Book Reviews

Where She Came From: A Daughter's Search for Her Mother's History
Helen Epstein

Reviewed by Gillian McCann, Ph.D. Candidate, Religious Studies, University of Toronto.

New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1997. 309 pp. No suggested price, ISBN 0-316-24608-5.

In writing "Where She Came From" Helen Epstein set herself the task of achieving several different goals. To her credit she succeeds at attaining all of them. This book is a biography, memoir and a work of social, feminist and Jewish history. The epigrams that Epstein chose to begin her book inform the reader of her primary concerns. The first is a quote from Simone Weil that reads "To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul" and the second is from Virginia Woolf which states that "We think back through our mothers if we are women."

These two quotations inform us of the driving force behind Epstein's decision to take up the challenge of researching her mother's past. For the author the impetus to write "Where She Came From" seems to have derived from a personal imperative, both to gain a greater understanding of her mother and in so doing her own history. Upon the death of her mother Frances (Franci) Epstein, a Holocaust survivor and extremely complex personality, Helen Epstein felt compelled to attempt to make sense of their relationship which was, as she writes, "the most passionate and complicated of all." This work was also a reconstruction of the past of her family which had been shattered by the events of the Holocaust. Upon her mother's death Epstein had no heirlooms to help her to retain a sense of connection as they had all been seized by the Nazis and this sense of discontinuity "became intolerable upon the death of my mother."

The decision to research her mother's past sent the author on an odyssey that took her to Austria, the Czech Republic and Israel in which she traced her genealogy beginning from her great-grandmother Therese Furcht born in Moravia in the 1840's through to 1948 when the Epstein family emigrated to the United States. Epstein was faced with a dearth of material such as birth and death records due to the effacement of the Jewish presence in Austria and Czech lands by the Nazis, and as a result of Communist disinterest and hostility. These challenges make Epstein's success all the more impressive. As a result of meticulous research, and through the assistance of family members and Czech social historians, she was able to trace members of her family. Epstein also provides the reader with a portrait of Central European Jewish society from the emergence of the community from the ghettos with liberalization of laws beginning in the Emperor Joseph II in 1782, their rapid assimilation into Central European culture, through the first Czech Republic to the Nazi occupation in 1939.

Throughout the book Epstein situates the particular history of her ancestors within the larger picture of both Jewish and Central European history and the personal and historical are seamlessly woven together. Epstein is concerned primarily with women's history and she demonstrates the effects of social changes upon her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother. Epstein's relatives, who ran the gamut from devoutly religious Jews, to completely assimilated secularists as the 19th century progressed, help the reader to understand the larger political and social forces that were shaping Jewish life in this period. By the time Franci Epstein was born in 1920 she was raised with no particular sense of her heritage and identified as a Czech. Epstein also examines the effects of the early part of the woman's movement on her family and notes that her grandmother and mother were self-supporting businesswoman at a time when this was extremely uncommon.

Epstein follows the story of her family through the heady days of the first Czech Republic, the rise of fascism and eventual invasion by the Nazis and the deportation of Franci and her parents Pepi and Emil Rabinek to Theresienstadt in 1942. Franci's parents were murdered that same year and her own life was saved by the clever machinations of her first husband. She was then sent to Auschwitz where her many skills helped her to escape selection. For Franci this period marked the complete end of who she had been and the emergence of the woman that her daughter would know. Helen Epstein remembered her mother as a "soldier" who was prone to outbursts of weeping and who was rarely happy or carefree. In was only through her journey into Franci's past that she saw that her mother had once been a vivacious young woman who ran her own business and participated in the rich cultural life of Prague in the 1930's. With the Nazi takeover of the Czech Republic both world history and her mother's life and character were changed forever.

This work presents a portrait of Central European Jewish life that is likely largely unknown to English speaking readers as so much of world history has been presented from the western European point of view. Epstein's offers an examination of attitudes towards Jews in Austria, and the Czech Republic over time, and through the narrative of the struggles of her family. She also shows how these changes impacted upon actual individuals. As a result it becomes easier to understand why so many Jews were unable to fathom of the enormity of the Nazi threat. Epstein shows quite clearly that Jews like her grandfather Emil Rabinek believed themselves to be culturally German and that they were equal citizens with inalienable rights. Jews had entered professions formally closed to them and into public life. In the Czech case this was particularly true as the first Czech Republic, which began in 1918, was founded upon liberal, democratic and egalitarian values epitomized in the person of Thomas G. Masaryk the first Czech president.

From a purely historical point of view "Where She Came From" is masterful, but Epstein also manages to infuse this sophisticated work with feeling and life. In writing a memoir and historical study Epstein grapples with issues that confront Jews who trace their ancestry back to Europe. How is one to even approach a past that ended with unspeakable devastation and horror? Epstein faces this terrible ambivalence squarely and in doing so tells the stories of those who have been "hidden from history." Epstein shows that European Jewish history has not been destroyed by the Holocaust and she likens herself to her ancestors who were couturieres as she pieces together her narrative. On a personal level Epstein gained a greater understanding of her mother and the sweep of her family history and its importance to understanding their personalities and decisions. In the final part of the book Epstein goes to the grave of her great-grandmother in Vienna. She writes that " it seemed possible that the purple heather I planted would prove hardy and take root." Here the author has come full circle from the quotation by Simone Weil. Helen Epstein seems to have found her sense of rootedness in a family history that is both tragic but also beautiful and inspiring. The reader who accompanies her on this journey is reminded of the importance of history and given a glimpse of the complex and vibrant life of Jews in Central Europe before the Holocaust.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2002.
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