After­im­ages: A Fam­i­ly Memoir

  • Review
By – January 10, 2012

The titles above, in chrono­log­i­cal order, por­tray the impact of the Shoah on three authors who come from dis­sim­i­lar back­grounds. Hélène Berr, the 21 year-old daugh­ter of a pros­per­ous assim­i­lat­ed French Jew­ish fam­i­ly, was forced to quit her stud­ies at the Sor­bonne but retained her pas­sion­ate, bril­liant per­son­al­i­ty despite the hor­rors around her and record­ed them even in the camps, lat­er recon­sti­tut­ing and adding to them in the DP camps; Baruch G. Gold­stein, a reli­gious Jew, steeped in Jew­ish stud­ies, won­ders how he can remain a believ­er in spite of all that has hap­pened; and Car­ol Asch­er, a sec­ond gen­er­a­tion” child, suf­fers from a sur­vivor-father, who intim­i­dates her with his twist­ed inter­pre­ta­tions and ruins her life, and a sur­vivor-moth­er who oper­ates in some land of denial. 

Hélène Berr was a high­ly tal­ent­ed writer, who wrote both in French and Eng­lish. In 1942, Berr’s jour­nal is a record of her thoughts about love, music, lit­er­a­ture, art, her stud­ies, and the evil around her, as the Nazis begin their cam­paign of hor­ror. She is a crea­ture of light and strength. She strug­gles to keep from being filled with hate for all Ger­mans. Her fam­i­ly is so entrenched in Paris that she can’t envi­sion any­thing hap­pen­ing to her or them. Even in wartime, they live an active social life, while she has four groups of friends and two love affairs. The noose tight­ens and she sur­ren­ders to the facts of the increas­ing oppres­sion of the Jews, all the Jews. After wit­ness­ing the beat­ing and humil­i­a­tion of a dig­ni­fied Jew­ish man, Berr joins the Entraide Tem­po­raire, a secret net­work to save Jew­ish chil­dren from depor­ta­tion, until, in 1944, unwise­ly return­ing to their own apart­ment to sleep, the fam­i­ly is caught and she too is sent to Dran­cy, and from there to Bergen-Belsen where she lat­er dies just before lib­er­a­tion. Her jour­nal had been giv­en to her friend, Andrée, who passed it on to her lover, Jean Moraw­iec­ki. His paean to his love, Hélène, is includ­ed here, as well as the way in which the jour­nal was tran­scribed and sent to the French pub­lish­er by Mari­ette Job, a niece. 

Baruch G. Goldstein’s mem­oir is read, not for its lit­er­ary qual­i­ty, although it is per­fect­ly clear and flows well, but for his strug­gle to regain the reli­gious faith that once filled his life. He pro­vides much infor­ma­tion on the intense reli­gious life of Jews in his small Pol­ish-Ger­man town and com­mu­ni­cates the sense of bewil­der­ment and fear felt by the Jews of his town at the ran­dom, mys­ti­fy­ing, per­son­al vio­lence met­ed to them by the Ger­mans. He man­ages to hang on to life, but bare­ly, and then, as a refugee, drifts to UNR­RA camps in Italy. He had believed so deeply, that he is bewil­dered for God seems to have aban­doned His peo­ple. A yeshiv­ah stu­dent, he for­goes going to Pales­tine when his Amer­i­can rel­a­tives urge him to con­tin­ue his stud­ies in the Unit­ed States. Some of the most poignant sec­tions are the com­fort he feels in hav­ing his first Amer­i­can seder in the home of his future wife, while recall­ing his last seder in the ghet­to with his fam­i­ly. He mus­es on the mir­a­cles” per­formed by God for the Jews of Egypt, but not for the Jews of the Shoah. He no longer believes in an all-pow­er­ful God. It is real­ly his wife, Riva, a deeply reli­gious, warm, com­pas­sion­ate woman, who gen­tly leads him back to belief in God. Slow­ly, slow­ly, he comes to prac­tice more of the tra­di­tions that he had for­sak­en in the post-Shoah years. The bulk of the book deals with his mar­riage and their chil­dren, as he even­tu­al­ly becomes a rab­bi. After speak­ing to audi­ences about the Holo­caust, Gold­stein rebuts the reli­gious pro­scrip­tion that Because of our sins we were dri­ven out of our land” stat­ed in the litur­gy. Instead he believes: 

…that all Jews who per­ished in the Holo­caust were kedoshim, holy mar­tyrs. This group includes the reli­gious and the non­re­li­gious, the Bundists and the Agu­dah­niks, the Hasidim and the Mit­nagdim, the Zion­ists and the anti- Zion­ists, and the sec­u­lar and the assim­i­lat­ed Jews. They were all mur­dered only because they were b’nei Avara­ham, Yitzhak, v’Ya’acov — chil­dren of Abra­ham, Isaac and Jacob, that is, because they were Jews.” He lat­er adds, While liv­ing a reli­gious life of belief in God and faith in God’s good­ness, I have become con­vinced that life with­out faith is meaningless.” 

The first title reviewed above is trag­ic; the sec­ond, trag­ic, but even­tu­al­ly tri­umphant, the third (After­im­ages), is one of the sad­dest books I have reviewed in a while. Although Ascher’s father is a Vien­na-trained lay ana­lyst” and was well regard­ed in Vien­na (she thinks, but doesn’t know for sure), and wrote many papers he had no med­ical cre­den­tials. This might have been one of the rea­sons for his twist­ed per­son­al­i­ty. Poor Asch­er. Every­thing she did was col­ored by her father’s reac­tions to it and to her. When he occa­sion­al­ly was kind, she basked in a warm glow. Usu­al­ly, he had a neg­a­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal analy­sis of every­thing she did or said. She lived for his praise and cringed at his vio­lent tem­per and nasty dis­parag­ing of her accom­plish­ments and the nor­mal activ­i­ties of a teenag­er. In addi­tion, they had moved to an area that had only voca­tion­al schools with cours­es inad­e­quate for Ascher’s intel­lect and long­ing. There is also a sec­ond child, a younger sis­ter, who is chal­lenged men­tal­ly, and is there­fore not the brunt of her father’s acidic reac­tions. He treats her as a patient. This child is more like Ascher’s moth­er. She was cheer­ful to an extent that may have denied real­i­ty. Asch­er craves the approval of her father and echoes his dis­dain of her moth­er, who while super­fi­cial­ly cheer­ful and resource­ful, reveals her deep­est fears in oth­er ways. Not until she was thir­ty-five, did Asch­er dare to believe she had the right to shape her own life, irre­spec­tive of my father’s wish­es or his eval­u­a­tion of my gifts.” She decides to write and to gar­ner all her courage to send out her work and to call her­self a writer.

Addi­tion­al Books Fea­tured in Review

Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

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