Moth­er­land: Grow­ing Up with the Holocaust

  • Review
By – May 18, 2015

Grow­ing up in the shad­ow of the hor­rors that their par­ents faced, the chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors strug­gle to under­stand the past and find a way to move for­ward. Rita Goldberg’s beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten mem­oir is a fas­ci­nat­ing account of one woman com­ing to terms with her par­ents’ legacy.

Rita was born in Basel, Switzer­land in 1949. Her moth­er, Hilde, was from a Ger­man fam­i­ly that fled to Ams­ter­dam as the Nazis came to pow­er. The fam­i­ly was very close to Anne Frank’s; Hilde was friend’s with Anne’s sis­ter, and Otto Frank was Rita’s god­fa­ther. When the Nazis invad­ed Hol­land, Hilde and her broth­er escaped to the coun­try and began work­ing with the resis­tance in Bel­gium. Rita’s father, Max, was from Basel. He fin­ished med­ical school, but was not allowed to prac­tice under Swiss law because his par­ents were immi­grants. Although Switzer­land remained neu­tral dur­ing the war, Max faced anti-Semi­tism. He end­ed up work­ing for the Unit­ed Nations Relief and Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Admin­is­tra­tion, work­ing in a dis­placed per­sons camp at Bergen-Belsen where he met Hilde. The fam­i­ly even­tu­al­ly made its way to the Unit­ed States but returned to Ger­many when Max served as a physi­cian in the Amer­i­can army.

Rita’s moth­er nev­er hid her past, often telling her daugh­ter that pure chance saved her from a one-way trip on a box­car. Vis­its with Otto Frank and the few remain­ing fam­i­ly mem­bers in Europe height­ened the impact of these tales. As a child, Rita’s night­mares often reflect­ed her mother’s mem­o­ries. Although Rita grew up, mar­ried, and had chil­dren of her own as well as a suc­cess­ful aca­d­e­m­ic career, she still felt that all of her accom­plish­ments paled when com­pared to the hero­ic deeds of her mother.

This book, based on the author’s exten­sive research and con­ver­sa­tions with her par­ents, is an elo­quent attempt to make sense of her expe­ri­ences. As she says, The world, for us, is always in cri­sis, and we fell the shad­ow of vio­lent death always on us. We feel our unre­al­i­ty acute­ly in the good for­tune of our grow­ing up in this opu­lent coun­try, where we have been edu­cat­ed to make choic­es freely. We feel we’re not quite enti­tled to that for­tune, because of the chill that nev­er leaves us, and so we work hard and are grate­ful. But we do notice the gaps, the gusty air that keeps us from feel­ing entire­ly at home.” The feel­ings expressed here demon­strate the con­flicts that many chil­dren of sur­vivors face. They love and admire their par­ents, and do their best to hon­or them by suc­ceed­ing. At the same time, they know that they can nev­er com­plete­ly under­stand what their par­ents expe­ri­enced and feel guilty as a result. In a sense, they live between two worlds and work hard to nav­i­gate the path that con­nects them. Rita Gold­berg explores this with great sensitivity.

Relat­ed Content:

Bar­bara M. Bibel is a librar­i­an at the Oak­land Pub­lic Library in Oak­land, CA; and at Con­gre­ga­tion Netiv­ot Shalom, Berke­ley, CA.

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