When we make a choice, we never know what the consequences of that decision will be. We can only hope that it will turn out for the best.
In Kristin Harmel‘s 2018 book, The Room on Rue Amelie, Ruby is a young woman in the late 1930’s. Attending college in New York City, she meets and instantly falls in love with Marcel, a Frenchman from Paris. After the wedding, they move to Marcel’s hometown. At first it seems as they are in newlywedded bliss. But then World War II starts and their marriage is forever altered. The man she married and the man who stands in front of her are two different people.
After he is killed, Ruby discovers that her husband was part of the resistance. Picking up where he left off, she hides Allied soldiers who have landed in enemy territory. One of them is a RAF pilot who Ruby immediately connects with. She also takes in Charlotte, the young daughter of her Jewish neighbors who have been arrested. As the war continues on, the level of danger grows tenfold. They know they want to survive, but fate may have other plans.
I really enjoyed this book. Harmel’s story of love, resistance, fate, and hope is emotional and powerful. The relationship that kept me going was the one between Ruby and Charlotte. Their sisterly bond was the strongest among the characters, keeping them both going in a time when their circumstances could have easily broken them.
During the massacre, approximately 800,000 to 1.2 Armenian women, children, and older members of the community were sent on death marches to the desert. Another 100,000 to 200,000 women and children were forced to covert to Islam. More than a century later, Turkey has yet to claim responsibility for the atrocity.
Reading about the event and watching footage is stomach curling. The similarities to the Holocaust are too close to home for me. As is the denial that it either never happened or the facts are exaggerated.
The fact that President Biden has both acknowledged the genocide and encouraged our allies to do the same tells me that there are good people in this world. What is done cannot be undone. But we can honor the memories of those who were murdered by standing up to hate and prejudice.
The perception of women is that we are caregivers and nurturers. The want or need to kill another person is not in our nature.
Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, by Wendy Lower, was published in 2014. In the book, Lower puts the spotlight on a group of women who were responsible for the murder of Jews and other minority groups looked upon as “subhuman”. Some of those profiled worked in clerical positions, others took profound glee in being able to say that they had a direct hand in the killings.
I have to admit that I had trouble reading the book. Not because it is poorly written, but because of the subject matter. It is chilling to think that these women had blood on their hands, but went home to their families and children as if they had ordinary jobs. The reason the Nazis were able to stay in power and do what they did because of ordinary people who supported them. It is a lesson that is as profound today as it was in the 1940’s.
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.
When the stakes are life and death, the choices that are open to us are nothing short of impossible. Regardless of the the path that one takes, we know that someone will lose their life.
The new movie, Quo Vadis, Aida?, takes place in the town of Srebrenica during the Bosnian war in the 1990’s. History tells us that over 8000 Bosniaks Muslim men and boys were murdered by the Bosnian army. Aida Selmanagic (Jasna Djuricic) is a translator in the summer of 1995. The Bosnians have just entered the town and are killing civilians who have not already escaped. Thousands upon thousands have made their way to the United Nations compound, looking for safety. But only a handful are able to enter.
Aida is able to get her husband and sons into the compound. But with many more outside, she has a horrible choice to make. She can either put her family first or save as many as she can.
If I were to compile a list of the best films of 2021 today, Quo Vadis, Aida would be near the top of the list. Djuricic gives a heartbreaking and tour de force performance. Her anxiety comes out of the screen immediately, as does the imminent feeling of danger.
When it comes to movies about war and trying to save lives, most of the protagonists are men. The fact that the lead character is a female who is a full fledged human being makes the narrative that much more powerful.
I felt myself getting angry at how useless the UN officials were. Whatever attempts they made to keep the peace were easily destroyed. I also saw similarities to The Holocaust, in which hate and murder was the norm.
Do I recommend it? Without a doubt, yes.
Quo Vadis, Aidais available for streaming on Hulu.
Sometimes, when it seems that all is lost, fate has a way of guiding us to the right path.
In the early 2000’s, writer Faris Cassell received a letter that would change her life and answer decades long questions of a family she had never met. The story of that letter is told in her 2020 book, The Unanswered Letter: One Holocaust Family’s Desperate Plea for Help. In 1939, Alfred Berger was a Jewish man living in Vienna. His once tight knit and happy family has been forced apart due to the Nazi invasion and the threat to lives of the Jews of Europe. With his daughters safely out of the country, Alfred is desperate to find a way out for himself and his wife. Taking a chance, he writes to strangers with the same last name living in California, hoping that they will provide the help that is desperately needed.
Sixty plus years later, this letter is given to Cassell’s husband. It’s contents starts on her on a journey to find Berger’s living descendants. With a dogged persistence and a journalist’s skill, she is finally able to fill in the blanks of what happened to Alfred, his wife, and the rest of the family who were caught in the German crossfire.
The book is fantastic. It was a heart pounding voyage that immediately hooked me and kept me in rapt attention until the final page. It was a powerful story of love, hope, and ultimately survival.
A stamp can be one of two things. It can be the postage on a letter. Or, it can be something more.
Jillian Cantor‘s 2017 book, The Lost Letter: A Novel, takes place in two different time periods. In 1989, in Los Angeles, Katie is dealing with the one-two punch of her broken marriage and putting her Alzheimer’s stricken father into a nursing home. While going through his things, she discovers a World War II era stamp. Taking it to Benjamin, an appraiser, Katie starts on a journey across time and the continents to discover decades old secrets.
Fifty years earlier, Kristoff is a young orphan in Austria. He is apprenticed to a master stamp engraver and in love with Elena, his teacher’s eldest daughter. The master engraver and his family are Jewish, Kristoff is Christian. When the engraver disappears during Kristallnacht, he joins the resistance and makes a promise that he and Elena will somehow survive.
I loved this book. It was engaging and powerful. It was ultimately the story of love. Not just romantic love between Kristoff and Elena, but the love that a daughter feels for her father. If there was one thing that rang true, it was the image of how emotionally destructive Alzheimer’s disease is. The slow and painful process of watching someone you love being replaced by a shell of their former selves is beyond difficult and requires strength that you may not think you have.
The Holocaust did not start with ghettos, gas chambers, and concentration camps. That was the end of the process. The beginning started with prejudice, lies and dehumanization. Today is Yom HaShoah.
It’s not exactly a secret that the AAPI community has been the target of numerous hate crimes as of late. The difference between the early days World War II and now is that there is hope that we can learn from the past.
During the war, as countries around the world closed their borders, there was one nation that opened her arms to Jewish refugees: China. Though the Shanghai Ghetto was dirty and overcrowded, it saved the lives of those who made it their new home. The documentary, Harbor from the Holocaust, told the story of the Jews who lived there.
It is during times of trouble that our actions reveal our true characters. The Chinese people and her government, only saw that fellow human beings were in trouble. In spite of their own troubles, they opened their collective doors to strangers.
The truth is that we can live with our neighbors who are different. It just takes a heart, a brain, and the want to see past the stereotypes.
I would love to say that we live in a world in which we are free to love who we love without prejudice or fear. But I know better.
Amy Harmon‘s 2016 novel, From Sand and Ash, takes place in Italy during World War II. Batsheva “Eva” Rosselli and Angelo Bianco have been best friends since childhood. Now in their early 20’s, they are madly in love with one another. But there are two obstacles to their potential union. The first obstacle is that Eva is Jewish and Angelo is a Catholic priest. The second obstacle is the German invasion and the fact that Eva, like all Jews in Europe, has a target on her back.
Angelo is doing everything he can to keep her alive. The only way he can keep Eva alive to send her to one of the many hiding places in Catholic Churches, Convents, and Monasteries. But she is not one to contently stay hidden until liberation. When they are discovered and forced apart, Eva and Angelo will fight to be reunited and have the life they have always wanted.
I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. I can only describe as a historical romantic drama with all of the heart racing moments of a thriller. The question of the novel was whether or not Eva and Angelo would end up together. From the first page to the last page, I was waiting on baited breath for the answer.
Every family has secrets and stories that disappear as the elder members of our families pass on. The question is, what happens when the younger members of our families start to ask questions and there is no around to ask?
Last month, writer Hadley Freeman published a memoir. Entitled House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family, the book tells the story of her father’s maternal line in the 20th century. Her grandmother, Sala (also referred to as Sara) was born in Poland, the youngest child and only daughter in a family of six. After Sala’s father died as a result from his World War I wounds, the Glahs (renamed Glass) moved to Paris to escape poverty and antisemitism. All was well until 1939, when the world flipped on its head once again.
Initially inspired by the contents a shoebox Freeman discovered years after her grandmother’s passing, it took her a decade to put together the pieces of this intricate puzzle together. The final result is a thrilling and emotional narrative that speaks to everyone about the complicated topics of relationships, family, and faith.