I'm always a sucker for memoirs, and especially memoirs written about experiences or periods of time that capture some of the essence of what it meant to be a Jew at that time and in that place.
Hava Ben-Tzvi's memoir, called 'We Who Lived, Two Teenagers in World War II Poland' packs a lot of poignant detail into some deceptively simple and easy-to-read prose - I read the book in one sitting. The story begins in Poland, transverses the horrors of World War II and the holocaust, and then skips over to life in Israel, where Hava meets and marries her husband, Ephraim.
Later, Ephraim and Hava are given the chance to study in the US, and even though they intend to return to the holy land, it seems God had other plans.
Essentially, Hava and Ephraim were eye-witnesses, deep in the crucible of suffering that would eventually lead to the birth of the State of Israel, and as such, these memoirs are an invaluable snapshot of that time, and those places.
I often find with a lot of holocaust memoirs that the material is written in a very pared-back, almost spartan way, and the same is true of We Who Lived. When you're dealing with first-hand accounts of such tremendous human drama and suffering, that understated style seems to be the only way to convey what needs to be said without overwhelming the reader, or the writer, with too much detail and too much pain.
Often, these books understandably end up with a kind of distant feel to them as a result, where you feel the writer is trying to reach across the chasm that separates them from people who didn't experience what they went through, but then discovers that words alone are still not alone to bridge that gap.
This book also has a little of that 'distant' feel in parts - where I'd like to have known more about Hava's life in the US, and more about the faces of the dead she sees reflected in her very much alive grandchildren. But on the whole, I think the writer has done a very good job of conveying a lot in a little, understated way, leaving it to the reader's imagination to fill in more of the details.
So, I highly recommend this book as a snapshot of life in Poland during World War II and in the newly-created State of Israel, and I personally feel that each one of these memoirs that makes it out into the world is a gem, in its own way, that needs to be appreciated and found a place in the crown of Jewish literature.
Hava's story is not just her own, it's the story of her people, the Jewish people. And also, a reminder that every day of life God gives us is something to be grateful for.
A few weeks’ back, I got my first bad review on ‘The Secret Diary of a Jewish Housewife’, over on Amazon. A nice-sounding woman called Yvette had this to say about it:
I thought this book would be about Jewish life but it is really about the author's inability to enjoy her life without all her questions being answered. Even God doesn't seem to be able to answer them for her. It never occurs to her that maybe there are no answers, at least none that will be available in her lifetime)... and she'd be a whole lot happier if she'd just enjoy the moment and the gift of life.
I see this book generally got good reviews. Maybe I'm missing something here.
While bad reviews are never fun, I actually appreciated Yvette’s review, as I felt it was a fair description of what the book wasn’t, and would definitely help other readers to decide if it was for them or not.
That’s why bad reviews can be useful for authors.
Then, I got a handful more good reviews, which was nice, and then, someone called ‘Reed’ left a two star review saying this:
Pass - lots of whining
Was not impressed. A lot of whining about things not going her way and then she would say but it is in Gods hands but then whine some more.
Maybe I missed something, but not a book for me.
Dear reader, she’s killed my book stone-dead. Because who the heck wants to hear someone ‘whining’ all the time? No-one.
Me being me, I wondered what sort of reviewer ‘Reed’, so I went over to her profile page on Amazon, and discovered the following:
“The book was eeehhh…. I don't know if I would ever read another book by this author again.
“It was ok. Nothing spectacular and nothing that I would talk about. It is a novella but I don't see it going anywhere.”
“I like books with depth and maturity. This book lacked both. Not much else to say about it.”
Received wisdom is that when you get a bad review, you are just meant to grit your teeth and accept it gracefully. I can see the value in that when you have a reviewer like Yvette, who really is reviewing a book on its own merits.
But when you’re dealing with the ‘Reeds’ of the world, who find it very hard to say anything nice about pretty much any book they pick up, surely there has to be some way of evening things up a little?
The woman has killed my book stone-dead, and after so much effort to start getting it to sell a little, it’s now dropping through the floor again.
Yes, I know it’s from Hashem and all for the best. But I still couldn’t help leaving a comment under the review saying the following:
Reed, thanks for taking the time to read the book, I appreciate that. Just a quick question for you: I checked through your other reviews, here on Amazon, and I can see you really don't like spiritual memoir type books written by women.
For example, on May 3, you gave this (two star) review to Carla Feagan's 'A life worth living':
"I hate giving bad reviews, I truly do, but I have to on this one. This book was a long drawn out journal about how awful her life is and how alone she is and blah blah blah. She turns to men, she marries men, she divorces men, she is always searching for something that is missing in her life. Things trigger her because she feels her voice isn't heard.
After you read the first few pages you really just didn't care about her or anyone else in the story. No matter what she does she always lands on her feet. Believes that this is all part of the cosmic universe that apparently just loves her even though she hates herself. I finished the book but I will never understand why this book was written as it is nothing but a rambling journal of someone that couldn't connect to their reader."
Just wondering why you keep reading this type of book, when they clearly don't speak to you, and don't really interest you?
Thanks again for taking the time to read and review.
She hasn’t come back. She probably never will.
But in the meantime, Reed’s permanent bad mood seems to have slum-dunked all the effort that went into bringing The Secret Diary of a Jewish Housewife into the world, because NO-ONE is going to read a book that’s only about someone whining.
And there’s apparently nothing authors can do to counter other people’s malicious reviews on Amazon.
Which seems a little unfair to me, but hey, I'm definitely biased.
What do you think?
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