Houses and Souls, Haunted by Holocaust Ghosts

The writer Shira Nayman, right, with the composer Ben Moore. Mr. Moore has set a portion of Ms. Nayman’s book to music. (Photo: Ruby Washington/The New York Times)

Published: October 10, 2006

“In this memory, which has haunted me the whole of my life,” begins “The House on Kronenstrasse,” the first story in Shira Nayman’s collection about the Holocaust, “I am perhaps 2½ years old, and dressed in a special dress made of maroon velvet and lace. I am playing in a fountain that is ornate...”

Within this memory is embedded a strange secret, part of the twisted legacy of those times, waiting to be uncovered by the narrator, who is not the ordinary young American woman she thinks she is.

The collection, “Awake in the Dark,” out today from Scribner, will celebrate its publication in a very unusual way: a performance of portions of “Kronenstrasse,” which has been set to music by the composer Ben Moore. The piece will be presented tonight at St. Francis College Theater in Brooklyn Heights, with the actress Andrea Masters and a trio of viola, clarinet and piano. (The event is free; reservations can be made at 212-632-4973).

What began as an effort to publicize “Awake in the Dark” has turned into a full-blown artistic effort. Mr. Moore, who has composed theater music, as well as songs for Deborah Voigt and Susan Graham, will play the piano. Jimmy Bohr will direct. The other musicians are the clarinetist Todd Palmer and the violist David A. Carpenter, winner of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2005 student competition. All are performing without pay. The piano store Klavierhaus is lending a Steinway.

The essential subject of “Awake in the Dark” is memory, as the characters gradually discover the truths of their pasts, revealed to them like Chinese boxes: boxes within boxes within boxes.

Ms. Nayman, a nonobservant Jew, grew up in Melbourne Australia, in a community of mostly Holocaust survivors. Her family had escaped Eastern Europe during the pogroms at the turn of the 20th century. She is a clinical psychologist and marketing consultant who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, a college professor, and two children.

“The houses were haunted,” Ms. Nayman said of Melbourne. “There were two sets of ghosts. The ghosts of those who were murdered, and of the survivors’ own past, which were never mentioned.”

One of her friends, she remembered, found out as a teenager that her mother had had another family. She “had had two babies, a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old, who perished in a camp,” Ms. Nayman said. Another friend’s mother had a concentration camp tattoo on her arm. “The only thing she would talk about was how beautiful it was when it snowed in Poland,” Ms. Nayman said. “She had tears running down her face.”

“Awake in the Dark” is full of odd twists. Several stories involve a blurring of identity between German and Jew. In “The House on Kronenstrasse” the American woman rents her family’s old house in Germany and discovers her mother’s true identity.

“The Porcelain Monkey” is about a woman, a Jewish convert, whose adored father was a concentration camp guard. Woven through it is an account of Moses Mendelssohn, the Jewish philosopher. His grandson, Felix, was the composer, a Christian who inherited from Moses a porcelain monkey, a symbol of Jewish subservience.

Why the preoccupation with mixed identity? “We are all brothers, are we not?” Ms. Nayman, 46, asked rhetorically. “I was distraught that people could do that to one another. I thought if I can bring the two, German and Jew, together, it would be interesting to pose the moral quandary, to put the two sides in the same room.”

When the idea of putting some of the book to music was suggested, Ms. Nayman asked her friend Mr. Moore to compose the score. He said he told her, “Let me live with this story for a couple of weeks.”

At first, he said, he “was a little despairing of finding a main tune to begin the piece.” Then, five months ago, as he was exiting the subway, “these melodies came to me,” he said.

The score begins with an overture, a fanfare, a tumult of dissonances that fades into a melody in a minor key for viola. For a section in which the narrator discovers a false wall in her family house, Mr. Moore created what he called dream music.

It “contains the excitement about what she may discover,” he said.

“It builds to a climax, and a kind of haunting little waltz comes in,” he continued. “It’s a dream of what these people were like when they were free and happy.”

Ms. Nayman asked Mr. Moore to incorporate into the score echoes of German culture, which, she said, “was full of beauty, truth, transcendence,” before it “became brutally murderous.” For a section in which a Jewish family hides in a secret part of a house, Mr. Moore added intimations of Beethoven and Schubert.

“It’s full of panic and alarm and grandeur,” Ms. Nayman said, adding, “We take a pickax to Beethoven and destroy it, and pull out one of the shards, a beautiful piece of glass that pierces your heart.”

A woman holds her dying child in her arms; for that Mr. Moore composed a lullaby for viola and piano.

“To be in a room when someone has entered my space,” Ms. Nayman said, “and taken my words, and put them into music is almost too much to bear. They are joining me, and it is so much less lonely.”