Alumni books

23rd August 2021

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Migration and family are the themes which interweave two new books by Wadham alumni.

Green Horses on the Walls, a collection of poems by Cristina Bejan (MSt and DPhil Modern History, 2004), captures her tortured love affair with the country her father escaped in 1969: Romania. 

A Border Town in Poland by Michael Levin (English Literature/Theatre, 1964) and his wife Nora Jean recounts the story of his father-in law, Hirsch Bieler who escaped the Russian-Polish town of his birth, Grajewo, fleeing Tsarist persecution of Russian Jews.

  • Cover of book A border town in Poland

A Border Town in Poland: A 20th Century Memoir - Michael and Nora Jean Levin

A Border Town in Poland: A 20th Century Memoir, written by Michael Levin and his wife Nora Jean, recounts the story of her father, Hirsch Bieler who escaped the Russian-Polish town of his birth, Grajewo, fleeing Tsarist persecution of Russian Jews and Imperial German occupation during and after the Great War.

Hirsch shared the story of his life as teen smuggler, fur trader, and petroleum entrepreneur with his son-in-law Michael (English Literature/Theatre, 1964) and daughter Nora Jean who transcribed his recollections. Hirsch revised and expanded them, while managing the Philadelphia industrial lubricants firm he founded, until his death in 1985. This book, A Border Town in Poland: A 20th Century Memoir, is a result of his colourful recollections, plus extensive research by the Levins.

Hirsch Bieler, born 1900 in Grajewo, saw The Great War begin at his doorstep. In 1919 teenage Hirsch left Poland forever for Leipzig in emergent Weimar Germany. There he found a new home through ‘adult adoption’ by a childless Lutheran couple; community among other Zionist-leaning Eastern European Jews; a rich cultural life; and an entrepreneurial career in the rising petroleum trade. 

In 1931 he married Anna Burstein, a talented young Romanian concert pianist. That life was upended by Hitler’s 1933 rise to power. In 1936 the couple fled with their small daughter - first, to Tel Aviv, then to America, overcoming onerous “Papers, please?” barriers as world doors slammed shut for those seeking refuge.  Meanwhile Soviet occupation, Nazi invasions and the Holocaust trapped Hirsch’s friends and family still in Europe, scattering others across continents.  He saved their correspondence chronicling those desperate years.

His vivid experiences, told in his own voice, are enriched by historical context, colour images, and voices of friends and family writing from locations around the globe. They resonantly capture the people, places and tumultuous times when luck, timing and proper documents meant life or death.  “Afterwords” carries the story past the Holocaust and WW II, emphasizing how Hirsch’s formative experiences also shaped his century – and reflect themes common to emigrants today.

The Levins are co-authors of Two Pianos: Playing for Life, a live ‘concert documentary’ about Anna Burstein and her pianist colleagues performing under and after the Third Reich in which Hirsch makes a cameo appearance. A Border Town in Poland: A 20th Century Memoir is published by Penn Convoy Press, an imprint of Papers Please Inc., the Two Pianos arts/education umbrella organisation.

  • Cover of Green Horses on the Walls

Green Horses on the Walls - Cristina Bejan

In Green Horses on the Walls Cristina Bejan (MSt and DPhil Modern History, 2004) writes about her Romanian heritage, the inherited trauma of communism, love, mental health and sexual assault.  

The collection includes 28 original poems and two translations of poems by iconic Romanian poets Ana Blandiana and Nina Cassian. The poems are mostly in English, with Romanian and French making important appearances. 

Romania suffered a brutal communist dictatorship for forty years, and these poems reveal the horrors and the inherited trauma that are products of such historical injustice. Cristina also tackles the sensitive topics of mental health and sexual assault and with this collection hopes to fight the pervasive stigma surrounding both issues.

“Green Horses on the Walls is also a book about love: family love, love of ancestors, mindless youthful mistakes, the realities of American dating, forbidden love, and finally true equal miraculous love,” comments Cristina.

Green Horses on the Walls won the 2021 Independent Press Book Award; 2021 Human Relations Indie Book Award Gold Winner (Historical), Silver Winner (Reflection), Silver Winner (Realistic Poetry), and Honorable Mention (Personal Challenge Poetry. 

Cristina is an award-winning Romanian-American historian, theatre artist, and poet. A Rhodes and Fulbright scholar, she has had fellowships at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the Wilson Center and Georgetown University. She has taught at five universities in the USA including Metropolitan State University of Denver and Duke University.

While a researcher for USHMM, she authored 64 articles on camps in Africa and Europe for the "Encyclopaedia of Camps and Ghettos - Vol. 3."

A playwright and spoken word artist, her creative work has appeared in the US, UK, Romania and Vanuatu. Cristina runs the arts and culture collective Bucharest, Inside the Beltway (BiB), based in Denver, Colorado.