I decided to start off this weblog with a quote from Albert Einstein on miracles not only because I thought it was so appropos to the blog's title but also because it affirms my experience that everything changes depending on how you look at it. Little did I know that Einstein would show up in my research somewhere else, but more on that in a few minutes. . . .
Now that "Hours of Devotion" has an actual existence in the world and is no longer my "project," I rather miss the engrossing activity of working on it morning and night, turning Fanny Neuda's prayers into poems—which often felt like living inside the prayers themselves (what an amazing place of blessing that was!)—so I've taken up a related obsession: trying to locate Fanny's descendants. This is not an easy task after the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia and Austria, where Fanny and her family lived. But, thanks to the Internet, and the existence of searchable databases, more bits of information are starting to arise, literally, from the ashes.
A search of the Yad Vashem central database for Fanny's relatives immediately yielded results. Yad Vashem, located in Jerusalem, has collected and recorded the names and biographical details of as many as half of the six million Jews who perished during the Holocaust. The names show up in one of two ways: either from documentation collected by various groups or from pages of testimony by a relative. The testimony pages are especially valuable for genealogical research because the forms often show the parents' names as well as the name and address of the person who filled out the form.
On my very first try I found the name Lili Neuda-Halpern (1882–1940) recorded in pages of testimony by two of her children, Lisa Jack (née Lotte Halpern) and William Ward (née Robert Halpern). Though recorded 15 years apart, they both tell essentially the same story: Lili's father was Moritz Neuda, Fanny's eldest son, and the family lived in Vienna before the war, where Fanny also lived in the 1880s, when she was in her sixties. This confirms my suspicion that Fanny moved from Lostice to Vienna to be near her grandchildren. Not only that, but in William Ward's testimony, he records his mother's profession as "writer and poet." Could Lili have have been inspired by her grandmother to become a writer as well?
Lili also had an illustrious mother, Rosa Neuda-Bernstein, a noted opera singer. I originally found Rosa's name in a discography last year but didn't know how she might be related to Fanny. Now, finding her listed as Lili's mother, and thus Fanny's daughter-in-law, I could start to form a picture of what a highly cultured, aristocratic life the family must have lived in Vienna in the late 19th century. I was especially thrilled to find this quote in Walter Frisch's 1990 book, Brahms and His World:
As far as I know, the well-regarded concert singer and voice teacher Frau Neuda-Bernstein is the only talent in Vienna who can boast of having enjoyed piano lessons with Brahms (p. 169).
If Rosa studied with Brahms, might Fanny have met him personally as well? She could very well have been present at the 1876 world premier of his achingly beautiful Symphony No. 1, and she most certainly would have seen the composer conduct one or more of his great masterpieces of the 1880s. How impossible it would have been at the height of this period of grace for this privileged family to see into the future and imagine the nightmare that would eventually befall them and that would engulf Fanny's granddaughter Lili and many other members of their family as well.
Which brings us back around again to Einstein. . . . Today, in digging deeper into Lili's own work, I found Max Jammer's book Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology, in which the author examines Einstein's thoughts on mysticism. In the course of doing so, he quotes a 1921 interview conducted in Vienna by our own Lili Neuda-Halpern (then age 39)—a writer, poet, and journalist, who had enough interest in mystical thought to raise such questions to Albert Einstein, whose name sits at the top of this blog. Now that's what I call a "miracle update."
Next time, a miraculous story of survival with awesome connections at every turn.