I have the best job in Chicago. Four times a week an adorable dog leads me to a quiet room and falls asleep at my feet for an hour or so while I listen to older adults read the stories of their lives.
Only bad part of the job? Sometimes aging gets the best of my writers. And loss is inevitable, I know that.
But I don’t like it.
Anna had been in my Lincoln Park Thursday memoir-writing class ever since it started in 2011. Listening to her tell her life story bit by bit each week for six years was a privilege. Becoming her friend? That was an honor. Our friendship came with fringe benefits, too: every time we met for lunch or at an event, and before each weekly class, she’d greet me with a sweet “My dear, my dear” and a double-cheek kiss.
Anna was born in Czechoslovakia. Her father studied law and served under Czechoslovakia’s first president. Her mother, Julia Nessy, performed widely throughout Europe during the 1920s as a lyric soprano. Little Anna must have really been listening when her mother rehearsed at home in Prague – Anna’s voice could sound like soft velvet, smooth and comforting, when she read essays out loud. “The young republic prospered, it’s first president, Thomas Masaryk, set a tone of high-minded humanism,” Anna explained in an essay about her birthplace. “The economy grew, the arts flourished, and the mix of cultures–Czech, German, and Jewish–made the capital, Prague, a rich center of European life.”
Czechoslovakia’s First Republic lasted only twenty years before Hitler’s army invaded. Week after week the Thursday writers and I heard Anna’s recollections of Prague, and then her life in America after their family left Czechoslovakia. She wrote from her nine-year-old point of view when describing waking up one morning and seeing her beloved city overrun by outsiders. Cafés empty. Soldiers outnumbering citizens. Kissing the family home goodbye. Boarding the train. Frightening questions from the Gestapo. Close calls with German officials. Help from strangers. A stop in London. Ellis Island And, finally, a new life in New York City, where nine-year-old Anna treasured her little transistor radio, tucking it under her covers to listen to the Hit Parade every night, doing all she could to become an American girl.
Listening to each other share life stories in memoir classes every week forms strong bonds among writers in my classes, and it’s comforting for all of us to know Anna’s stories will live on. She is the first writer from any of my classes to have contracted a literary agent, and in 2016 The House in Prague: How a Stolen House Helped an Immigrant Girl Find Her Way Home was published by Golden Alley Press. Some of you met Anna when she appeared at a Printers Row Lit Fest session this past June with Wanda Bridgeforth, Nancy Sayre and me to tout memoir-writing.
I’ll leave you here with an excerpt from The House in Prague that describes Anna’s arrival here in 1939. Anna Nessy Perlberg became a proud American with a strong interest in politics and social justice that continued her entire life, and this passage might explain where that all came from:
We stand together at the railing and watch as the harbor comes closer and closer. Mother lifts me up high to see the Statue of Liberty as clearly as possible. She says with a kind of fierceness, “Don’t ever forget this.”
Thank you, my dear Anna. I won’t ever forget you.