blog posts Living Memory with Corinna Oct 29, 2022 9:45 pm by Azlan Smith Images “To sit with a story means to sit more with myself,” Corinna tells us. There are some thirty of us in Levis Faculty Center, sitting with Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim and with memories and pictures of her grandparents. Hermann da Fonseca-Wollheim was a German doctor drafted into World War I, four years on the Western Front, and then he left Europe as a ship’s doctor and a three-year resident of Sultanabad, what is now Arak, Iran. In October 1930 Hermann returned to Germany, unsure if there was a place for him there. He quickly fell in love with Käthe Stöver. Käthe had studied expressionist dance with the luminary Mary Wigman. Pictures show Käthe exuberant and joyous and sexy, playing with the camera’s eye; poised, kinetic, vivacious. Delete Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed. align image leftalign image centeralign image right Käthe and Hermann hurry to marry in 1933, as Hermann’s one quarter Jewish heritage might soon mean he can’t marry a ‘full German’ like Käthe. Ten years later Hermann is arrested for “friendliness to foreigners”—for being too considerate and close with the Ukrainian forced laborers whose health has been pushed into his keeping during the war. Nine months after that Hermann dies in Buchenwald. A type-written note tells Käthe that her husband, Corinna’s grandfather, is gone. Käthe responds with the extraordinary step of arriving with her brother-in-law at Buchenwald’s gates. She wants her husband’s things. She wants to know if there are any letters that he hadn’t been able to send. She wants—what did she want, this woman facing the death camp’s gates? In the Levis Faculty Center at UIUC, we’re not exactly “sitting” with Corinna. Corinna’s zooming in from Westchester New York, some 850 miles from the street outside. But sitting with—living with—people who are far away in space and time is part of what we’re here to do. I’m entranced by how Corinna weaves together the story. I’m lucky enough to have heard pieces of it before. Corinna and I met in 2019 in Arizona, and after she returned to New York and I went to visit my family in California, we talked on the phone for an hour. Corinna told me about the research she was doing. I remember walking back and forth in my mother’s backyard as, given breath by her granddaughter’s breath, Käthe went up to the gates of Buchenwald to ask for her husband’s belongings. Delete Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed. align image leftalign image centeralign image right There are so many layers of imagination and memory between me and this story, between Corinna and this story. Corinna nudges us into noticing those layers. Often she stays close to existing documents, to letters and books and photographs. As she describes Hermann’s arrest, his interrogation in a van on the street where neighbors could see what was going on, Corinna describes the neighbors “staring with ill disguised curiosity, as my grandmother would later tell it.” Käthe’s words alive with Corinna’s breath. Later, when Käthe is at Buchenwald’s gate, Corinna says “she [Käthe] would have been able to see the parade ground, perhaps the gathering prisoners.” Corinna’s been to those gates, too. She imagines herself closer to Käthe, to what her grandmother would have seen (and might have felt). The nuanced rendering shows me what the moment might have been, but as importantly, it shows me Corinna’s attempt to remember and carry the story and the people in it. Later still, in speaking about the poetry books Hermann requested (while in prison at Fuhlsbüttel, before Buchenwald) and Käthe sent, Corinna wonders aloud what passages might have made Hermann want those specific books to reread. Corinna, too, has read these books. She’s tried to read her grandfather in them. When one of the volumes makes its way back to Käthe, it has a note from Hermann, drawing her attention to a specific passage where lovers grow together across impossible space. The other books come back with blank margins. We want to know what he meant. We want more shared ground in this loss story, this love story, but the margins remain blank. Does blank mean empty? Listening to Corinna tell this story, again, I’m struck by how she puts it together. By how she makes spaces for the emptiness and the fullness. How she follows the evidence, and leaps past it, trying to understand, to be close, to live inside. In studying feminist rhetorics, Gesa Kirsch and Jacqueline Royster write, “From our experiences in the field, the respectful rendering of women's lives, whether historical or contemporary, requires a capacity to imagine a past, a present, a future, to ‘dwell in a text’ (Reynolds).” Sitting with Corinna, we are trying to dwell in this story. Corinna is trying to dwell in this story. We keep running into what is not there, but instead of that holding us back, that brings us closer. Delete Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed. align image leftalign image centeralign image right Maybe what we can’t find is what we most need. Like Kirsch and Royster, William Banks, Matthew Cox, and Caroline Dadas (following others) have highlighted the queer and feminist rhetorical promise of attending to what is not there, of playing the flute of scholarship through the openings of absence. This becomes a matter of form, and Corinna tells us the form is difficult. She wants to write a book, but over the years, her various attempts to put this story into a bound volume have led to repeated hesitations. Corinna tells us it’s easier here, in a talk, alive with others. I’m reminded of Hillery Glasby’s description of different forms, of how she feels “standard, MLA-formatted 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper” preventing her from “coming through” as she can while composing other kinds of text. I try to imagine the kind of book that would be like this, like sitting with Corinna, looking at these pictures, hearing her words that are Käthe’s words and that are, now, if you read them out loud, your words. Victor Villanueva writes, “Memory simply cannot be adequately portrayed in the conventional discourse of the academy.” In Corinna’s layers and misgivings, in her pauses and hopes, in her dedicated research and her heartfelt openness to absence, I feel memory not just portrayed but living. After her lecture, I ask Corinna what it’s like to live with, carry, set aside, and return to this story over the course of so many years. Corinna says, “To sit with this story…it’s sort of an exercise of letting go. We were talking about wanting a story to be a certain thing, the story of the good German, or an exemplar for our times. And I’m letting go.” She says, “At first I wanted to write a book about it, and I kept having to step away. I’m not quite clear about what it is I’m trying to achieve when I’m writing the story. It’s much easier to talk about it, where I can be making sense of it while I speak.” She asks us to consider how we prioritize and put order into things we want to display and keep. Her parents had all their documents carefully arranged. Corinna herself is more chaotic. Listening to her put the story together again, layered, complex, with love for Hermann and Käthe (and her own young self, starting to explore this story, and for us), I wonder about the possibilities that carefully arranged documents don’t show us. There is so much research in Corinna’s work. There is also so much living memory as she carries these stories, shares them, new and old, again and again. And more than that, listening, I feel memory moving with all its blurry shadows and fantastic leaps and particularities. Corinna tells us about the first time her parents told her about how Hermann died. She tells us about the Rabbi in Israel who corrected her language when she, still learning Hebrew (and getting ready to convert), said that Hermann died. “Not ‘died,’” the Rabbi says. “Murdered.” She tells us about sitting down to write this story, and about walking around still carrying it. Corinna tells us, “You’re still living with a story…it’s not in the past.” I write this piece in a rush later that same night. I revise it a week later, and again a week after that. Flickers of Hermann and Käthe stay with me, not as full-bodied as they are for Corinna, but still here with me. And here are my own grandparents, what they would make of this story. And my great grandparents, the ones who emigrated to the United States. Here is my friend Corinna. And here, for a moment, are you. In conversation with da Fonseca-Wollheim, Corinna. 2022. A presentation given at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign through the Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies Faculty Colloquium. Glasby, Hillery. 2019. “MAKING IT QUEER, NOT CLEAR: Embracing Ambivalence and Failure as Queer Methodologies.” Re/Orienting Writing Studies, editors Williams Banks, Matthew Cox, and Caroline Dadas. University Press of Colorado. Banks, Williams, Matthew Cox, and Caroline Dadas. 2019. “Re/Orienting Writing Studies.” Re/Orienting Writing Studies, editors Williams Banks, Matthew Cox, and Caroline Dadas. University Press of Colorado. Kirsch, Gesa and Jacqueline Royster. 2010. “Feminist Rhetorical Practices: In Search of Excellence.” College Composition and Communication 61 (4): 640-672. Villanueva, Victor. 2004. “Memoria Is a Friend of Ours: On the Discourses of Color.” College English 67 (1): 9–19.