Thursday, May 27, 2010

After Long Silence by Helen Fremont 1999

"Fremont ... confronts a common dilemma for many children of survivors: how to penetrate their parents’ 'armor' of denial, secrecy, or silence without feeling selfish or guilty for resuscitating traumas from the war." from 'Possessed by a History They Never Lived: Daughters of Holocaust Survivors Confront Secrecy and Silence' by Nancy Kersell

This disturbing memoir describes what it was like to grow up as a child of Holocaust survivors who converted to Catholicism. Helen Fremont, born in 1953 in a state in the Midwest, assumed she and the rest of her family were Catholic which was the religion the family practiced.  It wasn’t until she was in her thirties that she stopped to carefully examine confusing details from her childhood and the few remarks her mother would ever make about her past when pressed. She came to see that there were inconsistencies and tremendous gaps. She did a little digging and found out that her parents were Jewish and that their families had been killed because they were Jews.

She and her sister conferred regularly. They consulted rabbis and family friends. They visited Ukraine and got documents from Yad Vashem. They then started to question their mother and provided her with some of the information they learned. But she resisted their inquiries and was distraught with what she hears about the past and she even tried to deny what her daughters learned. Little by little they put together a narrative that tells the family story and reveals the desperate circumstances that both their mother and their father and their families experienced.

What’s particularly tragic and interesting about this memoir is that in the end the narrative does not support the notion that the truth will set you free. Bringing up the past was emotionally traumatizing to her parents, especially her mother and her mother’s sister who lives in Italy and who had also converted to Catholicism. 

It’s clear that there are competing interests here. The author wants the truth and wants to confront her parents with the truth. She wants to understand. She assumes once the “secret” is revealed, their authentic identities restored, the family will be in some sense repaired.  But it’s clear that her mother and especially her aunt cannot deal with the truth. They want to keep the past buried; to tell the story is to re-live it.Their elaborate coping mechanisms in place serve to keep them from falling apart.

Note to genealogists: Do not expect to find family names in this memoir. The author states in the beginning that she has changed the names of “a number of individuals” to protect their privacy, but that did not prevent a rift in the family when she published this memoir. In the afterword published in the paperback edition, she says that despite the name changes, relatives she didn’t know found her. She and her sister attended a family reunion of fifty members. Her parents did not attend.

For an interesting article from HAARETZ.COM that discusses evidence that the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors suffer from more emotional difficulties than the general population of grandchildren, click here.


  1. cesaroni.arlene@gmail.comApril 23, 2011 at 11:31 AM

    I read this book when it was first published and was particularly interested in the story of the author's father. Do you know if his writings about his time in Siberia were ever published?

  2. Sorry, I don't know. Maybe you could find the author through her publisher and ask her.
    Toby Bird