In a Land Far Away, A Long Time Ago, There Was the Shoah

I’ve been behind in responding to comments on Monday’s post–and on reading your blogs–because I was away, visiting Sedona for a couple of days.

I had a lovely time rebalancing my energies, although I never caught a glimpse of my aura (which I’m sure is coral in color) and didn’t even see any crystals for sale.

On to my memoir review.

I’ve read a lot of stories about the Shoah (the Holocaust), but never one quite like the story of Helen Fremont’s family. Her book, After Long Silence: A Memoir, is truly a blend of genres, regardless of the title.

Fremont is of my generation, but her parents were European refugees who came to the United States after WWII. To everyone outside the family they were a nice Polish-American Catholic family. Inside the nuclear family, they also appeared to be Catholics of Polish ancestry.

The book is about the story Helen discovers when she is an adult. Her parents were actually Jews who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust. They won’t admit it, though–at least not until Helen hounds them for the truth.

From the opening, the main question Helen seeks to answer in the book is “What really happened to my parents during the war years?” Eventually that question turns into “Why do they still want to keep the secret?”

Fremont alternates her story with that of both her parents before and during and right after the war. Once the story of her parents’ paths to survival begins in earnest, Fremont has me completely hooked. Those chapters/sections are to me the essence of the book–and they truly would not be memoir if they were not framed within a memoir. They read like a Holocaust biography or novel–gripping and disturbing. What her parents did to survive shows how far the human spirit and personality can stretch and mold.

The sections about Fremont’s parents’ lives are imagined stories based upon Fremont’s research. This is exactly what I am planning to do with my book, although I have not done enough research yet and have left those portions for last. They won’t take over my story the way Fremont’s parents’ stories take over her memoir. It makes sense that the stories of her parents overshadows Fremont’s own story since the huge secret her parents imposed on their family overshadowed Fremont’s life. But at the end of the book she feels independent of them. This is important because it means she can differentiate herself as an individual adult.

I did a little research after finishing the book. The Afterword made me believe that Fremont’s parents were not happy with the publication of the book, but that Fremont and her sister found Jewish (2nd) cousins they didn’t know existed. I’ve read sources that talk about a rift in the family caused by the book.  Then I discovered that after Fremont’s father died, still “estranged” from Judaism, she wanted her father remembered in a Jewish ritual.  I found this quote in this article (if I were you, I wouldn’t read the article until after you read the book because it gives away too much of the parents’ story):

“Two weeks ago” – my relative told me – “Helen Fremont was in touch with me and informed me that her father had passed away. She asked me to do something in order to commemorate him according to Jewish tradition. After checking that there was no Halakhic obstacle involved and “although he sinned, he remains a Jew”, I promised that I would say Kaddish for him each time I prayed with a Minyan [quorum of ten required for saying the Kaddish]. And this I do.”

In my research, I found this website for the children of Holocaust survivors. Here is also a website about an organization devoted to teaching about the Holocaust USC Shoah Foundation.

Here are a few posts I’ve written related to the Holocaust:

20 Holocaust Books for Children and Teens

On Monday, I wrote about  Johanna Reiss’s Holocaust memoir The Upstairs Room. As a follow-up I pulled together a list of 20+ Holocaust books for children and teens.

Teaching the Holocaust to Children and Teens

One section of my memoir bookshelf is devoted to books by Holocaust survivors. I read these books years ago, long before I started to think about memoir as a genre. I’ve read Holocaust memoirs written for children and ones written …Continue reading →

Secret War Hero: One Woman’s Story (A Memoir)

Years ago, my friend, Lisa Ercolano, urged me to read a memoir by a friend of hers who had passed away. This is how she describes her friend for this post: Over the quarter of a century that I worked … Continue reading →


Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

29 responses to “In a Land Far Away, A Long Time Ago, There Was the Shoah

  1. Wow, I need to read this book. Thank you so much for sharing. I have extended family who are Holocaust survivors, and also know of a family who was Jewish when they fled Eastern Europe, and Christian when they arrived in the US. Nobody in the family now seems to know the whole story, but from what I understand, this was not such an uncommon occurrence.

    • Janet, I understand there is another memoir that is a similar plot line to this one called The Keeper of Memory. I’d like to read that one, too! I had no idea, but now I am remembering that something like this apparently happened to Madeleine Albright.

  2. Mom

    I’m sharing this title with a friend who loves all things of this era. And, just in case I decide to read it… I made myself skip over the quote…that was a really big step for me!
    I think we often confuse people who are “believers” with people who are raised in a “culture” of believers. If you are in a certain church or religion, along with your family and often the whole neighborhood you live in–you may “go through the motions” of “being” a Jew or a Catholic etc. We, in our time, don’t have that same immersive structure to our church or temple ties that people used to have. We have “choice.” Which can include the “choice” to sort of opt out in general. We mod people can have lives, careers, community and friends without a church affiliation to foster our survival. So, if her family was fleeing Poland as jews, and still needed connection and language help etc to be near other Poles, they may have assimilated as Catholic Poles. Maybe being Jewish was not in their hearts, just in their environment, and was not as important to them as surviving. And maybe they weren’t Catholics in their hearts either, but felt the need to be in that Polish environment. People really haven’t changed, just what our society sees as normal and acceptable. End of Mom’s two cents 🙂
    Her Catholic two cents at that!

    • Mom, it’s true that Fremont’s parents were not religious Jews, but there is something that Fremont notices about her family when they are inside a church that makes me think they never became believers either but remained in hiding, wearing a mask of Catholicism.

  3. I’ve been to Tucson, but never Sedona. I’ve heard it’s spectacular and by the looks of your photo, I’ve heard correctly.
    Great review, Luanne…the book sounds very intriguing. I wonder if our blogging buddy Ian has read this?

    • Jill, I was thinking about Ian while reading this book. I need to write to him! Sedona is far more beautiful than Tucson though Tucson has more to offer for day to day living.

  4. Glad you got a getaway to Sedona, Luanne. What a spectacular view.

    The relationships in the memoir seem complicated and layered. I am glad reading it offered some further clarity on your work.

    • It was really good to get away, Rudri!
      I’m amazed at books where the writer recreates the world of a relative. Like Half-broke Horses and Still Life with Rice.

  5. Sedona sounds wonderful. The book sounds captivating. And intense.

    • Sedona is a beautiful place. It’s also quite rustic and calm compared to Phoenix! The book was intense. There are people who would read it, I’m pretty sure, and wonder why the writer and her sister kept pushing the issue when the parents were so desperately trying to cover it all up. And Fremont’s sister is a psychiatrist, too!

  6. Sounds like a good read. And Sedona! Looks such a beautiful place. 🙂

    • It was an excellent read and so thought-provoking. To try and figure out the psychology of the parents, really, is quite a journey.
      Sedona is really magnificent. It’s not a soft, pretty place, but not quite rugged either. But maybe majestic is the right word!

  7. I just set myself a reminder to read this book. I am fascinated by this period, and this story is different than most. Thanks.

    And your pictures are stunning!

  8. what no crystals in Sedona?? have always wanted to visit but not so sure now if there are no crystal pendulums for sale 😀 Fremont’s memoir definitely sounds intriguing. I’m of the opinion that every Holocaust survivor’s story should be recorded and in print for future generations and that every life lived contains valuable lessons so I am always fascinated by people who hesitate to share those experiences (even though I respect their desire for peace and privacy) of course.

  9. Luanne, thanks to alerting me to this review (and for posting that lovely Sedona photo). I know you’ve touched on this before, but isn’t there an element of fiction or fictionalization in memoir. You say, “The sections about Fremont’s parents’ lives are imagined stories based upon Fremont’s research” and that you’ll be doing something similar with your book. If I were to write a memoir about my family, I would (intentionally or not) be making most of it up. In part because I have a shoddy memory, but also my family (extended and nuclear) were not/are not movers and shakers. I lightly draw them in my fiction but they probably wouldn’t recognize themselves if I drew them in memoir. Or if they did, they would be up in arms over my portrayal 🙂 Not sure if this makes sense. I have an example that I hope to post as soon as I can retype it: a short story loosely based on my parents. Soon as I have time … 😉

  10. I find it so interesting that Fremont wrote about her parents with imagined stories based upon her research and that this is also what you are doing with your book. Sedona looks beautiful, I hope you had an enjoyable time away 🙂

  11. soccerdawg

    Holy cow. I need to read this book. I’m Catholic (culturally) but I work for a Jewish organization and always had an interest in Holocaust history. Also, going to tweet this through my work twitter.

  12. Wow, you have me intrigued. I can think of at least two ways this could have happened…but maybe there was another way.

  13. I read this the other day and was sure I responded, Luanne (unless my internet connection dropped out – which has been happening a lot lately) 🙁
    I’m really looking forward to reading your book once you’ve completed it. The amount of research you’re doing is fantastic 😀

    • Pressure pressure pressure ;). Haha, actually the really hard research parts I haven’t done yet. And by that I mean hard research of facts from the past. I keep postponing those, but i know they need to be done . . . .

  14. Sedona looks like a beautiful place! Glad you have a little time away 🙂 Also, I definitely need to read this book. I am so intrigued by your work on it!

    • There is apparently another book with the same topic. I want to get my hands on that one, too. Sedona is a beautiful place. I’m not a huge Arizona fan (although I live here haha), but it’s the prettiest place.

  15. I have a lot of sympathy for Fremont’s parents, Luanne. I know how my Grandma M. felt, when she immigrated to America. (Paula Haller Mattson)She wanted to leave the past in the past. She was and her family was Catholic. she married my Grandpa who was agnostic, but my Mom was allowed to go to Methodist and other churches, during her growing up years. I am not sure why the Fremonts didn’t want it known they were Jews. I guess shame, some kind of embarrassment or maybe it will tell you, if I read the memoir!
    I am wishing I could go to Arizona, it has been so chilly, Luanne! I think we discussed where my Grandpa and his second wife lived, after my Grandma died, in Phoenix. I wonder if I went through Sedona on the way to the Grand Canyon? I love the photos and your fun you showed in mentioning no crystals and your ‘aura’ would be coral! I love coral, which I have always gravitated to oranges, peaches, burnt sienna and coral!!

    • Robin, I love those colors! Always have. Yum. And any pinks that are orangey, even just a bit. You can go to the Grand Canyon without going through exactly through Sedona, but you do come very close to it and so you can probably say you were definitely in that area ;)!
      Re Fremont’s parents, I think sometimes it’s hard to understand why somebody feels the way they do, especially when it seems so opposite the way somebody else in the same situation might behave, but in reading a memoir we can get closer to the actual experience and hazard a guess. I know someone who lost a full-term baby and refused any sympathy and demanded nobody send cards or call or ANYTHING, as if the baby never existed. That is the opposite of how most people would respond, but does that make her response less valid? But it’s not very understandable.

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