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Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History

Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History
by Helen Epstein
Little, Brown, $24.95

Everything about Helen Epstein’s new book. Where She Came From, is incredible—in the literal sense of the word. How can a Jewish woman in late 20th-century America reconstruct her own matrilineal history, across two centuries and an extinct civilization, with only scant clues to help her? And how did the four generations of women she portrays survive deaths of parents and children, brutal anti-Semitism, poverty, suicidal depression, and the Holocaust? The plot reads like an epic novel but is simply the family history of a rather ordinary Jewish Czech family from the 19th century through today.

While countless Jewish families have Holocaust stories, hardly any have records of their ancestry dating back to the early 1800s. Such a history through women is even rarer. And yet author Helen Epstein has found the grave (and the life story!) of her great-great-grandmother, Josephine Ullman, born in 1807 in a small Moravian town.

Throughout the book Epstein paints the discoveries of her own history against an impeccably researched backdrop of the general history of Jews in the Czech lands. For example, in 1782 Emperor Joseph II pronounced Jews “almost equal with other foreigners of related religions” and thus required to have last names, rather than the traditional “son of, daughter o f construction. “For a price, Jews could choose a pretty name.” Those who couldn’t afford to buy their own were assigned names like Klein (small) or Gross (big), or worse, Furcht, (anxiety and fear).

Such unusual tidbits, including the stories of the Medieval philosemitic Czech Protestants who kept kosher and those who converted to Judaism rather than become Catholic or face exile, make for a fascinating read through the first third of the book. The closer the author gets to the Holocaust and our own time, the less unique the story becomes.

Epstein has created an impeccable piece of historiography. The reader shares her triumph and sense of awe when she finds her grandmother’s business listing in a 1910 Prague phone book long forgotten in a Czech library’s stacks. Where She Came From is just such a find, barely dreamed of yet so dear once discovered.