|Sylvia (Guggenheim) Griffiths|
Sylvia (Guggenheim) Griffiths is the author of The Guggenheim File, a book about her family's experiences in Germany during the years leading up to World War II, their departure for Brazil, and their life there. She lives in New York.
Q: Why did you decide to write a book about your family's experiences, and how much did you know about your family history before you started working on the book?
A: I was contacted numerous times by a woman from Hamburg, Germany, who was looking for information about my family. I didn't want to respond for two reasons: I didn't know the reason for her interest and I was embarrassed to admit that I knew so little about them. I only knew that my paternal grandfather, Willy, was involved with brewing beer before he immigrated to Brazil. He passed away when my older sister was 2 years old. Growing up, I lived in the same building as my maternal grandparents. While I knew that my grandmother owned a boutique in Berlin, my family rarely spoke about their lives in Germany.
Two years ago, I learned from one of my cousins who still lives in Brazil that a researcher had discovered a file the Nazis kept on my family in the state archives in Hamburg. She was told that the house that once belonged to my father’s family was being transformed into a children’s day-care center. The Senate of the state of Hamburg, aware of both events, invited my cousin and me to go to Hamburg to attend the inauguration of the day-care center.
Q: What was the reaction of your family members to your decision to write the book?
A: Mixed. Two cousins were supportive, however, like me, they were not told much by their respective families.
My mother wasn't happy at all. She didn't think it would be a particularly "healthy" endeavor. She tried, in vain, to discourage me.
Q: What surprised you the most as you researched the book?
A: I was surprised by most of what I found out. The fragments I knew before were connected to all of the details and events I uncovered during my research, thus creating the bigger picture I never had throughout my life. It all suddenly became alive and it made more sense. It particularly stood out to me that the maternal side of my family had the foresight to leave before it was too late. On my father's side, as they didn't move fast enough, they were lucky to survive in hiding with the help of friends. They were also lucky to have enough cash to pay for numerous attempts at escaping until one was successful.
Q: How hard was it for you to explore such difficult phases of your family's history?
A: It felt pretty much like lifting heavy rocks, one at a time. I must confess that at times I succumbed to the weight of my findings and stopped researching and writing for weeks at a time. And when I felt better, I would start it up again. Once, when finding details previously unknown related to my father's death, I crashed and plunged into a deep depression. Dealing with this subject has always been a challenge for me.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I would like to be able to develop my blog. Writing down comments related to world events and my personal observations may eventually lead me to a subject that I'd like to discuss more in depth.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: As different parts of the family escaped to various countries, the two sides of my family ended up in Brazil. That was where my parents met for the first time. In the book I shared memories of being born to European survivors of the Holocaust and growing up in the largest Catholic country in the world. Yes, I was “Made in Brazil.”
--Interview with Deborah Kalb