OBITUARY:Esther Salaman

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Knowing no English, but armed with a recommendation to Sir Ernest Rutherford from Albert Einstein, Esther Polianowski arrived in Cambridge in 1925.

Though she was only 25, she had already had an adventurous life in three very different countries. At 19 she had left Russia to escape from civil war and persecution of Jewish people, and joined a group of pioneer settlers in Palestine. Returning to the Russian border two years later, she succeeded in first locating and then bringing out her widowed mother and four siblings to Palestine. She later leftfor Berlin, where she gained admission to the Physics Faculty of the university. Einstein, one of her professors there, advised her to leave Germany after graduating and go to Cambridge.

She was helped to take up a research studentship at the Cavendish Laboratory by a Jewish philanthropist, Redcliffe Salaman FRS. Through him she met his son Myer, who was to be her husband for 68 years. When they married she gave up her studentship, not wishing to make a career in sciences but to devote herself to literature.

She was fluent in Russian and spoke Hebrew and German well, but she had now committed herself to life in England. That she actually succeeded in writing and publishing her first novel, Two Silver Roubles (1932) in English within six years might seem incredible to anyone who did not know her husband. Myer Salaman was a scientist, but also a cultured man with great literary skill and with an uncanny insight into his wife's thoughts and feelings. Even Esther's second novel, The Fertile Plain (1956), though written much later, owed a great deal to their literary collaboration. Another source of encouragement was the poet Frances Cornford. She was a close friend, and published a collection of Poems from the Russian with Esther Salaman in 1943.

The Fertile Plain is a fascinating reminiscence of Esther's childhood in a Ukrainian Jewish timber-merchant's family, and it set her off on an extensive study of the way in which other writers tap their earliest memories and recreate them in fiction and autobiography. Her knowledge of 19th-century Russian and English literature was profound, and she now also immersed herself for many years in the works of Proust.

It was characteristic of her independent cast of mind that she always preferred to draw on the original writings of her chosen subjects rather than those of critics and academics. Two very individual books resulted. A Collection of Moments (1970) deals specifically with involuntary memories - her own, and those of other writers who wrote about their early childhood. The Great Confession (1973) explores in greater depth the use of memory by four of these: Aksakov, De Quincey, Tolstoy and Proust.

Though she was no doubt saddened by the fact that none of her books was a popular success, she never regretted abandoning physics and becoming a writer. It was to her an absolute necessity.

Dolf Polak

Esther Polianowski, writer: born Zhitomir, Ukraine 6 January 1900; married 1926 Myer Salaman (died 1994; one son, three daughters); died London 9 November 1995.