Photo taken during interview in 2009 by Jared Raymond.
Early Life in Europe
Gertrude Halstead (born Gertrude Bendheim) was born in 1916 in the small town of Bensheim, Germany, located in the Southwestern region of the country. She was the younger of two children born to the first marriage of her father. Her birth mother passed away from an infection in the weeks following Gertrudeís delivery, leaving Gertrude to grow up with her father. She has recounted that the doctor who tended to her mother during labor had worked at a veteranís hospital shortly before coming to the house, thus likely being the source of her motherís fatal infection. Gertrudeís father would remarry when Gertrude was still a child, causing problems and making home-life stressful for both Gertrude and her older sister. Gertrude would later recall the poor situation at home affecting her performance in school and to some extent, affecting her health. It was at this time, when Gertrude was only 11 years old, that would she ask her father to leave home. Her older sister Alice, who was 8 years her elder, had already left the house to live away at a university. With a financial donation and resources from her motherís older brother, Gertrude was able to attend a progressive pre-university boarding school on the Frisian Islands, located in the North Sea.
For the time she was at this boarding school, Gertrude found relief from the burdens of home life and excelled academically. She spent most of her teen years at the school, recounting the experience fondly as a peaceful time in her life. It was also during her time at boarding school that Gertrude met a fellow student who would become her future husband. As the events of World War II transpired in Europe, the two would correspond solely through post for 5 years. When they were united once again, it would be on American soil. Trouble began Gertrudeís final year at the boarding school, as the Nazis gained power in pre-WWII Germany. This was the start of a harrowing period in Gertrudeís life, one that she would reflect upon often in her poetry many years later.
During the early years of Nazi rule in Germany, many institutions, such as the private school Gertrude attended, were often deemed too progressive and were forcefully closed. Gertrude recalls that before her own private school was closed, fellow students who had joined the Nazi party early on were intent on disbanding the schoolís student counsel. In an act of defiance, Gertrude would refuse to relinquish her position as member of the student-run organization. Despite her defiance however, the Nazi students would gain majority, and had the counsel disbanded. It was but one week before her final exam when the school was finally forced to shut down. Gertrude would find her way to Berlin next, as the Nazi hold on German life was just beginning to emerge in scope and severity.
In Berlin, Gertrude and other displaced students found that established centers of education no longer offered sanctuary from Nazi influence. Gertrudeís desire for an unbiased and unrestricted education was nonetheless strong. Consequently, she would convince a small number of fellow students to convene in secret to continue their lessons. The small group risked much by convincing what teachers they could to provide them with a worthwhile education. While also taking night classes in Berlin at this time, Gertrude would later recall evading German razzias,1 a word referring to Nazi night patrols that would commonly arrest those out at night. Gertrude and her friends would have to evade these patrols commonly as they walked from their night classes back to their small apartment. Berlin in short time would prove too dangerous and uncertain as time continued.
By this time, Gertrude was entering her early 20ís. Her sister, long away at university, had herself narrowly escaped the Nazis and had fled to Paris, France. Gertrude would soon attempt to join her sister in Paris, but not before narrowly escaping arrest herself. When the time to leave Berlin came, she would originally arrange for a job in Holland. She went so far as to send her belongings ahead of her before word came that German Nazi forces were planning to cross the Dutch boarder. As the Nazis prepared what would become the historic Holland invasion, a friend warned Gertrude to stay put in Berlin. Following this initial narrow escape from untold danger, Gertrude would subsequently make two attempts to flee to Paris. During the first attempt, her visa was denied and she was turned back at the French boarder. On the second attempt, Gertrude sought passage into France by train. This trip was made during the night in hopes of avoiding confrontation with authorities.
The trip would prove to be a second time Gertrude narrowly escaped Nazi authorities. Before leaving on this flee attempt, Gertrude had used her violinís case to stow what she had of her familyís silver. While on the train a German soldier saw Gertrudeís violin case with her luggage and asked her to play for him there on the spot. Gertrude thought quickly in order to avoid exposing the valuables she was carrying and attracting the suspicions of the officer. She told the Nazi officer she was much too tired that night to play. Luckily, the officer accepted and let Gertrude alone. Her luck would hold for the rest of that journey, and Gertrude finally found her way to Paris.
In Paris, she would continue her studies at a small university, forming a close bond with a fellow student studying in London. The experience would later be recounted in her poem "A Channel Love Affair". Despite the romantic times spent in Paris, Europe was on the brink of war. When World War II did break, Gertrude was still studying in Paris and living in her own apartment. Despite escaping Germany, there were dangers in France as well. Not unlike in the United States where Japanese immigrants were interned, German nationals like Gertrude living in France were now in danger of being sent away to similar internment facilities.
Gertrude and her older sister Alice, who had also been living in Paris with her own young family, decided to escape the city and avoid internment. The need to escape the city was a priority. To move more quickly during their escape, Gertrude was given care of the eldest of her sisterís children, while Alice stayed and took care of the younger child. Gertrude once again received aid from another uncle, a brother of her biological mother. He offered safety in the form of a small farm cottage South of Paris and Gertrude fled to the cabin with her sisterís child in tow. Unfortunately, as with many men during this period, Gertrudeís brother-in-law had been sent to a labor camp. At this point, Alice would take her youngest child and join Gertrude in the cabin.
The following time spent hiding at the cottage was short and difficult for Gertrude, her sister Alice, and Aliceís young children. They were safe from war for the time being, but the cabin lacked heat and running water. These times would later be recounted in Gertrudeís poem "Today".2 In addition to their troubles, the threat of internment was always present. Twice Gertrude was able to talk her way out of reporting to her internment when she ran into French authorities. Upon being questioned a third time however, and despite her attempts to bargain to go upon her way as she had done twice before, she was told she would have to be interned. Gertrude was then separated from her sister and the children, and was sent to the south of France to the infamous Camp Gurs.
While interned, she would work for the camp as an interpreter being fluent in French, English, and German. During her internment Gertrude was allowed access to the administrative offices due to her position as interpreter. Gertrude was eventually liberated, thanks in large part to her resourcefulness. Coming upon release papers while working in the campís office one day, she was able to obtain the necessary forms to convince administrators to let her go. Although it was many years before she would begin to write her poetry, the experiences and sights of internment would stick with Gertrude long after the ordeal was over.
In the time following her escape from Germany, she had consistently kept correspondence with her future husband. He was young man she had met from boarding school, who had since fled to the United States with his family. At the time of her internment, the two had already agreed they would one day be married. Using this as her reasoning, Gertrude was able to walk free from Camp Gurs. She made her decision, and soon set out seeking passage to the U.S. in order to be married. In the young man held promise of a new life in the United States, away from the war in Europe.
Gertrude made her way to Portugal in order to find passage to the States, penniless and only with the most basic of belongings. Among her things was a small pocketknife her uncle had given her in France as they had parted ways, a final gift given to her as she fled. Although eventually interned by the Nazis himself, her uncle eventually was able to make his way to the safety of Switzerland. She would however, keep this small memento for the rest of her life. It served as a reminder of her journey and of the harrowing times she lived through.1 Gertrudeís poem entitled, "Here In Front of Me" recounts this final exchange with her uncle.
As war raged in the rest of Europe, Gertrude found finding passage to her waiting fiancť in the United States a daunting task. Thanks to a loan from a generous Italian businessman, who had happened upon Gertrude and took concern with her situation, she was able to secure her passage on the last boat leaving for the States. In a final trial before stepping onto American soil, Gertrude was nearly turned back to Europe as she showed her papers to immigration officials at a stop in Bermuda. The officials did not believe the woman before them was the same as in the picture on her papers. Thanks to the word of her fellow passengers, she was allowed to go on. Just four days after her arrival in the United States, she married the man who had made her escape possible.
In the United States, Gertrude would live the majority of her life quietly, moving throughout the Northeast until settling in Worcester in the early 1990ís. It was here in Worcester area, during the later part of her life, that Gertrude Halstead would reveal herself to the literary scene, both local and national, as a gifted poet.
Career as a Poet
Gertrude Halstead, never one to live by stereotype, has a unique beginning to her successful foray into poetry. Perhaps the fact that is most unusual about Gertrudeís work as a poet is that she did not begin writing Ďseriouslyí until her late 50ís to early 60ís. By this time, she had already long left Europe and the experiences of World War II and had enjoyed a relatively normal, quiet life and career in New England. She once recalled that before this period in her life, she had never written a poem outside of those assigned when in school as a youth.3
Following a thyroid condition in her 50ís, she felt compelled to put her creativity to paper. Once she started, she often recalled, she could not stop. She admits readily to the experience she gained while attending poetry workshops in the area. It was during this time that Gertrudeís poetry was first published in local poetry publications. The quality of her poetry caught the attention of a local professor of English by the name of Eve Rifkah. Eve Rifkah, in addition to being a published author and poet, also co-founded Poetry Oasis Inc., a local Worcester poetry foundation. With Eveís help, Gertrude was able to secure a publishing deal for her works.
In 2006, Adastra Press published her first collection of poems under the title "Memories Like Burrs."4 The collection of featured 20 poems making up her first published work was gathered from poems penned over the many years since she started writing. At the time of publication, Gertrude was 90 years old. In 2008, a second collection of poems titled "Space Between"5 was published by Allbook Books. In 2007 Gertrude Halstead was made Worcesterís first Poet Laureate, an honor personally bestowed upon her by the mayor. In addition to this prominent honor, she is also a 3 time nominated poet for the prestigious Pushcart Prize in literature.6
Gertrude continues to write in the Worcester area, primarily for her own enjoyment. It is unlikely she aspired to gain the notoriety she now enjoys, but never the less, she has emerged as a true local talent. With her amazing experiences as a Holocaust survivor and her distinctive poetic style and structure, Gertrude has recently made a substantial name for herself in the world of poetry.
- Interview with Gertrude Halstead Worcester Poet
- Gertrude reading "The Sloping Meadow"
- Escape isnít merely a matter of removing your body, but also your mind; that if circumstance does not free you, you must free yourself.
- ó Gertrude Halstead
- "Memories like Burrs" by Gertrude Halstead, Adastra Press January 2006 ISBN-13: 9780977666713
- Coffee With Konnie #215 (2007)
- "Memories like Burrs" by Gertrude Halstead, Adastra Press January 2006 ISBN-13: 9780977666713
- "Space Between" Halstead, Gertrude Allbook Books, Published July 2008 ISBN: 0981866107
- The Pushcart Prize