We have, by now, heard the story of the Holocaust—and the stories of the Holocaust—in many different ways: the Hebrew school horror tales of our childhoods, the academic analyses of our college days, the black-and-white melodramas of Spielbergian tearjerker. We have not, however, typically discussed the Holocaust over whisky and upscale pub grub in hip performance spaces.
That changed last night when Clare Burson, a young Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter, took the stage at Joe’s Pub, in lower Manhattan, to perform “Silver & Ash,” a song cycle about her grandmother, who at 19 years old fled Leipzig for Memphis, Tennessee, never seeing her parents again. It’s a meditation on memory and loss, family and dislocation, based on Burson’s travels to Eastern Europe to investigate her family history. (A Brown graduate and former Fulbright scholar, Burson was two years ago awarded a Six Points Fellowship, for young Jewish artists, which funded her travels. “I was interested in using my music to explore my Jewish identity in a way that still could resonate with and be relevant to people regardless of their faith and ethnicity,” she writes in an accompanying pamphlet.)
It’s a jarring experience at first, hearing stories of Kristallnacht, songs of lost family, memories of lost lives, while standing cheek-by-jowl at a packed bar, tumbler of Scotch in hand. And it’s unexpected to hear these things from a sultry-voiced indie-rock chick with guitar slung over her shoulder and backed by a quartet of guitarist, bassist, drummer, and electronic-gadget-player. But, soon enough, you realize that it works. The songs are lovely, and evocative, and you begin to think of Europe’s lost Jewry—of Burson’s grandmother’s lost childhood, and lost family—not as distant, sepia-toned artifacts but actual people, with immediate troubles.
Burson’s great-grandparents, planning to join their daughter in the United States, had packed up all their belongings to ship across the Atlantic as they themselves headed to Latvia, unable to get a visa. (The Wehrmacht, unfortunately, got to Latvia not too much later.) The boat containing their things, their lives and memories, was bombed before it left Europe. Near the end of her set, Burson sings of them: “Bluegreen and dappled spidery light/white wedding china/cut crystal glasses/a trunk of old linens/silver that’s tarnished/at home in the sea.” It’s a bracing new way of telling the stories we must continue to hear.