2022 Reading Challenge

2022 Reading Challenge
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Excerpt: Home So Far Away by Judith Berlowitz

About the Book

Inspired by the life of a relative, and told in fictional diary entries with illustrations included, HOME FAR AWAY is a riveting and unforgettable debut about 34-year-old chemist Klara Philipsborn, who escapes Germany as the Nazis rise to power, knowing that her politics and her faith make her a target. When war breaks out, she volunteers with the Communist-sponsored Fifth Regiment of People’s Militias, as both a translator and a nurse. Given the creeping closeness of hostilities, Klara remains careful about revealing her faith, even in her most personal relationships, and she soon learns that in the shadow of war, the price for secrets is steep. In the excerpt below, war is declared and Klara signs up for duty, in the presence of “La Pasionaria

The Excerpt

Madrid, Thursday, 23 July, 1936

As I crossed the vast patio of the new Headquarters there were no more lines for interviews but instead clusters of people gathered around the columns of the arcade, on which had been posted long sheets of paper. I finally found my name (albeit wildly misspelled) on the paper headed Servicios, with sub-headings Intendencia (administration), Armamento, Transportes and finally, Sanidad (health care), supervised by Dr. Juan Planelles Ripoll, whose name I recognized as the Chief Health Officer of Madrid and also a member of the Communist Party. The sign directed me to Sala 46, which turned out to be another one of the classrooms of the former monastery.

In the room a group of people, including Matilde Landa, the woman who had signed me in on Tuesday, stood by the chalkboard talking in low tones. After a few minutes the classroom had filled, with people having to stand against the walls. 

One man from the group, dressed in an undistinguished khaki uniform that looked as if he had slept in it, came to the front of the room and began to speak. His face was soft and his eyes were drawn downwards at the outer corners, his fingers pudgy. His talk impressed me deeply, not only for the words but for the way in which the man seemed to place an arm around all those assembled, eliminating any differences. He introduced himself simply as Juan Planelles. He expressed gratitude to all of us for being there, saying that the commitment that we were making was as important as the commitment of those who would be taking up arms to defeat fascism. His essential humanity was obvious as he reminded us, “Everyone in this room is dedicated to saving the lives of our fellow human beings, irrespective of social origins. Beneath our healing hands, all are equal. Now, though it is true that all of you as Communists are working toward a classless society, after you take the oath administered to you by our Camarada Dolores, you will be associated with an elite army of the people. Yes, it sounds like a contradiction in terms. But this association, to be known as the Fifth Regiment (Quinto Regimiento) of the People’s Militias, will be distinguished for its discipline and its culture but also for its support of our Republic and its Constitution.”

He next introduced Matilde Landa, who also welcomed us all and then read off a list of those who would be assigned to the transformation of the hospital on Calle Maudes to a workers’ hospital and a front-line hospital. I was thrilled and relieved to hear my name included. She instructed us to report tomorrow to a small nearby hotel, to begin the organization of health workers. Our uniforms would be issued and our photographs taken today. She then yielded the floor to Dr. Julio González Recatero, whose task was simple: to introduce Pasionaria.

I can only describe my sensation as being sent into a spin as this woman strode into the crowded classroom. I had heard her speeches in enormous public forums and on the radio, but to be contained in a small space with this compelling energy was almost too much to bear. I had the feeling that her black eyes (were they really black?) were penetrating mine, calling forth my devotion. Then her voice, uttering the simple words, “Please rise, comrades, to take the oath of the Fifth Regiment” lifted my body and raised my clenched fist, as it did for every other person in that room, and then we repeated after Camarada Dolores, phrase by phrase, the entire oath.

People then shouted out, “Prometo!” (“I promise!”) and someone in the room was inspired to begin singing the “Internationale” as we all stood facing Pasionaria and I must confess that it was difficult to articulate the words with my tightened throat and tears coursing down my cheeks. She immediately pivoted and swept out of the room just as she had entered, no doubt ready to inspire yet another group of dedicated volunteers. Dr. Recatero then instructed us to go to the next classroom to receive our uniforms and to put them on and report to the assembly hall, where we would be photographed. May I be worthy of the pure whiteness of my uniform and of the dedication inspired by the words of Dr. Planelles and of the oath administered by our Pasionaria!

(c) 2022 Judith Berlowitz

About the Author

Los Angeles–born author Judith Berlowitz had just retired from her Spanish-teaching position at Oakland’s Mills College when her genealogical research uncovered a Gestapo record mentioning a relative, Klara Philipsborn, who was the only woman anti-fascist volunteer in the Spanish Civil War from the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. The few details of the report led to more research, which led to her first novel, HOME SO FAR AWAY. In addition to her career teaching Spanish and world cultures, and a stint as a tour guide, Judith is a card-carrying translator and has published in the field of ethnomusicology (Sephardic balladry), oral history, and Jewish identity. She sang for years with the Oakland Symphony Chorus and is now a member of the San Francisco Bach Choir. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, not far from her three daughters and three grandsons.

Find her online at the following:

Photo credit: Victoria Mauleon

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