Tag Archives: Holocaust book

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

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 as a newspaper reporter, I met and interviewed a lot of interesting people. There was treasure hunter Mel Fisher, famous for finding the 1622 wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha at the bottom of the sea; “The Amazing Kreskin,” a mentalist who flabbergasted me with his seeming ability to read my mind; comedian Professor Irwin Corey, “the world’s foremost authority,” whose conversation was so off-color that I left blushing to the roots of my hair; and a Wiccan priestess and her son, Merlin, who frightened me out of my wits by “calling the wind” and making things blow off the family’s living room shelves. I have interviewed survivors of Iwo Jima, hypnotists, Native American shamans, nudists, actors, musicians, poets (including Allen Ginsberg), children’s author Maurice Sendak and a woman who believed that the spirit of Elvis Presley visited her as she was baking in her modest kitchen. And I enjoyed (almost) every minute of those interviews.

But my interview with a tiny, white-haired woman named Hiltgunt Zassenhaus changed my life. I knocked at her door one spring day in 1993 looking for nothing more than a good story for my newspaper, and I came out with a friend. I cannot remember any other interview in which I connected so instantly to another person, nor that person to me. It was like we had known each other our whole lives. From then on, I visited her several times a week, sitting among the potted plants in her little backyard, hearing not just about her harrowing life during World War II (which she writes about in her memoir, Walls) but discussing the books we had read, her life as a doctor and mine as a reporter, our families, politics and more. No matter how varied her opinions and experiences, what came through loud and clear was her strong, unbending and unwavering lifelong commitment to helping other people and, as she put it, “serving life.” She told me, “We all have to do what we can, every day, to serve life and help others. People who hear my story are always saying ‘Oh, I cannot imagine what I would have done in your place going through all that.’ I tell them ‘You don’t have to wait — you shouldn’t wait — for some big, dramatic thing to happen. You have to act now.” Her words have echoed through my life ever since, informing decisions big and small.

Since reading Hiltgunt Zassenhaus’ book,  Walls: Resisting the Third Reich–One Woman’s Story, I have also felt inspired to live my life in a better way.

I’ve read many memoirs by Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, but this one is by a German woman, a Gentile, who decided not to play it safe, but to “fight back” against the Nazis.

Her story reads like an adventure tale. I became caught up in the danger that Zassenhaus put herself through to save Scandinavian political prisoners. I learned what it was like for her and for her family, living in Germany during the war. Although she does anything but draw attention to it, Zassenhaus’ strong ethics and sense of honor inform the book. She refused to compromise these codes when her resulting actions put her life in danger.

The main theme seems to be how important it is to speak up or act in resistance against dangers to freedom like Nazism. Her clearly written scenes allowed me to envision how and why an entire nation was caught up in Hitler’s madness. As an example, one character, her neighbor Mr. Braun, is an angry man who doesn’t get along with any of the neighbors. There is something a little “off” about him. But as the Nazi movement takes over the country, Mr. Braun becomes  the Warden of the precinct that Zassenhaus and her family live in. This gives him control over their freedom and their lives. By transferring control to “small” and dangerous people like Mr. Braun, Nazism was able to create a net (network) that captured all of Germany in its mesh.

I had to force myself to consider what I learned about writing memoir from this book. After all, I didn’t read it for analysis, but was caught up in the events of Zassenhaus’s life during the war and how she would survive. After I finished, I was overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy and admiration for such a brave and honorable woman.

But then I remembered what Lisa had told me: that Zassenhaus told her not to wait for a dramatic event in life, to step up now and perform an act that makes a difference. In memoir writing this advice could translate this way: Those of us with less horrific or courageous stories might discover that there are others who find our stories important, even inspirational.

Psst: about Lisa. She’s in China right now, helping take care of babies in an orphanage, thanks to Hiltgunt’s inspiration.


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