William B. Friedricks’s new biography of Celina Karp Biniaz reaffirms that every Holocaust story belongs to an individual and must be told. The earlier part of the book relates how Celina’s relatively assimilated Jewish family in Krakow, Poland was unprepared for Nazi occupation. Through a series of events and human connections, Celina and her parents eventually found their way out of the ghetto and concentration camps and onto the list of German industrialist Oskar Schindler. They survived the war working in his factory and later arrived in Des Moines, Iowa as refugees. At the same time she was trying to repress her trauma and blend into middle-class American life, Celina experienced both the comforts and limitations that came with being a prosperous suburban wife. All the while, Friedricks traces the facts of Celina’s journey as well as her gradual awareness of her need to recover and interpret the past.
Celina’s story is not uncommon. Yet Friedricks’s meticulous presentation of research renews a reader’s sense of disbelief at such inhumanity. And rather than analyzing the complexities of Schindler’s character, the author focuses on how life as his factory worker, though still arduous and full of risk, seemed almost miraculous.
After the war, Celina’s destination was Des Moines, a city with few Holocaust survivors and an only slightly larger Jewish community. Even so, her family maintained a Jewish identity, and she found many opportunities for friendship and academic success. Eventually, she moved to New York, studied at Columbia Teachers College, and met her future husband, a Persian man from a secular Muslim family. Friedricks describes the postwar era in the United States as one of economic success, but also of conformity and, for women, a return to prewar gender roles.
While it was quite common for Jewish refugees to keep silent about what they had undergone in Europe, it was far less typical for them to adopt Celina’s strategy of erasure. She and her husband attended a Unitarian church, celebrated Christmas and Easter, and concealed Celina’s true identity from their children. Only later, after gaining confidence in her new career as a teacher, did Celina come to terms with the truth and decide to educate others. Friedricks notes with admiration that this allowed her “to put the Holocaust behind her and move on with her life.” But the reality of the book actually proves the opposite. Celina Karp Biniaz did not put the past behind her; she incorporated it into a fuller understanding of who she was.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.