Harry hailed from a family of holocaust survivors. His mother survived the war by hiding out in a French barn for four years, while his father survived by joining Stalin’s Red Army.
As the dust settled, the two holocaust survivors somehow found themselves rebuilding their lives in Munich, of all places, and probably looking forward to their two boys continuing the Jewish line that had been so precariously snatched from the jaws of the Nazis, just a few short decades earlier.
That’s not exactly what happened. Harry, their son, fell in love with a German non-Jewish woman called Annette whose family had their own historical reasons for frowning on a match with a Jew.
Without giving too much of the story away, Gendler’s memoir is a kind of fusion of three families’ stories: hers and Harry’s; Harry’s parents; and her own family’s personal history pre, during and post World War II.
I have to admit I was a little wary of what was to come when I first picked up the book, because I knew it was a book about a mixed romance, and I had no idea if Gendler took the final step of undertaking an orthodox conversion or not. The suspense of that particular story kept me reading it at thriller pace for the first chunk of the book, until the denouement.
Without giving too much away, I can tell you that while I found some parts of the book challenging, overall I enjoyed it tremendously, and it provided a different perspective on the phenomenon of marrying-out that I wasn’t so familiar with: that of the ‘shiksa’ girlfriend trying to grapple with some big questions of what it actually means to be married to a Jew.
Personally, I would have liked to have had more of Gendler’s observations from the later period in her married life, and to hear how she herself ultimately answered the question of what is means to be a Jew day-to-day, outside of discussions of the holocaust.
It was also interesting to learn that after World War II, Czechoslovakia summarily expelled all of its remaining German citizens, who left with very few possessions. This was one of the more challenging parts of the book for me, as a Jew, to read, because while it was certainly hard on these Germans, including the author’s anti-fascist grandparents, to leave their home, history and most of their belongings behind, the parallels with the deportation of the Jews by the Germans were too stark to ignore.
For anyone familiar with holocaust literature, the train journey described by the author was a walk in the park, despite its hardships, compared to those suffered by the Jews. It was one of the rare parts of the book where a mental barrier went up in my head, and I said to myself: I don’t feel sorry for these people. Compared to what happened to the Jews, this description of hardship is almost laughable.
Then, I reprimanded myself for being too harsh on these German expats. And then, I started to feel a little confused about whose side I was really on, anyway, and what the correct response should really be…
Which kind of encapsulates why parts of this book gave me an uncomfortable feeling, because Germans and Jews were on two very different sides of the barbed-wire fence, and feeling compassion for Germans of that generation is not something that comes easily.
I don’t know whether that’s a good thing, or a bad thing. Whether it’s good for a Jew to allow themselves to feel compassion for Germans of that era is one of the questions I’m continuing to ponder after reading the book. But let’s say this: challenging assumptions is nearly always a healthy thing and this book certainly encourages the reader to do that on a number of levels.
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