They Were Good Ger­mans Once: A Mem­oir: My Jew­ish Émi­gré Family

  • Review
By – July 2, 2024

Many read­ers pick up mem­oirs about fam­i­lies who sur­vived the Holo­caust and expect them to engage with every ele­ment of the Shoah. These demands are noble in nature, but they often over­look the fact that the expe­ri­ences of the indi­vid­ual are what tru­ly dis­tin­guish a mem­oir. Touch­ing on phi­los­o­phy or his­tor­i­cal dates rein­forces a work’s mer­it and pro­fes­sion­al­ism, but an over­sat­u­ra­tion of his­to­ry is not always ben­e­fi­cial to the memoir’s artis­tic voice.

Eve­lyn Toynton’s They Were Good Ger­mans Once is a work that fore­grounds per­son­al reflec­tion, demon­strat­ing the many ways a mem­oir can artic­u­late dif­fi­cult emo­tions and mem­o­ries. It focus­es on the matri­archs and female descen­dants of the Toyn­ton family.

When the author touch­es on the expe­ri­ences of each woman, her writ­ing style is var­ied and unique. She describes how the women diverged from both Ger­man cul­ture and tra­di­tion­al gen­der expec­ta­tions. Toyn­ton also explores the ways in which they found lib­er­a­tion despite loss — despite the cru­el destruc­tion of the order­ly world that their ances­tors were promised. As the book guides us through this per­son­al his­to­ry, we wit­ness the long-last­ing effects that the fam­i­ly patri­archs have on the young women’s lives and choices.

They Were Good Ger­mans Once is proof that when one is oust­ed from the world they know, there are no easy answers — only mem­o­ries and illu­mi­nat­ing moments.

Isla Lad­er is a jour­nal­ist and Eng­lish MA stu­dent with a bach­e­lors in polit­i­cal sci­ence. When they’re not writ­ing, they are per­form­ing com­e­dy, read­ing Table Top Role Play Guide­books, or explor­ing alley­ways for for­got­ten furniture.

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