Book Reviews

Daughters of Absence: Transforming a Legacy of Loss
Editor, Mindy Weisel

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Berenbaum.

Capital Books, April 2001

More often than not anthologies disappoint. The whole is often less than the sum of its parts. Combining disparate voices and essays written at different times into a work that is whole is no simple task. Obtaining high quality work from each of the writers, having them relate one to another thematically and feed off each other intellectually proves most difficult. Thus, one must applaud this successful anthology, which presents the voices of thirteen women – daughters of Holocaust survivors all – into one coherent statement about how these now middle-aged women not only have come to terms with the past that they inherited, but transformed that legacy of loss into a creative history that nurtures their work and their lives even while it continues to torment their souls.

Ostensibly, these women might have little in common. They were born in different places; some were born in displaced persons camps, others in the United States, Israel, Australia, Canada or New Zealand. Their parents came from different countries that came under German control during World War II. Though they went through the Holocaust, their experiences within the abyss varied. Some survived in hiding, pretending to be Gentiles, while others were in ghettos and camps. Some survivors told their stories to their daughters early and often. Some daughters backed away from confronting the Shoah, treating it as the third rail of family experience. If approached too closely, one was singed. Other daughters were haunted by silence. Some respected that silence; others probed wishing to understand more, daring to ask more, refusing to allow parents to retreat into a comfortable silence.

Though all contributors to this anthology are Jews, their degree of religious observance varies widely. Their sense of Jewish identity is secure and yet the content of that identity – what it means to be a Jew – differs. The thirteen come out of different disciplines, art and music, journalism and politics, film and comedy. These essays display diverse talents and the art form of their authors yet demonstrate how much they share in common not only because of the history of they shared but also because of the trauma that is at the core of their personal experience.

Mindy Weisel, who edited this collection, is a most talented artist who finds her solace in her painting and in confronting in her paintings the legacy that is uniquely her own.

Deb Filler, whose comedy tolerates so little and cuts through so much, writes with gentility of the trip back to Eastern Europe she shared with her father. The journey elsewhere is most importantly a journey inward. She is not the first Jew to set out on such a journey and not the first to discover that the external provokes the internal

Lech Lechah, the words first addressed to Abram, the first Jewish pilgrim, is normally translated “set forth,” but lechah literally means “onto you.” A Hasidic master understands this little commandment to Abraham in its most literal sense: “journey onto yourself!” Whenever we set forth, the journey outward may be but the external manifestation of the journey within.

Filler’s essay is joined by Hadassah Lieberman, a daughter of survivors who almost became the second lady of the United States, who depicts her first trip to Auschwitz in 1995 as part of the Presidential Delegation marking the 50th anniversary of the camp in which her mother was interred. 

For Sylvia Goldberg, an inscription in a siddur is the key to begin the journey; a map of Munich is sufficient to chart the inner path.

For Miriam Morsel Nathan, the tool of encounter is not a journey but the wrestling with language to shape her poetry; words and sound, images and metaphors permit her to communicate the inner reality of her legacy. 

For Vera Loeffler, a fine photographer, it is the picture that shows us the presence and that evokes the absence.

Patinka Kopeck tells of her life in Music, her work as performer and teacher and her art as a lifeline.

Helen Epstein, whose seminal work Children of the Holocaust, told her story of understanding what was so special about her history as the daughter of a survivor.

She wrote of herself and found that she spoke for her generation. From time to time in subsequent works that are only part of her distinguished career as a journalist and writer, she has returned to these themes and each time, the personal becomes the generational. In her brief essay she speaks of her sense of self-discovery and of her public role in Germany. Epstein is the most private of people, trained to observe and report, and she turns those very skills on herself. 

Eva Fogelman, the psychologist who has written both of children of Holocaust survivors and of Rescuers, wrote the introduction to this book. Eptstein’s and Fogelman’s work would naturally be included in any anthology of daughters of survivors. Their presence is appropriate, even expected, but what gives this work its unique character is the diversity of the women and the freshness of their voices.

Aviva Kempner, who made her reputation in movies, producing such films as “The Partisans of Vilna” and the “Hank Greenberg Story,” was reared in silence about the seminal event of her background. She gave voice to that silence by interviewing survivors and depicting resistance. Her work and her reputation keep her family name alive. 

Kim Masters and Lily Brett each write about the permission they need from the past to live in the present and to shape the future. Their essays entitled, “It Isn’t Easy Being Happy” and “Letting Myself Feel Lucky,” are echoed by Helen Epstein’s “Normal.” Daughters of absence must confront that absences, which yields a world of shadows and darkness even in the ordinary humdrumness of existence. 

Rosie Weisel,  Mindy’s Israeli sister-in-law, writes of starting over, replicating her parent’s experience again and again until she comes home as an immigrant to Israel.

Nava Semel, the distinguished Israeli writer, opens her essay “A Hat of Glass” with the following words: “This is not the whole truth. Just bits and pieces of it sloughed off over the passing years. As I gather them up, they seem like crumbs from bread that turned moldy. Whenever I’ve tried to see the whole of it with my eyes, it’s been like walking backwards. I take care not to bump into the wall behind me. It’s an ache I’ve known before.” These sentiments are true of her fellow daughters who give voice to their experience in this moving work.

One cannot undo the past. Jewish tradition and Jewish memory demand that it be remembered and transformed into a vehicle of conscience calling forth greater decency and an enhanced commitment to human dignity. These daughters of absence have transformed their legacy of loss into a source of creativity, which can neither undo the past nor give it meaning, but it can bring it forth to the future as an offering. And that may be their greatest contribution.

Michael Berenbaum’s most recent work, The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It?, co-edited with Michael Neufeld was published by St. Martin’s Press. He is the former President of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and former Director of the Research Institute of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.