Jonathan Rabb has written a warm and thoughtful novel about a Holocaust survivor who immigrates to Savannah, Georgia, after the war. Yitzhak Goldah, the protagonist of Among the Living, is 31 years old when he joins a distant cousin’s family in Savannah. His cousin and his wife warmly welcome Goldah, even as they expect him to join in their way of life automatically and enthusiastically. These folks like their world and are eager to share it with Goldah. But Goldah, a journalist before the war, is not particularly observant and doesn’t care to conform to his cousins’ expectations. Just as he is getting used to his own freedom, Goldah is both bewildered and bemused by the competing Jewish congregations in Savannah and declines to choose sides. He didn’t survive the Holocaust so that he could be prevented from seeing the people he chooses to see. Conflicts ensue. There are romantic issues, social issues and sinister business problems. Additional conflict is provided by the irony of dealing with Savannah’s stifling Jim Crow environment.
Yitzgak is a sensitively drawn character who doesn’t fit any pattern of a helpless, grateful refugee. He is damaged, but he wants to get his life back. The book’s other characters also prove interesting because of their world views and the unusual and often unexpected problems they face. Flawed as they are, these characters compel sympathy. They may not see things the same way and they may try to bend others to their points of view, but that isn’t the whole story. The ability to see things differently and the willingness to bend the rules to help others makes this a powerful, complex story. After the horrific violence and cruelty of the Holocaust, these characters’ goodwill and gentle efforts to control events provide a welcome contrast. That said, there is the overarching reality of Jim Crow, which reminds us that all is far from well in Savannah.
I recommend this book. Jonathan Rabb has provided provocative, sympathetic characters facing unusual challenges in a fascinating setting.
Underground in Berlin – A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in Nazi Germany represents a fascinating and important contribution to Holocaust literature. The author Marie Jalowicz Simon was a young Jewish woman who survived World War II by hiding in Berlin, often in plain sight. She survived to complete her education and become a professor in Berlin. Prior to 1997 Simon generally refrained from telling her story and angrily rejected requests for interviews. But finally, in 1997 during the last year of her life, she dictated her story onto 77 tapes (900 pages of transcript). Although she didn’t keep a written diary during her years of hiding, Simon had maintained a remarkable diary in her head. Marie Simon died in 1998, and approximately fifteen years later, after substantial research and editing, her son published this important book.
Every survivor’s story is unique, but Simon’s is really unusual, mostly because of her attitude. Simon was an educated woman in her twenties in Berlin. Her parents had died and she had no one depending on her. This gave her some freedom and mobility, but it also meant she had only herself to rely upon.
To survive in and of itself was noble, and Simon insisted on surviving. Apart from an unsuccessful effort to marry and relocate to Bulgaria, she stayed in Berlin and its environs. She kept her health and had tremendous ingenuity and nerve. Perhaps more importantly, she had just enough contacts to keep finding a series of short term places to stay. Simon was furious at her situation and furious at the German people, so she wasn’t particularly grateful to those who helped her. She never betrayed anyone, but neither did she waste much time mourning those who didn’t make it. Simon comes across as a difficult person who probably wasn’t the easiest houseguest or the nicest person to have around. But then, to hear her tell it, many of the people who took her in frequently weren’t very nice either. They seemed to have jumbled motives and were frequently unpleasant.
Not to digress, but an interesting study on what it takes to be a rescuer might be conducted just from looking at the lives of the people who stepped up to help Marie Simon. They were a very diverse group of odd personalities from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. Unpleasant they may have been, but undoubtedly they stuck their necks out when they sheltered Simon. In the end, we see her rescuers only through Simon’s eyes, and she doesn’t dwell on how scared many of them must have been.
This book is particularly striking because of Simon’s strong voice. Simon absolutely rejects the fate the Naxi regime is determined to impose. At some level she holds all Germans accountable for the crimes implicated upon Jews and thinks that those helping her are only doing what they were supposed to do. Her rage is impressive and constant, even as she is always on her guard and looking for her next place to hide. The bottom line is that Simon was courageous and bold, and she succeeded in surviving for three years in Berlin during the last years of World War II. It is a great story.
Agata Tuszynska has written a remarkable family memoir, Family History of Fear, A Memoir. Tuszynska is a Polish poet and writer who tries to find out what happened to her family, both before and after the Holocaust. As the daughter of a survivor, she has some family assistance with her search, but in the end there is a lot she cannot know. The author’s efforts to uncover the past are founded on one basic story. Her grandmother nearly survived, but died just when she had reason to feel she might be safe. Despite her own death, the grandmother managed save to her daughter, the author’s mother.
For Polish Jews, it wasn’t enough to to survive the Holocaust. Pogroms survived World War II, and then Poland had its own anti-Semitic purge in the late 60’s. A surprising number of the author’s relatives survived and elected to remain in Poland to work with the new Communist regime. The decision to stay despite having lost so many family members and barely escaping death themselves during the war years is bewildering. Poland may have been their home, but it never felt really safe.
This isn’t a book where the author’s story is neatly sewn up. There are stray ends and elderly relatives who either don’t know much or have chosen to forget. It isn’t all the surprising that Tusznska’s family history is difficult to pin down, because so much was lost during the war, and this was not a cohesive family unit. Episodic poverty and the near-constant threats to their security, combined with a series of deaths, divorces, second marriages and various alliances depict a family under considerable stress. At times I found it difficult to keep all the aunts and cousins straight, but that didn’t detract from the author’s story. To the contrary, this somewhat messy family history where not all relatives are forthcoming about the past and where everyone didn’t always behave all that well rings very true. At some level the people who survived are very ordinary. They seem to go about their lives without a lot of reflection about their extraordinary experiences.
In addition to being a wonderful family saga, Family History of Fear also adds to what we know about the Holocause and how some people managed to survive, as a result of bravery and luck, was well as the kindness of those who chose to help.
At times all of the mass murder and genocide across the globe can be numbing. You know it is happening and you see the awful photos, but there is just so much of it that it can seem remote and, God forbid, routine. Well, Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir of her childhood under the Khmer Rouge brings it home. First They Killed My Father – A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, tells a harrowing tale of exile, murder and overwhelming hunger as seen through the eyes of a privileged middle class five year old.
This child knows what she had and has absolutely no idea why she has been abruptly pulled from her comfortable life in Phnom Penh and, together with her family, cast into a hostile rural environment. Ung survives, but as the title of her book suggests, not all of her family was so lucky. The mindless beatings and killings all occur in a numbing environment of hunger and fear. No one trusts anyone; the author and her siblings are told they must hide their Chinese ancestry and middle class roots. It is actually pretty amazing that the kids were able to follow these life-saving directions. They showed a lot of discipline and seemed to have entered into survival mode.
Fortunately, Ung managed to get out. After tough times in a Thai refugee camp, she immigrated to the United States with one of her brothers. She went on to an American high school and college and ended up writing at least two books and working with the Campaign for a Landmine Free World.
I Googled Ung to see what she has been up to since writing this book and learned that she has prompted some controversy within the Cambodian community. In particular, some have questioned whether Ung could have called the details of her childhood trauma so specifically, given that she was so young, only five years old, when the nightmare began. Given that she wasn’t in a position to write it all down, it seems entirely plausible that her youth and the passage of time may have affected some of the specifics of her recollections. Of course the passage of time affects the recollections of many of us.
Such controversies do not blunt the impact of this book. Ung’s story hits you right in the face and breaks your heart. This is what genocide felt like to a young child. She may not have focused on the politics behind the Khmer Rouge’s absurd cruelty and meglomania, but she saw the lunacy behind the terror. People turned on each other with unimaginable viciousness, and mass murder and loss were the result. At some level the politics really didn’t matter.