Don’t ever forget this

December 3, 2017 • Posted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, politics by

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 Nessy Perlberg with her best friend, Brady (photo by Mark Perlberg).

Anna Nessy Perlberg died last Thursday. I’ve written about Anna here before, and Mike has, too. We were both in awe of her.

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.

Bev On December 3, 2017 at 4:18 pm

Oh no! Oh no! Say it ain’t so! Im so grateful I got to meet her last summer. Such a lovely lady.

Beth On December 3, 2017 at 5:38 pm

I’m grateful you met her, too, Bev — thank you for coming that day. Lovely lady is right.

Marilee On December 3, 2017 at 4:33 pm

Ohhh… I am so sorry to hear this news. What a special lady. I think the last time I saw her was shortly after her book was published at the lovely end of class luncheon. Her face just beamed when she saw you and she was so excited about her book. Thank you for sharing her with us. I am going to go read her book again tonight. What a beautiful life. Hugs.

Beth On December 3, 2017 at 5:50 pm

You know, I’d almost forgotten that happened at the after-class luncheon you attended with me, Mare. And you’re so right: Anna wasThe House in Prague, that day. With good reason! Delighted you are going to dust it off and read it again.
Anna had started recording an audio version of her book a month or so ago for but wasn’t able to finish it. I am friends with the man who did the recording and will be able to access the chapters they were able to record together. It will be my first time “reading” The House in Prague,, but I feel fortunate to have heard a lot of it in the making: she read a lot of the contents aloud in class. What a gift she was –and is –to us.

Hank On December 3, 2017 at 4:35 pm

So sorry for your loss, Beth. I too remember, as a ten-year old immigrant, standing at the railing at dawn and sailing past the Statue of Liberty into New York Harbor to a new life here. That was 56 years ago. I think it is a sight no immigrant ever forgot.

Beth On December 3, 2017 at 5:53 pm

Hank, I’m sure hundreds of people have told you this already, but you absolutely must write a book about your life. Would you consider a one-on-one online classs? I could give you writing prompts — and deadlines…think about it. You certainly have a tale to tell.

Cam On December 3, 2017 at 5:45 pm

Thanks for sharing, Beth. So sorry for the sad news.

Beth On December 3, 2017 at 5:57 pm

Thanks Cam. The news is indeed sad, but I am so fortunate to have known Anna — and so many of the other writers inthese memoir-writing classes I lead…

Bruce On December 3, 2017 at 7:03 pm

Thanks for the rich memories of this delightful spirit, my writing and driving buddy.

Beth On December 3, 2017 at 10:58 pm

Confession: I enjoyed writing this…until I realized I had to put it all in past tense.

Beth On December 4, 2017 at 9:37 am

…and should add that Anna thought the world of you, Bruce. So much can be shared in short car rides together, thank you so much for volunteering to get her to class and back home safely every week. You two were a good team.,

Chris On December 3, 2017 at 8:07 pm

I’m so sorry Beth. Anna sounds like a lovely woman who will be missed.

Sheila A. Donovan On December 3, 2017 at 9:11 pm

This brought tears to my eyes. Rest well, Anna.

Sharon Kramer On December 4, 2017 at 6:53 am

Beth. Thank you for such heartfelt comments. A wonderful tribute to your friend. I am so sorry I never met her but just ordered her book to know more about her. My condolences.

Beth On December 4, 2017 at 9:40 am

Thank you Sharon. It is such a comfort to know her story will live on — in so many ways.

Carol Abrioux On December 4, 2017 at 11:39 am

What a lovely tribute. We will all miss her. Like she did to you, she always greeted me with a hug, a kiss and a sweet greeting.

Beth On December 5, 2017 at 9:11 am

We were fortunate to know Anna.

NancyB On December 4, 2017 at 8:53 pm

I’m so sad to hear it. Very glad that I got to meet her at the Book Festival last year. And so glad that she got to tell her story.

Beth On December 5, 2017 at 9:18 am

I am so grateful to you and Steven for taking the time and effort to come to see us at Printers Row Lit Fest in June. What a celebration that was.

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