Memoir Of A Sick-Soul: Ilona Karmel's Divinity School

Ilona Karmel died on Dec. 13, 2000. She was supposed to have died in the Krakow ghetto, or in the Plaszow death camp, or when a retreatingWehrmacht half-track ran her down, crushing her legs and killing her mother; but instead she lived, came to Radcliffe, graduated, and wrote a novel, then married and, as fate would have it, wound up working in a Munich orphanage, where she began another novel, which she published back in Boston in 1969, eventually teaching “longer fiction” in the MIT Writing Program, which is where I met her in 1980. To say this was love at first sight is not to say much. Ila had a heart “like a street-car”—so I was told by the guarded (and somewhat envious) colleague who introduced us—and I was new to Boston and an orphan to boot. Ila was also the most immediately inviting person I had ever encountered, probing and candid and big-sisterly. She seemed to say, “I have no patience for mere acquaintances, so this first talk is actually an audition for a lifelong friendship,” and I left her home raw and exhilarated. I would soon learn that Ila had no patience either for any great show of admiration for her, so writing now about how she helped some of us with God, of all things, feels pretty reckless. “Nu, come on!,” Ila would scoff, implying self-effacement, but not really meaning it, wanting, not less honor, but more scrutiny, which no human being could stand too much of, let alone God. Only children were perfect, and not past 18.

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