Unlocking the tumultuous past: Amherst man creates crowdsourced project to translate his grandmother’s WWII-era memoir

  • Journalist Eric Goldscheider has created a crowdsourced project to translate his grandmother’s WWII-era memoir. He’s seen at Northampton’s Academy of Music, where as part a recent program he read a farewell letter his great-grandmother wrote to his grandmother explaining that she and her husband were taking their lives rather than be transported to a Nazi death camp in 1942. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABATO VISCONTI

  • Journalist Eric Goldscheider has his grandmother’s handwritten WWII-era memoir, in German, in typed form and on 35 hours of digitized tapes. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABATO VISCONTI

  • Journalist Eric Goldscheider has created a crowdsourced project to translate his grandmother’s WWII-era memoir. He’s seen at Northampton’s Academy of Music, where as part a recent program he read a farewell letter his great-grandmother wrote to his grandmother explaining that she and her husband were taking their lives rather than be transported to a Nazi death camp in 1942. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABATO VISCONTI

  • Some images from a photo album compiled by Eric Goldscheider’s grandmother, including a Jewish star she was forced to wear. Below in foreground, his mother, Marianne, age 8 or 9, in Prague in 1941. Ben Barnhart/courtesy Eric Goldscheider

  • Berta Allerhand Landré with her grandsons Eric Goldscheider, left, and Tom Goldscheider at the Franklin Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, N.Y., in August 1964. Courtesy Eric Goldscheider

  • Berta Allerhand Landré, center, with her parents, Wilhelm Allerhand and Anna Hahn Allerhand in 1910 in the city of Ostrava, today in the Czech Republic. Her parents committed suicide when called for “transportation” to a death camp. Ben Barnhart/courtesy Eric Goldscheider

  • An image of Berta Allerhand Landré’s ID from the University of Vienna in the early 1920s. Image by Ben Barnhart/courtesy Eric Goldscheider

  • Image by Ben Barnhart/courtesy Eric Goldscheider

Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2022

When he was growing up, Eric Goldscheider had a particularly close relationship with his grandmother, Berta Allerhand Landré, one that was built in part on the stories she would tell him of her life.

These were stories Goldscheider heard in German — and which encompassed the dramatic and tragic sweep of World War II and the Holocaust.

His grandmother, born in 1902 in what today is the Czech Republic but then was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, grew up speaking German, earned a Ph.D. in Vienna, married a German man, moved to Germany, and had a daughter — Goldscheider’s mother, Marianne — in 1932.

But after the Nazis came to power in 1933, Berta, who was Jewish, saw her life unravel. She and her family were forced to flee to Czechoslovakia, and during WWII, she was obligated to do slave labor work and then spent several months in a concentration camp. After the war, her marriage ended and her daughter decamped to the United States.

Yet Berta, who Goldscheider called Omi, later rebuilt her life, living in the former West Germany and then Austria. And, before she died in 1982, she wrote an 1,800-page memoir in German and recorded it all on cassette tapes — 35 hours worth of them.

Now her grandson has developed a crowd-sourced, online translation project that enlists volunteers to help translate that memoir into English, with a larger goal of shining a light on this turbulent period of history, using personal storytelling and the reach of the internet to make the project accessible.

“My grandmother was a really important adult in my life when I was growing up,” said Goldscheider, 65, a longtime freelance journalist who lives in Amherst. “I spent a lot of time visiting her, and sometimes in the morning I’d crawl in bed with her and ask her to tell me her stories.”

Berta told those stories, including surviving WWII and her time in a concentration camp, “in an age-appropriate way,” he said, “and she was pretty insistent that we do it in German. She wanted me to learn the language.”

Goldscheider explains that he spent the first several years of his life in Switzerland and saw his grandmother, then living in Munich in southern Germany, on a regular basis. He also visited her in Europe when he was older, and he learned German as he grew up, though he never studied it formally.

In addition, Berta visited his family when they resettled in New York City and had a summer home in Connecticut.

Roughly 15 years ago, Goldscheider digitized all the tapes of his grandmother’s memoir, called “Durchs Sieb der Zeit Gefallen” (Fallen Through the Sieve of Time). But he says he didn’t really listen to them, at least not closely, until he took a part-time job about six years ago with Valley Transporter, the shuttle service that takes passengers to airports, cities and other locations in the Northeast.

“Driving to New York or Logan Airport, I had time to really kind of dig into these stories again,” he said. “It occurred to me they were really compelling and could be of interest to a wider audience.”

His grandmother, an avid reader who had gotten her doctorate in geography and been a teacher before WWII, afterward became a journalist and then a children’s book editor and translator.

Another factor led Goldscheider to envision a crowd-sourced translation project: He is dyslexic, and he suspects both his great-grandfather and his grandfather, Berta’s father and husband, were also dyslexic. For people interested in learning more about Berta’s story and this period of history, but who may struggle with a written text, the website — bertalandre.org — provides another option, Goldscheider says.

Berta’s original handwritten memoir, as well as a typed version, both in German, are also posted on the website.

He’s broken the oral memoir into short clips, and the website provides instructions on how one can upload an English translation to the site. Numerous sections have been translated, with both written text and aural clips available for perusal. One of Goldscheider’s volunteers is Donald O. White, a retired Amherst College professor of German now living in Vermont.

A story of survival and loss

The story appeals on a number of levels. For instance, Berta grew up in a borderlands region, close to both Germany and Poland, where Czech, German and Polish (and dialects of the languages) were all spoken. As such, the memoir touches on the tensions and hatreds that arose following the redrawing of national boundaries in Central Europe after World War I, which in turn helped fuel the start of WWII.

It’s also a story about the relationship Berta had with her mother, Anna Hahn Allerhand, Goldscheider’s great-grandmother.

“My grandmother was an only child, and she and her mother were very close; they spent a lot of time together,” Goldscheider said. “They loved to read and discuss books. I was able to learn a lot about Anna through my grandmother.”

His website also includes a memoir that his mother, Marianne, wrote (in English) about her childhood, her experience during WWII, her relationship with her mother, and her eventual move to the U.S. in the early 1950s; she graduated from Mount Holyoke College, lived in New York City for many years, and now lives in Northampton.

“So we have information about three generations of women from the same family, during this time of incredible change and turmoil, and I think that’s also a compelling story,” he said.

The lives of all three women were turned upside down by the rise of the Nazis, WWII and the Holocaust. Berta, who had hoped to land a new teaching job after moving to Germany, had those hopes dashed after Hitler took power in 1933 and antisemitic policies barred Jews from many professions. In 1937, after being questioned by the Gestapo, she fled with Marianne to Prague, the Czech capital; her husband, Jean, followed a year later.

Worse would follow after the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia in early 1939. Berta’s family lived under meager circumstances in Prague, and Berta was forced to clean Jewish buildings the Nazis were clearing. In 1945, she was sent to a concentration camp, Theresienstadt, while her husband was sent to a work camp. Protestant pacifists hid their daughter.

Before that, there was more tragedy. In September 1942, the Nazis ordered Berta’s mother and father to report for “transportation,” likely to a death camp. Instead, they committed suicide, a decision Berta’s mother explained in a farewell letter to her daughter.

In her memoir, Berta recalled that when she first read this letter, “a voice within me said loudly and clearly: ‘Now the best part of my life has come to an end!’ I did not anticipate at the time how much I would be missing them only a few years later, when the war was over.”

Goldscheider has received support for his project from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Five Colleges, and he’s also seeking donations. He hopes to hire someone with digital skills and familiarity with German language and history to help him put all this information together into a cohesive narrative. (A job description is posted on the website.)

His  goal, he says, is to turn the website into a fully versed, interactive learning tool for a wide audience. Given the growth of authoritarian regimes in Europe and other places in the world, and a rise in antisemitic incidents, “I think there are some real lessons to learn here,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.