Publisher’s Note: Leah Bennett is a former Town of Brookline Librarian, Brookline Citizen writer, and active resident for 20 years. In the 1990s, she befriended Regine Barshak. Barshak and former Brookline resident Leon Satenstein founded a Town of Brookline effort to interview local Holocaust survivors called the Brookline Holocaust Witness Project, which is chronicled in the film . Barshak also had a relationship with J.D. Salinger, described in this article by Leah Bennett, which was originally published in the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) newsletter. R. Harvey Bravman
It was a cool, damp evening in December at the New York Public Library. I had attended a fruitful conference of librarians from the AJL-NYMA (Association of Jewish Libraries—New York/Massachusetts) chapter, combined with a tour of the massive and magnificent Beaux-Arts building. The hour was late, and the library would be closing soon. The weather looked ominous—was a storm brewing? But one of my goals—indeed, one of the reasons I was so keen to come to the New York Public Library in Midtown Manhattan—was to view the much-acclaimed exhibit on J. D. Salinger, the brilliant but reclusive author of one of the greatest works of the twentieth century, The Catcher in the Rye. In addition to his manuscripts, letters, and photographs, the exhibit featured never-before-seen papers and artifacts, including his typewriter, pens, and pipe holder, a bowl he made at camp when he was a boy, and his revolving nightstand, stacked with books untouched since his death in 2010. My nightstand, like those of many bibliophiles, is also a tower of tomes that I intend to read . . . someday. Salinger’s heirs gathered these items together so the public could better understand this inscrutable man, who for years hid away in small-town New Hampshire, never granting interviews.
However, the New York Public Library and the Salinger estate stipulated that cameras and cell phones would be prohibited in the exhibit space after photos of the display items turned up on the internet. Salinger’s son, Matt, felt that his father would not have approved. In addition, electronic devices would also destroy the intimate, communion-like experience that the viewers should have with his personal items. His son was a stalwart protector of his legacy. But the visiting public was not wholly pleased. Some visitors balked. They did not want to part with their precious devices at the checkpoint outside the exhibit, yet most did. All of this added to the buzz surrounding the exhibition, which could be seen in the glowing reviews and feature articles about the Salinger Trust and the sometimes non-compliant visitors’ restrictions. I was intrigued and wanted to see it all for myself.
So I dutifully checked my coat, backpack, and phone at “Checkpoint Charlie” and waited in line to enter the inner sanctum. As it was getting late, I made a conscious decision—don’t read every epistle, caption, or scrap of paper, as I am wont to do! My strategy: photos, tchotchkes, nightstand, and their captions—yes. The shorter letters, articles, and manuscripts—yes. The longer, more voluminous items—sadly, no. As I perused the letters and photos in each vitrine, I learned much more about Salinger. For instance, he was a World War II veteran who was present at many major battles, such as the Battle of the Bulge and at D-Day, as well as the liberation of a subcamp of Dachau. All of this had a profound effect on him. He was hospitalized for post-traumatic stress and said that he never got over the smell of burning flesh in his nostrils. The man who created the brooding, hypersensitive Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, could not help but be tortured by his wartime experiences.
I moved with dispatch and determination from vitrine to vitrine. Though exhausted from the long day, I pushed on—who knows when I would return? This was so very interesting. Then my eyes fell upon an aged, sepia–colored newspaper clipping:
To the Editor:
I am distressed by an invitation I have received from the United States Holocaust Memorial Council to attend a “tribute to liberators and rescuers of victims of the Holocaust” at Arlington National Cemetery on April 21. It is as inappropriate as would be an invitation from an American Indian group to attend a tribute to Custer’s last stand. Let me explain:
The Holocaust Memorial Council is supposed to preserve for future understanding and use the memory of the horror of the Holocaust. The core of any true and usable American understanding is that our Government’s role was regrettably ignoble. That is only too well documented by such historians as Leonard Dinnerstein, Walter Laqueur, and David Wyman. It is a sad record of rejection of Hitler’s victims, which contributed to their being collected for slaughter and, at best, indifference to their fate after they were penned in ghettos and death camps.
It is true that American forces liberated Europe, deliberately, doggedly, and at great human cost. It is not true, in any honestly meaningful sense, that we liberated the Holocaust victims. Rather, as German forces retreated on both fronts, American and Soviet troops came upon the death camps, unintentionally, unhurriedly, and unexpectedly.
The proposed tribute to that unplanned meeting of troops and the remnants of the previously ignored is a distortion of the historical record. The purpose of the Holocaust Memorial Council to perpetuate the truth for use in the future (or the present in Bosnia?) is subverted by that distortion.
REGINE WINDER BARSHAK
Co-chairman, Brookline Holocaust Witness Project
Brookline, Mass., April 4, 1993
I reread the name: Regine Barshak. Wha—? I gasped. Oh, my word—I know this woman! When I was a librarian at the Brookline Public Library in the 1990s, she would come in regularly to check out books on the Holocaust. Early on, we struck up a conversation and soon became good friends. Her mission was to uncover the truth of how the Allies failed to save the Jews when they had multiple opportunities to do so. She went to Washington, D.C., frequently to research the FDR Archives and gather documents to educate others about the action—or, rather, inaction—of the world as the European Jews were being systematically slaughtered. She herself was a child in the Drancy internment camp outside Paris, and her family was killed by the Nazis. Why was her letter to the New York Times here—in the Salinger exhibit? This letter was neatly cut from the newspaper and attached to a larger sheet of paper, with marginalia on the right-hand side. The handwritten lines, in black ink, were thick and slanted. They appeared to be in all capitals because of their uniformity, but they were in the appropriate case on closer examination. On an electronic device, it might look like yelling, but it wasn’t—technically. It was a strong, bold hand:
“True! No ‘liberating’ was done. None. Governments, ‘statesmen,’ nations, citizens, the world over, just looked the other way or themselves felt endangered.”
Wow! I assume that Regine never knew that a world-famous author who influenced so many with his writings was himself so moved by her letter that he cut it out, added annotations, and saved it in his files. Or did she know? I doubted it. I wanted to shout—I KNOW THIS WOMAN!—but I didn’t dare make a scene. Everyone was quietly viewing the items with a reverence that bordered on awe.
After I retrieved my coat, backpack, and phone, I exited the building with my head whirling. Is my dear friend Regine still alive? I regretted that I had lost contact with her when I left the Boston area for New York City in 2002. I reminisced about the spirited and intense conversations that we had in the library and would often continue over a meal in a local Brookline restaurant. One day, she gave me a large, heavy, expansive file folder of papers. “You are interested in my research, so please take these to read. They are copies of documents and articles . . . ,” she said. I took them. Heavy in weight, heavy in content. I will read them soon, I thought. And the days turned into years. Once I was tempted to throw the file folder away. There is so little space in most Brooklyn apartments, and I was determined to be ruthless about streamlining. I wondered if I would ever find the time to go through all these documents. But my packrat husband, who saves every scrap of paper, insisted that I keep it. I stashed it away in the basement, where it sat between Pesach boxes for almost two decades.
The next day, I googled her name and, thanks to the internet, found a video of her in less time than it took to write this sentence, in a film entitled . I clicked on it, and there was Regine, the kind and impassioned older woman that I remembered, telling us not to forget in her thick French accent. I contacted the producer of that film, R. Harvey Bravman, who wrote back immediately, telling me to call him. I was very excited. Was she still alive?! I had an uneasy feeling, though, that she had passed. I remember that she talked about her grown children – two daughters and a son in our conversations. Do they know that her letter is showcased in one of the most important and popular exhibits in New York City? I must contact them and tell them that. Otherwise, would they ever know?
Harvey told me that Regine had indeed passed away years ago, but he would contact her children, and they would get back to me, which they did. No, they did not know about their mother writing to Salinger. I clarified—no, she didn’t write to him, but, in a sense, he wrote to her! Her letter to the editor stirred him so deeply that he preserved it and added his own commentary. Like Holden Caulfield, Salinger couldn’t abide by “phonies” and liars. Regine and Salinger were kindred spirits—twin truth-seekers. Her children were gobsmacked. Her daughter Danielle told me that her mother was a prodigious letter writer, and her letters to the editor were published widely. But nothing like this. They made plans to drive in from Massachusetts as soon as they could to see their mother’s letter in the exhibit, and afterward, we would meet for lunch. And I would hand over the precious folder of documents, which they knew nothing about!
Then, lo and behold, another email from R. Harvey Bravman arrived in my inbox. A filmmaker was making a documentary about letters to the New York Times editors, and he would like to interview us for the film! Huh? I felt that I was the linchpin in connecting the Barshak children to the filmmaker with the purpose of keeping Regine’s legacy, and that of all survivors, alive. If I hadn’t called Harvey to find Regine, he would not have connected this filmmaker to me. How serendipitous that everything at that moment revolved around letters to the New York Times. But this delusion was dashed when I wrote the filmmaker. He was a research fellow at the New York Public Library who happened to be making a film about the impact of the New York Times letters to the editor on people’s lives. He was also a Salinger fan and had discovered Regine’s letter in the vitrine, just as I did. He was so thrilled with this find that he wanted to use it as a focal point in his film. Like me, he contacted Harvey a few days after I did. And he sought to interview Regine’s children for the film. So, I wasn’t the linchpin after all, and no movie career for me, but I’m delighted that I contacted Regine’s children—Rachelle, Danielle, and Joel—and that we would soon meet.
Two nights before our scheduled lunch in the city, I knew I must read the contents of the folder before I gave it to them, and I’m so glad that I did. Danielle did say that her mother was a prodigious letter writer. There were several letters to the editor, from the New York Times and the Boston Globe to smaller, local Jewish newspapers. She saved her drafts. I found a few personal notes to me. One directed me to notice how the editors had “slashed” her original letters, thereby watering them down. There were several fascinating articles about the inability of the U.S. government and the Vatican to rescue the Jews, about Nazis who escaped to live out their lives in South America and the United States via the “ratlines” set up by the Vatican, and about how survivors were faring some twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years after the end of the war. Most striking was that just like Salinger, Regine would cut out articles and tape them to paper, adding commentary! For instance, in an article with the headline “Some Survivors Still Suffering,” she wrote, “Not ‘some’—all [double-underlined] of them. Unless they have amnesia.” Alongside another headline, “Many US Jews Trying to Forget—and They Can’t,” she wrote, “It is a memory that makes us human.”
J. D. Salinger and Regine Barshak were indeed kindred spirits.
# # #
I could not secure a copy of the original clipping in the vitrine with J. D. Salinger’s annotations, though not for want of trying. His legacy is vigorously safeguarded.
I want to give grateful acknowledgment to Amanda Seigel, a librarian in the Dorot Jewish Division, New York Public Library, for her immense contribution in putting together the AJL-NYMA conference and for securing a copy of Regine Barshak’s original letter for me. She’s a librarian extraordinaire.