Tag Archives: Holocaust survivor

The Woman with the Blue Star: A Novel Book Review

It is easy to judge someone based on a stereotype or a first impression. But when we get to know them, we hopefully will get to see the real person and not who we think they are.

Pam Jenoff‘s new book, The Woman with the Blue Star: A Novel, was published in May. In Krakow, Poland in 1942, 18-year-old Sadie Gault’s life has been turned upside down. Because she is Jewish, she and her parents have been forced to move into the Krakow Ghetto. When the Nazis decide that it is time to liquidate the ghetto, they escape into the sewers beneath the city. Hiding with her pregnant mother and another family, she looks up one day and sees a young woman her age looking back to her.

On the outside, Ella Stepanek is living a comfortable life (relatively speaking). Her Catholic faith has so far kept her alive and safe. But once she gets home, it is another story. Ella is the only one of her siblings still living at home. Both of her parents are deceased. Her stepmother would love nothing more than to have an empty house. She has also opened her doors, literally and figuratively to the new regime.

As the two girls become friends, Ella starts to provide Sadie with as many provisions as possible. But with both the war and the hunt for hidden Jews ramping up, they realize that the decisions that must be made have life-changing consequences.

I have been a fan of Jenoff for the last few years. She perfectly balances the historical record with fictional characters, telling stories that transcend the time and place in which they are set. I also very much appreciate that most, if not all of her protaganists are female. We can talk all we want about representation. But until writers, readers, and publishers step up, male protaganists will still dominate the world of fiction.

Reading this book, I am reminded that the Holocaust is not ancient history. Many who survived are no longer with us. Without their testimony and the recording of their experiences, this dark day in history will be lost to memory. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the younger generations to listen while we can and make sure that what they lived through is preserved, re-told, and never forgotten.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

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Flashback Friday: The Last Days (1998)

The only way to learn from our past is to not repeat it. Sometimes, that requires reliving it, as painful as it sounds.

The 1998 documentary, The Last Days, was released on Netflix back in May. The film follows five Hungarian Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. During the last year of World War II, the Jews of Hungary were the last intact Jewish community in Europe. That would quickly change. Within six weeks, hundreds of thousands were deported to Auschwitz. Only a handful would survive. Containing interviews with survivors, a SS doctor, and American soldiers who helped to liberate Dachau, it is powerful and haunting reminder of both the light and the darkness in humanity.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It was riveting, emotional, and a punch to the gut that is absolutely necessary. Hearing about this time in history from the people who lived through this nightmare reminds us all that the Holocaust is not a myth and not strictly relegated to the world of literature. It is an event that happened in the lifetimes of many people who are still alive. While we cannot bring back those who were murdered, we can honor their memory by remembering them, and open our eyes to the negative energy and destruction that hate drags behind it.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

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My Name Is Selma: The Remarkable Memoir of a Jewish Resistance Fighter and Ravensbrück Survivor Book Review

The ability to survive a war is due to a combination of both luck and timing.

In 2020, Jewish Holocaust survivor and resistance fighter Selma van de Perre published her memoir. It is entitled My Name Is Selma: The Remarkable Memoir of a Jewish Resistance Fighter and Ravensbrück Survivor. The third of four children, van de Perre’s live was relatively normal until World War II started. In her late teens at the time, fate determined that it was not her time to be rounded up by the Nazis. After her father was summoned to a work camp and her mother and little sister were in hiding before found and sent to Auschwitz, Selma died her hair blonde, lived under an assumed name, and joined the resistance. It seemed that luck was on her side. That is, until 1944 when she was captured and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Her Jewish identity remained a secret until after the war, when she finally able to reveal her true self safely.

I wanted to like this book. If I am to be completely honest, it was an infodump. In writing terms, an infodump is where the writer(s) provide the reader with a lot of information without emotion or insight into what the characters are thinking or feeling. Now granted, this is a memoir and not a fiction book. What I was missing was the quickening of my pulse and the uncertainty of the dangerous situations she put herself into.

Do I recommend it? Not really.

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The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos Book Review

When we think of war, we generally think of men on the battlefield and women keeping the home front going. But the reality is that women have waged war, but not in in the way we perceive it to be.

The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos by Judy Batalion, was published earlier this year. The book tells the story of a group of young Jewish women who actively fought against the Nazis in the Polish ghettos during World War II. Told in vivid detail using interviews, archival information, and written accounts, the author brings to light an aspect of this era in history that has been overlooked.

This book adds a new layer to the information we have about the Holocaust. I loved that each woman is given her time to shine. We are told that women are weak and emotional. We are incapable of being bold, brave, and courageous. The subjects of this book are the opposite. They know that death is waiting for them at every turn. But they cannot sit back and do nothing. Instead these young women used every tool at their disposal to save as many lives as they can.

I appreciated the epilogue in which the author sketches the lives of the survivors after the war is over. While some settled down into of normal life, others are haunted by those years and what they experienced. They lived with what we now know to be PTSD, creating a shadow that stayed with them years after peace was declared.

Though it is not the heart pounding thriller I thought it would be, it is still a good and a very important read.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

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The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel Book Review

There is something about a shared life experience. Instead of small talking and playing the “getting to know you” game, there is an immediate understanding and shorthand between those who share said experiences.

In 2019, journalist Howard Reich published his memoir about his friendship with the late Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel. It is entitled The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel. Reich, whose parents both survived the Holocaust, sat down with Wiesel for what was supposed to be a standard interview. Instead of it being a one-and-done experience, Reich and Wiesel became friends and were in frequent contact with each other during the latter’s last four years of life.

This book is excellent. Though Reich and Wiesel have an innate grasp of each other, it is not so exclusive the reader cannot feel like they are part of the conversation. What I liked about the memoir is that one does not have to be a 2G or 3G (the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors) to understand that trauma can be transferred to younger generations. What is important is that the story is told and spoken of in such a manner that shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

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18 Voices: A Liberation Day Reading of Young Writers’ Diaries from the Holocaust

Yesterday was International Holocaust Memorial Day. Looking back on this time in history from a 2021 perspective, what hurts the most is the loss of 1.5 million young people who were killed simply because of their faith. They had their who lives in front of them. But because they were Jewish, they were seen as worthless.

Last night, 18 Voices: A Liberation Day Reading of Young Writers’ Diaries from the Holocaust was released on YouTube. The readings are done by a group of actors and media personalities. It is utterly heartbreaking to hear these voices, some who survived and some who didn’t.

May their memory be a blessing. Z”l.

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Ask Dr. Ruth Movie Review

Though sex and sexuality is part and parcel of human nature, it is often viewed as something dangerous and wrong.

For decades, Dr. Ruth Westheimer (aka Dr. Ruth), has been America’s sex therapist. The 2019 Hulu documentary movie, Ask Dr. Ruth, tells her story. Born in 1928 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Germany, everything was normal for the first ten years of her life. When it became clear that being a Jew in Germany was dangerous, Ruth (then known by her first name, Karola) was sent to Switzerland on the Kindertransport.

At the age of 17, she emigrated to what was then British controlled Palestine (pre-Independence Israel) and joined the Haganah. Years later, she again emigrated to the United States. Living in New York City, she married, raised her two children and became the woman we know her to be today.

The thing I love about her is that at nearly 100 years old, she has the energy of a woman half her age. She represents hope, life, change, and that a woman can never be limited to what she can do because she is “female”. Her presence first on the radio and then on television, helped to open the door to long overdue conversations about sex and sexuality.

I absolutely recommend it.

Ask Dr. Ruth is available for streaming on Hulu.

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The Life Ahead Movie Review

Having an adult mentor or teacher when we are young is sometimes all that is needed to guide us to adulthood.

The new Netflix film, The Life Ahead (based on the book entitled The Life Before Us by Ugo Chiti and Romain Gary) premiered this weekend. In a small seaside town in Italy, Madame Rosa (Sophia Loren) is a Holocaust survivor and a retired prostitute. She earns her bread by taking care of the children of those who ply the same trade that she used to.

She meets Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), a young orphan boy who was born in Senegal. In the country illegally, he steals a pair of candlesticks from her in a market. When he is forced to apologize and return the stolen goods, Rosa reluctantly agrees to take him in. What starts as a forced relationship turns into mother/son bond that both Rosa and Momo learn to treasure.

Directed by Loren’s son, Edoardo Ponti, this film is easily one of the best of 2020. Returning to the screen after a decade, Loren is nothing short of breath taking as Rosa. Her acting is superb and her character’s arc is perfection. Gueye is a young actor who based on this film alone, has the acting chops to hopefully have a long career ahead of him. What kept me watching was the slow reveal of what was beneath the emotional hard shell of the main characters.

I absolutely recommend it.

The Life Ahead is available for streaming on Netflix.

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I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir Book Review

To be the second or third generation family of Holocaust survivor(s) is to carry a sadly unique perspective on life. Your family may look “normal”, but the wartime experiences of those who lived forever changed their outlook on everything.

Esther Safran Foer is a second-generation Holocaust survivor. Both of her parents are the only members of their families to have survived the war. Her father came from Trochenbrod and her mother came from Kolki. They met and married after the war, had their daughter, and moved to America.

Though Esther grew up in the comfort and safety of the United States, there as a part of her that was curious about her parent’s experiences during the war. Her memoir, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir, was published earlier this year. The story starts when her mother (who has since passed), casually mentions that her husband had a family before the war. This out of nowhere disclosure leads Esther on a journey to answer the burning questions that up that point, had never been answered.

I have to admit that my feelings are mixed about this book. The subject itself is an emotionally difficult one, but that goes without saying. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve read and reviewed many books on this particular topic. The mixed feelings do not come from the subject, but from the book itself.

The problem is that by the time the reader gets to the middle of the book, the narrative slows down. I was almost at the point of putting it down and walking away, but I somehow finished it.

Do I recommend it? Maybe.

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Margot: A Novel Book Review

No one goes through life without asking the “what if” question at least once during their lifetime. This question becomes multiplied when it come to war and the loss of life that comes with war.

In the 2013 author Jillian Cantor asked this question in the book, Margot: A Novel.

It’s 1959 in Philadelphia. Margot Frank survived the war and has started a new life as Margie Franklin, living as a Gentile and working in a law firm as  a secretary.

Her sister’s diary has become the darling of the publishing world. The movie, based on the book, has just been released into theaters. Margot/Margie’s carefully constructed outer shell begins to crack. While juggling PTSD and survivor’s guilt, Margot/Margie’s past come back to her via a case and an unusually strong emotional bond with her boss.

This book is amazing. When it comes to the story of Anne Frank, her elder sister is often pushed out of the spotlight. In giving Margot the spotlight, Ms. Cantor tells the story of Holocaust survivors who for any number of reasons, choose to keep their pasts to themselves. It is also the story of America in the late 50’s when antisemitism was not as obvious, but still existed beneath the thin veneer of respectability.

I recommend it.

 

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