Tag Archives: memoir about religion

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

In Mary Gordon’s Shadow

A year or so ago, I read Mary Gordon’s memoir The Shadow Man. I felt an immediate kinship with Mary because her book is about searching for her father’s past.

The Shadow Man

Before I’d read Gordon’s book, Bernard Cooper’s memoir about his father exploded what I had been told about memoir structure, showing me it is possible to deviate from chronology, to use flashbacks, and to merge the past with the present. Gordon’s story struck me as similar to my own because we share a similar problem: that our story is really about the process we went through to learn about the pasts of our families. When I finished The Shadow Man, I realized that now I had another memoir to add to Cooper’s memoir and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club to serve as models for me.

Mary Gordon actually spends a fair amount of time detailing her research in the library and in contacting strangers. The reader gets to participate in the research process. This is like following Nancy Drew’s progress in solving a mystery–albeit without the imprisonment in the cistern, tarantula/black widow spider, etc.

While Gordon’s book focuses on the actual research process, my research will be more of a framework with more stories from the past and present. However, this book was eye-opening to me because writing teachers say you have to put everything into action and that doing research, reading letters, etc. are not active enough–that these moments of small epiphanies have to be put into scene. It’s not always possible to put into scene because if the scene didn’t occur the writer can’t make it up as it’s not fiction!

The twist in Gordon’s book is that Mary Gordon was raised Catholic by her parents, although her father was born Jewish. But he had become a (IMO dangerous) anti-Semite and this made Gordon’s search for his past–and really the man himself as he had died while she was so young–a very complicated emotional ordeal.

Let me say that Mary Gordon’s book is gorgeously written. Maybe this heavy reliance on process wouldn’t work in the hands of a lesser writer, but it really works here. Will you enjoy the book? I’m not sure. It depends on the type of books you like. I think someone like me who is curious about family history, 20th century history, family relations, and beautiful, almost lyrical, writing will love it.

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Maybe you’ve read one or more of Mary Gordon’s other books? Check out her website.

 

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