Friday, February 1, 2013

Voices of Survival

Title: Daughters of Absence: Transforming a Legacy of Loss
Editor: Mindy Weisel
Genre: Non-fiction, with one short story and one group of poems
Pages: 256
Format: Kindle
Finished: February 1, 2013

Although there have been many published autobiographical accounts over the years since World War II from Holocaust survivors, the voices of "second-generation survivors" -- the children of those who escaped death -- have not always been as prominently heard.  In Daughters of Absence: Transforming a Legacy of Loss, artist and editor Mindy Weisel pulls together stories -- told through straight accounts, creative non-fiction, short story, visual art, and poetry -- from twelve second-generation survivors, detailing how they have come to terms with their family history and their relationship with the memory of the Holocaust today.

As with most Holocaust collections, it can be a difficult read at times; the content wears on you.   After first trying to read straight through and discovering that it was becoming emotionally monotonous, I found that it was best to read one or two stories at a time over a period of several days in order to have the most impact. 

Humorist Deb Filler's "Kicking and Weeping," which tells the story of a visit the author took with her father, an Auschwitz survivor, to see his place of internment, was the highlight of the book for me, striking the perfect balance between warmth and horror and being written in a skillful way that only those with a true talent can accomplish.  Aviva Kempner's "Keeping the Family Name Alive" does perhaps the best job of communicating the task, unasked for, that second-generation survivors have to continue the memory of their families through the generations.  Nava Semel's short story "A Hat of Glass" hauntingly tells of the violence against women in the camps.

Since Weisel solicited most of these submissions from friends and relatives, it's understandable they tend to stand on unequal footing with each other.  The photo essay by Vera Loeffler and the poetry from Miriam Mörsel Nathan should provide a new way of telling similar stories, but they instead stick out as sore thumbs that don't quite fit into the feel of the overall book.  Likewise, a handful of the non-fiction accounts lack the fine writing skills one would expect from published authors, but it's hard to object to them being included since they still provide good primary source testimony of the second-generation experience.

Daughters of Absence is told exclusively from the Jewish perspective, with several of the authors sharing Czech or Polish background.  Considering the demographics of the Holocaust, this is of course not surprising, but it does mean that the pieces use a lot of unglossed Yiddish and religious terms that may not be familiar to the non-Jewish reader.  Having a good Yiddish-English dictionary at the ready is a good plan for readers.

In all, this is a solid collection that gives great insight into the experiences of the second generation, and anyone interested in Holocaust studies, cross-generational psychology, or the study of memory would do well to pick it up.

Review: 4/5

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