The world offers many ways to define yourself. You could wander Europe, acquiring a sense of distance on the America that shaped and scared you. Or you could grow up in Europe as a Jew who survived Nazism by adopting a false identity.
In Kenneth Jacobson, these paths converge. The Dupont Circle resident is author of Embattled Selves: An Investigation Into the Nature of Identity Through Oral Histories of Holocaust Survivors. Selves presents 15 first-person narrations compiled and translated by Jacobson with excruciating transparency. Each story is like the shrug with which some concentration-camp survivors respond to a mention of their tattoos: a single gesture, eloquent and impossibly complex.
Published in mid-1994, Selves received praise and raspberries; “…a moving oral history,” wrote Publishers Weekly; “…a courageous contribution to Holocaust studies,” said the Montreal Gazette. But in The Forward, Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer flayed Jacobson for not applying an interpretive template to his subjects’ stories and the subjects themselves for failing to extract from their experiences a sense of internal struggle.
Jacobson was a dozen years producing Selves, but it could be said fairly that he was aimed at it all his life. His father taught political theory at the University of California in Berkeley, where Jacobson came of age amid the cozy paranoia of ’60s-style Jewish leftism. Rarely attending services and eschewing the High Holy Days-only style of worship, the Jacobsons did keep Passover, at which the paterfamilias would recount the Exodus. “He would tell the story in his own words and with a lot of fervor,” his son recalls. “When he would say “…when we were slaves in Egypt…’ it was as if he were speaking in italics.”
Because he balked at rote Hebrew lessons in which the words’ meaning would not be explained, young Jacobson took himself out of the running for a bar mitzvah. He was always slightly off the center line, but his folks stood behind him. “Their implicit message was, “Maybe you are not like other people, but you have to follow your values,’ ” he says. “I always linked that to being Jewish.”
Senior year at Berkeley High, Jacobson led protests—when he wasn’t stringing for the Daily Gazette sports section. After graduating at 16, he persuaded his parents to send him on the era’s equivalent of a Grand Tour. He spent eight months roaming the continent, then enrolled at U.C. Berkeley to study history and resume his sportswriting career part-time. Like any campus-dominated burg, Berkeley exerts a strong magnetic pull, and for a year after receiving his diploma in 1971 Jacobson acceded to hometown gravity, treasuring a Gazette job in which he covered the U.C. squads and Bay Area professional teams and wrote a column. But he also tired of the Berkeley grind. The peace movement and counterculture had devolved into druggery and thuggery. His father’s shadow was long and wide. One night in a restaurant, Jacobson overheard a man talking about working for CBS in Paris and thought, “If he can do that, why can’t I?”
He also wanted to find the essential Kenneth Jacobson, and the best way seemed to be to take himself out of context. He contacted friends in Amsterdam and asked to crash. Sure, they said. He took his $1,000 savings out of the bank and finagled an assignment to cover a 49ers/Bears game in Chicago. After the last down, he kept moving: by train through Montreal and Boston to Manhattan, by plane to Paris. An Amsterdamward hop led to a $40-a-month room in a 17th-century house in the red-light district.
He dove into Dutch, learning the language as rapidly as he’d learned French and Italian on earlier trips and quickly landed free-lance assignments with the Associated Press. By September 1973, he was working in AP’s bureau doing English-language broadcasts. He stayed until 1975, learning Amsterdam neighborhood by neighborhood and realizing that the colloquialisms he was speaking all had Jewish origins.
“The ancient nickname for Amsterdam is “Mokum,” which is from the Hebrew maqum or “the place,’ ” he explains. “The water in the canals is called mayim—Hebrew for “water.’ The names for paper money came from Yiddish; when Dutchmen say goodbye, they wish one another mazel. It is the resonance of a vanished culture.”
His first year in conformist Holland, he developed an ulcer, as the label-loving Dutch blamed him for Vietnam, for racism, for Coca-colonization. As his Americanness was brought home, so was his Jewishness. “In the Europe of 20 years ago, being Jewish was a stigma, as it surely is today,” he says. “There is an awkwardness, like seeing someone in a wheelchair and not knowing whether to help or to acknowledge the handicap.”
One day, he and two California buddies visited a 400-year-old Sephardic cemetery on the Amstel River. Blind to the intricacies of religious law regarding burial places, they received a good-natured scolding from the cemetery caretaker; as he lectured his visitors, the man explained that he was a son of the German nobility who had converted to Judaism in 1938—for Jacobson, a perversely miraculous move. Two decades later, the author used the cemetery visit to begin Selves, wondering at the scene’s close, “What could account for an identification so powerful that he preferred taking up its burdens to remaining apart from those who had no freedom to lay them down?”
That encounter spurred Jacobson to ponder the nature of the self, especially the Jewish self. Through his Amsterdam years, through annual visits home, through a move to Paris to live with a girlfriend and work in the McGraw-Hill news bureau, he could not shake a curiosity about people’s feelings for a part of their identity that could threaten their very existence.
Fortunately for one given to quitting good jobs, Jacobson had not abandoned his frugality. In 1977, vexed at trade reporting and rocked by his parents’ divorce, he decided to live on his savings and pursue his persistent idea. He returned to Amsterdam, starting what he expected would be an 18-month search. It lasted nearly four years.
The cemetery caretaker was still on the job, and agreed to talk. However, that was about it. Jacobson resorted to tradecraft: arranging contacts, establishing bona fides, letting trust flower. He devised rules of engagement: never try to convince anyone to participate; let subjects say what they want; anyone with second thoughts gets the tape without comment. He disdained note-taking, relying on a secondhand Sony TC-55 cassette recorder. Of those he contacted, about 80 percent agreed to interviews, and all but five or six followed through; no one asked for tapes back. Subjects chose the time and place, usually their homes; some could not talk fast enough, others had to be drawn out. By design, most interviews took place at one sitting.
“I tried to study enough that I could understand the historical context so if something seemed out of place I could recognize it, but when I met with people I tried to wipe it all out of my mind,” Jacobson says. “I tried to see from that person’s point of view and make a picture of what was going on.”
The briefest session lasted an hour; the longest, six. In 44 months of interviews, the author lived in Amsterdam, Berlin, Frankfurt, Vienna, Paris, and Antwerp, with R&R breaks in the States and conjugal visits to Paris. On one American interlude, he met an editor who vowed to publish the book, gladdening Jacobson’s heart.
He worked in bursts, sometimes doing 12 interviews in as many days. The first few times he felt as if he were falling in love, so intense was the connection. Sometimes his subjects’ children stared daggers at him; he was unleashing dragons with which they would have to dance. He learned to discern early when a subject would be a stiff, or when the emotional minefield would be heavily sown. He felt continuously like a child at the Passover table. In Berlin, a city he’d never visited, he had an epiphany: No one there knew him. He could be whatever Ken Jacobson he wanted to be. But he realized that when the externals change, all you have to hang onto is who you are.
In July 1981, he completed the last interviews. He was in Antwerp, Belgium, selected like the other cities for an aspect of Jewishness; the surviving Jewry of Antwerp tend toward religious conservatism. Renting a room from an Orthodox family, the wandering Jew from Berkeley underwent a reverse crisis of identity. Custom dictated that he wear a yarmulke and hat and attend services. In his landlord’s house, proscriptions against using machines applied; he could not type on the Sabbath.
“After a while, I felt suffocated,” Jacobson says. “I began to wait until the Jews were in shul. Then I would walk to the train station by way of streets Jews did not use. I would check my hat in a coin locker and go to Brussels, the most boring of the western capitals. To me, it was delicious. I was free, I was breaking the Sabbath, going to museums and movies, running around, eating what I wanted.”
As his research wound down and his sense of dislocation grew, Jacobson’s romance fizzled. He was headed to Paris to break things off when he found himself humming a dimly familiar ditty. He recognized the Holy Cross fight song—“Give another hoya and a choo choo rah rah!”—and he broke out laughing in the train compartment.
Not wishing to trust 450 tapes to the untender mercies of airline baggage handlers, Jacobson sailed on the freighter Atlantique Cognac in October 1981, spending Yom Kippur oceanbound, seasick, miserable.
Relying as ever on the kindness of acquaintances, he camped with friends in Newton, Mass., while he whittled his raw material. He supported himself on grants, then as private secretary to Harvard professor Willo von Moltke and his wife, German aristocrats dispossessed by the Hitlerites.
It took three years to bring the manuscript to his supposed advocate in New York publishing, who, after all his entreaties and promises, had been blowing smoke. The Newton household sprouted another child, eliminating Jacobson’s perch.
No prospects, no income, no agent—of course New York City was the only logical place to go! A cousin owned a small apartment house in Greenwich Village; Jacobson settled in among the saxophone players and writers and ancient Italian couples on rent-stabilized leases and began to pester publishers, meanwhile free-lancing for his former employer, McGraw-Hill.
At a Free Speech Movement reunion, he met a college friend grown into a literary agent. She herded the manuscript through eight rejections; he punched out rewrites, fending off goofy urgings from whippersnapper editors. In 1985, he took a job at McGraw-Hill’s Metals Week newsletter, one of thousands of such publications that cover the arcane zone at the intersection of business and regulation. In 1987, Jacobson began rising at 6 a.m. to work on yet another rewrite before heading uptown to the office. He changed agents. Nothing worked except his newsletter career, in which he progressed to editor-in-chief, banking $40,000-plus.
His feet began to itch. In 1991, he quit again, returning to Europe. A chance encounter at a bookstore in Amsterdam led a Dutch publisher to bring out a version of the book. Joodse Out-Moetingen (Jewish Encounters) simply presented 10 of the stories without introduction or analysis. “The publisher asked why I hadn’t published in the States, and I explained,” Jacobson says. “But they were not dissuaded, and at the Frankfurt Book Fair they got an American house interested.”
Jacobson’s peripeteia remained active. A Chilean magazine called with an assignment on Venezuelan aluminum. Fly me to Venezuela and then to Santiago, and I’m yours, Jacobson said. At the magazine’s offices he met Cecilia Peñaloza Rodriguez, a graphic artist. Friendship developed, then more than friendship. He returned to New York to complete the Dutch manuscript. She visited. He was about to move to Santiago to set up housekeeping when Atlantic Monthly Press offered to buy the book in something like the form he had envisioned. Jacobson signed, then departed for Chile, where he and Cecilia were wed. They decided to move to the States, but viewed Manhattan as an ill-augured place in which to begin a marriage. With its international twinges, Latin American population, and moderate size, D.C. seemed a better bet; in November 1992, the Jacobsons moved into an apartment near Dupont Circle. He found work as editor of New Technology Week, once again taking refuge in the newsletter briar patch.
On the side, Jacobson ground out a final manuscript, pleased to be finishing but frightened of completion. In the end, though, his fears faded. “It is the book I wanted it to be,” he says. “It is not my property, but my stewardship. I told these people I was going to do this with their stories and they trusted me. I didn’t want to say, “Here is the truth,’ but “Here are these people’s experiences. You can think about them in certain ways. They are each individual’s answers to fundamental human questions.’ I tried to write it so there is no way out, no shoulds or oughts that take people off the hook.”
Jacobson pointedly avoided the term “Holocaust” except under duress as part of the subtitle. “I don’t like the word. It has a set of freighted and encapsulated yet indistinct connotations,” he says. “The “Holocaust’ box is a means of reification that removes feelings. I did not want this book to have people saying, “Boys, this is the next Shoah!’ ”
Jacobson discusses “Jewish Identity’s Ultimate Test: The Need to Belong Versus the Urge to Survive” at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 18, at the U.S. Holocaust Research Institute. For reservations call (202) 488-6162.