Monday, August 3, 2009

Berta Freistadt Dies

Berta Freistadt
1942 - 2009

The playwright, tutor, poet and short story writer Berta Freistadt MA has died. According to Women's Words, her work has been published in anthologies, journals and magazines in the UK, Israel and the USA. It has also been seen on buses in outer London.

During the 80s, her plays were performed in London, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands & Australia.
She was also co-editor of a book of lesbian & gay poetry,Language of Water, Language of Fire: A... (pub. Oscars Press '92).
A short film script she wrote, The Wall, won a Fiji filming bursary and was short listed for the BAFTA short film awards in 1996.
In 1998, her poetry was highly commended by the Houseman Poetry Society and Martello Writers.
In 1999, she was a winner in the Blue Nose/Museum of London Millennial Poetry Competition and in the Lexikon poetry competition.

In the spring/summer of '00 she performed her work from the art of dis/appearing (ed. Leah Thorn. Inspire Production '00) at Smithfield's Festival and for Apples & Snakes at Battersea Arts Centre.Berta Freistadt MA
Her writing has also been used by artist Joanna Bird who makes hand-made books and displayed at the Barbican Artist Book Fair in London, November '00.

In 2001, she was highly commended in the Blue Nose Poet of the Year Competition for her long poem Question of Maps. She was also awarded a special honorarium for artistic excellence from Mother Tongue Ink. USA. In early 2004, Five Leaves of Nottingham published a book of her poetry - Flood Warning: A...

She exhibited her work at the Half Empty Bookcase - a Jewish Women's Conference and performed at Centerprise, the Poetry Cafe in London and the Jewish Museum. Berta taught Autobiography for Women at Birkbeck College of London University. She also taught Creative Writing, Life Writing and Beginner's Poetry at the Mary Ward Centre. In her teaching, she aimed for a balance of enjoyment and discipline for both herself and her students. The enjoyment of the act of writing that came from the students' growing self confidence as they learnt skills and appreciated their talents and the discipline of committing to the task of learning to be a writer with all the pleasures and conflicts that are involved.

She recently finished writing a collection of connected speculative-fiction stories, Mass Dreams of the Future - a chap book of visions and fairy-tales set in a post cataclysmic landscape.

Berta was a typical Londoner - father, Czech/Jewish; mother, Irish/Scots who lived in North London next to a cemetery where the neighbours were quiet and where her cat Bluebell could do unspeakable things to other cats.

Kirsten Hearn writes a personal appreciation after the picture.

Berta Friestadt - a goodbye

The bus swings along the road that skirts the top of Hampstead Heath. We pass a necklace of lesbian associated landmarks which speed by like memories calibrating the past. It is sunny and the bus is quiet.

my companion and I eat deliciously moiste and succulent home made vegan chocolate cake in honour of Berta. We talk of how we knew her and as usual discover a spider's web of connections.

We're a bit late. It has proved almost impossible to get out of East London on a Sunday, gammy knees have impeded the ability to run for the bus, and the twists and turns of relationships and banc accounts have served to unsettle our sometimes volatile tempers. We share our woes and resolve to be kind to each other.

At Golders Green bus station, other formally dressed older women with sensible hair and shoes recognise each other as funeral guests. There is apparently a "look" although all are neat according to our own style and inclination. I am resplendent and coordinated in anarchist red and black. My companion, ever elegant if a little crumpled this morning, still wears last night's dinner outfit with her usual aplomb. She worries weather her low cut top will be deemed as appropriate to the occasion and, despite the sunshine, buttons up her jacket.

Apparently, the crematorium yard is a sea of familiar faces. Darn me if any of my companions can remember anyone's names though. I make a mental note to instruct that for my funeral everyone will wear name badges! We stand in the sunshine, introducing strangers to each other and reuniting old friends.

I sense the familiar parameters of this space. With a sigh I realise how I am becoming increasingly more used to being here. How many times has it been now, I wonder?

I remember being absent on another sunny day as women gathered here to commemorate the ending of a life too soon taken. On that occasion, the life had been given up in despair, as a means of silencing pain. It's been just over eight years. This time, the life has been reluctantly given up and only death brings relief from pain.

The hall is packed. They are standing at the back. It is cool and musty. I smile as I hear the presiding Rabbi (Sheila Schulman), her voice deep and resonant invite us to pray to "god" or "goddess". The Hebrew is beautiful, fluid and solemn, old as time. The readings heart-warming and uplifting, the poems poignant.

One by one, friends and family reveal her to us. Daughter of a refugee, a patrilineal Jew, outspoken activist, cat lover, lover of women and powerful word crafter. Her own words, spoken by others, bring her to us anew. And I remember Berta, enthusiastically supporting our work at Feminist Audio books, reading her own work aloud to help us raise funds and our profile. And I remember too, crowded poetry evenings in venues across London, women from all parts of our community, solemnly, cheerfully, shyly, angrily, sharing their lives through the beauty of poetry. Words upon words, inexpertly flung together or perfectly crafted, lives that mirrored each other or lives that diverged so far we might as well have lived on different planets.

The beautiful words of the Prayer for the Dead are spoken in Hebrew. Brahms, liquid and lyrical ushers us gently out into the sunshine. As the courteous violins weave in and out of each other, so do the threads of Berta's life weave together in the memories of those who knew her.

We repair to an airy flat somewhere near the Finchley Road where a funeral collation has been thoughtfully laid out. "every dietary need is acknowledged, and thus everyone is honoured and included as equally important.

We fall to eating and talking; with friends, with strangers with old foes newly recognised, with sisters in struggle. For some, the water is firmly allowed to flow under the bridge, for others, it is perhaps not so easy. Together though, we connect and speak of Berta and of how she touched our lives.

Momentarily disengaged, I fall to thinking. Why is it that we only get together now at funerals? I chew thoughtfully on a cream cheese bagel. I wonder what it would be like if we met to eat and talk simply for the purpose of connecting and sharing? I park the thought and turn back to my neighbour.

In time, it is time to go. With some considerable difficulty, I prize myself from the soft and squashy sofa. There was a time when I could spring up from the floor with one fluid move. Now I grumble and groan as I rise unsteadily to my feet.

"when will we meet again?" I wonder, stumping off to the loo.

Sunday august 2, 2009

See also the Guardian's obituary, here.


Kate said...

I was cross
About this post.
Firstly the person who said we were smartly dressed.
was not one of us.
I mean
Lesbian. She was an 0ld school friend of Berta's when she was 11.
She could have been a lesbian but she was not.
So it was unecessary....
to mentipon it and give it meaning..
I was not dressed formally I was dressed in jeans and a polo shirt and a tie. I always wear a nice tie whatever the occasion.
I realised I was cross.
Because I was sad
And mad
That Berta has died.
And I miss her so
I miss her so
And your post should have been about her....
so so

Carole said...

I remember Berta with great warmth. I got to know her as a theatre reviewer at City Limits and saw her a bit after that. Always enjoyed her company and her talent. I bet she was a terrific teacher. I remember her now with a glow. She was a truly lovely human being.

Anonymous said...

Berta was a very special person and I feel lucky to have had her as a friend.

Thanks for everything Berta xxx.

If anyone is interested, Mr Charlie Bluebell has a new loving home.

Louise said...

I have only just seen this very sad news. Berta was my creative writing teacher at Mary Ward many years ago and was the most wonderful teacher I have ever had. A very warm and special person in so many ways. Berta, I am sorry we lost touch and now I can not meet up with you again, which I have always intended to do. Thank you for all your encouragement and I really am choked that you have been taken from this world. I will miss you Berta. Love, Louise xxx

Carol said...

This is late I know but, I've only just found out from a mutual friend that Berta died last August.

As you can see from what I wrote about her on my Women's Words site, she was a great inspiration to me in many ways and I will treasure my memories of her forever.