the same period had been published by the Hamburg authorities, with the help of Professor Carlebach. So I felt that I owed her a debt of gratitude.
But as I worked on the translation I found myself falling into an ever-growing trough of sorrow. Translating involves as close an association with the written text as that of the author. The translator has to examine every word and every phrase, weigh up significances and emphases, familiarise him/herself with the fine points of what lies behind each expression, and eventually choose the one that best expresses the original thought while at the same time not sounding false or foreign. It is a long and laborious process, and in the course of delving into the text I came to know the various members of the Carlebach family, each one with his or her own characteristics and foibles. I found myself walking the streets of Hamburg in my mind, recognizing familiar buildings, and even dreaming about the place at night.
The main focus of the book is on Lotte (Charlotte) Carlebach, Professor Gillis-Carlebach’s mother. It was she who was the quiet mainstay of the family, the rock on which the household stood,serving as the perfect foil to her husband, Rabbi Joseph Carlebach, the charismatic teacher, preacher, and communal leader. Like all rabbis in Germany, Rabbi Carlebach was also required to have a higher degree in a secular subject, and he had chosen mathermatics, so that his official title was Rabbi Dr. Carlebach. By all accounts, he was a brilliant man.
In the years leading up to the war, and especially after Crystallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, as more and more Jews managed to leave Germany, those Jews who remained were subjected to ever-increasing restrictions and humiliations, being deprived of their homes, livelihoods and property. But Rabbi Carlebach did not leave, feeling that he could not desert his community in its hour of need. He also spent a great deal of time and energy visiting other Jewish communities and preaching there, especially during festivals, as more and more communities were left without a spiritual leader.
Right to the end, including during the deportation of the Jews of Hamburg, Rabbi Carlebach, together with his wife and four youngest children, stayed together with the members of the community, doing their utmost to provide them with support, succour and solace in their despair. Many members of the community were relieved to be being ‘sent east’ in the company of Rabbi Carlebach, convinced that no harm could befall them if he was by their side.
The letters written by Rabbi Carlebach and his wife, as well as the accounts given by other members of the Jewish community, make it clear that the family acted with dignity and restraint throughout their ordeal, setting an example to the rest of those condemned to suffer the indignities of the train journey to the Riga Ghetto, the horrible privations of the living conditions there, and the subsequent liquidation of its inmates.
It would be impossible to translate a text of this nature without being affected emotionally, and I must confess that I shed many a tear as I read the descriptions of the last festivals celebrated in the synagogue before its destruction, the valiant attempts of the family to adhere to the Jewish traditions in the most adverse circumstances, the little joys and consolations of daily life, and the constant yearning of the parents to once again see their children, who were still only teenagers when they were parted from them, as well as the homesickness felt by those children for their parents and siblings.
Even so, when I came to the end of the book, having known all along how it would end, I felt a pang of sorrow at having to end my association with that family, as well as profound grief at the terrible fate that befell them and so many others. It is impossible to translate a text that is so imbued with emotion without identifying with its contents in one way or another.
Perhaps someone should define a new occupational hazard: translation trauma.