Hirsch recounts her 2017 visit with the Micklems in Edinburgh

Hirsch recounts her 2017 visit with the Micklems in Edinburgh

In 2019, Lily E. Hirsch published a journal article in Musica Judaica, "Personal Entanglement in the Writing of Biography," in which she struggles with the question of an author's proper relationship to her subject.

In this case the subject is Annaliese Landau, and Hirsch is worried that she became emotionally involved with Landau's story and with her surviving family members who provided information for the book. 

Here I will not post the article in its entirety, but will excerpt liberally the places where Hirsch writes specifically about the Micklem and Paechter family members. As for the entanglement question, she aims for a balance between empathy and detachment but finds that can be hard to achieve.

On August 2, 2017, I boarded a plane bound for Edinburgh, Scotland. The issues around writing biography were foremost in my mind. I would be meeting Spedding Micklem, his daughter Noami, and nephew Ben Paechter, as well as his son, Sam—living relatives of Anneliese Landau.

In writing her biography, I relied first on Landau’s own unpublished memoirs — careful to balance her voice and view of herself with the facts I gleaned from documents collected at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. In so doing, I was conscious of the potential to exploit the trauma of her story: The family that remained behind in Berlin, including her parents and sister Grete, died during the Nazi era. Landau herself would never marry, though she had a long-term partner in Los Angeles, Charlotte Lowery. Her only surviving family then were her niece and nephew, Lisel and Gerd (George) Paechter—the children she had left in the UK. Her niece, Lisel, died in 1990, a year before Landau’s own death in 1991. It was Lisel’s husband, Spedding, I met in Edinburgh, along with other members of the family, their daughter Noami and George’s son Ben.

In Spedding’s grey, stone two-story, anecdotes leisurely unfurled as I spaced sensitive questions I had not felt comfortable posing before, from afar. In one story, Spedding and Noami recalled driving up the coast, Hwy 1 in California, with Landau, in what Spedding described as an emerald green Plymouth. No, said Noami, the big car, helmed by petite Landau, was blue. Memory, so slippery, had been a challenge before for me, like many, in the writing of history. But the ground below, to me, felt more unstable in this context. This work concerned an organic life, one that belonged in some ways to Spedding and Noami, and their conflicting recollections. Though I had corresponded with the family throughout my work on Landau’s biography—and they had helpfully supplied saved letters, news clippings, and concert programs—I was glad in some ways that I had waited to visit them in person until after I had completed the first draft of the book. With the hard documents already in place, I could measure and filter their personal communications as well as the competing details, some small, like the car color, and others big. But that’s not to say I was a completely reliable judge.

Spedding kindly invited me to stay for dinner, after a day looking through Landau’s collection of music records and notes, shelved in his home. Over dinner, the family looked at me expectantly; unsure, I looked down at my plate and found there a napkin ring with the name Grete, Landau’s sister — a ring Landau would have taken with her when she escaped Nazi Germany. Later, the family played for me a video they had made the day before, while I had been delayed en route in Dublin, of Spedding playing the piano as Noami’s son David sang Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte. This was the song collection, they knew I knew, that Spedding had played for Landau with her nephew Gerd during her first visit with the family in the UK after the war.

On August 6, the next day, I went with Spedding to a production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, part of the Edinburgh Festival. Spedding’s former neighbor, he explained, had been one of the festival’s founders, the émigré composer Hans Gál. The music was meaningful—both Landau and her mother before her had been able to appreciate the genius of Wagner’s work, despite his anti-Semitism. I had even found a record of that particular opera in Landau’s collection the previous day. A second layer of significance: that day, August 6, twenty-six years before, Landau had died. I was with her family, enjoying music she loved, on the anniversary of her death.