Sunday, January 6, 2013

"Requiem" in Arcata: An Interview with Ursula Osborne

Ursula Osborne (Kowinski photo)
At the Humboldt Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bayside (Arcata), beginning on Thursday January 10, an ad hoc group of familiar North Coast actors will present the first English language production anywhere of Requiem, a play by Heinrich Liebrecht about his experiences in Nazi concentration camps and afterwards. In part—and improbably—it is a love story.

Liebretcht’s concentration camp memoir in book form has been called the most vivid of all such accounts in its presentation of everyday life. It was translated into English by Arcata resident Ursula Osborne, who also translated Liebrecht’s play and guided it to this first performance. 

This is the subject of my Stage Matters column to be published in the North Coast Journal on January 10.  What follows is more background  and my interview with Ursula Osborne.

The background is from the Xlibris site, the publisher of Osborne's translation of Liebrecht's memoir,  Not To Hate But To Love That Is What I Am Here For: My Path Through the Hell of the Third Reich.

Heinrich F. Liebrecht, born 1897, participant in WW I, judge in Berlin, removed from office in 1933 for political reasons. Until 1941 co-worker at the law office of the US Embassy, then arrest, torture, concentration camp. Time spent in USA after the liberation. 1949 he returned to the Federal Republic of Germany. He served in diplomatic service as Consul and General Consul, and after retirement lived in Freiburg where he died in 1989.

The translator, Ursula Osborne, née Solmitz, was born in Hamburg Germany in 1927. She left for England with her siblings in 1938 in a Kindertransport. She lived in England until 1944, at a boarding school, called Bunce Court, where her aunt was a teacher. Meanwhile the Solmitz parents remained in Germany until 1941, and during that time Heinrich Liebrecht and Lies became their special friends. Liebrecht remained a lifetime family friend after WWII, through exchange of letters, and postcards, and visits in California and Germany. Ursula, her husband and two sons met him in Freiburg in 1969, and continued the friendship with visits and exchange of letters.

  Ursula earned a BS degree in Chemistry from UCLA in 1948, became a U.S.A. citizen in 1949, worked intermittently in chemical labs and taught in California public schools and in the Peace Corps at a high school in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. All along she continued to cultivate an interest in her native language, German.

The following is an edited version of my interview with Ursula Osborne at her home in Arcata on December 14, 2012.

Heinrich Liebrecht 1942

"Liebrecht and Lies [Elisabeth Hertz] got married very soon after my parents left Germany in 1941. Lies got pregnant. She was from Hamburg, he was from Berlin. They were in Berlin but they couldn’t find a place to live. They literally pushed a perambulator from house to house trying to find a place to live. It was hard to find nutrition for the child. It was 1942 when they decided they had to emigrate, to get out of the country with the child.

There was a Chilean doctor from the Chilean embassy who told them he could get them a passport, drive them to Italy in a limo, “I’ll take care of you.” But he was a crook, and was in cahoots with the Nazis, too. They kept asking him when are we getting out. It seems almost incredible to me that a man as intelligent as Liebrecht believed Velasco, this man, but he did. It was the only chance he had to get out of the country.

The last time they were supposed to meet him, it was a ruse. Where he had led them to believe he could help them was an office that was a Gestapo office. Liebrecht and Lies went there. Right away they saw what it was. They saw some Jews with their faces to the wall. Liebrecht wondered how can this be that these five Jews aren’t able to overcome the one Gestapo, but they just stood there.

He told his wife to run. She hesitated but she left. She did end up going to the Berlin zoo and committing suicide. But he didn’t know what happened to her. Liebrecht tried to physically overcome the Nazi official, and thought the other Jews would help him but they didn’t. He was taken to a prison and left there for a long time. He describes the prison in detail and how he was tortured.  Finally he was released and put in a facility where Jews were assembled to go to Theresienstadt." (Photo above: Liebrecht in 1940, photo taken by Elisabeth Hertz before their marriage.)

Theresienstadt to Auschwitz

"Theresienstadt was supposed to be a model camp that the Nazis were showing to the Red Cross and the outside world to show that concentration camps aren’t so bad. Actually it also was a transition camp from which people were eventually sent to Auschwitz.

Liebrecht was put on a transport to Theresienstadt. He didn’t know anything about his child or his wife or his mother. But while he was there his mother arrived at Theresienstadt. She thought it was a great thing that she had gotten to join him there. Some weeks later a caretaker brought his child. He could take his child to see his mother on her deathbed. The child was 2 ½ years old and didn’t know him, he had to win her back and become a good father to her.

  He chose Boszi [Weiss] who was head of the infants home to be her foster mother. Boszi said she couldn’t do it because she already had two foster children, but she relented, and the closeness between them evolved. He would go visit her every evening. He would bring her bread for her and the child. His job in the camp was as a potato carrier, and working with others who worked with food he could sometimes get things.

Then his turn came [to be sent to Auschwitz.] Boszi said I’m not going to let you go alone, I’m going with you. He said that can’t be, they won’t let you. She said I figured out a way—if we are married I can go. She went to Leo Baeck and got him to marry them, they had a little wedding, a camp marriage which allowed her to go along. She insisted on it. The child and I are going with you, we aren’t going to let you go alone.

Liebrecht went with the men who were going to the work camp, and Boszi went with the women and children going to the gas chamber. That’s how they did the division at Auschwitz. Liebrecht didn’t know exactly what had happened to them. After the war when he went back to Theresienstadt he found an old woman on her deathbed who told him.

As Boszi and Liebrecht’s daughter were waiting to go to the gas chamber, the Nazis called for a nurse—they needed a nurse. She stepped forward with the child and said I’m a trained nurse. The Nazis said we can use your services but the child can’t go with you. So she said everywhere I go the child goes. So she and the child walked into the gas chamber together. She could have saved herself but that wasn’t what she was about. I believe that story."

  Ursula and Heinrich Liebrecht

"Liebrecht was a friend of my parents in the early 1940s. My parents introduced me to him. Then when my husband and children went to Germany on a sabbatical, they said you have to visit Liebrecht. At that time he was in Freiberg
 as a lay Jesuit. His wife was baking a cake when we got there. He insisted on taking out us to the Cathedral in the bitter cold. He pointed out the gargoyles and so on, he was very amused with everything.  Then we came back and had cake and hot chocolate.  My sons were 14 and 16, and he was so friendly with everybody that my sons really took to him. They became friends and went back to visit him again later.

After our sabbatical trip he wrote to us. He wanted us to come back and lecture there on what people in the United States thought about the world. We didn’t feel up to that, but I corresponded with him from that point on. That was the winter of 1969. In the 70s he wrote to me that he was writing his memoirs, and asked if I would like a copy when they were published. I said of course. I was teaching gifted students then, and I gave some enrichment lessons in German, and corresponding with people in Germany was part of that. I asked him if he would correspond with one of my students, and he agreed. He enjoyed it very much.

When he died I was in the Peace Corps in Papua New Guinea, in the highlands, teaching chemistry. The caretaker for my house in Arcata sent me the his book that had arrived there from Germany. It was his memoir that was published posthumously.

  Some of my colleagues in PNG were De La Salle brothers and Sacred Heart nuns. One of the brothers knew German and he also read the book. When I read it I was very taken by the way that Liebrecht, who had been born a Jew and converted to Catholicism, had at the end of World War II a very significant conversation with Leo Baeck, the chief rabbi in Germany, who was in the camp with him at Theresienstadt. They had met there and had a lot of conversations there.

  When the war ended he went back to Theresienstadt because he was trying to find out what had happened to his daughter, so he met Leo Baeck again, because he was still there. Baeck had not been deported to Auschwitz as Liebrecht was. In this conversation they talked about vengeance and forgiveness. So it was the rabbi who convinced the Catholic that it was a time for forgiveness, not an eye for an eye. That impressed me. So I translated that section of the book right away, right there in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, so I could share it with all my colleagues, not just the German ones.

When I came home I put it aside for a long time. But in 2008 I translated the whole book. I published it with Xlibris as a translation. In the postscript it’s mentioned that he had also written a play. I’m not sure if Liebrecht wrote the postscript or someone else did. But he didn’t think the play was polished enough to publish."

The Play

My son started looking for the play and found that the Leo Baeck Institute had a manuscript, so we sent for a copy. It had a playbill for a performance in Salt Lake City in 1982 in a German theatre. I was intrigued, and when I went to a conference there with the Unitarian Universalists about four years ago, I wanted to know where the German theatre was.

It turned out to be a private home, started by a man and a woman who had been actors in Hamburg. They converted their living room into a theatre for the German speaking people of the city, Mormons mostly.

I discovered this because the playbill had the names of the actors in that premiere performance, so I looked in the Salt Lake City phone book and found the name of the man who had played Liebrecht. It turned out he had died, but his widow was living in the same house with the same phone number. She invited me to the house. It looked like walking distance from where I was staying but it was June and very hot. I walked up and up the hill and had to rest for awhile under a tree. But I finally got there.

  We talked and talked, and she showed me photos of the play and the costumes. We became quite good friends. She said she had lymphoma and would be dead in a year, but as far as I know she’s still alive. I would like to invite her to the play here.

  At the time they did the play, Liebrecht was the German consul in San Francisco. His area included Salt Lake City, so he came there and told them about the play. But when they performed it, he never saw it.

Fairly soon after I got back I translated the play from German to English. But because Liebrecht didn’t think it was performable, I started looking for someone who might be interested in making it performable. I met John Heckel when he was at the HSU theatre department and he pounced on it. But nothing happened for awhile, and then we started meeting regularly to read the manuscript and talk about it. He and Fran Wittman made suggestions for changes, and from that stage it has evolved.

I haven’t met the actors yet. I want to go to rehearsals. My bad hip doesn’t make it easy, but I’ll go."

His relationship with Boszi Weiss

"His relationship with Boszi Weiss is the central relationship in the play. It’s also in the memoir but it didn’t really become as clear to me from the memoir how close the sexual relationship was. I didn’t see that until I learned more about it in the play. At the end, the Gestapo asked her whether the child is her child. She said, I’m the mother of the child and I’m pregnant by the father of the child. She was carrying another child.

There’s a place in the memoir when Liebrecht first noticed her in Theresienstadt, she had a special way of moving her head to move her hair out of her face. She was Czech. She came in the early days of settling when they were allowed to bring all kinds of equipment, like musical instruments.

There’s a scene in the play that happens after the time covered in the memoir. It’s at the consulate in San Francisco, and Liebrecht is talking to his secretary. He talks about women’s rights. The beginning of the play is different, too. Boszi asks him how it was when he was growing up, so he talks about his early life. His memoir doesn’t. He talks about the youth movement in the “teens” and the young people’s idealism. She asks about his first sexual encounters. He talks a lot about the young women he was with when he was still in the military. He was in the German army in World War I—my father was, too. Liebrecht got the Iron Cross on the western front. He encountered these women on leave.

I’m convinced the play is close to how life was for Liebrecht, and the relationships are very real. He had a very sincere and humanistic outlook, an incredible kindness towards other people. I was intrigued by his choosing Catholicism—a man who was born before 1900 choosing to become a Catholic at the end of World War I. I still don’t really know how it happened. But it was a sincere conversion—not just to avoid the troubles that were already happening. I think he liked the ritual rather than the dogma. He liked being with other people observing the ritual together."

How Ursula Got to Arcata

"My husband, Clyde Osborne, taught chemistry at Long Beach State. He retired in 1976, his health was not good. I was still teaching in southern California but he wanted to retire to somewhere with big trees, like those he knew in his childhood in Bremerton. He grew up near the naval base there. We visited our son at Humboldt State and thought the redwoods were big enough. So we retired here."

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