Daughters of Absence: Transforming a Legacy of Loss, edited by Mindy Weisel, Capital Books, $26.95
THIS COLLECTION by daughters of survivors presents their range of experiences grappling with multiple layers of absence: missing information on the Holocaust while growing up, relatives whose stories were silently buried with them, and family relics that disappeared after the War, In “Starting Over,” Rosie Weisel first hears about the Holocaust in the sixth grade. In “Kicking and Weeping,” Deb Filler visits Birkenau with her father to discover his old bunk replaced by a stove, and in “Family Mythology,” Sylvia Goldberg learns that her father was formerly married and had two daughters, now gone.
The opening chapter, Helen Epstein’s “Normal” sets forth the premise that all the stories deviate from a sense of normalcy to which survivors attempted to return after their dubious liberation. The collection begins with four “return” narratives whose authors, in their adult life, take a pivotal voyage to what Hadassah Lieberman calls the “planet of death”; the sites of concentration camps, cemeteries and former towns of their parents. A daughter of survivors, Lieberman attends the controversial 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a ceremony which did not note that it was Jews who were overwhelmingly murdered in Poland.
From the theme of retrieval and recovery the selections move to stress continuity of life and the difficulties of immigration and adjustment, primarily in the United States and Israel. These women are compelled to integrate their parents’ and their own sense of loss into their creative endeavors. Perhaps the most striking narrative on the restorative powers of art is Mindy Weisel’s act of painting as an outlet for the painful emotions she hid from her mother to avoid upsetting her, but which then allowed her to honor and celebrate her mother’s life on canvas. Filmmaker Aviva Kempner, producer and co-writer of “Partisans of Vilna,” a documentary on Jewish resistance, addresses the need to portray events of the Holocaust accurately in film.
The selections reaffirm some research on second-generation survivors, namely that they have lived with varying measures of guilt, and some have stifled their feelings in deference to their parents’ immeasurable pain, wanting to please and comfort them and to compensate them for their loss. These authors also highlight first generation survivors’ reluctance to speak about their dreaded past and the pains they took to replace haunting memories with a more tolerable present. Mindy Weisel’s mother was fond of “china, fine linens, needlepoint, and fresh flowers” and adorned her home in America with things that brought new beauty to her life; similarly, Aviva Kempner’s mother’s favorite films were old romances that mother and daughter watched together.
Some of the selections are more compelling than others. Nava Semel’s short story, “A Hat of Glass,” stands out as a touchingly nuanced portrayal of a labor camp woman who manages to save the life of one of the inmates.
The range of media employed in these commemorative works—travel narratives, poems, photographs and fiction—presents the multiform ways women cope with trauma, guilt and loss, and at times they read like therapy. For the reader, going through this process reinforces the importance of uncovering and coming to terms with a period of Jewish history the world has not fully acknowledged.