nonfiction

Book Review: Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman

I can’t actually remember how Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman (The Jewish Publication Society, 2015) ended up on my TBR; likely a mention by one of the many Jewish pages I follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Books and reading have always been an important part of being Jewish (we are the People of the Book!), and so learning about and understanding what happened to Jewish books during and after World War II was something that piqued my interest. Boy, did I learn a LOT from this book!

So, almost everyone knows that the Nazi burned books. Most of us have seen pictures of people throwing books onto a huge bonfire, and we use Nazi book burning as a metaphor for the dangers of censorship. But most of us probably don’t know that their book burning phase didn’t last very long; they quickly moved on to collecting books. That’s right. The Nazis stole, then collected Jewish writings even as they mowed down the Jewish people during World War II. They planned to study the writings of the culture they had wiped out. Fortunately, they lost, and afterwards, one of the many questions to be answered at war’s end became, “Now what do we do with all these millions of books?”

In order to help the reader understand the importance of this question, Rabbi Mark Glickman begins the book with a fascinating look at the history of Jewish texts and the emphasis on reading and study that has always been central to Judaism. The second section segues into the many heartbreaking ways the Nazis stole and desecrated our texts; the third, how so many people worked for years to return said texts to their rightful owners, or, barring the ability to do that, to send the texts to the places they would again be loved and cherished. This was obviously a massive amount of work; millions upon millions of books and papers had been stolen and hidden away, or stored in places that ranged from caves to castles. Moving these books involved multiple organizations working tirelessly for years.

This is an incredible book that tells a story I hadn’t heard before. I had no idea about the Nazis stealing books; even with all the reading I’ve done about history, World War II, and the Shoah, I had been under the impression that they burned books and nothing else. I had no clue about the massive troves of Jewish literature that lay hidden after the war, nor of the incredible effort of so many people to return these books to communities and organizations that would recognize them for the treasures that they are. This book presented a brand-new understanding of history to me, and I’m grateful to Rabbi Glickman for having penned such an interested, eye-opening work. I always appreciate being able to be better informed about anything, but especially Judaism and Jewish history.

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nonfiction

Book Review: Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower

My second book lately by Wendy Lower (the first being The Ravine). She’s an amazing researcher and fabulous writer, but her books are heavy, so beware. I added Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (Chatto Windus, 2013) as soon as I learned about it, but it took me a bit to get to it, due to life business and waiting to be in the right mental space. It does share a lot in common with James Wyllie’s Nazi Wives, so if you’re looking to learn more about that aspect of World War II and Holocaust history, both these books should be on your reading list.

When we learn about the history of Germany in the 1940’s, the names in the books read like a long parade of men. It’s men who did the killing, who perpetrated all the harm, who were responsible for the mass death and suffering. But is that true? Using well-honed research skills, interviews, and original source documents, Wendy Lower says no. Not only were many, many German women supportive of the mission, especially on the Eastern front, more than a few of them participated in the murders and created suffering and pain for many others.

Many were there to support their husbands; others signed up to be stationed on the eastern front out of a sense of adventure. For whatever reason they came to be part of the Nazi killing machine, plenty of women supported Hitler’s ideals and bought into the antisemitism and hatred that was par for the course at the time. And far be it from learning anything; these attitudes followed many of these women – few of whom were prosecuted for their actions – long after the war ended.

Not an easy read. The women Lower portrays are the furthest from ‘sugar, spice, and all things nice’ as one can possibly be. These women are hateful and murderous, finding the death of human beings funny and entertaining. They delight in the suffering they cause, only to deny and weep when brought to trial. While women were often looked at as weaker and unable to perpetrate such horrors, Ms. Lower shows that this was absolutely not the case. Women were just as disgustingly brutal, and in some cases more so, than the men.

Rough book, but an important one.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed by Wendy Lower

It was a combing through of my library’s catalog (the old person impulse to still refer to it as a ‘card catalog’! I have a scar on my hand from dropping and thus trying to catch the H drawer of my library’s card catalog when I was 12. I think of it as a super cool natural bookworm tattoo…) to look for Jewish books that I learned about the existence of The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed by Wendy Lower (Mariner Books, 2021). I knew I had to read it – I feel a big responsibility to read everything I can handle about the Holocaust, but I had to wait until I had the mental space for it. And in trying to read all the ebooks that have been sitting on my list for a bit, this book came up…and it was finally in.

The Ravine covers a photograph that captures murder in progress. The photograph, shown in detail several times throughout the book, shows a woman in the process of being shot and falling into a deep ravine, a small child at her side and an even smaller child tucked in to her lap. Several men stand behind her, one who is doing the shooting. A cloud of gunsmoke hangs in the air.

Wendy Lower, scholar and researcher, worked diligently over a long period of time to identify not only the people in the photo, but also the photographer who took it. The Ravine documents this arduous process, which takes her across countries, deep into archives and down village streets around the world. Phone calls, documents, interviews, research into cameras; Ms. Lower used all the skills she had, along with the skills of other people, to help flesh out the story of this horrifying moment captured for posterity.

Not an easy book to read. The book gets into some truly gutting details about the horrors of the Holocaust, and there were a few times I struggled to continue reading. It’s also a research-heavy book, written in a fairly academic style, so this isn’t something the casual reader is likely to pick up for a relaxing weekend read.

It does tell a story of how intense historical research can be, and the lengths and depths researchers need to go to in order to ensure that their work is correct. The Holocaust isn’t over; its effects are still felt in the remaining survivors and in the family members who were affected by what their loved ones suffered. This is evident in some of the interviews Ms. Lower conducts; the subjects break down and struggle to answer her questions. This is still a raw subject for them, and this book does a good job showing how the pain hasn’t ended.

The Ravine is a heavy, heavy book, but a worthy read.

memoir

Book Review: The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Dr. Edith Eva Eger

I feel such a responsibility to read memoirs by Holocaust survivors. So much history, so much suffering, so much to learn about how not just to survive but even thrive while carrying some of the worst trauma imaginable. I’m careful about how and when I read these books, however; I recognize when I’m more able to engage with these types of books, in order to preserve my mental health (especially with the constant chaos going on in the world today), and hopefully you are too. On my last library trip, I decided I was ready for The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Dr. Edith Eva Eger (Scribner, 2017), a Holocaust survivor, and I’m glad I was. This is a remarkable book.

Edith Eger was only sixteen years old when she wound up in Auschwitz. Her parents were killed immediately; her oldest sister had been away playing violin concerts, so she hadn’t made the trip, but Edith and her other sister clung to each other, helping each other to survive and risking their lives for each other. Throughout her time there, through illness, starvation, grief, and pain, Edith managed to maintain an attitude that helped her make it through the grueling days of suffering, and afterwards, trying to rebuild a life without her parents and beloved boyfriend, she carried on with that same attitude, marrying, having a family, and eventually earning a PhD and growing a successful therapy practice. Her story is one of resilience, a message about how we can’t always choose our circumstances, but we can choose our attitude towards them, and some attitudes are more helpful for survival – and thriving! – than others.

Dr. Eger’s story is a tough one. Her descriptions of conditions, of the depravity forced upon the prisoners in Auschwitz and the other camps she spent time in are horrifying, and there were definitely times I had to set the book down and take a few breaths. It’s not an easy story to listen to, but these stories are so, so important. We can’t let this history be lost; we have to take it in, carry it with us into the future, and make sure our children understand what the outcome of such hatred looks like.

Reading about Dr. Eger’s successful practice, not only after having survived the Holocaust but after having earned her PhD as an adult student, filled me with hope (and also more than a little jealousy for her clients; she sounds like she’s a remarkable therapist!). Maybe it’s not too late for me to become something more than what I am now. If she can do it, maybe I can, too…

Truly a heart-wrenching, inspiring book, one I’m very glad made its way to my TBR.

Visit Dr. Edith Eger’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

I’ve read more middle grade this year than I have in the past, which is a good thing, because I always kind of tend to forget about it as a genre. Now that my daughter is getting older, however, middle grade books are more on my radar, and a few really great ones have ended up on my TBR. It was a list of Jewish middle grade books that made me aware of The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissmann (Dial Books, 2018). Due to its location at a different library, I hadn’t gotten to it yet, and I hadn’t even meant to check it out when I did – we were just visiting that library for a quick escape to its air conditioning on a day when ours had died (all good now, thankfully!). I had books at home, but my daughter wanted to play in the empty children’s play area, so I grabbed this book off the shelf and was hooked within the first few pages. And by hooked, I mean HOOKED.

Imani is not only preparing for her bat mitzvah, the ceremony that will mark her entry into Jewish adulthood, she’s grappling with her identity as an adoptee. What does it mean to be adopted? What were her first parents like, and why did they choose for her to be raised by her parents? What’s her ancestral background? The death of her great-grandmother Anna, who traveled alone to America at age twelve, raises more questions than answers for Imani, until she discovers Anna’s diary among the books she inherited. Anna’s story of leaving her twin sister, parents, and other siblings behind in occupied Luxembourg to travel to safety in America is one of discovery, stress, and worry, all things Imani is grappling with, albeit in a much different context. But Imani is able to relate, and reading Anna’s story (and sharing this journey with her best friend) is able to help her put her own questions into context.

When the journal ends abruptly, Imani isn’t satisfied, and she begins to delve deeper into her family’s story, and to gain the courage to ask the difficult questions that will shed some light on her own identity.

This is an amazing book. My write-up doesn’t do it justice at ALL; I didn’t want this to end, but when it did, I immediately marked it as five stars. Ms. Weissman deals with some heavy issues here: the Holocaust, death, adoption, identity, but she does it all with grace and a deep understanding of tween emotions. Imani wants nothing more than to understand her own background, where her genetic ancestors came from and why she’s not living with the people she came from (questions that non-adopted kids are almost always readily able to answer); her search for knowledge about herself is contrasted with her great-grandmother Anna’s solo journey to America, leaving behind her entire family to live in safety with relatives. Anna’s guilt at living in safety, with abundant food, while her family remains behind in Nazi-occupied Luxembourg, weighs heavily on her, especially with the dearth of information coming out of Europe, and this is something that affects Imani deeply. Her desperation for knowledge of her background helps her understand exactly how frightened her great-grandmother must have been.

Imani’s feelings about her adoption are complicated. She loves her family and her Jewish community, but the answers she craves about her biological family depend on help from her parents, and she’s not sure how to begin that conversation in a way that won’t wound them. Things don’t always good smoothly, especially between her and her mother (who, at one point, does react in a somewhat hurtful way – there’s no manual for this, and we as parents all fail from time to time), but with great-grandma Anna’s story as a launching point, Imani is eventually able to find a place of wholeness and acceptance within herself…along with moving her family in a new direction after a surprising turn of events.

Goodness, what a masterfully written middle-grade novel! I honestly don’t think I could have possibly loved this more.

Visit Elissa Brent Weissman’s website here.

fiction · graphic novel

Book Review: White Bird by R.J. Palacio

At some point, I learned about the existence of White Bird by R.J. Palacio (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019) and looked for it at the library, but it never seemed to be in, and since I never formally added the book to my TBR, I kind of forgot about it. But my daughter has discovered a love for graphic novels, and on our last trip to the library, I finally found that elusive copy of White Bird. Into my bag it went.

It’s been quite a few years since I read Ms. Palacio’s Wonder, so I didn’t quite remember Julian, Auggie’s bully, but he’s back in White Bird, interviewing his grandmother Sara, who survived the Holocaust thanks to the kindness of a local family. (The story stands alone, so reading Wonder beforehand isn’t necessary.) Julien is the boy who sits next to Sara at school. He’s survived polio and uses crutches, making him a target of many of the other students, but Sara’s never really spoken to him. The day that the Nazis come to take away the Jewish students, Julien helps Sara to hide, then takes her to his home, where her parents stash her in the barn.

As the war rages on, the two children grow, mature, and establish a firm friendship, and Sara comes to understand her prior selfishness and immaturity. But there are few Holocaust stories without loss, and through Sara’s story of survival, her grandson Julian learns what true friendship is, and how we can’t change the past, but we can move on as better people.

A beautifully drawn graphic novel, White Bird would make for a gentle introduction to an emotionally charged subject. The Holocaust and all its devastation and atrocities isn’t easy to introduce to children, but it’s a vital part of history that needs to be taught. Parents, you wouldn’t be remiss in checking this out of the library and just leaving it around the house. Odds are your kids will spot it and dive in. There’s nothing graphic or too overtly scary, but there are mentions of death; I’d put this as okay for mature fourth grade and up. Be prepared to have some discussions with your kids about the book afterwards; they’ll likely have a lot of big feelings when they turn the last page.

This is a fast read, but the story, though fiction, will stay with you. The drawings are simple, allowing Sara and Julien’s story to take center stage, and placing the reader in its various settings: running from the Nazis at school, hiding in a bale of hay in a barn, struggling to keep terror and an overwhelming sense of loss at bay. I’m glad I finally came across a copy on my library’s shelves, and I’m glad that it’s such a popular choice that I did struggle to find it. White Bird shouldn’t be missed. Especially not now that it’s being released in movie format on October 14, 2022.

Visit R.J. Palacio’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: They Went Left by Monica Hesse

When I was in my early 20s, I picked up a copy of After the War by Carol Matas, about a group of Jewish teenagers and children making their way to Palestine after surviving the Holocaust (this is an excellent book; I highly recommend it). Upon reading this, I realized that most books about the Holocaust focus on the horrors of the concentration/death camps; they mostly end when the camp is liberated, and few books talk about what happened next. What happened to those people who lost everything, who witnessed unspeakable nightmares every day for years? How did they move on with their lives? Could they even move on? This period of history, post-WWII for the survivors, has intrigued me ever since, and that was how They Went Left by Monica Hesse (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2021) ended up on my list. I was glad to learn of its existence.

18 year-old Zofia Lederman has survived- survived the war, survived the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, and survived most of her family. Separated upon arrival at the camp, she was sent to the right; the rest of her family went left. But Zofia is broken; her body has been ravaged by starvation and brutal workloads, and her mind has fractured as a result. She can no longer remember the last time she saw her younger brother Abek, and so she leaves the hospital early and begins to search for him, her only remaining family member.

Her search leads her across multiple countries, to orphanages and displaced persons camps, where people are struggling to rebuild shattered lives, some with more success than others. Zofia marvels at the ones who have picked up and moved on so easily; how is it that they are able to keep living, when she’s barely hanging on? After a while, it seems Zofia is one of the lucky ones…or is she? With the help of her new friends and the lessons she learns from them, Zofia is able to find a future in the unexpected, even if it does mean heartbreak and coming to terms with everything’s she- and everyone else- has lost.

This is a powerful book. Monica Hesse cuts no corners in painting pictures of the brutality suffered during this period of time. Mass graves, murdered babies, horrific medical experiments, survivors committing suicide after Liberation, sexual favors exchanged for survival or better work details, she leaves nothing out. This is not a light and easy novel; this is an in-your-face exposé of all the ways Jews were tortured and reaped of their dignity and their lives throughout the Holocaust. There is suffering and pain on every page, and it’s all thoroughly researched and well-woven into this story.

I appreciated that Zofia wasn’t just another strong character. She’s deeply broken at the beginning of the story, losing time and lapsing into what she’s not sure are memories or just wishful fantasies. The search for her brother is a nightmare in and of itself; we’re so spoiled today with the internet and cell phones, with such instant communication. All families had back then were unreliable phones, letters (likely with a slow, unreliable post at the time), and placing names on lists of organizations (none of whom communicated with one another). Imagine trying to find one person out of millions in that manner, when millions of your people had been slaughtered. The desperation of this method of searching is highlighted throughout this book, and the whole thing just broke my heart.

I’m not sure any book about the Holocaust can truly have a happy ending- even the few whole families who managed to survive still lost homes, friends, communities, their entire way of life. The best, most powerful books end with resolve, and that’s what They Went Left offers: the digging deep and reaching out to find what one needs to keep living. Monica Hesse has created a novel that offers exactly that.

Visit Monica Hesse’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic memoir

Book Review: Flying Couch: A Graphic Memoir by Amy Kurzweil

I need to read more graphic novels. I always, always forget how fun the format is, how relaxing it is take in the art as I page through the story- even when the story isn’t necessarily an easy one. Currently, our teen graphic novels are squished in with the manga, which makes them kind of difficult to find amidst all the brightly colored series books, and the adult graphic novels are tucked away in a far corner of the library that I’m never by, so I don’t always remember to go looking for them. I’m really hoping that they have a more prominent place when our new library building opens up late next year (I get so excited driving past the building site on Main Street and seeing the progress they’re making. It’s slow- they started tearing down the old abandoned grocery store that formerly sat in that site late this past spring, and it’s now just an empty lot with heaps of broken concrete, and the start of a small basement, but it’s definitely progress!) All that to say, I had a bit of a hard time locating Flying Couch: A Graphic Memoir by Amy Kurzweil (Black Balloon Publishing, 2016) during my last trip, but I’m glad I finally found it squished in there on the bottom shelf.

Growing up the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor isn’t easy for Amy. Her mother, a psychologist, overanalyzes everything; her grandmother has never really shared what she went through, but Amy, a budding artist, wants to learn her family’s stories. What happened to Bubbe? What does it all mean for their family, for Amy, for their future? Sliding around in time and incorporating the stories of all three women- grandmother, mother, daughter- Amy writes and illustrates the story of her grandmother’s survival in Poland, all that she lost, and all that she carries with her to this day. By doing so, Amy explores the trauma all three generations have suffered because of it.

Graphic memoir is such an interesting format for such a heavy topic. It’s still an intense subject, and Bubbe’s experiences fleeing, hiding, and losing almost her entire family absolutely reach in and rip out the reader’s soul. But the format tempers it slightly in a way that plain print doesn’t- it doesn’t lessen the emotional impact at all, but the illustrations wrap a fuzzy blanket of comfort around your shoulders as you digest the tragedy. Ms. Kurzweil represents her grandmother’s pain well, but her drawings, frame by frame, help soothe the ache and make the long-term effects of the tragedy easier to understand.

While this is definitely an emotional subject, Flying Couch is still a fast read (just take the time to appreciate all Ms. Kurzweil’s fabulous artwork!). I flew through it Sunday morning and it’s given me an even deeper understanding of the toll of generational trauma, and the importance of sharing our stories.

Visit Amy Kurzweil’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn

A good title draws a reader in immediately. A provocative title makes the whole world sit up and take notice. And it was a provocative title that had me clicking the want-to-read button on Goodreads last week immediately, without even needing to learn more about the rest of the book. I’ve heard of Dara Horn before, but hadn’t read any of her writing before this. But when someone in one of my Facebook groups mentioned her latest book, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present (W.W. Norton Company, 2021), I knew it would have to go on my list. Because that title…it’s true, isn’t it?

Dara Horn is a writer, professor, and scholar, often known for her essays on Judaism and Jewish-themed topics. But she came to the realization that she was always asked to write about dead Jews, never living ones. And this became the topic for her latest book: the world has a fascination with dead Jews, but rarely affords the same respect to living Jews. How many Holocaust novels are out there, often with a happy ending, often with a Gentile rescuer as the main character? How often do you think those happy endings happened in real life? How much do you know about the trauma suffered by survivors, the anger, the refusal of governments to help those who had lost everything, the many survivors who were murdered after leaving the camps? How many Jewish heritage sites exist around the world with no mention as to why there are no Jews living at those sites anymore? Why is The Merchant of Venice still one of Shakespeare’s most-performed plays, despite its blatant antiseminism (and what do you think that says to the Jews in your life)?

Our country’s education does a lot of things right, but it fails to instruct our students on so much of world history, and even when it does, it misses the mark in a big, big way. (Props to my daughter’s class, which is currently looking at various cultures around the world, and including a glimpse into both the history and the religions of those areas.) So many students are only exposed to the existence of Jews when they’re mass-murdered (as often happened throughout history, and continues to happen today), and they learn only what Hitler thought and taught about them- not what Jews actually are, what Jews actually do, what Jews have contributed to the many, many societies that have been home throughout the centuries. And that leads to people only appreciating and sometimes fetishizing dead Jews, and not appreciating live ones.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen, in one of my online book groups, someone mentioning that Holocaust fiction is a favorite genre. (I think I actually recoiled from the computer at the last post I saw. Their post and tone were so…cheery.) Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying books about the Holocaust shouldn’t be written. They should. The Shoah was a devastation that shouldn’t ever be forgotten, and writers should engage with it in order to demonstrate again and again, the horror of it all, and why such devastation and the attitudes that lead to it should be cut off before they begin. BUT. There’s definitely a trend of Holocaust rescuer books, of happy ending stories, of Nazi-guard-with-a-conscience stories. And those just aren’t reality. And we need to ask ourselves why we need those stories so badly as a society. What are we trying to convince ourselves of here? Whose stories are we leaving out when we pile on the ones with a lovely rainbow arc of redemption?

This is not an easy book to read- not for me, as a Jew; hopefully it won’t be for you, either- it’s not meant to be. It’s meant for people to take a hard look at why our world sets up Holocaust museums (which are absolutely necessary) but won’t deal with the growing wave of antisemitism spreading wider and wider. Why we’re so eager to blame Jews for their own demise, as Ms. Horn points out after yet another antisemitic murder; why newspaper articles on other murder victims don’t talk about the murderer’s frustration with Jews who had moved into the area (where the murderer didn’t even live. Imagine an article that said something like, “Understandably, Steve’s frustration only grew when his neighbor didn’t put away the dinner dishes away in her own house as quickly as he thought she should do. After a series of social media posts where he documented his unhappiness, police weren’t surprised to find her murdered body on the front lawn the next morning.” People would rage! But the article Ms. Horn quotes from, about murders at a kosher supermarket, isn’t much different).

People Love Dead Jews is a tough, thought-provoking read that is beautifully well-written (I wish I had half of Dara Horn’s brainpower). If you’ve ever looked forward to the release of a favorite author’s upcoming novel set during the Holocaust, or if this mass tragedy is the only Jewish history you’ve ever learned about, this is probably the book you need to read. (A good companion read would be Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt.)

Visit Dara Horn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, translated by Carolin Sommer

My library sends out a quarterly newsletter to everyone within its service area, informing the community about scheduled programs, updates on the new library building currently under construction (completion scheduled for late fall of next year!), book clubs, activities for kids (still lots of virtual storytimes and take-and-go-crafts), and new services they’re offering. I look forward to this newsletter at the dawn of each new season. I learned about My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, translated by Carolin Sommer (The Experiment, 2013) from one of these newsletters, as it was a book club pick. While I wasn’t able to make the book club discussion centered around this book, I still wanted to read it, and onto my list it went.

Jennifer Teege, a German woman of mixed-race descent, grew up as the adopted child of a white family. She spent the first three years of her life in an orphanage, with her biological mother visiting her on occasion, and spending time with her maternal grandmother. At age three, she became the foster child of the family who eventually formally adopted her at age seven- and after the adoption, as was the norm for the time, all contact with her biological family ended. Jennifer struggled with feelings of abandonment and trauma; trust wasn’t easy for her. And in her late 30’s, she happened upon a book about a woman grappling with her father being Amon Goeth (as it’s spelled in the book), one of the most vicious Nazis and head of the  Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp. That woman was Monika Goeth, Jennifer’s biological mother.

Already suffering from depression and struggling to define her life, Jennifer was thrown into the depths of despair. Who was she, if that’s what she came from? What did this mean for her life, for her two sons, for her relationship with her adoptive family, for her relationship with her Israeli friends? How much of ourselves can we assign to those who came before us? Jennifer struggles terribly with the implications of this discovery, and it takes a lot of work, soul-searching, therapy, and thousands of miles of travel and years of research to come to terms with who her biological grandfather was.

Whew. This is obviously a heavy topic and a compelling story, likely an adoptee’s worst nightmare. Jennifer is legitimately distressed, as would most people be. Her biological grandfather was a horrible, horrible person, responsible for the murder of thousands; her biological grandmother, whom she absolutely loved, was far more supportive of him than Jennifer would have expected, and this also caused her a great deal of strain. As someone who is a dedicated traveler, who spent years living in Israel and who is fluent in Hebrew, being a woman of mixed-race, she’s completely certain that her grandfather wouldn’t have treated her any different than the Jews he shot from his balcony at the camp he presided over.

I had some issues with this book. While it’s an intriguing story, I disagreed a lot with how the author handled some of the situations she found herself in. She obviously had very fond memories of her maternal grandmother, who had never been anything but kind and loving to her. Even after learning about her grandmother’s romance with and lifelong support of and defending of Amon Goeth, she still chooses to cling to those memories and defend her grandmother. That is absolutely not the choice I would have made. People who are nice to you but not nice to people who are different from you…are not nice people. People who defend bad people are not nice people. I could have respected if she had said, “I have very fond memories of my grandmother, but it disturbs me greatly to learn of her support for this Nazi murderer and I cannot look at her the same way anymore.” I realize I’m seeing this in a more black-and-white fashion, but something things ARE black and white, and defending Nazis is one of them.

I also really struggled with the way she treated and referred to her adoptive family (some of this may be due to social and cultural differences; adoption was looked at very differently back then. And there may also be translation issues as well- not with content, but more along the terms of differences between how Germans refer to adoption and how it’s talked about here). It seemed almost as if the moment Jennifer learned about her Nazi grandfather, that biological family became her sole family and her adoptive family ceased to exist, ceased to matter to her. This may be due to her underlying trauma that hadn’t yet been addressed, but there were a lot of places here that made me feel really bad for her adoptive family in terms of how she spoke about them (and I’m absolutely NOT of the mindset that adopted kids need to be grateful their whole lives to the family who chose them. Eff outta here with that gross BS; we’re the lucky ones for those kids being in our lives and we need to honor the trauma they’ve experienced by losing their biological family). I’m definitely willing to cut her a lot of slack in regards to this, especially as she does write about having a better relationship with her family these days, but I wish that would have been covered a little more. So this book is a wild ride that has a lot of issues. I felt terrible for Jennifer throughout quite a bit of it; she was very obviously deeply distressed on learning such shocking information. I hope she’s since figured out she’s not responsible for her grandfather’s crimes, and just because she shares a few segments of DNA with him doesn’t mean…anything, basically. We get to be our own people; we don’t have to be anything at all like the people who came before us, if we don’t want to be. That’s the beauty of it all. 🙂