Clare Burson was a curious child.
In a Sunday school classroom in Memphis, Tenn., her teachers Mrs. Weintraub and Mrs. Schechter taught 8-year-old Burson about something that happened in Europe in the ’30s and ’40s to millions of Jews. She was captivated, but much more so when she came home and made the connection — her grandmother, Helga Rabinowitsch, fled Germany in 1938.
“I asked my mom if she was caught up in that,” Burson told The Chronicle. “But it wasn’t something my grandmother wanted to talk about. My mom said it in a way that I knew to stay away.”
But Burson didn’t listen, and she began a journey to learn about her grandmother’s life in Germany that led, on Sept. 14, to the release of “Silver and Ash,” her album of beautiful, haunting folk rock inspired by Rabinowitsch’s years in the face of the Holocaust.
“Silver and Ash” is a concept album of 10 songs filled with slow, lilting melodies, echoing acoustic guitar and creeping strings. Lyrically, it’s just as affecting. In “Everything’s Gone,” Burson’s sweeping voice repeats, “There’s no … way … out.”
The lullaby-soft “Goodbye My Love” imagines Rabinowitsch bidding farewell to a lover, unsure if they’ll ever meet again.
Though the songs of “Silver and Ash” were first unveiled just 18 months ago, the music can be traced back to Burson’s Sunday school days: She’s been captivated by history ever since.
In eighth grade, Burson chose her grandmother for an assignment to write about a family member of another generation.
“I was afraid she would bristle that I even asked her about it,” said Burson. “But she was very matter of fact — she didn’t remember. She’d spent so much time trying not to remember, that she successfully blocked the memories.”
Though Burson laid off the questioning, she studied the history on her own. She became a modern European history major at Brown, studied in Germany, learned Yiddish and German and took jobs at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and New York City’s East Side Tenement Museum.
When Burson returned to Germany as a Fulbright Scholar in 1996, though, her grandmother finally began to reveal her story.
“She heard I was going to Germany and thought I was crazy,” said Burson. “We went for a walk and she asked me point blank why I wanted to go there. We had an open and frank discussion, and I used words with her I’d never used before. Holocaust, Nazis.”
The following spring, the memories began to flow — along with Burson’s mother, aunt and cousin, Rabinowitsch returned to Leipzig, her German hometown, from where, at 19, she’d fled on the morning of Kristallnacht on a boat headed for London, and eventually the United States.
“We walked through the market square. She pointed out where her first boyfriend Berny had a jewelry shop. She pointed out the building of her father’s business,” said Burson. “We walked to her neighborhood. The building she grew up in, it was still standing.”
Fourteen years later, Burson’s journey to learn, and her grandmother’s journey to remember, led to “Silver and Ash.” The album, Burson said, has helped seal “this rupture I grew up feeling between my life and the past, where there was no continuity of my the past to my future.”
Musically, the album bridges generation gaps as well, combining the classic, mournful folk rock style of Joni Mitchell with the hopeful, modern edge of singer-songwriters like Alela Diane or Laura Marling. “Silver and Ash” sounds raw and earthy. It’s as beautiful as sunshine poking through the trees in some lush forest, and maybe as comforting.
The album has served as Burson’s method to internalize and express her feelings on the Holocaust, though it happened decades before her birth. Like other young people searching to reconcile the present with their families’ pasts, Burson said, “It’s our duty to hear the stories and incorporate them into our own lives.”
“I want to see how this album actually fits in and can be helpful in exploring this history and the ripple effect that it’s had,” she said. “I’m a grandchild of someone who fled Nazi Germany. I’ve lived my life feeling the effect of that. And I know I’m not alone.”
Clare Burson was a curious child.