Agnes Tennenbaum, the Author
By Jerry Darring
I would like to speak to you for a few moments about Agnes Tennenbaum, the author of poems, stories, and an autobiography.
Agnes left us with 29 poems. They are not very strong as poems, but Agnes loved writing them and she was proud of them. One topic that showed up in about a third of her poems was the Holocaust. A principal theme was remembrance: “We, the survivors, will carry the torch of remembrance until the very end.” She connected that theme with her other Holocaust theme, loss: “We can’t forgive or forget the stolen youth we never had.” But Agnes devoted just as much space to her other favorite topic, love and relationships. “Love can be a prison,” she wrote, but she seemed to like to write about that prison. “I’m not an altruistic lover, give and take is my game.” And she didn’t mind letting it all hang out: “Well, I’m only human; never claimed to be holy.” In her later years she seemed glad that all the love turmoil was over: “No husband to complain to, or complain to me. Boy, I am as happy as happy can be!”
Agnes reflected in her poems on life: “Life is a shrouded mystery, that is certain.” She reflected on her own life: “When did I stop being a child?… When did I become a teenager?… When did I grow up?… When did I grow old?” In the end, she was unsure about how she had lived: “Did I use my years right?… I often think I could have done so much better.”
Agnes began writing stories early. “When I was ten I wrote short stories.” Then after the war, “I lived in Munich, Germany. After the loss of my first husband, I married again. He encouraged me to write. He liked to brag about my talent. In 1948 my first story was published. The title was ‘The Four Carat Diamond Ring.’ It was published in Hungarian and English. I received many fan letters.” In the end, Agnes left us with 84 short stories, some of which are fragments. Her preferred method of delivery was dialogue, and most of the content of her stories is included within quotation marks. She doesn’t write long sentences, and she fills them with adjectives. “A medieval castle , overlooking an endless, dark, green lake, edged by ancient, tall trees” “The numberless, multi-colored neon signs were flashing their gleaming lights over the bustling streets.” She loved adjectives.
Agnes’s stories are inhabited by fortune tellers, horoscopes, out-of-body experiences, and lots of unusual things, surprises, coincidences: a cat that could turn on the TV by jumping on the switch; a whorehouse transformed into a dignified, respectable place; a parakeet that fussed if the motel wasn’t a good one; a coat that passed through several hands and camps only to end up in the hands of the man who had made it; a watch with a secret mechanism that guaranteed a slot-machine jackpot every time; a clock that stopped working at the very moment when its owner died.
Only 18 of Agnes’s 84 stories are fiction. The vast majority are taken from her own life, because, as she wrote in one of her stories, “Sometimes life creates more fascinating stories than a writer’s vivid imagination.” You could say that what Agnes was doing in her stories was reflecting on her life. “I’m searching for a real purpose of my existence. I wonder if I ever find it.” Her favorite topic was love, including love-making. “For the rest of my life I faked it to make someone happy. Then again, maybe love is just an illusion.” But more than love-making, she was interested in human relationships. “The attraction of the body wears off, but being an interesting companion never does.”
Her other favorite topic was the Holocaust, that is to say, her own Holocaust experience. She talks in many of her stories of the fond memories of her childhood in Hungary, but the Holocaust changed that. “How could I possibly return to a country which eagerly handed me over to the Germans in order to take possession of my home, bank account and jewelry. The country that implemented the death of my whole family.”
The United States was another matter. Agnes was so proud that she had been liberated by American soldiers, and so glad she had come here: “God with his mysterious ways brought me to the USA. I love my country with all my heart.” And she loved the places in America where she lived. “I could write pages about the most wonderful city in the world, New York. I lived there and loved it.” “I loved California. My life was exciting. Filled with fascinating people.” “How can I thank Phoenix for all the fun and freedom I finally had.” “When I will breathe my very last, I can say, maybe in Mobile my years were the very best.”
Another topic that shows up in many of Agnes’s stories is gambling. She loved going to the casinos, although she had her own thoughts on this. “Man makes his own luck, then God helps. That was always my philosophy.” I noticed her attraction to gambling, so when we worked together to publish her book of poems and short stories, I suggested the title, “Life Is a Gamble,” and she loved it.
Her magnum opus, of course, was her autobiography. Agnes and I had known each other for some time when I became aware of her having a manuscript she had written back in the 1950s. Would you let me look at it, I asked. Of course, dahling. She went into a closet and came out with box containing the manuscript, all 500 typed pages. I took it home and read it, and the next time I saw her I told her that I thought it needed to be whittled down so that it was focused more on her Holocaust experience. Lots of people fall in and out of love, I told her, but not too many of us have performed slave labor for the Nazis. I will do whatever you want, dahling. So I would bring her a chapter of 25 pages and tell her to cut it in half, and it was done.
The autobiography, entitled “A Girl Named Rose: My Holocaust Journey,” is vintage Agnes. She describes highly dramatic scenes – hiding from bombs, life in a ghetto, separation from family, a train ride in a cattle car, slave labor, fighting off an attempted rape, sickness, hunger, death march, escape – and her tone is always calm and matter-of-fact. There is no hysteria; she simply tells you what was happening and lets you figure out the turmoil that she must have been going through.
Agnes wanted all of her writings to be deposited at South Alabama, so in a few months there will be a ceremony at South Alabama’s Marx Library in which Agnes Tennenbaum’s material, along with that of all the other Holocaust survivors who have lived in Mobile, will be donated to South Alabama, where they will be housed in the McCall Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Agnes ended one of her stories with this question: “When my time comes, who is going to replace me?” Ah, Agnes, dear, sweet Agnes, no one will ever replace you.