Labyrinths of life
Stephanie Newman ’13, a resident of Mather House concentrating in English, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to explore acts of human empathy by crafting a memoir from experiences traveling to sites where Jews were hidden during the Holocaust. Newman has had work featured in University publications The Harvard Advocate and The Gamut. In 2010 she was awarded the Joan Gray Untermeyer Poetry Prize by faculty of the English Department for best poem submitted by a female undergraduate. She is the current publisher of The Harvard Advocate and has been a member of the magazine’s Poetry Board since 2010. Upon graduation Newman plans to continue pursuing her interest in writing.
I received my fellowship this summer to travel to Budapest, Hungary, and investigate the acts of human empathy that saved my grandmother from persecution during the Holocaust. The undertaking was deeply personal, but I entered into the experience with a specific artistic purpose: pushing my poetry to the next level. I wanted to embrace an emotionally and historically intense subject matter and see where it led my writing.
Two weeks after I arrived in Budapest, I visited the convent where my grandmother hid during the duration of the Nazi occupation. I walked toward the building down Horánszky utca, a normally mellow street that happened to be undergoing pavement replacement. The whole block was upturned and shut in by cranes clawing up rubble. Behind the machinery stood the convent, yellow and three stories tall, just as my grandmother remembered. Szent Anna Collegium was lettered on the sign beside the doorway.
Melinda, my 22-year-old translator, was the first woman I met inside. She clutched the letter I mailed to the convent in the spring, hugging me in greeting and telling me she had memorized my message. Mother Superior came to meet me and led me into her office, where she had prepared a spread of pastries and coffee just for the occasion. The other sisters filed in to see the girl whose arrival they had been anticipating for months. They smiled at me eagerly as Melinda tried to pass our sentences between Hungarian and English. I spent hours in their warm company, asking questions, telling stories, and touring the building.
Seeing the convent that my grandmother had always described opened up an entirely new realm to explore in my poetry. My grandmother had lived in the convent’s basement during the siege of Budapest in the winter of 1944 before liberation. I had always pictured the basement as a large, low-ceilinged, single room. Instead, I found that the basement was a labyrinth. One room led to another, and cement archways opened into deep enclosures. Walking through the basement was disorienting—I felt as though I could walk and turn and hide but never escape, much as I imagine the citizens of Budapest felt on their own streets after Nazis took hold of the city.
The idea of the labyrinth began to direct my writing. I thought about how the concept could be used poetically to represent the spatial and emotional disorientations of the Holocaust: trains moving victims through the geographic maze of death camps, survivors trying to relocate their families and homes after the war. I thought about the labyrinthine tunnels of the human heart and the miracle of life preserved inside the organ’s chambers.
I thought about the complex passageways of the human brain and the channels through which neurons send messages of fear, hope, and empathy. I thought about my own small message of empathy, the letter I had written, sealed, and sent on a perplexing journey from the Mt. Auburn St. post office to Szent Anna Collegium in Budapest, Hungary.
Then I turned my thoughts into poems.