Lyrical tale of Soviet journey preserves professors legacy

Shortly after completing the manuscript for his novel "Memory's Tailor," Lawrence Rudner received shattering news.

The professor of world literature and Holocaust studies at North Carolina State University had a malignant brain tumor. The prognosis looked bleak.

Just 47, with a flourishing academic career, a wife and two teenage children, Rudner was in his prime. Among the many goals lining his future was getting published the second novel he had worked on for years.

That wish came true in October, though Rudner did not live to revel in the accomplishment. Diagnosed in 1994, he died in May the following year.

"Getting this book published was so important," his sister, Eleanor Greenberg of San Francisco, said. Committed to preserving her younger brother's legacy, she has become a de facto publicist for the book, a lyrical tale of the power of memory.

In it, retired Russian tailor Alexandr Davidowich Berman, who once sewed costumes for the Kirov Ballet, sets out on a grand, self-appointed mission to preserve the history of Jews during Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika.

With an elderly glassblower in tow, he crisscrosses the Soviet Union recreating centuries of Jewish history, from the Napoleonic Wars to the Holocaust to the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. Rudner's metaphor-rich style has been compared to that of South American magical realist Gabriel García Márquez.

"The lead character Berman is [Rudner's] alter ego, a teller of tales," said Greenberg, who for 17 years taught middle school at Brandeis Hillel Day School in Marin.

History, and particularly Jewish history, always fascinated the sturdy, bearded Rudner, who traveled extensively in Eastern Europe and taught Holocaust literature in Krakow as a Fulbright Fellow in 1986 and 1987. He crafted many stories set in Eastern Europe, pursuing what he later called his "obsession…to reinvent some lost lives."

His first novel, "The Magic We Do Here," tells the story of a blond, blue-eyed Jew who survives the Holocaust posing as a half-witted Polish farm laborer.

Rudner, who grew up in Detroit, showed an early interest in the Holocaust.

"When he was a little boy in Hebrew school, he saw pictures of the Holocaust," Greenberg recalled. "As young as he was, it had such an impact on him. He said to me, `How could somebody do that?'"

Rudner, who initiated a number of Holocaust courses at NCSU in Raleigh, spent years trying to answer that question — and posing it to students who might otherwise not have examined it.

"The kids at NCSU were rural Southern kids," Greenberg said. "This was all new to them."

A social activist from the time he was a young man, Rudner also initiated a course for inmates in a Raleigh state prison, where he stood outside at midnight on several occasions demonstrating against the death penalty.

Called "Survival and Growth Under Adverse Conditions," the course imparted lessons on fortitude and resiliency through written accounts by survivors of concentration camps, battle and other hardships.

When Rudner fell ill, a student from that course wrote the professor, imploring him to rely on the lessons he had taught inmates to aid him in his own struggle.

"He was known by his colleagues as the conscience of the department," Rudner's brother-in-law Burt Greenberg said. "He questioned moral judgment in the best talmudic tradition."

Burt and Eleanor Greenberg traveled to North Carolina many times during Rudner's yearlong illness.

"People came over to him and read to him every night," Eleanor Greenberg recalled. "It was a constant stream of students and colleagues."

One of those colleagues, English professor John Kessel, proved instrumental in getting Rudner's book published posthumously. Prior to his death, Rudner's manuscript had been rejected by several publishers.

During Rudner's illness, Kessel spent long hours at his friend's bedside talking about parenthood, art and literature. During one of those discussions, Rudner asked Kessel to serve as a literary executor for "Memory's Tailor."

Kessel, himself a science fiction writer, gladly took on the task.

"I felt there was no question it would get published if I could find an editor who had any faith or sense," he said. Eventually, Kessel found success with the University Press of Mississippi.

Co-editing the manuscript word by word, Kessel said, "The thing that was amazing was how much Larry's voice came through. He had a wonderful, deep, rich voice, a hearty laugh. I could just see him and hear him. To me that was the most emotionally powerful thing about it."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.