Monday, July 15, 2013

The Watchmaker's Daughter by Sonia Taitz

"Though the author focuses mostly on her experiences, it is Simon and Gita’s perseverance that truly shines—the former a respected watchmaker who began life anew more than once, the latter a concert-level pianist whose dreams were thwarted by war and who rescued her own mother from the Nazis' infamous selections." from a review in Kirkus Review 7/30/2012

Sonia Taitz, the daughter of two Lithuanian Jewish Holocaust survivors, has written an engaging memoir that gets at the essence of what was for her, the challenge of growing up the daughter of survivors whose grief and refugee status defined who they were.

In many ways Taitz’s story is not different from many other memoirs written by the children of survivors. But her ability to animate for us her relationship to her parents and to describe her parents so that we feel we know them allows us to get a clear and vivid picture of their family life which, though universal in its oultine, is specific in its detail.

Much of Taitz’s story focuses on the relationship she had with each of her parents. Her father, an accomplished watchmaker whose skills helped him survive Dachau, admired her independent spirit and her academic abilities and he pushed her to succeed.  Her mother, an accomplished pianist whose potential career was destroyed by the Holocaust, struggled with her rebellious daughter whose personality and interests she often did not understand.

The young Sonia felt very different from the children who were growing up alongside her in post-World War II America, and she was embarrassed by her circumstances. Her parents spoke Yiddish at home and lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan where her brother slept in the living room. Her mother wore floral housedresses, shopped for bargain merchandise and cooked the foods she knew from Europe. When it came time for the author to go to college her parents insisted she stay close to home and go to Barnard, not to Radcliffe where she had also been accepted.

The end of the memoir deals with the death of each of her parents. At this point the author is a mother of three children and as an adult has come to terms with how the Holocaust had shaped their lives. She has come to understand them in ways she couldn’t possibly when she was a child, teenager and young adult, trying to establish her own identity, free of their burdens. Now, more than ever, she has become their parents - taking care of them, trying to hold on to them as they each succumb to cancer, despairing that after the early experiences they had suffered through, they each had to suffer so horribly again.

To read an article about the effects of Holocaust trauma on subsequent generations click here.
To read an article about the psychological profile of Holocaust survivors click here.

Father’s family
Sonia Taitz
    Aaron Taitz - son of Sonia
    PaulaTaitz - daughter of Sonia
    Simon Taitz – son of Sonia; married Gita Wery-Bey
          Emmanuel Taitz – son of Simon and Gita
                Jennifer and Michelle Taitz – daughters of Emmanuel
         Sonia Taitz – son of Simon and Gita; married Paul; author
                Emma, Gabriel, Phoebe – children on Paul and Sonia

Mother’s family
Menachem Mendel Wery-Bey- married Liba Davidow
       Gita – daughter of Menachem Mendel and Liba; married Simon Taitz (see above)
David Wery-Bey – brother of Menachem Mendel

Kaunas, Lithuania
New York City, NY
Washington Heights, NY
Stutthof Concentration Camp, Poland
Dachau Concentration Camp, Germany

Monday, July 1, 2013

Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss

"...[T]he diary reads with refreshing immediacy, describing how a smart, spirited young girl negotiated increasingly desperate circumstances." from a review by Julia M. Klein in the Jewish  Daily Forward April 27, 2013

Helga Weiss, who was born in 1929 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, survived to see the journal she kept during and after World War II published in 2013. Her story is similar to others who were moved from camp to camp, each time not knowing where they were going and what their fate would be when they arrived.

As a young child she was deported with her parents to Terezin (Theresienstadt) where she spent most of her imprisonment. From there she was moved to Auschwitz, then to Frieberg, a satellite work camp connected to the Flossenburg concentration camp. When it didn’t seem like their situation could get much worse, it got even worse. She and her mother barely survived a sixteen-day trip to the Mauthausen concentration camp where they were finally liberated.

One of the most moving pieces of this memoir is the family dynamic. The author, an only child, was separated from her father early because once in Terezin males and females were sent to separate living quarters. But she did manage to see him during the day. Her father got work in the financial office and had power to delay the deportation of family members – many of their relatives ended up in Terezin. But eventually they are all deported. There is much agony: Should she and her mother insist on going on the same transport he is assigned to? He insists not.  Mother and daughter are deported the day after he is, and Helga hopes against hope that she will see her father when she arrives wherever they are being sent.

It is only in hindsight that the author comes to realize that incarceration in Terezin was bearable compared to what happened once they were deported. Her descriptions of Terezin encompass both the good and the bad. The closeness that developed amongst her and other teenagers, their birthday celebrations and parties are contrasted to the overcrowded conditions, the serious outbreaks of diseases like typhus, the annoyance of bedbugs and lice, the constant worry about being selected for a transport. Once they are on a transport, as they move from place to place, food supplies dwindle; in the weeks before the Germans surrender there is barely any food. Helga’s mother becomes so weak that Helga, still a young teenager, has the added burden of making sure her mother survives.

Helga Weiss and her mother had been imprisoned for three and a half years. The author was released when she was 15 ½, one of a small number of children from Terezin to have survived.

This edition of the memoir includes:
A map of Helga’s journey
A map of Terezin
An Introduction - Francine Prose places this memoir in the context of other Holocaust memoirs.
An Author’s Note – Helga Weiss writes about the writing and re-writing of this memoir
An Interview with Helga Weiss – the author answers questions posed by the translator Neil Bermel about her experience during the war and about the writing of her journal.
A Translator’s Note – Neil Bermel writes about Helga Weiss’s writing style and how he worked with the mix of the German and Czech languages.
A Glossary of German terms not translated into English

To watch an interview with Helga Weiss which also includes photos and some of her artwork representing scenes during her imprisonment, click here.
To read a previous post of a review of a cookbook assembled by women in Theriesenstadt, click here.
To read a post on this blog about a memoir written by Gonda Redlich, also a prisoner in Theresienstadt, click here.
To read a post on this blog of a memoir written by Petr Ginz, also a prisoner in Theresienstadt, click here.
To read a post on this blog about Madeleine Albright's memoir Prague Winter which has several chapters on Theresienstadt, click here.
To read a post on this blog about a book that takes place in Terezin called "The Girls of Room 28," click here.

Sofie Weiss
    Otto Weiss – son of Sophie; married to Irena Fuchsova
         Helga Weiss – daughter of Otto and Irena
                      Dominika, Natalie, and Sarah – granddaughters of Helga
    Josef Polak – uncle of Helga; exact relationship unclear

Friends and Acquaintances
Eva Vohryzeks
Fredy Hirsch
Laska and Ruza Vogelova
Jakob Edelstein

Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic)
Terezin concentration camp, Czechoslovakia
Auschwitz  concentration camp, Poland
Frieburg, Germany
Mauthausen concentration camp, Austria