Thursday, August 04, 2022

Reading the Past in a Single Document, an essay by Judith Berlowitz, author of Home So Far Away

Historical documents may be inanimate objects, yet they can still speak to us, revealing vital information to novelists writing about their subjects decades later. In the following essay, author Judith Berlowitz (Home So Far Away) explores how she gleaned details about the life of her protagonist, Clara Philipsborn, through a single document from a Spanish archive.


Reading the Past in a Single Document
Judith Berlowitz

By the time I retired – as a PhD teaching Spanish language and world cultures – I welcomed the opportunity to concentrate on other interests. Search for my ancestral origins had widened, and tools learned in academic research had led to some dizzying discoveries. At the same time, I was noticing that the standard canon of utilizing sources was also widening, shifting, fluid.

Searching the Internet for my Philipsborn relatives, I came upon an article that mentioned Clara Philipsborn, an anti-fascist volunteer translator in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). I completed the Philipsborn project, keeping in mind the compelling need to find Clara. I soon contacted people via Facebook who followed various aspects of the Spanish Civil War and was introduced to the concept of Historical Memory, a movement that arose in reaction to the Pacto del Olvido – the Pact to Forget – imposed on the people of Spain at the death of the dictator Franco in 1975.

Clara, 1910 Wildbad
(credit: Gene Dannen,
originally posted
on his website 
These friends assisted me in locating documents about Clara in Soviet archives, which were conflicting, as were stories from other relatives I was able to reach. There were grave accusations against which she could not defend herself. I had to give her a voice that would break through the Pacto del Olvido. I would write her diary, as an homage to historical memory. The result is my first novel, Home So Far Away, published by She Writes Press, June 2022.

An institution in Spain called the Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica found and sent me a precious document, Clara’s identity card from the Fifth Regiment of Popular Militias. Each of the static images on the document served as doors that opened to yet more sources, more material for Clara’s story:

• Clara’s typed name – her surname in all caps, is spelled correctly, in contrast to many other documents about her. This fact adds credibility to the source.
• The number at the top shows me that there were 6835 volunteers to the Fifth Regiment who applied ahead of Clara.
• Clara’s photograph reveals her attention to her appearance. The pressed hair, the tweezed eyebrows: a major departure from the wild look shown in photos from her youth. Clara’s hair plays a significant role in my novel as it connects her to her Jewish identity.
• Clara’s address as typed detracts from the credibility. There is no “Dionisio Cortes” Street in Madrid. But a search revealed the correct name, “Donoso Cortés,” and I was able to visit the location at number eight.
• Clara’s marital status is listed as single. Correct.
• But her age? She was born in Kiel in 1890, according to all German records. Other records from Spain show wildly varying dates, definitely material for my novel!
• Clara’s profession is first typed (with carbon paper) as a registered nurse, with the later addition – entered twice – of her title or degree of practicante, practitioner or PA, rare for women of this time and representing more prestige and more advanced duties.
• The space for the organization Clara belonged to is left blank and replaced by the inserted fragment of the colored stamp of the elite Fifth Regiment. This item opened up hours of research on this renowned unit.
• The date of Clara’s enrollment in the Regiment is added: just three days after the uprising against the elected government of the Spanish Republic. Essential proof of Clara’s eagerness to dedicate her skills to defend her new homeland. And the August date marks the beginning of Clara’s duties.
• Clara’s assignment to La Cabrera opened up research on a tiny town in Madrid’s Sierra Norte. The wartime field hospital was created in a monastery taken over by the Loyalists. Contact with the local high school history teacher informed me that the famed Rosario “la Dinamitera” had been treated there, leading to my placing her under Clara’s care during the necessary amputation. And a Facebook friend provided me with a copy of the surgeon’s report, providing me with that important name and with Rosario’s political affiliation.
• Clara’s clear signature completes the card, as if authorizing me to venture through all the doors it has opened.


About the novel:

A fictional diary set in interwar Germany and Spain allows us to peek into the life of Klara Philipsborn, the only Communist in her merchant-class, German-Jewish family.

Klara’s first visit to Seville in 1925 opens her eyes and her spirit to an era in which Spain’s major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, shared deep cultural connections. At the same time, she is made aware of the harsh injustices that persist in Spanish society. By 1930, she has landed a position with the medical school in Madrid. Though she feels compelled to hide her Jewish identity in her predominantly Christian new home, she finds that she feels less “different” in Spain than she did in Germany, especially as she learns new ways of expressing her opinions and desires. And when the Spanish Civil War erupts in 1936, Klara (now “Clara”) enlists in the Fifth Regiment, a step that transports her across the geography of the embattled peninsula and ultimately endangers a promising relationship and even Clara’s life itself.

A blending of thoroughly researched history and engrossing fiction, Home So Far Away is an epic tale that will sweep readers away.

About the author:

Author Judith Berlowitz at Clara's Madrid home. 
Photo by Armando Mauleón, 2018, with his permission.
Los Angeles–born author Judith Berlowitz had just retired from her Spanish-teaching position at Oakland’s Mills College when her genealogical research uncovered a Gestapo record mentioning a relative, Clara Philipsborn, who was the only woman anti-fascist volunteer in the Spanish Civil War from the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. The few details of the report led to more research, which led to Home So Far Away. In addition to her career teaching Spanish and world cultures, and a stint as a tour guide, Judith is a card-carrying translator and has published in the field of ethnomusicology (Sephardic balladry) and Jewish identity. She sang for years with the Oakland Symphony Chorus and is now a member of the San Francisco Bach Choir. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, not far from her three daughters and three grandsons.

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