Mary Farrell is a retired professor of English literature at the Universitat Jaume I, Castellon, Spain. She is a poet and essayist whose main research includes American literature, silence in communication, and cultural studies. Her many publications include an essay on liminality and film in “The Art of Liminality,” in The Liminal Loop: Astonishing Stories of Discovery and Hope (2022).
The Peripatetic Rites of Passage of Peter. W. Nesselroth, (1935-2020) Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature, University of Toronto
Much of what I include here is from his autobiographical essay “So much depends on a bad earache.”
At five years old Nessie escaped with his parents from Berlin to Antwerp, Belgium then to Brussels where at seven he was finally separated from them. Until he was nine, he moved from place to place, from language to language, from religion to religion. The strangeness for him began when, in 1944 Nazis took his father, who looked at him and shook his hand: “I knew this was a very dramatic interaction, but I didn´t know what was happening at the time. And I was still in pain from my earache.”
He says at one point that “Lady Luck in the form of an earache was his patroness.” To separate him from his parents the Nazi policy allowed him to be sent to a The Jewish Hospital for Children where his otitis was treated. As a very young wandering Jew he lived in a series of liminal zones. Two non-Jewish wives to Jewish husbands visited him; then just walked out of the hospital with him. An older lady took him along with a small child, and paid people-smugglers to get to Switzerland. He was then sent to a Swiss foster family. With them he worked in the fields. There at nine he learned to read and write in French.
In the meantime, his mother was given the job of accountant for the inventory of stolen Jewish possessions. Her skills, plus her contribution to the black-market run in the Auschwitz, saved her life. At the end of the war in 1945, she was sent back to Brussels. There the Red Cross helped her to unite with her son. Finally in 1950, when Nessie was fifteen both he and his mother were able to settle in New York.
Nessie had been helped by Catholics, Protestants and non-religious people. In turn he took on different religions until his Bar Mitzvah in New York. He moved from German, his home language, to Flemish and French, finally to English. He says: “My wandering-Jew years have given me an aura of cosmopolitanism and a sense of gallows humor.” He viewed those years, those liminal years, as “…a curse stemming from the evangelist Mathew’s account given in Chapter 27 in Verse 24 when Pilate says: “I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.” And in Verse 25: “Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.” (Bible, King James Version, Regency, Thomas Nelson Publishers)
3 thoughts on “So much depends on a bad earache – Mary Farrell”
Thank you for sharing this! What an incredible story and writer. I want to read that essay!
Mary Lane Potter, about the original essay I have only a very rough draft from Nessie himself. He never published it. Glad, however, that you were able to glean some of it in my contribution to the Blog site.
Thank you. Maybe you can publish an essay based on his draft.