Sheymes: A Fam­i­ly Album After the Holocaust

  • Review
April 13, 2015

Usu­al­ly when you tell a sto­ry it is over,” Eliz­a­beth Wajn­berg reminds her­self, tak­ing heart when her par­ents share an­other detail of sur­viv­ing the Holo­caust. Her mem­oir Sheymes — A Fam­i­ly Album After the Holo­caust, how­ev­er, shows this is not always so.

In this sto­ry, past and present are insepa­rable. One moment we’re tra­vers­ing a tun­nel in Switzer­land, the next we’re in the forests of Poland. That’s how it was to grow up with sur­vivors: The nar­ra­tive of the Holo­caust is nev­er lin­ear; rather, it explodes into every­day life. Some­times in lines uttered over and over again (“I jumped out the win­dow! I tore through the wires! I saved you! I saved you!”), some­times in frag­ments of infor­ma­tion nev­er shared before, and always pep­pered with expres­sions from the mame-loshen (moth­er tongue), the par­ents’ Pol­ish Yid­dish. Any read­er who knows Yid­dish will enjoy encoun­ter­ing these phras­es, and any read­er who doesn’t will pick up some flu­en­cy with this book. 

To read Sheymes is to be spell­bound by a force of nature: the author’s moth­er. Wa­jnberg so suc­cess­ful­ly con­jures her that the read­er can still hear her long after fin­ish­ing the book: Give her a fruit,” the moth­er instructs, for­ev­er push­ing food on every­one, most of all her daugh­ter, who looks like a corpse.” Nev­er­the­less Wajn­berg has cre­at­ed a lov­ing, poignant, and ulti­mate­ly trag­ic por­trait of her par­ents. The moth­er, who lost her patience for any­thing while hav­ing to wait a drum­ming three-day moment,” wait­ed for her old­er child to be returned from an intern­ment camp at the end of the war, and there­fore can­not bear wait­ing for her daughter’s delayed flight. The ever resource­ful father, who sur­vived Buchen­wald and took to deal­ing in cloth in war-rav­aged Poland right after the war — white, soft shtik­elech (lit­tle pieces) — and yet almost gives up fight­ing the nurs­ing home direc­tor who doesn’t want him dine with his wife: A good per­son can­not fight against a bad.” 

Many read­ers will relate to Wajnberg’s tales of advo­cat­ing for her par­ents in the Cana­di­an health care sys­tem, first the long-term care wing in the Jew­ish Hos­pi­tal that becomes a shtetl for the moth­er who loves sit­ting in the hall­way to be tsvishen men­schen,” and lat­er the state-run and neglect­ful nurs­ing home. But Wajn­berg also knows that she her­self oper­ates like her par­ents when deal­ing with sit­u­a­tions of life and death: “’Who called the doc­tor? It’s against the rules!’ Whose rules? My par­ents once broke the rules by surviving.” 

The sto­ry comes full cir­cle when the narra­tor, who, to her mother’s great dis­may, nev­er had chil­dren, takes on car­ing for her ail­ing par­ents: My chil­dren, I thought, they are my chil­dren.” Now it is the daugh­ter who coax­es the moth­er. As the moth­er slips into demen­tia, the haunt­ed look in her eyes dis­ap­pears, and nurs­es speak of her beau­ti­ful smile.” This is the moth­er whom both daugh­ters recall nev­er smiled at them and yet, the read­er will be glad to have been invit­ed into this family.

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