The Holocaust, as a subject is one of the most potent narratives in the world of fiction. It is therefore, up to the writer to make their specific narrative stand out.
Kristin Harmel‘s new novel, The Forest of Vanishing Stars: A Novel, was published last month. In 1922, an old woman steals a child from her crib. Re-named Yona, she is raised in the forests of Eastern Europe and taught to survive off the land. Twenty years later, Yona’s adopted mother dies, leaving the young woman alone in the world. Coming upon a group of Jews who have so far escaped Nazi slaughter, she helps them to find safety and shelter in the woods. While Yona is providing them with the tools they need to live, they provide her with the family she never had.
When her past and her true parentage is revealed, she has a choice to make. She can either go with the man who fathered her, or she can listen to her own conscious.
Among stories of this nature, this book stands out. A cross between Rapunzel and a story of survival against all odds, it is unique within the genre. But it is not Harmel’s best book. The first couple of chapters were a little slow to get into. The final chapter, as to the fate of the characters, did not make complete sense. Unless I was missing something, I was not sure who the author was referring to.
Glenn Kurtz had what many would consider a normal childhood. The grandson of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, he grew up in the security of post World War II America.
In 1938, Glenn’s paternal grandparents, David and Liza Kurtz embarked on a grand tour of Europe with their friends. Part of their trip included visiting the shtetl’s that their families called home for generations. They documented their trip on film. Years later, Glenn discovered the film in his parent’s Florida home. Not knowing the treasure he possessed, Glenn donated the film to the Holocaust Museum.
Several years later, he receives a very interesting telephone call. The woman on the other end of the telephone explains that one of the young boys whose image was captured in the film is her 86 year old grandfather. Maurice Chandler was given them name of Moszek Tuchendler at his birth. Mr. Chandler originated from Nasielsk, Poland, the town that Glenn’s grandparents stopped at during their trip. Mr. Chandler was the only one of his family to survive the war.
Glenn Kurtz’s new memoir, Three Minutes In Poland: Discovering A Lost World In A 1938 Family Film. The book follows Glenn as he meets survivors from Nasielsk and tries to piece together fragments of a world that no longer exists.
I loved this book. It drew me in immediately. Like Mr. Kurtz, I have familial origins in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, due to time and the lack of information, many of us know only bits and pieces about lives our ancestors lived before World War II. I was drawn into his quest to find out more about Mr. Chandler, his fellow survivors and the lives they lived before it was brutally ripped from beneath their feet.
Before World War II, Jews in Eastern Europe were limited in their career opportunities. One of the professions that was open was that of the garment industry. While those who emigrated to the United States used those skills to make a new life in America, those same skills would turn out to save the lives of those who chose to stay in Europe in the face of impending Nazi invasion.
Rena Margulies Chernoff was one of the youngest child survivors of Auschwitz. She was also descended from a family of tailors and garment industry workers who used their skills to stay alive during World War II. Her memoir/autobiography, co-written by Rena and her son, Allen Chernoff, The Tailors Of Tomaszow: A Memoir of Polish Jews, is the first person account of Rena’s life before, during and after World War II.
Rena was born in the 1930’s to a family whose life work was in the garment industry. When the Nazis invaded Poland and began to slowly encroach on the rights and lives of Poland’s Jews, Rena’s family was able to stave off the oppression as best they could by doing what they knew best. While most of Rena’s relations and neighbors were killed, 250 survived, thanks to their skill with a needle and thread.
I’ve read many Holocaust related books. Fiction, based on the experiences of the survivors are wonderful tools to teach about the Holocaust, but ones that seem to hit home the hardest are the first hand accounts of the survivors. These people, now in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, walked through the valley of death and somehow survived. When they are gone, it will be stories like the Tailors of Tomaszow that will live on.
It is the fictionalized story of Yezierska’s contemporary, Rose Pastor Stokes, who married the older and Christian JG Phelps Stokes. Weaved into this novel is the author’s failed relationship with John Dewey.
Sonya Vrunsky is a Jewish emigrant originally from Eastern Europe. She joins many of the immigrants of that time, residing in the Lower East Side. She is working for a newspaper and is sent to interview John Manning. John Manning is a native born, Protestant philanthropist who is eager to extend a helping hand the lower, working classes. They are attracted to one another, but their differences may tear them apart.
It’s been wanting to read this book for a few years. What I didn’t expect and didn’t like was that the characters were too stereotypical for me. Sonya, in her need to attract John and keep him interested in her, is almost mercenary in her task. The other characters within Sonya’s world are very much what one thinks of a Jewish stereotype.
Do I recommend this book? Only if your interest is New York City in the early 20th century and the emigrant denizens of the Lower East Side. If not, then I would recommend to find another book to read.
This weekend, I read David Laskin’s novel, The Family.
In short, this is one of the best books I have read in a long time.
Mr. Laskin narrates the tale of his mother’s family, starting with his great-great grand parents, Shimon Dov HaKohen and Beyle Shapiro, who lived in the shtetl of Rakov and the yeshiva center of Volozhin, which is now in Belarus.
Shimon Dov and Beyle have six children and numerous grandchildren, all choosing different paths in life. One branch of the family emigrated to the United States and became successful business owners. Another made Aaliyah to what was then Palestine and became pioneers of modern day Israel. The third stayed in Europe and became part of the martyred six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.
This book could have sounded like a history book or a boring documentary. But it doesn’t. Each member of Mr. Laskin’s family has their own voice and their own story to tell. The details are so vivid that one doesn’t have to be Jewish or have roots in Eastern Europe to be caught up in this world.
I couldn’t put it down, the book is nearly 400 pages long, but it doesn’t feel like it is 400 pages. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to read a good book.