nonfiction

Book Review: The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn

This! This is the book that has held up my blog updates for so long. Sorry, fellow booklovers! I hadn’t realized The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn (Harper, 2006) was so long (512 pages), or that it would be such a challenging read. I knew it would be tough- Holocaust books are always emotionally difficult, and this came at the time during my class when we were studying it, so at least it was a timely read- but the complex story and masterful writing, combined with the painful subject matter (and small print!) made for a read that was informative, intriguing, wrenching, and one that I had to put down quite a few times in order to maintain my sanity.

Daniel Mendelsohn grew up as his family’s historian, the grandchild who was always interested in the family lore and who was always collecting stories and tidbits and information from his relatives who fled to the US from modern-day Ukraine. The stories of his aunt, uncle, and four cousins who didn’t make it out, who died at the hands of the Nazis, always gripped him, and as an adult, he began the worldwide search to discover what really happened to them. What parts of the stories he had growing up were true? When and where did they die? What had they been like before the Holocaust destroyed everything about them, and was there any part of them left in the place they used to live?

Mr. Mendelsohn’s search is a race against time; the survivors he travels to interview are all in their 80’s and 90’s, many in failing health. The information he receives isn’t always what might give him a more complete picture of his missing family members (quick: think of a family who lived across the street from you, or down the hall from you, when you were fourteen. Think of what you would tell their relatives today. “They always waved”? “They had a black and white dog”? Could you give much more information than that?). Sometimes, the memories are still too painful or frightening, or shameful, to talk about; his interview subjects still get choked up seventy years later, remembering how they suffered, how their parents disappeared, how they watched their friends, neighbors, family slaughtered in front of them, often while they hid in fear for their own lives.

From country to country, continent to continent, from archive to darkened living room, Daniel Mendelsohn pieces together the story of his grandfather’s brother’s family and how they were all murdered. The full story takes years to fully stitch together, from multiple sources in multiple languages, mined from memories that contain some of the most painful images known to humanity. His dedication to uncovering the truth as to what happened to his lost family members should be a reminder to the everyday reader as to just how much was lost during this horrific period of time.

Heavy, heavy book. I don’t think it necessarily needs to be said, but this is a book about the Holocaust; there are many pages that contain gruesome imagery and descriptions of the worst things that could possibly be done to other human beings. They’re real, they happened to real people, and reading of how they suffered, while necessary to ensure that their stories will never be forgotten, takes an emotional toll. If at all possible, space this book out with some lighter material. Remembering the stories of the victims doesn’t mean breaking ourselves down.

The Lost should serve as a master class in family research. The lengths to which Mr. Mendelsohn had to go, the hoops he had to jump through, the flights he had to catch and translators he had to hire, to be able to produce this story, while all of it was likely exhausting and expensive, it’s likely a dream come true to people who engage in serious genealogy and family research. His story wound up with a concrete ending, with solid knowledge as to what happened to the final surviving members of the family who remained in Bolechow. Not all- maybe not even most- genealogists are so fortunate to end up with such clear answers, but I’m guessing everyone who wants to engage in such serious research could learn a few things from his techniques and his dedication, or at least be better prepared for the Odyssean journey ahead.

The Lost is a long, painful book of the atrocities suffered by one family and the grandson who was determined to shine a light on their lives and their ultimate fate. It’s meticulously researched and crafted, with the desperation and determination to give voices to the dead and ensure that their lives and their suffering will never be forgotten. This isn’t an easy read, but it’s worth every second of the time it takes to read and every moment you’ll set the book down, take a few deep breaths while staring off into space while wondering how anyone could ever do that, and then begin reading again.

Visit Daniel Mendelsohn’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Secret Soldiers in America by Debbie Cenziper

I like nonfiction. I like history. I like justice. All of these come together in Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Secret Soldiers in America by Debbie Cenziper (Hachette Books, 2019). (And huh, I’m just now seeing the discrepancy between the Goodreads title and what’s on the cover of the book!) I believe this came to me from a book list- either a list of amazing nonfiction, or a list of Jewish-themed books. Either way, it hung out on my TBR for a bit, until I made my latest order-for-pickup at the library, and then I dove right in as soon as I picked it up. Be warned, though: even if you’ve read plenty about the Holocaust before, this is a rough read.

Citizen 865 tells the story of the OSI, the Office of Special Investigations within the Department of Justice. It focused on bringing to justice former Nazi soldiers and collaborators who became naturalized US citizens under false pretenses, after lying on their citizenship documents about their activities during World War II. Because alongside Holocaust survivors who had lost everything and who had journeyed to America to start all over again, hundreds of former Nazis who had spent their war years carrying out Hitler’s orders to torture and murder slipped into the country as well.

Debbie Cenziper recounts the difficulties of puzzling out exactly who these men were and what they did during the war, a task made even more challenging because many countries refused access to identifying records and documents. The historians and lawyers who staffed the OSI worked long hours and traveled long distances in order to ensure justice was served to the millions of murdered souls and the survivors who fought so hard to rebuild after everything had been stolen from them. While not a simple or easy job, it proved a satisfying one.

This is a rough, rough read. I kept having to put the book down and scroll through Twitter or Facebook in order to get a bit of a mental break after reading some particularly heinous detail about how the Jews of Poland were tortured and murdered by people who took such glee in it. No matter how much I read about the Holocaust, I don’t think I’ll ever, ever understand how one person could perpetrate such horrors on another human. Ms. Cenziper doesn’t go into graphic details, but the stories the OSI digs up are nightmarish in nature. If you’re sensitive, be sure to balance this book with something lighter. These stories deserve to be heard, lest we ever forget, but they’re not easy to read.

While grief and despair are definitely feelings that Citizen 865 evokes, rage is also prevalent, so be prepared for that. There were plenty of American politicians who defended the Nazis, who thought that enough time had passed and that the victims should just get over it and move on from the murders of their entire families,- unity, amirite? (STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE *eyeroll*). I’ll give you one guess which political party these Nazi defenders belonged to. I spent a lot of time taking deep breaths and trying not to explode in a fiery ball of fury. So, so little has changed. What are we even doing???

Debbie Cenziper makes digging through historical documents to build a legal case deeply intriguing. Under her treatment, the historians are detectives, justice- and truth-seekers of the highest degree, and their jobs go beyond poring over decades-old documents. The survivors’ stories are treated with the utmost of respect, and while I feel it’s a bit clichéd to note when nonfiction reads like a novel, this absolutely does. It’s difficult subject matter, but it’s one worthy of your time, and Ms. Cenziper’s writing will keep readers turning the pages.

(I apologize if this review isn’t up to my usual standards. This is an amazing book and I don’t feel like I’ve done it justice. It’s a bad day for pain here and I’m struggling to come up with words. When the pain gets this bad, it’s the equivalent of trying to focus on the television with someone blaring the radio right behind you at full volume. ☹ )

Visit Debbie Cenziper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

anthology · fiction · nonfiction

Book Review: How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, edited by Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert

So, I was a weird kid. (I’m sure you’re shocked.) I became fascinated with foreign languages on a Brownies field trip to the library at age seven (somewhere I was already intimately familiar with!). The librarian took us on a tour of the children’s section, pointing out where the fiction section was, and then letting us know what the nonfiction section held. She pointed out the foreign language section and I was immediately intrigued. ‘There are other languages???’ I remember thinking. A copy of a learn-to-speak-French book came home with me that day (the very first French sentence I ever learned to say: Où sont les toilettes? Super useful!), and I’ve been fascinated ever since, digging briefly into Japanese as a tween before studying Spanish, French, and German in high school, studying French in college (and marrying a native speaker!), dabbling in sign language here and there throughout my life, and picking up Norwegian as an adult. All this to say that a copy of Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish came home with me from the library when I was around eleven or twelve, which may have seemed weird if I had opened with that, but now that you know my history, eh, maybe not so much. I’ve always thought Yiddish was a cool language, and so I was glad my library had a copy of How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, edited Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert (Restless Books, 2020).

This 500+ page anthology is a quilt, a little bit of everything for the Yiddish-curious reader. Essays, interviews, poetry, short stories, excerpts from novels. There are discussions of modern-day Yiddish, trips back to the shtetls that haven’t existed for decades, glimpses of a way of life long gone, and both optimism and pain. There are stories of shame and devastation, but also of triumph, of Aaron Lansky’s rescuing of millions of Yiddish books, of poetry so beautiful that I only wish it were better known (Emily Dickinson, eat your heart out!). If one format doesn’t interest you, the next piece will likely be entirely different, which makes for a really interesting read.

I was expecting something different, however; I had thought this was more a book about Yiddish and not just occasionally about Yiddish and then a lot of Yiddish-writing-translated-to-English. That’s not a bad thing, just different than what I was expecting. I was also expecting it to be entirely nonfiction, instead of including a lot of fiction and poetry. Again, not bad, just different.

It was also fun to see familiar faces in the book. I’ve known about Aaron Lansky for ages; his book is on my TBR and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. I’ve read Ilan Stavans before; Resurrecting Hebrew is a fascinating look on how the Hebrew language was brought back from being almost solely a textual language to the fully functional national language of Israel. And while reading the introduction, which spoke of how translated pieces were included in this anthology, I thought, “Hmmm, I wonder…” and I flipped through the index in the back. And sure enough, the wife of one of the rabbis who taught my Intro to Judaism class has a translated piece in the book! She’s a Yiddish professor. Small world, eh? 😊

Even if you’re not super interested in languages or Yiddish as a language, this book almost has the feel of reading a magazine, with all of its different pieces and formats. Reading it kept me engaged throughout its 512 pages, which is no easy feat!

Follow Ilan Stavans on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Book lists are so dangerous for my TBR; one quick scroll sends my TBR shooting up to excessive numbers, but it’s always so, so worth it. It was a list of awesome Jewish fiction that had me adding What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018), and despite the oftentimes intense and difficult content, I’m glad I did. This is a gorgeously illustrated book with so much depth and feeling that I feel like I would discover new things on every page every time I reread it.

Young teenager Gerta’s life in Germany was disrupted by the Nazis. Previously, Gerta hadn’t even realized she was Jewish. Now, having lost everything but having survived, she must rediscover who she is- what Judaism means to her, what she wants to be, how she wants to live, what she wants her future to look like, and with whom she wants to spend it. Flashbacks tell the story of her before-life, of her training as an opera singer and how she came to be in the camps, followed by the nightmare of what life there was like. Brace yourselves; this is no gentle read.

Gerta struggles to define who she is when friendly, comforting Lev expresses interest, but attractive Michah makes her heart race. She’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to sing again. How do you rebuild, how do you relearn to be a person again when everything you ever had and almost everything you were was destroyed? What the Night Sings is a story of devastation followed by the soft, tentative rebirth of hope that will wrench your heart, bring tears to your eyes, and never let you forget it.

(I loved Lev. Loved him so much. Swooooooooooooon.)

What. A. Book. There were moments when I had to stop and breathe through the story because the details were so horrific and painful (to be expected with any book on the Holocaust, of course; I don’t think that any book set during this time period needs a separate content warning). Ms. Stamper’s writing is so fluid and so immediate that the reader is placed directly in the story with Gerta, living each painful moment and feeling the uncertainty of indecision. While Gerta’s story is specific to the time period she lived in, her story- needing to rebuild your life after everything changes- is universal, and this is further illustrated in the author’s note at the end (I won’t spoil this for you, but she’s got a really neat story).

Ms. Stamper’s art style is stark and lovely and fits this story perfectly. My own recent dabbling with art has made me appreciate artists’ skills even more, and I deeply enjoyed the illustrations in this book. I’m looking forward to reading more from her; my library has her other book, and she has a new one coming out in 2022, so this makes me extremely happy.

I cannot recommend What the Night Sings highly enough. If you’re looking for a book that will shove your heart through the ringer, yet still leave you full of hope, this book is it.

Visit Vesper Stamper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin

Don’t we all go through book lists to make ourselves feel better? 30 New Books You Can’t Miss This Year! 10 YAs That Will Make You Cry! 23 Books That Will Murder You In Your Sleep If You Don’t Read Them Immediately!!!!! (Okay, maybe not that last one.) And I think a lot of us have been doing more adding to our TBRs than reading, whether that’s because we can’t focus as well right now (yes) or we just don’t have as much time to read at the moment (also yes). Browsing through one of those book lists was how I learned about Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2019). The brief description said that the book was set during the Second World War and told a fictionalized tale of the Shanghai Jews, and my brain went, “…the what now???” This was something entirely new to me, and I had to know more.

Lilia and her family, circus performers, are set to flee the persecution of 1940 Warsaw when their plans go awry and Lilia’s mother gets separated from the rest of the family. Knowing that their lives are on the line, Lilia and her father and sister must continue their journey to China, hoping Mama will continue on behind them as they sail to Shanghai in search of a place they can live in safety. Shanghai is under Japanese occupation, but the Jewish community that has fled there is grateful for any place that will take them in. Existence there is bleak and difficult: jobs are almost non-existent, food is scarcer than that, hunger is a constant companion, and fears about the future and worry over whatever happened to Mama never end.

But there are small joys to be found amidst the heartbreak and fear. Lilia’s friendship with Wei, the Chinese boy employed to clean her school, is a bright spot in the darkness, and the connection she makes in a desperate search to make money for her family ends up resulting in an unexpected miracle. Lilia’s broken-up family is far from home, struggling to survive with every breath, but their story isn’t to be missed.

Y’all. This story is bleak. The poverty Lilia’s family suffers is enormous, to the point where you’ll feel something like survivor’s guilt if you eat while reading this. The conditions they live in are foul and oppressive, and they’re uncomfortable to read. It’s important to bear witness to this kind of historical pain, though, so don’t skip this one. Put it off for later if you need to, when reading may be easier, but put it on your TBR, because Lilia’s story is based on real Jews who fled to China during the brutality of Hitler’s regime. It’s a remarkable history I’d never known anything about, and I’m glad I know more now. It’s just not an easy read.

Lilia’s relationship with her little sister Naomi is sweet. Naomi is young but already highly delayed at the start of the story; the trauma the family endures doesn’t help, but Lilia’s care of her never wavers. And Lilia’s friendship and slight crush on Wei are adorable. There are plenty of tense moments in the story, however, including multiple deaths for a variety of reasons, and allusions to sexual assault. There’s also a deeply heavy scene near the end of the book that broke my heart as a mother, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. It’s a painful, complex story, but one that deserves to be heard.

I’m learning better to balance out my reading this year, so I had to follow this one up with a lighter romance novel, but it’s definitely worth the read, especially if you’re into historical fiction. It’s YA but don’t let that stop you if that’s a genre you don’t normally read- Lilia’s problems are very much adult in nature, and Ms. DeWoskin’s masterful writing makes this a powerful, emotional story for readers of any age.

Visit Rachel DeWoskin’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book review: Concealed by Esther Amini

This week in my (Re)Introduction to Judaism class was our week to study Jewish history from Creation to the Enlightenment. Thousands of years of history in just an hour and a half, not an easy feat, and as the rabbi teaching the class said, “Jewish history is a bit of a misnomer. We have Jewish histories, plural.” And in a stunning bit of serendipity, this lesson showed up in my own life when I was offered a chance to read and review Concealed by Esther Amini (Greenpoint Press, 2020). After reading the premise of this new memoir, I leapt at the chance, because this sounded perfect for me, and it was. From the very first paragraph, I was hooked.

Esther Amini was born in New York, but her parents and older brothers came from a world away in Iran, Mashhadi Jews who spent their lives passing as Muslim in order to stay safe and alive, living as Jadid al-Islam, a kind of Persian converso. Outwardly, they presented as Muslim, their status as Jews a public secret; when tensions rose and the community stopped looking the other way, violence- stonings, robberies, assault, and murder, all sanctioned by the government- erupted. It was with this trauma that Esther’s parents lived, affecting their marriage, their outlook on life, and how their raised their children.

“Can we ever really know our parents?” Ms. Amini asks, before admitting the weight and sheer gravitas of this task. In this memoir, she recounts the struggles of her youth and young adulthood with parents whose volatile marriage and difficulty adapting to the cultural norms of their new home touched every part of her life. As she matures, she comes to understand her father’s fierce overprotectiveness and silence, her mother’s drive for independence and single-minded desire to stand out, while still acknowledging their faults and gathering the determination to stop the pattern of chaos with her own children.

A memoir of religion, immigration, family history, the challenge of reaching an adult understanding of one’s parents, and healing from the scars of the past, Concealed tells a story of a life lived with grace, perseverance, forgiveness, and the drive to shed the turmoil of one’s past.

I’d known there were Jewish communities in Iran, but Concealed was my introduction to what those communities look like. Extremely insular out of necessity, the community suffered greatly and lived in constant fear for their lives. It was after Esther’s brother David, then three, was burned on the ear with a red-hot fire poker by his teacher (who also screamed a terrible antisemitic pejorative at him) that Esther’s mother insisted that they needed to leave.

What fascinated me, however, was how much of the surrounding Persian culture and the lifestyle her parents had needed to adopt in order to survive, yet which they still carried with them to their new country. Early marriage for girls, as young as nine and to men twenty to fifty years older, was the norm in Iran (for the Mashhadi Jews, the reasoning behind this early marriage stemmed from the fact that minority girls and women ran a higher risk of being raped, which would then affect their chances of being married at all; thus, the earlier the marriage, the safer they would be, the reasoning went). While marriage at nine was, thankfully, out of the question, Esther’s parents made it clear that marriage, the earlier the better, was the only goal they had for her. Doing nothing to disavow her parents of the notion that graduation from high school was mandatory in America, Esther put all her effort into her studies, determined to make something more of herself than the anemic vision of her future presented to her by her parents. The book illustrates an almost stunning parallel: her parents sneaking and hiding their Jewishness in Iran, and Esther’s furtive studying, hiding books under the covers and reading with a flashlight, sneaking schoolbooks from her parents. The type of survival differed, but both types of concealment were necessary for each person to persist.

Her brothers were encouraged to study and work hard, however, a sexist stereotype that unfortunately transcends culture. “Stop thinking. No man will marry you,” her father told her. “Books are evil, they poison girls’ minds.” Her mother, herself illiterate, mocked Esther’s constant studying and desire to attend college. Her brothers, however, formed a team to educate and protect her, teaching her about periods, taking her bra shopping, serving as the knowledgeable, tuned-in substitute parents she desperately needed. “Es, create a mind you want to live with,” her brother David told her. And through hard work, trial and error, and the help of a good therapist, she does.

Her parents are mysteries, human contradictions whom Esther defies as a young adult, then endeavors to understand as she ages and then has children herself. Her father, harsh and reticent with a fierce protective streak, remains an enigma until she sees him through the eyes of a parent. Her mother, never missing a chance to create a spectacle, denied so much in her own life yet content to deny so much in her daughter’s, felt the world owed her, something Esther doesn’t come to terms with until late in her mother’s life. Maybe we can’t ever truly know who our parents our, but Esther Amini never stops trying, never gives up piecing together the puzzle of where she came from and how it affected her. Readers will triumph alongside her as she reaches hard-won conclusions and answers about the family she was born into.

Concealed is an intriguing memoir of not just one woman, but of a family, of a community, of the past and how it follows us all, and the effort it takes to grow and flourish beyond the places predetermined for us. Esther Amini is an absolute bastion of strength and determination, and her meticulous insight glows on every page of this book. If you enjoy memoirs, you won’t want to miss this original take on the genre spotlighting a community and a type of voice not often heard from.

Special thanks to Alessandra Scarpaci of Wunderkind PR and Greenpoint Press for sending me a review copy of Concealed.

Visit Esther Amini’s website here.

Follow her on Facebook here.

Follow her on Instagram here.

fiction

People of the Book- Geraldine Brooks

Phew! Last week was ridiculously busy, between life stuff, kid stuff, and the extra reading I have for the class I’m taking. I didn’t have a single chance to sit down and whip up any blog posts, even though I really wanted to! This week looks a little quieter, so hopefully I’ll be caught up in a few days…maybe. A few weeks ago, a lovely woman in the Facebook group for the podcast I’m currently listening to recommended People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (Viking Books, 2008) to me. I’d heard of it but had never picked it up, and now seemed like just the time for such a book!

Hanna Heath has dedicated her life to preserving and restoring rare books, and she absolutely leaps at the chance to work with the famous centuries-old Sarajevo Haggadah, once thought to have been lost forever. Upon close examination, there are tiny clues- salt crystals, an insect wing, a single hair- as to where the Haggadah has been and who has owned it, sending the reader on a journey through the past to visit all the times and places it’s been. But the Haggadah’s story unearths a few hidden truths from Hanna’s life and illuminates a few paths before her that she never expected.

Bosnia, 1996. World War II Bosnia. Turn-of-the-century Vienna. Venice during the Inquisition. Barcelona during the time of the forced exile of the Jews, and Seville in the years before. People of the Book takes the reader on a journey through time, shedding light on not just the daily life of these times, but Jewish history, world history, allies and enemies, customs and mores. It’s not time travel- Hanna is never present as the reader is learning the details of the Haggadah’s past- but it has that same feel since Hanna’s restoration work and personal drama are interspersed with the Haggadah’s journey through time with each new clue she finds. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book with so much information about rare document conservation before, and I found the descriptions of Hanna’s work with the book to be really fascinating. It’s obvious that a lot of research went into not only the descriptions of what Hanna was doing, but into the history behind the Haggadah, so my hat is off to Ms. Brooks for the intensity and scope of the work that went into the writing of this book.

History is often unkind in general and has been especially harsh to the Jewish people, so there are some content warnings for this book, including murder, death (including the death of children), rape, torture, slavery, and probably other things that I’m forgetting. There’s also a brief mention of a young adolescent being raised as a gender different from what was assigned to them at birth, as was occasionally the custom in their group at the time, but a mention of rape follows after this, so take care of yourself if these aren’t subjects you’re comfortable reading at this time.

People of the Book is an incredible read. It’s history that seems fresh, possibly because so much of what Ms. Brooks covers in the book hasn’t necessarily been overdone in fiction (or, if it has, I haven’t noticed!), and definitely because her writing style pulls the reader in so well, placing them directly in each period and surrounding them with the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the emotions prevalent in each era. The Haggadah’s travels bring the reader through so many different time periods that the reader is always kept wondering where it will turn up next, what excitement, what tragedy it will be witness to. I’m a little surprised I never picked this up before, but again, I think this book found me at exactly the time I needed it and was ready for it. I love when that happens. 🙂

Have you read any of Geraldine Brooks’s other books? I have a copy of Year of Wonders on my bookshelf right now; I’ll get to it eventually! People of the Book was my first book of hers, but I’m absolutely planning on reading more. I’ve kind of shied away from historical fiction in the past; I think I had a few bad experiences with the genre when I was young (looking at you, seventh-grade unit on Johnny Tremain) and that made me leery in general, but I need to move beyond that and cozy up to more of these great books by Geraldine Brooks and other authors, because reading this was an experience I want more of!

And, as luck would have it, People of the Book fits the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book with a map! There’s a lovely map in the book that details the travels of the Haggadah, so I’m happy to not only read a great book, but tick another box off on this challenge. 🙂

Visit Geraldine Brook’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.