Tag Archives: Holocaust memoir

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 →

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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.

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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.

BOOKS ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST FOR CHILDREN AND TEENS–ALL GENRES

  • Adler, David A.  The Picture Book of Anne Frank.
  • Bishop, Claire Huchet.  Twenty and Ten.
  • Bunting, Eve. Terrible Things. This picture book is subtitled “An Allegory of the Holocaust.” Illustrations by Stephen Gammell.
  • Drucker, Malka and Michael Halperin. Jacob’s Rescue, a Holocaust Story.
  • Frank, Anne.  The Diary of a Young Girl. Most important text for adolescents by a girl who dies in the camps after writing the diary; the diary, though, is coming of age and doesn’t continue after they are in hiding and into the camps. Note that the PLAY written about Anne’s story is called Diary of Anne Frank.
  • Greene, Bette.  The Summer of My German Soldier.
  • Hurwitz, Johanna. Anne Frank: Life in Hiding. Anne Frank for younger readers.
  • Goldston, Robert.  Sinister Touches: The Secret War Against Hitler.
  • Heuve, Eric. A Family Secret. A graphic novel, shared by blogger Ian in a comment on my last post.
  • I Never Saw Another Butterfly.  Poetry and art from actual concentration camp children.
  • Ippisch, Hanneke.  Sky
  • Isaacman, Clara.  Clara’s Story. (Actual memoir of Jewish Holocaust survivor)

  • Kerr, Judith.  When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. This is a true Holocaust story—but the protagonist barely knows she’s Jewish.
  • Levitin, Sonia.  Journey to America.
  • Lowry, Lois.  Number the Stars. Non Jewish protagonist.
  • Meltzer, Milton.  Rescue: The Story of How Gentiles Saved Jews in the Holocaust.
  • Mochizuki, Ken. Passage to Freedom by Ken Mochizuki. A picture book that describes how a Japanese official helped save Jews during the Holocaust.
  • Orlev, Uri.  The Island on Bird Street. Fictional Holocaust story by actual Holocaust survivor who now lives in Israel.
  • Reiss, Johanna.  The Journey Back.
  • Reiss, Johanna.  The Upstairs Room.
  • Rogasky, Barbara.  Smoke and Ashes: The Story of the Holocaust.
  • Siegal, Aranka. Upon the Head of the Goat:  A Childhood in Hungary 1939-1944. Memoir of actual survivor and description of being carted off to a camp; for adolescents.
  • Tene, Benjamin.  In the Shade of the Chestnut Tree.
  • Yolen, Jane.  The Devil’s Arithmetic. Fiction about an American child who goes back in time to the Holocaust.

I did a little search online, and here is a website that has another list of books–some are the same that I have on my list, and some are different. She shares some good info, too.

And here is another great list of books about the Holocaust for kids!

I Never Saw Another Butterfly

I Never Saw Another Butterfly

After posting on Monday and “chatting” with readers, I started thinking more about the subject.

What is the difference between a book about the Holocaust for children or teens and one for adults? Is it the reading level? Is it the maturity level regarding violence, sex, and even despair?

How can the Holocaust, by its very nature an obscenity and atrocity, be written for kids?

How is this weighty subject handled in these books?

I’ve noticed that stories of the death and concentration camps written for adult readers focus on feelings of intense guilt on the part of the survivors. The mere act of eating means that each bite taken is one bite less for someone else.

In books for children the horrors are less chilling, the guilt tangible, but less complex.  In Clara’s Story, Clara worries, “I felt guilty about the plans our family was making, wishing that, somehow, we could take everyone with us who wanted to come.”

What seems to be most important in Holocaust books written for children is that family members are often kept together. Family life, of some sort, usually continues throughout the course of each story.  For instance, in The Upstairs Room, Annie and Sini stay together and Johann functions as a father figure to the girls.

In Holocaust stories written for adults, the singular aloneness that occurs at the camps is palpable. Family ties equate to responsibility for adults, a very heavy burden in the camps, whereas for children, family ties are a comfort.

Another difference is that adult books often delve into the protagonists’ religion or spirituality, while the children’s memoirs do not.  I suspect that this is because it’s less likely that the books will be read in public schools if they mention much about religion. Maybe writers are self-censoring. Maybe publishers are censoring.

Have you noticed any other differences between a story about the Holocaust for children and one for adults?

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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 for adults. Most of these memoir writers survived the war by hiding with non-Jews. My favorite children’s Holocaust memoir is Johanna Reiss’s The Upstairs Room (1972).

I used to teach The Upstairs Room, a 1973 Newbery Honor Book, in some of my children’s literature classes. One of my students was so taken with the history of the story that he constructed a timeline, juxtaposing historical dates with personal events from the story. What he discovered was that the historical dates were depicted accurately by Reiss in all cases except that the first bombing raid by Americans on Germany at Wilhelmshaven occurred on January 27, 1943; Reiss’ book tells of hearing planes flying overhead to bomb Germany for the first time sometime after February 2. The discrepancy is not what is amazing; as the student pointed out in class, that Reiss would remember these dates thirty years later seems impossible. What seems likely is that she took trouble with her research to augment her memory.

This book teaches me that memory is the most important part of history, but that it needs to be supported with historical research to assure accuracy in a memoir–particularly, when a memoir has as much at stake in historical terms as a Holocaust story.

From the first time I read the book (and I’ve read it many times), I bonded closely with Annie, the first person narrator. The story begins in 1938 when the protagonist Annie de Leeuw (Johanna’s name as a child) is six years old and just beginning to hear about the problems that Hitler is bringing to her world.

Four years later, in late summer 1942, Annie and her older sister Sini go into hiding with a non-Jewish Dutch family, the Oostervelds. Annie and Sini are cared for by Dientje, Opoe, and particularly by Johan Oosterveld, who is a loving man of strong character. Their father and oldest sister Rachel hide elsewhere during the war. Their mother died in the hospital of kidney disease just after they went into hiding.

The girls live in an upstairs room (hence, the title), but they have to crawl into the back of a closet when anyone else comes near the house. Imagine what happens when the Nazis decide to make the house their headquarters . . . .

This book is for 5th to 8th graders, but a good reader that is mature could read it when a little younger. And you can’t be too old for this book.

When you read a memoir do you expect that the memories that correspond with historical events have been corroborated by research? Or do you expect a memoir to tell the story only as the writer remembers it?

Here is a belated addition to this post: Ian at the blog ReSearching MySelf is writing a series about this very subject, based on his knowledge and research of his mother’s life in the Netherlands during the war. Find his most recent post here.

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A FEW HOLOCAUST MEMOIRS FOR TEENS

Clara’s War by Clara Kramer

Upon the Head of a Goat by Aranka Siegel

Night by Elie Wiesel

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