Growing up in New York, I heard from my father stories of his origins in Germany, his flight from the Nazis to China and subsequent emigration to the United States, where he would start the family that includes me, the youngest of three. In my thirties, after completing my first (non-autobiographical) book of fiction, I decided to get additional versions of the family story and, after several interviews with my father, did the same with all his first cousins, in France, Belgium and England. From these transcripts, DARKNESS was born.
Interview with Heinz Dawid
conducted by Annie Dawid
Nov. 25, 1995, New York City
ANNIE: I know there were three Dawid brothers, but do you know if there were any other children, maybe, who died?
HEINZ: My belief was always that there were six children before that, but I may be wrong about it, who died in certain epidemics. What was it? What children usually died of during those years—I'm not sure about that. I can't tell you.
Chapter 1, And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family (2008)
When Reizl looks at the circle of faces surrounding her at dinner, always she sees who isn’t there: Saul, Moses and Emmanuel, her three dead sons—before she sees who is. Her husband, Lazar, to her left, his head and beard beginning to gray. Her eldest son, Abraham, glaring as usual at his father. Isaac, the middle boy, gazing at his older brother with admiration, and, alone on her side of the table, David, the baby, glowing: God’s last gift to Reizl in her old age, nearly a generation younger than Abraham. Diphtheria killed her three young sons in 1889, three weeks in a row, methodically. First the littlest, Saul, then the next, Moses, then the eldest of the three, Emmanuel. And yet, as her husband is always reminding her, at the same moment God granted them a miracle: Abraham and Isaac, visiting her parents that summer in the countryside, missed the epidemic. And,
just last year, she already with white hair escaping her bun, gave birth to sweet and beautiful David. Three dead sons, three living. She knows women who lost all their children in the epidemic, so she must remind herself that she is lucky—lucky as she looks at the men (for surely Abraham and Isaac are already men) and her baby boy observing Lazar blessing the wine, the challah,—the Hebrew a harsh, potent song streaming from his lips.
These missing children of my grandfather’s family incited a book of linking short stories about the clan of Dawids, starting in 1900, but since I’m a fiction writer and not a historian, I needed to discover a way to navigate between competing versions of truth.
One genre of family truths came from interviews I conducted during the early 1990s with six relatives, here and in Europe, who constituted the oldest generation of Dawids, whom I decided to call the Solomon family in honor of Salomon Dawid, my great uncle, who with his wife was killed in the camps along with four of his five children. The sole survivor, Clare, provided a crucial interview of the six, though I used none of her words in my book.
From thirty hours of audiotapes, most of them in French, I had two interviews transcribed, one of which is excerpted here. Clare’s interview, upon re-reading, I deemed too monotonous for reproduction.
Although my father, Heinz, had an extraordinary memory for details, the interview does not make for particularly interesting reading. My background in journalism helped me identify key quotes to supply facts I would need for my story. However, none of the verbatim conversation could be used: too stiff or dull or information-y.
Instead of actual dialogue, all six interviews supplied me with tone, the way my characters used language and how personality shaped character, as manifested in their conversations with me. For example, Hans Solomon’s ambition and pride, noted by the reader in the chapter, "The German-Chinese Refugee: New York City, 1953," is innate to the boy my father had been, long before the circumstances of Hitler’s Germany sharpened his intensity.
ANNIE: When you say, your mother was ambitious for you
HEINZ: They all knew I was a gifted child and they wanted to play it out and I was willing to go along with all of this. It made me even more arrogant than I was before. (Laughs.)
ANNIE: You were conscious of being arrogant?
HEINZ: Oh, yeah. I'll tell you a little story. I had a professor at the gymnasium—I must have been fourteen or fifteen—who was a very wise man. He said generally people who have siblings have a better chance in life than people without siblings. "Let's try that right now. Everybody raise their hand who has a sibling." And they raised their hand, the majority, and I did not, and he looked at me. I started to prove him wrong.
When forty-year-old Hans/Heinz decides he will marry Doris, whom he has just met, despite her objections, his insistent confidence follows naturally from the child we have met in earlier chapters. At the end of the dinner date during which he has proposed, and Doris has fled, the reader finds him undaunted.
Hans calculates quickly: if they marry soon, their first child might even be born before the end of 1953. Tomorrow he will send another dozen roses. Hans leaves the waiter a good tip and catches sight of himself in the mirror as the maitre d' helps him with his coat: a confident man, smart in his new suit, a soon-to-be married man, nods sharply.
Annie Dawid's stories chronicle a Jewish family's life across generations, countries, continents. This generous book [And Darkness Was Under His Feet] doesn’t seek to serve the writer's self, but by focusing on a particular family's experience, traces our communal story from the false security of the early twentieth century, through Holocaust and communism, up to the beginnings of our own day.—Lore Segal, author of Shakespeare's Kitchen: Stories