Interview: Michael Goldfarb

Broadcaster Michael Goldfarb tells Simon Round about his mission to save significant historical figures from drifting into obscurity


Michael Goldfarb: “I was in floods of tears”

Michael Goldfarb: “I was in floods of tears”

Michael Goldfarb is not most people’s idea of a ghost hunter. The American-born author and journalist is erudite, articulate and not remotely superstitious, yet a ghost hunter he is. Having said that, the spirits Goldfarb has been hunting down in Holland, Germany and Austria, for a series of essays on BBC Radio 3, are not the kind which rattle chains or pass through walls, but rather the phantoms of a once-flourishing culture.

Goldfarb explains: “For the past few years I have been writing a book on Jewish emancipation and I did a certain amount of travel for it. The more I researched, the more I discovered that I didn’t know about a lot of quite significant people. I realised that memory depends on there being a community to hold those memories. When that community has been wiped out, as was the case with the Jews in Europe, then those people who came before become ghosts.”

He illustrates his point with the story of the lawyer and politician Gabriel Riesser — a very significant Jewish figure in 19th-century Hamburg. Yet Goldfarb was dismayed to discover that even noteworthy German intellectuals had no idea who he was. “I did feel pretty eccentric going around Hamburg asking, “have you heard of this guy?’’. People did think I was nutty, but Riesser’s achievements were important and he deserved to be remembered.”

Playing a large role in the ghost story is Berlin. Travelling there, and to Hamburg, Frankfurt and Vienna for that matter, was in some ways eerie and, well, ghost-like for Goldfarb.

“A city like Berlin was intertwined with its Jews until the 1930s,” he says. “In Vienna, take away the Jewish connections and the city is living on its Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven connections. Without the Jews, there was little left to the city — it underscored to me how ghostly the presence was.

“There is a group which is well-known for extolling its ancestors,- the native Americans. Their numbers were also reduced by more than 90 per cent in the continent where they live. For them, it’s important to connect the living with the dead. For us, it’s the same.”

Goldfarb is a veteran broadcaster, having worked in radio for more than 20 years. “The great thing [with the series] is that I am using my own voice so I’m already halfway to having the licence to make it personal. When I started to write it I didn’t realise how emotional it would be. Having researched the subject for two-and-a-half years I had built up a considerable storehouse of emotion.”

The culmination of the journey was his visit to a synagogue in Berlin, when, among 50 or 60 worshippers in a small room, he felt the weight of the dead generations.

“I don’t normally go to synagogue, but I wanted to while I was there. Suddenly I was in floods of tears. After 10 minutes I couldn’t not cry so I just let it out.”

The Essay — Looking For Ghosts continues tonight on Radio 3 at 11pm

    Last updated: 5:17pm, May 27 2009