- One Voice, Many Echoes, and: Out of Silence into Being
Rebecca Camhi Fromer has accomplished much in her life. In 1962 she and her husband Seymour Fromer founded the Judah Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California. As a talented poet and author, she has been among the few who have given a literary voice to the experiences of the Sepharadim in the Holocaust in such books as The Holocaust Odyssey of Daniel Bennahmias, Sonderkommando (1993:University of Alabama Press), The House by the Sea (1998: Mercury House), and They Say Diamonds Don’t Burn (1994 Judah Magnes Museum, coeauthored with Rene Molho). In 2007 two additional books came to light: One Voice, Many Echoes, a compilation of selections from her prose work, and Out of Silence into Being, a book of selected poems. These, more than any other previously published works, demonstrate an almost limitless literary versatility and exceptional mastery of words combined with a strength of imagination, breadth and depth of experience and sensitivity, and a progressive social sensibility infused with, and influenced by, her Sephardic identity.
One Voice, Many Echoes is divided into two “Books,” with Book I encompassing fictional and factual stories and plays (a tour de force of the author’s creative writing), and Book II, containing [End Page 137] a remarkable essay, which includes the transcript of a talk given by James Baldwin, and a section of the author’s original and concise “Pensees.” Only two of the twentyesix selections in the book have ever appeared in print. (The play “The Inquiry” and the story “Erica” were included in the anthology Sephardic-American Voices, edited by Diane Matza and published in 1996 by Brandeis University Press.)
Stories about war experiences are grouped in Book I Part I, and are aptly captioned “In the Sweep of War.” Here is where we find, in stories like “Renee Levy’s Outpouring,” “Portrait of Sarah,” and “An Incident of Consequence,” the recollections of Holocaust survivors from Salonica and Rhodes, with whom the American-born author had a special personal bond and a shared Ladino-based Sephardic culture. This is especially explicit in the story entitled “Para Ti” (“For You” in Ladino), where Fromer reflects on her friendship with Dario Gabbai, begun in 1952, when all she knew about him was that he was a refugee from Salonica:
[…] from the start, there is something there that can only be described as a feeling of family. [….] everything falls into place with ease; we are both Sephardic, we speak Ladino and Dario, who was born in Salonica, comes from my mother’s city. Salonica is, in fact, the city my maternal ancestors have lived in for centuries.(p.58.)
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In the course of one evening with Dario, Fromer utters a Ladino phrase (Era bueno de un rey…) popularly used for starting Sephardic folktales. This nostalgic note not only overcomes Dario emotionally, but also prompts him to tearfully reveal some of the horrors of his enslavement as a Sonderkomando in Auschwitz.1 It was a moment when Fromer concludes, “fate had made him that terror’s handmaiden and I its midwife” (p.59).
Fromer has indeed functioned as a midwife who has delivered the terror of the Holocaust in much of her writing. Prompted by the knowledge that very little is known or has been published about the losses suffered by the Sepharadim, she has determined to bring out the facts in non-fiction, and explored the larger ramifications of war and its consequences in works of fiction. In the play “The Inquiry,” which delves into the torment of being, or being accused of having been, a collaborator and betrayer of friends, the characters are based on real people who lived in Salonica at the time of the German invasion of Greece on April 6, 1941 (p.65). The story “1492” is one of betrayal and collusion with the Inquisition at the time of the expulsion from Spain; the story “Chanume,” follows a small girl who experiences the great fire of 1917 in Salonica...