Remember Who You Are: Stories About Being Jewish
by Esther Hautzig New York: Crown Publishers, 1990 220pp., $16.95
“When I was very young, I was told by my grandmother that people who are remembered, and recalled by name, do not really die. It is then that their souls and names become eternal. That is what keeps some survivors of the war sane’,’ Esther Hautzig writes in her Holocaust memoir.
Vilna ghetto, 1940s: this family member, that one, the other one, dead before 25. Still more, shot out in the fields digging their own graves, or starved, or gassed. Hautzig wonders what to make of her young, radiant aunt who switches lines at a concentration camp, preferring death to the abandonment of her aged mother. Is that heroism or cowardice? And what of the little girl, crying in the death line, lifted high by a Nazi guard who begs the mother (who is somewhere in the work line) to identify herself. She does not. Is that cowardice? Or an instinct for survival that buries sentiment? As Hautzig’s mother used to say, “Pinch your cheeks, my child, and get on with it.”
Esther Hautzig was lucky; her immediate family was only deported to Siberia. She was eleven then, remembers Vilna vividly and the Jews who lived in her beloved city. Dead, most of them. The ones who weren’t dead then are dying now of old age. Chapter by chapter, relatives and friends are recalled and kept alive, even if she has to travel to Florida or Israel to find them or locate stories about their lives.
Despite the fact that Hautzig’s prose is uneven (and that sometimes she’s sentimental), these stories, at their best, are lovely meditations on accident. The first part of the book is stronger than the travelogue or those pieces which feel like out-takes from Hautzig’s earlier book about Siberia, The Endless Steppes.
Some of the book is predictable, like the descriptions of aging Floridians. But just when you think the story of the sprightly old woman who has been married three times is about to turn mushy, the old lady asks a surprising question: which husband does Esther think she loved the most?
Never mind the answer. It’s the question that counts, just as the issue of heroism or folly can be endlessly debated. According to Hautzig, there is no special virtue to surviving, or to being found — only luck. Both the dead and the living must be remembered, no matter whom you love the most.