Friday, 12 August 2016

Whispers from the past and miraculous discoveries

by Shelley Davidow

When I first began to write Whisperings in the Blood I planned on writing it as a novel. It was going to be called 'The Immigrant'. 

Shelley Davidow
I wanted to tell a story of generations of immigrants based on my gran Bertha’s life, because her life was kind of cool and interesting. I only knew a few things: that when my gran was 10 and living in Indiana, USA, her mother died, and she and her brother were sent to the Jewish Orphan Home in Ohio. I knew that my gran, at age 22, went out to Africa to marry a man she’d never met. 

Then, in 2012 I told my dad in South Africa what I wanted to write, and he said there was this box of letters he’d been holding onto and would I like them?

Every letter written to my gran from 1937 until her death lay in this box, including the love-letters from my grandfather Phil, asking her to come to Africa and marry him after just seeing her photograph. Once I’d read everything, I was stunned. The novel had to become a biography. Then my uncle in Israel said, ‘well, Shell, you know I have Bertha’s diaries. Should I scan them for you?’

A picture of Bertha on her 21st birthday 
that she sent to Phil before they had met.
I couldn’t believe it. Finding Bertha’s own voice,  I discovered miraculous parallels between my gran and myself. The book became then, a biographical memoir! I was blown away to discover that so many of my decisions, my fears, my illnesses, my longings, already existed in the generations that came before me. I uncovered what I can only call, a ‘whispering in the blood’ … a series of motifs and themes that have run through my family for over a hundred years. 

For all that time my Jewish family on my father’s side has been on the move, making immigrant journeys in a restless trans-generational search for home. Great-grandfather Jacob escaped the Pogroms in Eastern Europe and fled to America. His daughter Bertha escaped the Great Depression in the USA to go to Africa and marry someone she’d never met. I grew up during Apartheid and left to escape rampant violence… and then left America to escape health issues, and I thought all my decisions were simply contextual. 

I know that recent research at Emory University in the USA shows that trans-generational trauma can be quite literally passed down through our DNA, but in my book Whisperings in the Blood, I’m aiming to transcend even that… going deeper, into the realm of metaphor, into ‘soul dispositions’ that are more than genetically encoded responses to the world. I see our lives connecting to those of our forebears in a profound, intricate way, and in honouring the immigrants, the refugees of past world events, I want to shed light on our current issues: every non-indigenous person in Australia is an immigrant of one kind or another; we are uninvited ‘guests’ on Aboriginal land. 

I want to acknowledge that, as well as the trauma that flows through every Aboriginal person’s veins as a result of the decimation they’ve suffered over the last 200 years. And when I think of the Jewish refugees in my family since the early 1900’s, and refugees from Syria now, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’! We have all been people running from dangerous places searching for a safe haven. 

Perhaps Whisperings in the Blood might help dissolve the idea of the ‘other’. Through reading other people’s lives we become them; we’re less likely to then be xenophobic, racist, anti-Semitic, sexist bigots. We become more empathetic, less fearful, less ignorant.

Shelley Davidow will be talking about how knowing one's family history can help to make sense of the past but also affect the present in the session 'Inheriting the past - family legacies', alongside Alexandra Joel, moderated by Michaela Kalowski, on Sunday August 28, 11:15am - 12:15pm at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. 

Book today at!

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