By Pauline McGonagle, Collaborative PhD candidate with the British Library and University of Exeter working on the Ruth Prawer Jhabvala archive. Pauline's work on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has recently appeared in Wasifiri and formed part of a case-study on collaborative PhDs at the Library.
A Jewish refugee child of Polish origin, who escaped to England in 1939 from Cologne under Nazism, without any spoken English, left a remarkable legacy to international literary and cinematic culture.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvalaâs contribution is celebrated along with many prominent Jews in the biographical dictionary of the Jewish Lives Project within the Jewish Museum in London. Her literary archive, thanks to her bequest, is housed at the British Library. Within this collection are hand-written notebooks, scrapbooks, printed typed drafts, digital material and letters. These relate to her 13 published novels, over 100 short stories (some unpublished), several plays and nonfiction articles. Her scripts and screen play archives (21 in total) are housed in the USA.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala recounted her Cologne childhood memories of being called a âdirty Jewâ and chased by other German children in 1983 profiles and interviews. She remembered the notices on the cityâs cinemas which stated, âJews are not desiredâ. In 1934, the year after she started school, she witnessed the Nazis parade past their apartment before Nazi troops came to arrest her parents who were taken into protective police custody. She spoke of walking to her segregated Jewish school in 1938 past gangs smashing windows, and how once friendly shopkeepers âgrew very cold and turned away from youâ. She told Harriet Shapiro in 1987: âOther children would scream after us and throw stonesâ.
Ruth Prawer fled with her father Marcus, mother Eleanora and brother Siegbert, by the âsmallest flukeâ in April 1939, when US visas were declined, and they found Polish-born sponsors in Coventry. They later discovered, that at least forty of their relatives had perished. When Ruth Prawer was twenty-one and a student at Queen Mary College, London (1948), her father committed suicide. She later emigrated to Delhi, after she married the Parsi architect Cyrus Jhabvala in 1951, where she spent the next 25 years before moving to New York in 1976.
Destined to Write
Jhabvala told Dorothy D. Horowitz in an interview for Oral History how she constantly wrote stories as a child, in German, about Jewish life and with settings based on an imaginary Palestine; but âI canât recall a single oneâ. Her mother was accused by her school of writing the stories and these were read out loud in the house of her grandfather, Elias Cohn, a bass Ober-Kantor at the conservative synagogue in Cologne. But, she recounted, someone threw these stories away and no-one thought to keep them.
The British Library has the photocopies of her first two published stories in her English school magazine Microcosm, âDer Fuchs un der rabeâ (1939) and âThe Wonder Potâ (1940). The copies were posted to Jhabvala in 1987 by the friend who had shared a childhood bedroom with this refugee stranger in Coventry in 1939. The letter attached to them said: âHerewith proof of your early promiseâso elegantly fulfilledâ.
Ruth Prawerâs first publication in German and the cover of the School Magazine Microcosm, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Add MS 89348 Â© British Library Board
In 2005 Maya Jaggi explained how other writers described Jhabvalaâs skill and ability in terms of her unique outsider perspective. Caryl Phillips identified her postcolonial positioning: âShe understood loss of language, land and history in a brutal and visceral way, and reinvented herselfâŠâ
Jhabvala told a Canadian radio interviewer in 2012 when asked about the link between her refugee background and her ability to detach herself from the subjects of her work:
Iâm not interested in who am I, âŠ Iâm interested in whatâs gone, the disinheritance, what Iâve been able to become or learn or fuse with or not fuse with. A certain freedom comesâŠ I like it that way.
The lecture which she gave on receipt of the Neil Gunn Fellowship awarded by the Scottish Arts Council in 1979 tackled this topic and was published in Blackwoodâs Magazine under the title âDisinheritanceâ. In it, she distinguishes the loss of âancestral memoriesâ from what she sees as inherited craftsmanâs tools, which âwere given, gifted to me, happened to meâ. The drafted plans for the lecture clearly delineate her life into distinct phases.
From Notebook containing plan outline of lecture for receipt of Neil Gunn Fellowship in Edinburgh 1979, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Add MS 89348 Â© British Library Board
Try and try and try again
Jhabvala worked at her craft with a daily routine of morning writing and was driven by inner confidence and resilience. An annotated typed piece entitled âWhy I Writeâ (undated) from the archive, reminiscent of George Orwellâs 1946 essay, illustrates this. It may have been written after 1976, as the final page addresses her last writing phase. She describes âthe double spurâ of inner and outward ambition and the increasing thrill that writing brings. Yet the assuredness and self-reflection on how Jhabvala the writer was formed is balanced by a self-critical voice, one which speaks after completing every story or book : âI didnât get it rightâŠâ and then a persistent: âlet me try again, and again, and againâ.
Undated annotated typed essay Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Add MS 89348Â© British Library Board
Jhabvala never mentions screen writing here. If âWhy I Writeâ is dated close to the papers with which it was packed (1980-1983) she had already written five screenplays by then, all set in India, and had adapted both Henry Jamesâ The Europeans (1979) and Jean Rhysâ Quartet (1981). Her inspiration for screen writing was always literary and she admired those artists who shared this influence in their work, most of whom had a deep rootedness in their own soil, something which, for her, was absent.
When discussing her favourite Satyajit Ray film, Charulata, based on the Rabindranath Tagore novel, this ambition features:
All great works stimulate a hopeful emulation that ends occasionally, as in the films of Satyajit Ray, in radiant success â ensuring the business of influence and inspiration that makes us all try and try and try again.
Ray supervised the music production of Jhabvalaâs first Merchant Ivory adaptation of her novel The Householder (1963), he re-cut the film, and his cameraman directed the photography. James Ivory also recalls her saying âLetâs climb a big mountainâ when she wanted them to make EM Forsterâs Howards End (the adaptation which won her one of two Oscars in 1993).
Jhabvala, who died in 2013 in New York, had no ambition or desire to return to Cologne. In the âDisinheritanceâ essay she speaks about her feelings after twenty-four years in India: âa terrible hunger of homesickness that I cannot describe it was so terrible, so consumingâ. She articulates it as a desire for no specific âhomeâ but for a generic Europe, where people spoke, thought, and looked like she did. New York provided this homecoming for her in 1976, because it seemed like a bucolic Europe, reaching backward and âuntouched by the events of the 1930s and 40sâ. When Bernard Weinraub interviewed her in 1983 for The New York Times Magazine she explained: âTo anyone of my generationâŠ Europe now does smell of bloodâ.
Once a Refugee, Always a Refugee
âA person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgottenâ (the Talmud). This quote is cited by Gunter Demnig, the Cologne artist, as the inspiration for his work. He remembers those who fled, were deported or murdered as victims of Nationalist Socialism, by installing commemorative brass plaques in the pavement in front of their last address of choice. These stolpersteine (âstumbling stonesâ) now exist in 2,000 locations, and the 75,000th was placed in Frankfurt in December 2019. The stones give individual names to those considered âsubhumanâ by an ideology which promoted Aryan racial purity, one that propagated Fascist movements right across Europe.
In September 2019, Ruth Prawer Jhabvalaâs daughter Ava Wood and I went to Cologne where four stones were being laid in memory of the Prawer family, commissioned by the generosity of a local art gallery owner, Norbert Arns and his book group. This group, formed in 2013, were reading Ishiguroâs Remains of the Day in May 2019, when a member, Thomas Schuld, Director of the Edith Stein Archive, realised that Prawer Jhabvala who adapted the novel for the screen was a former resident. They researched the family and discovered the great achievements of both Ruth and her brother Siegbert, a scholar and Professor of German and Comparative Literature; located their last known address from the City councilâs registers, and traced family members.
Our very brief visit was to a city which none of the Prawers would have recognised. The book groupâs hospitality included; visits to the Jewish Cemetery gravestones of Ruth Prawer Jhabvalaâs grandparents, to the original site of the orthodox synagogue on Glockengasse, which was razed in 1938 during Kristallnacht, where now sits the opera house, and a personal tour of the Roonstrasse synagogue with Boris Rothe.
On the morning of 26th September 2019 four granite setts with brass plates fixed on top, hand-engraved by the craftsman Michael Friedrichs-FriedlĂ€nder, were silently and swiftly laid by Gunther Demnig outside a five-storey 1950s building on 35 Hochstadenstrasse. We witnessed a moving but simple tribute with some residents, the book group members and passers-by, in the drizzling rain. These stones were the first four of 50 that were laid later that day in Cologne. Among other groups considered âa-socialâ, whose names will not be forgotten, are Roma and Sinti gypsies, Jehovahâs Witnesses, homosexuals and disabled people.
The stolpersteine are not always welcome and some Jewish leaders and groups consider them disrespectful, while a few residents find it distasteful to have such painful reminders outside their front doors. Munich has only permitted wall panel memorials as alternatives. It seems to me, that the humility of bowing down to honour the victims of persecution as we stumble upon them has its own dignity; a dignity not offered to other victims of perpetrators of injustice, the offenders honoured with statues, and to whom we look upwards as we walk under their shadows.
Ruth Prawer, who was almost twelve when she left Cologne, could only dream of being the writer she would become, but Cologne now remembers her and her family as survivors who fled from what was their home. These memorials, created and placed with respect by human hands, and stumbled on by human feet, carry the name she was born with next to those of her dearest, thanks to the generosity and humanity of strangers.
Photograph by Ava Wood stolpersteine laid on Sept 26, 2019 outside 35 Hochstadenstrasse, Cologne. Â© Ava Jhabvala Wood
Apperly, Eliza. ââStumbling stonesâ: a different vision of Holocaust remembranceâ The Guardian February 18, 2019.
Etzioni, Amitai ââKristallnachtâ Remembered: History & Communal Responsibilityâ Commonweal June 15, 2014.
Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer. 1979. âDisinheritanceâ. Blackwoodâs Magazine
Horowitz, Dorothy.1983. âRuth Prawer Jhabvala Oral History Memoirâ (November 16) from William E. Wiener Oral History Library of the American Jewish Committee at New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Shapiro, Helen. âThe Teeming Imagination of Novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is Her Window on a World She Avoidsâ. People, September 28, 1987, 48â53.
Weinraub, Bernard. âThe Artistry of Ruth Prawer Jhabvalaâ. The New York Times Magazine Sept.11, 1983.
Woo, Elaine. âJhabvala saw herself as a âlifelong refugeeââ Los Angeles Times April 05, 2013.