Category Archives: Family Dynamics

Review: On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War

On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War, by Bernard Wasserstein, is a compelling and intense study of the European Jews before their massive obliteration during World War II.

The non-fictional account spans every corner of Jewry, from the basic beggar to the wealthy, from the Orthodox to the non-practicing, from the intermarriages to the pure marriages, and from the varied social structures, both eastern and western. Jews are defined in every aspect, and defined in every location in Europe and Eastern Europe.

Ignorance is presented to be otherwise, according to Wasserstein’s extensive research and documentation. Many Jews did have an inkling as to what was occurring under their noses. They did understand the seriousness of the events unfolding in the social stratum of their lives.

But, understanding and removing one’s self from precarious and dangerous situations are not necessarily possible. Social structures, religious beliefs, family ties, homelands, separations, financial aspects, and the forces imposed on the Jews by the Nazis don’t always allow for escape. The influences were more than immense.

Wasserstein is brilliant in depicting the lives of the Jews, their family ties, friendships, joys, lows, fears, and all of their daily living arrangements. The revelations are intense and filled with sorrow and, yet, a sense of meaningfulness and purpose of life unfolds within the pages.

You may ask “Why”. But, before you do, try to consider the adverse and horrific situations thrust on the Jews. Try to analyze things with an open mind, not rose-colored lenses. It is not as simple as many try to make it. Knowing and leaving are two different issues. Knowing doesn’t necessarily give you the tools to move forward. In fact, knowing can make it more difficult for a person. They might choose to deal with it by suppressing their knowledge, and by trying to live life with what they have and with what is not foreign to them.

No stone is left unturned within the harrowing accounts presented by Wasserstein in On the Eve. It is almost 500 pages long, and not an easy read. Yet, the impressions, presentations and word visuals are told with sensitivity to the situations and even with a bit of humor here and there. He is not harsh toward the Jews in his revelations, but, in my opinion, tries to state the truth, the facts, with clarifying seriousness. He writes with an awareness of others, and his responses reflect prose that demonstrates his insight. The historical factor is incredible, and opened this reader’s eyes to varying degrees on the perspectives focused on.

Wasserstein is brilliant in his prose, his magnificent rendering of the European Jews is masterful in so many aspects. We, who have had ancestors from Europe will gain insight into the mindsets of those who encountered the horrific events of pre World War II and the Holocaust. The book is a work of humaneness and a work of art. It is a work of historical necessity.

I highly recommend On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War, by Bernard Wasserstein to every one. I feel it belongs in every library, whether public, university, high school or personal library. It is a book with extreme historical value.

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Review: Blue Diary

Blue Diary, by Alice Hoffman, takes on several moral questions within the pages. Lies are the foundation of the story, and they set off a chain reaction of events.

Ethan and Jorie have been married for fifteen years. They have a son, named Collie. Their marriage appears to be stable, loving and filled with joy. Everyone in their small town feels the same way, whenever they see the two together.

Enter Kat, a young girl who happens to be watching a TV show that shows Ethan’s photograph, and depicts him as a murderer of a fifteen-year old girl. Her best friend, Collie, is the son of a supposed murderer. She is in shock.

That shock turns to a moral question, and one she fulfills by telephoning the police from a telephone booth, in order to have him investigated.

Ethan is arrested and brought to jail. Jorie is in total shock and denial, as is her son. She can’t imagine how the man she married could possibly be a murderer. Herein lies a question: Do we ever truly know the person we are married to? Know in the sense of their moralistic and ethical standards.

Ethan has depicted himself to be upstanding, a hero who has saved the lives of a few people, a volunteer in the fire department. He is a man who is esteemed by the majority of the citizens residing in the town. They have nothing but respect and admiration for Ethan, who in fact, is actually Byron Bell, a murderer.

Superficiality and deceit, denial and truth, are at the heart of this novel. Hoffman depicts the family’s reactions, as well as the town’s reactions quite vividly, leaving nothing to the imagination. We visualize everything, and we are privy to Jorie’s innermost thoughts, as well as Kat’s thoughts, and the thoughts of others of importance in the story.

I didn’t really like the characters in the book, not even Kat, who wrestles with seeing the outcome of her decision to turn Ethan in. I didn’t like the fact that the e-book I borrowed was poorly edited with many errors, quite liberally. I am glad I didn’t pay for the book.

The truth comes back in a haunting fashion, evoking moral questioning within the pages. Can one who has murdered an innocent teenager redeem himself over the course of fifteen years? Has he paid for his crime, by being an upstanding citizen? Do his decent deeds warrant forgiveness and a legal pardon, or were they part of his personal quest for respect in case his past was revealed? Does he truly love his wife, or is his selfishness still a vital part of his soul?

So many questions, but this reader answered them all, to herself.
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Excuse the update, I forgot to link the book.

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Review: Behind Enemy Lines

Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany, by Marthe Cohn is a compelling memoir. I was on the edge of my seat, reading her book. Cohn’s book is not only intense, but is illuminating and inspiring, as we watch her grow to adulthood.

From Cohn’s childhood experiences fleeing and moving from one place to another in order to avoid the Nazis, to her getting a nursing degree and eventually to joining the French Army and becoming a spy, her life is a testament to her willpower, and also to her inner and physical strength. We feel all of her emotions: the fear, the heartbreak, the devastation of loss, the heart-wrenching familial deportations. Determined to get her family out of harms way was at the forefront of her mind, and every waking moment was spent working towards that endeavor.

From documents forged by a sympathetic Frenchman, to a farmer in the countryside who helped her family to cross the border (and her family in turn helped others to cross), to the fact she had blonde hair and could pass as Aryan, Cohn took advantage of every opportunity given to her in order to save her family. Her memoir reads like an intriguing novel, yet is is a factual life accounting, and I read it straight through.

Cohn was not tall, she was tiny and under five feet, yet her perseverance and persistence are the traits that helped her to try to make a change during the time of Nazi occupation in France. She defied all the odds, and she succeeded on several levels, impressing everyone around her. She and most of her immediate family were able to survive the German occupation of France, which is incredible.

“When, at the age of eighty, Cohn was awarded France’s highest military honor, the Médaille Militaire, not even her children knew to what extent this modest woman had faced death daily while helping defeat the Nazi empire. At its heart, this remarkable memoir is the tale of an ordinary human being who, under extraordinary circumstances, became the hero her country needed her to be.”

Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany is an amazing memoir about an incredible individual and her family. It is a must read memoir, and that Marthe Cohn penned the book and had it published when she was 82-years old is a gift to all of us, Jewish or otherwise. The historical value of her work is beyond words, and her life’s accomplishments and deeds needed to be told, and need to be read. I am the wiser after having read her incredible story, and I am grateful to Marthe Cohn for the invaluable treasure and legacy she has given me and all of humankind.

I reread this book, recently, for a book club.

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Open Heart

Open Heart, by Elie Wiesel, Translated by Marion Wiesel, is a beautifully written book and intimate reflection of his life, reflected during a time when he faced the unknown outcome of open-heart surgery.

He began having difficulties, which led to testing ordered by his primary care doctor.  The tests did not reveal the truth that was to encompass the severity of his situation. After severe pain, he finally gave in to his family’s wishes.

At the age of 82-years of age, he was rushed to the hospital, and through tests it was discovered he had blocked arteries, arteries that needed to be repaired through open-heart surgery.  This was a definite turning point in his life, and when told of what needed to be done in order to save his life, he was both hesitant and anxious.  He went into the operating room, not knowing if he would wake up and see his wife-Marion, or see his son-Elisha, again.

Wake up he did, and the successive days, weeks and months gave him much to reflect upon.  Within those reflections he journeyed inward, and the results are written within the pages.  As a reader, we are given the privilege to read and to ponder the thoughts and feelings of Mr. Wiesel, through the vivid illuminations of his heart, his mind, his humility, and of his deep religious spirit.

His prose is filled with richness and brilliance, and filled with vibrant word-imagery.  Even though he has lived a long life, in years, he was not ready to leave this realm.  For him there is still more to accomplish, and time is of the essence.  He feels the need to continue to help humanity, to spread more messages of tolerance, to write another essay or book.

Mr. Wiesel wants to live long enough to see his grandson’s Bar Mitzvah, and possibly even his granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah.  Family is of extreme importance to him, and the joy he receives from his grandchildren is endless, filled with unconditional love, as is his joy and love for his wife and son.

He eloquently describes his past, his present and his hopes for the future.  He defines himself through his Jewishness and his adherence to its religious traditions and practices.

Mr. Wiesel often wonders where G-d was during man’s worst moment in history.  He wonders how G-d could permit the murder of so many individuals.  As always, during reflections of this dimension, he has no answers to those questions, yet his faith remains strong.

He amplifies the need for tolerance within the community of diversity, diversity for all ethnic backgrounds and the diversity regarding religious beliefs.  His spiritual and humanistic lessons, within the slimness of the pages, are ones of immense insight.

Open Heart is filled with the thoughts and prose of an open mind. I recommend Open Heart to everyone.

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Review: Aquarium: A Novel

The novel, Aquarium, by David Vann is a novel that takes place in 1994, and is narrated by a twelve-year old girl named Caitlin Thompson.

Caitlin lives alone with her mother, Sheri, in a small apartment. There are just the two of them, and her mother is a hardworking single mother. When Sheri comes home from work she just wants to flop on the bed. And, at times, Caitlin flops down with her.

Sheri can’t afford child care, so Caitlin spends her after school hours at the Seattle Aquarium. It was less expensive to buy a season pass, than pay for child care for Caitlin who is not legally allowed to be home alone.

While at tne aquarium one afternoon, she meets an elderly man. He begins speaking to her regarding the fish they are looking at. This interaction continues each day after school, and a friendship begins to form between the two of them. She trusts him, completely, and is not afraid of him. Eventually, he tells Caitlin he would like a favor of her-he wants to meet her mother.

Once the meeting takes place, trouble begins. ‘Trouble’ is actually an understatement and putting it mildly. I must admit that I was shocked at Sheri’s behavior, after she sees the elderly man. I was horrified regarding her actions.

Enough, if I go on any longer, I will give the story line away.

I found Vann’s writing to be lovely when he was writing about the aquarium, and the fish and other sea life that live within the aquarium environment. His word-images were beautifully written. They were masterfully crafted images that illuminated aquarium life. I have been to aquariums several times recently, and I could visualize what his writing depicted.

I also was captivated by how Caitlin compared her daily life to an aquarium. Her apartment was her aquarium, her bedroom, her school, every facet of her life was an analogy to an aquarium. It was an interesting concept.

For me, the novel was a metaphor for survival, not only survival of sea life, but survival of individuals within an environment of hardship and adversity. Single mothers with little education have a difficult time tying all ends together in order to provide shelter, food and clothing for their child/ren. Within the pages, this becomes a primary issue.

As a whole, I was not overly happy with the story. Aquarium is a dark and haunting novel, and not one that I found to be a positive read (other than the word-images of aquarium life). Yes, it is true, Caitlin was a sweet girl, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy me.

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Review: Missing Mom: A Novel

Joyce Carole Oates never ceases to amaze me, not only with her story lines, but the depth of the characters in her novels.  In her novel, Missing Mom , a tribute to her own mother, who is no longer living, Oates has gone one step beyond herself, and given us insight in a magnificently crafted novel.  I feel that this book must have been a catharsis, of sorts, for Oates, to help her through her devastating loss.  She most certainly must have helped others, dealing with the loss of a mother or a father.

Having lost my own mother 11/11/2004 (Veterans Day of all days), this story line captured my attention, and I could not put the book down until I had finished it, reading it straight through, overnight.  It was a sobering and compelling read, and filled with true-life situations.  This reader could feel the pain that emanated between the lines. I saw myself in several of the painful situations.

In the character of Nikki, I saw the reality of what denial can do to a person.  She had several dimensions, but most of them were superficial.  In the end, she became the person she feared she would become.  Realizing that she had become that person, she slowly adjusted to that facet of her being.  Oates illuminates the varied phases and emotional conflicts quite brilliantly.

Nikki’s mother was constantly in her life, although, no longer living (I can definitely empathize and relate to that aura).  From her clothes to the house decorations, to the entertaining of friends/family, we see she is her mother’s daughter, guilt-ridden, yet caring and loving, at the same time.  Loss has no barriers in the time continuum.

This reader felt Nikki’s loss, felt her denial, felt her pain, and watched her take baby steps in healing.  Even though she continued to heal and move forward, I understood that she would always be missing her mother. The void of loss would be a constant for Nikki, yet the will to find a sense of acceptance resonated quite vividly.

The bereavement process is a difficult time in a person’s life.  Joyce Carole oates has written a story line so poignant, heart-wrenching and a story extremely filled with the consumption of death and its after-effects and after-affects, in her novel, Missing Mom.

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Review: The Invisible Bridge

If you want to read an incredible epic novel, one that is stunning in its presentation, then The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer is a novel for you. The Invisible Bridge is a saga, and a difficult book to review, due to its epic quality and the fact it is well over 600 pages long. The haunting historical novel begins in 1937 and takes the reader through the end of World War II. The story is told through a unique perspective, that of a Hungarian Jew named Andras Levi.

Andras has gone to Paris to study architecture, where the opportunities are greater, leaving behind his family in Hungary. He has two brothers, Tibor and M, and they are very close. The familial bonds are extremely strong. While in Paris, Andras meets an older woman named Klara who is also a Hungarian Jew, with a teen-aged daughter. Her background is a bit mysterious and the reasons for her being in Paris are not immediately evident. An affair begins between the two of them, which eventually turns to love and romance.

Due to circumstances and the antisemitism prevalent against Jews in France, Andras is forced to return to Hungary. He is eventually conscripted into the work labor program. That is where the more horrendous part of The Invisible Bridge begins to transform itself into an historically intense story of wartime horror. Orringer leaves nothing to the imagination, and the word imagery is stunningly detailed. She includes every minute detail into The Invisible Bridge, and the reader’s senses are filled with the sights, sounds, scents, tastes and touches of daily life. Life in the work labor camps is depicted with depth and strong visuals. The adverse conditions (that is putting it mildly), and the atrocities are told so strongly that the reader feels as if this is a personal family memoir and saga, as opposed to being a novel.

As The Invisible Bridge progresses, the reader watches the relationship between Andras and Klara develop. The reader sees Andras growth as he turns into an emotionally mature man, not only thinking of himself, but of Klara and his family that he has left behind. He is willing to sacrifice his life, sacrifice anything for her safety and the safety of his family. And, Klara in return, is willing to do the same, always cognizant of the fact that Andras’ safety is in danger. Each partner is concerned with the other.

That is the beauty of The Invisible Bridge. Love transpires and evolves within the harshest of circumstances. Love flows from one event to the next, never diminishing, but growing stronger. As the hours and days move forward, Andras’ thoughts of Klara are what continue to give him the motivation to find a way to survive the horrendous nightmares set before him.

I became totally involved in the book and the characters who felt very real. I wanted to know more about them, and wanted to continue to learn more regarding their daily situations. There is so much more to The Invisible Bridge than what I have written, but to include more details would reveal too much of the story line. You need to read it for yourself, and inhale the depth of the saga.

Orringer has researched the events that transpired in Hungary during World War II to the utmost of standards, perfection and reality. The events, described so brilliantly, give the reader insight into the little known aspects of what transpired in Hungary during World War II. There isn’t much information on that subject. What we read, as far as the events and audacious circumstances, did occur. She did not white wash anything, yet she wrote magnificent details with beautiful and superlative prose.

Julie Orringer’s brilliant writing illuminates the pages with intensity and sensitivity. The reader can discern that her heart and soul were within the words, lines, paragraphs and pages of The Invisible Bridge. It is a beautifully written historical novel that pays tribute to not only the Hungarian Jews, but to familial ties and relationships. It is a metaphor for love and war, yearning and loss, strength and survival under the most adverse of conditions. I highly recommend this book to everyone.

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