Kiss the Red Stairs: The Holo­caust, Once Removed

  • Review
By – August 22, 2023

Mar­sha Led­er­man begins her jour­nal­is­tic mem­oir with an epi­graph from Isaac Bashe­vis Singer: A per­son is lit­er­al­ly a ceme­tery where mul­ti­tudes of liv­ing corpses are buried.” This chill­ing quote sets the tone for Lederman’s first chap­ter, in which she relates how, even in beau­ti­ful moments, she can’t help but think of the Holocaust. 

This is because Led­er­man, a colum­nist for Canada’s The Globe and Mail, is the child of sur­vivors. Her father Jacob was liv­ing near Lodz, Poland, when the Nazi occu­pa­tion began. Work­ing in the Piotrków ghet­to, the twen­ty-some­thing man­aged to strike a deal with a guard and flee, at which point he secured false papers from a sym­pa­thet­ic Pol­ish offi­cial. Then, with Tadek Rud­nic­ki as his new name, he board­ed a train to Ger­many to work on a farm. He sur­vived the war pre­tend­ing to be a church­go­ing Pol­ish Catholic. 

Lederman’s moth­er, on the oth­er hand, grew up in Radom, Poland. As a young teen, Git­la (or Gucia) Lindzen was made a slave labor­er in the Radom ghet­to, and, fol­low­ing that, a muni­tions fac­to­ry. Nazi guards then marched her and the oth­er fac­to­ry work­ers to Birke­nau. There, in the most hope­less of places, she was reunit­ed with her sis­ter and aunt. A few months lat­er, the three of them accept­ed an offer, if one can call it that, to work at a muni­tions fac­to­ry in Lipp­stadt, Ger­many. Con­di­tions there were some­what bet­ter, albeit tem­po­rary; after six months, the Nazis forced them and hun­dreds of oth­er women to march. They were on their way to Bergen-Belsen when they were lib­er­at­ed by Amer­i­can sol­diers. But by then, most of Lindzen’s and her future husband’s rel­a­tives had been mur­dered at Treblinka.

Lederman’s plunge into her par­ents’ his­to­ry coin­cid­ed with a painful peri­od in her own life: her divorce and its after­math. My big idea on how to get a grip was to start read­ing about the Holo­caust again,” she writes. I want­ed my par­ents; I had nev­er need­ed my mother’s love or my father’s strength and pro­tec­tion more. This was as close as I could come, I fig­ured, to access­ing it.” 

After care­ful­ly detail­ing her par­ents’ sto­ries — sto­ries she regrets not ask­ing them about when they were still alive — Led­er­man puts her jour­nal­ist gog­gles on. She’s des­per­ate to under­stand whether the Holo­caust has affect­ed her abil­i­ty to cope with dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions, like divorce, and whether this trait will be passed on to her son. In what is per­haps the liveli­est part of the book, Led­er­man draws on epi­ge­net­ic and soci­o­log­i­cal research about 2Gs — the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion,” the term for chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors. Find­ings in this field, Led­er­man says, are con­tra­dic­to­ry. But one thing is for cer­tain: 2Gs are incred­i­bly resilient.

Led­er­man also dis­cuss­es Holo­caust denial and her brush­es with it as a jour­nal­ist; the impor­tance of bear­ing wit­ness to all injus­tices; the pow­er of com­mu­ni­ty; and her com­pli­cat­ed feel­ings about Cana­da, which simul­ta­ne­ous­ly gave her immi­grant par­ents refuge and imple­ment­ed racist poli­cies to sep­a­rate Indige­nous chil­dren from their fam­i­lies. She moves on to describe her 1998 vis­it to var­i­ous con­cen­tra­tion camps and her par­ents’ home­towns, as well as her thwart­ed attempt in 2020 to see the Ger­man farm that saved her father. 

This is quite a lot to cov­er in one book, and while much of it is nec­es­sary — espe­cial­ly its explo­ration of inter­gen­er­a­tional trau­ma and its inter­sec­tion­al approach to activism — Lederman’s project some­times feels over­am­bi­tious. The writ­ing can be repet­i­tive, and many of her cheeky par­en­thet­i­cal asides seem tonal­ly mis­placed. That said, Lederman’s tal­ent and com­pas­sion as a jour­nal­ist are clear. She paints a thor­ough and thought-pro­vok­ing por­trait of her par­ents’ lega­cy, a lega­cy that includes her own life. 

I will nev­er under­stand why — why a mon­ster would wish for the anni­hi­la­tion of an entire race and count­less peo­ple would not only fol­low orders but do it glee­ful­ly,” she writes in Life,” the book’s eigh­teenth and final chap­ter. “ … But I am here. And I have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to speak up against injus­tice, to raise my child and launch him into a hap­py life, to do what­ev­er good I can in this world to help alle­vi­ate all of the bad. I’m not sure what that looks like,” she goes on, but I think writ­ing this all down has been a start.”

Writ­ing is indeed a start. And so, too, is reading.

Kyra Lisse is Jew­ish Book Council’s Edi­to­r­i­al Fel­low. She’s a grad­u­ate of Franklin & Mar­shall Col­lege in Lan­cast­er, PA, where she stud­ied cre­ative writ­ing and Latin. Cur­rent­ly, Kyra is a sec­ond-year MFA can­di­date and grad­u­ate assis­tant at Hollins Uni­ver­si­ty in Roanoke, VA, con­cen­trat­ing on cre­ative non­fic­tion. Her email is kyra@​jewishbooks.​org.

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