Last fall I started teaching a second weekly memoir-writing class for senior citizens. Anna Perlberg is one of the students in that second class at
Lincoln Park Village, and it’s been a treat to hear her unveil her stories out loud to us every Thursday.
Anna’s husband Mark Perlberg co-founded the Poetry Center of Chicago and served as its president for 13 years. Anna has spent a lifetime listening to poetry, and she reads her own essays aloud in class with exquisite rhythm and timing. You don’t need to be able to see to know that everyone in class is at the edge of their seats when Anna reads, riveted by her words.
I assigned “Feeling Homesick” as a topic for the Lincoln Park Village class, and Anna showed up the next week with an excerpt from a piece she’d written for the Prairie Schooner, a journal published in cooperation with the University of Nebraska Press and the Creative Writing Program of the University of Nebraska.
Anna was born in Czechoslovakia. Her mother, Julia Nessy, was a lyric soprano and performed widely throughout Europe during the 1920s. Her father studied law and served under Czechoslovakia’s first president. “The young republic prospered,” Anna’s voice sounds like soft velvet when she reads in class. Regal, yet comforting. “It’s first president, Thomas Masaryk, set a tone of high-minded humanism; the economy grew, the arts flourished, and the mix of cultures–Czech, German, and Jewish–made the capital, Prague, a rich center of European life.” Czechoslovakia’s First Republic lasted only twenty years before Hitler’s army invaded, and World War II began.
“Those twenty years were the high point of both my parents’ lives,” Anna tells us.
I liked the excerpt Anna read so much that she surprised me with a copy of the journal the next week. I dug out my old cassette recorder when I got home from class, and Mike sat with me on the couch to read the complete essay out loud. Anna describes herself as a “shy, precocious nine-year-old girl,” when she left home with her parents and two older brothers as Hitler’s army seized Prague in March of 1939. The family took a circuitous, and often hair raising, route to New York City, and Anna’s story details countless friends and complete strangers who helped along the way. “I observed much, though I understood little, as we left one world for another in America.”
Anna’s beloved husband Mark Perlberg died in 2008 of complications from leukemia, and she has spent the years since then gathering his unpublished poems. Mark Perlberg’s posthumous collection, Theater of Memory, will be published by Louisiana State University Press in the fall of 2012, and three previously unpublished poems from Theater of Memory will appear in the spring issue of Prairie Schooner. While you’re at the Prairie Schooner site to read the current issue with Mark Perlberg’s poems, I suggest you order a copy of the Fall, 2010 journal as well. That’s where you’ll find Anna’s complete essay and learn about her amazing journey to America.