Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Holocaust Memoir Explores The Pages in Between

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I always find it difficult to describe my reaction to books about the Holocaust. It just feels wrong to say I liked or loved or was entertained by stories about one of the greatest atrocities in human history. Still, the horrors and triumphs of the time period have inspired some incredible literature. While I don't consider Erin Einhorn's The Pages In Between to be of the same caliber as Elie Wiesel's Night or John Boyne's The Boy in Striped Pajamas, I do consider it to be an engrossing, well-written memoir about the Jewish experience in Poland.

The Pages In Between is a detailed account of the author's quest to better understand her mother, Irena. According to family folklore, Irena was born in a Jewish ghetto in the Polish town of Bedzin in 1942. Terrified the Nazis would discover the newborn, her family kept her hidden, shoving pillows in her face to mask her cries. When she was 3, Irena's parents were herded onto a transport train; although they didn't know exactly where it was headed, they knew enough to be scared for their future. Knowing there was no other way to save his child, Irena's father leapt from the train, snuck back to Bedzin and placed his daughter in the hands of Honorata Skowronska, a gentile bread baker. Irena, of course, survived the war, and after being transferred from a host family to an orphanage to another orphanage, finally landed in Detroit with her father and stepmother (her mother died in Poland, possibly at Auschwitz). Years later, when Erin peppers her mother with questions about her early years, Irena can't understand her fascination. When an incredulous Erin asks, "Don't you think it's interesting?" Irena replies, "No, I don't think it's particularly interesting" (41).

Erin, however, can't contain her curiosity. For one thing, she's finding more and more holes in her mother's story - does Irena know something she's not telling? Or are the inconsistencies simply a result of her fading memory? Why has she never contacted the woman who saved her life? Is it because Honarata Skowronska really did it only for the money? Or is it because of the outdated belief that Poles and Jews can never be friendly? Erin knows the truth lies somewhere in "the pages in between" the stories she's always been told. In her heart, Erin believes she can rectify the past by finding the Skowronskis and reuniting them with the child they saved. If she can uncover the truth of her mother's past in the process, so much the better.

So, with Irena's tentative blessing, Erin heads off to Poland. She finds the Skowronskis with surprising ease, but meeting them brings Erin face-to-face with a decades-old real estate battle. Although the family welcomes her and kindly Wieslaw (Honorata's son) remembers Irena with fondness, it soon becomes obvious that what the family really wants is a solution to their problem. The issue involves a promise Beresh Frydrych (Irena's father) supposedly made to Honorata Skowronska when he gave his daughter to her in 1945. According to the Skowronskis, he gave the gentile woman his large family home and the factory situated on the property in exchange for hiding Irena. Sixty years later, the family still lives in the crumbling structure, but is unable to collect rent from its other occupants because they don't legally own the home. Erin feels duty-bound to help the people who saved her mother's life, but Polish law makes it a very complicated issue. The problem strains the relationship between Erin and the Skowronskis, costs the reporter significant legal fees, and saps all the time she wants to be spending tracing her family history. To complicate the matter even further, Erin's mother dies of cancer in the middle of the whole mess.

As you can tell, The Pages In Between differs from most Holocaust memoirs. The book focuses less on atrocities committed during the war and more on ways in which happenings during the war still color the surviving lands and people. Einhorn's honest and moving story touches on what it means to be a daughter trying to understand a mother with whom she's never been able to get along; what it's like to be a Jew in a country defined by its anti-Semitism; and what obligations current generations owe to their ancestors. It also looks at modern-day Poland in all its contradictions - from the kitschy Jewish-themed cafes to the haunting walls of Auschwitz; from its Nazi supporters to its Jewish sympathizers; and from Jewish festivals to Jewish graveyards. Mostly, though, its about one woman's search for her heritage. What emerges is a fascinating, moving portrayal of Poland and her people, especially two ordinary families brought together by extraordinary events, and reunited by a brave young woman determined to find the truth.

Grade: B

11 comments:

  1. I found this to be a rewarding book, too. You did a good job of explaining the complicated house situation!

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  2. I have awarded you and your wonderful blog the Kreativ Bloggers Award. Here's the link: http://cafeofdreams.blogspot.com/2009/01/kreativ-blogger-award.html
    Have a great weekend!

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  3. Interesting. The only holocaust book I have read is The Hiding Place. It was good, but they are so sad and depressing. I think the holocaust is interesting though, and will probably pick this book up. Thanks for the great review! As always!;)

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  4. This one sounds really interesting. I'll have to look for it.

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  5. Excellent Review! I read this book last year and reviewed it as well. I was drawn to the complexities of the mother/daughter relationship and how Erin was compelled to find the truth.

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  6. I read another review of this one yesterday. It does sound like an interesting memoir. Thanks for another great review!

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  7. great-looking blog, and an excellent summary of a not easily encapsulated book. for something completely different in holocaust memoirs - the antithesis of einhorn's introspective work really - look for Hiding in the Spotlight from Pegasus Books in June. (www.hidinginthespotlight.com). Yes, this is a shameless self-plug.

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  8. Thanks, everybody, for saying I explained the book well. The concept really is complicated, so I'm glad my explanation made sense :)

    April - Thanks so much for the award. So sweet of you. I will pass it on when I have a minute to post.

    Greg - Your mother's story sounds fascinating. She's gorgeous - sounds as if she's very interesting as well. I'd love to review your book, if you want to send me a copy.

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  9. Susan - Sorry again about the shameless self-plug, and thanks for your interest. I'll make sure you get a copy. Galley or Word document?

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  10. Galley, please, Greg. You can email me at blogginboutbooks[AT]gmail[COM]com for my mailing address.

    No worries about the shameless self-promotion. A lot of that goes on around here!

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