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.