Tag Archives: American writers

Four Girls From Berlin

Four Girls From Berlin: A True Story of Friendship That Defied the Holocaust, by Marianne Meyerhoff, is a beautiful memoir of courage and friendship under horrendous circumstances. The story is about Lotte Meyerhoff who was a German Jew, and was the author’s mother. It is an affecting story of how she survived the Holocaust. She was the only member of her family to survive.

Lotte’s story begins when she boarded the S.S. St. Louis, bound for Cuba from Germany, in 1937. She left behind family members, and her three best friends, Ilonka, Erica and Ursula. She was sailing to be reunited with her husband, who had traveled there before her. There were 937 Jewish refugees aboard the ship, seeking freedom. The ship was forced to return to return to Europe, as Cuba refused entry of the ship, and other countries, including the United States, denied the ship entry.

Lotte was eventually smuggled out of a Dutch detention camp, and arrived in Cuba to reunite with her husband. From there she made her way to California, with her daughter, Marianne. While growing up, the subject of Lotte’s past is never discussed, and Meyerhoff’s curiosity never diminishes. She feels that she is without family, and doesn’t understand why. Lotte remains adamantly silent regarding her past, which only fuels Meyerhoff’s curiosity.

Lotte divorces her husband, when he comes to California to inform her he loves another woman. 

One day the unbelievable happened. A large container arrives at their home in Hollywood, California. Lotte feared opening it after seeing where it was sent from.  She was in shock.   She eventually opened it, and to her surprise it contained family heirlooms such as candlesticks, family photographs, important documents and letters.

Her three closest German, Christian girlfriends, had risked their own lives to smuggle them out of her home. They kept the items hidden, and after the war ended located Lotte’s address, and sent her the precious items They were the only remnants left of her family and her life in Germany. The items open up sealed wounds and force her to somewhat confront her past. Through Meyerhoff’s persistent questioning, bits and pieces of Lotte’s life slip out. Meyerhoff is more or less able to piece together some of her mother’s past, and the price she paid for her freedom.

As the years go by, Meyerhoff, feels a deep sense of loss and incompleteness.  She decides to travel to Germany to meet her mother’s three friends. It is a sojourn for her into her mother’s past. She longs to find a sense of family and of self. Lotte would not go with her. We follow Meyerhoff finally meet two of the friends that so loyally helped hide her mother’s family possessions (one lives in another country and can’t travel to meet her). They are married with families of their own. They take Meyerhoff into their homes as if she is their own daughter. Trust and love develop between them, and new friendships begin, that last through the years.

Within the pages, we are not only shown how the four friends survived the war in their own way, but shown how the three friends held the legacy of Lotte’s life in their hands, minds and hearts. Four Girls From Berlin is filled with some the family photographs that were shipped to Lotte. It puts a face to the past, the past we should never forget.

I won’t delve into the story any further as it will ruin it for those of you interested in reading it. It is a story told through an unusual perspective, through not only Meyerhoff, but through her mother’s courageous and unfailing friends. Meyerhoff is given first hand accounts of Lotte’s childhood, of her marriage and eventual decision to board the S.S. St. Louis. There are those humane individuals who will stop at nothing in order to salvage precious pieces of life for their friends.

Four Girls From Berlin is excellent in showing how love and friendship knows no boundaries, even during war time. It is poignant, forthright.   Meyerhoff comes to understand her mother’s pain and why she couldn’t bring herself to speak of the past, why she closed the door to her past.  You can go home again, even when home is a place of shadows and tragedy.  Four Girls From Berlin is an inspiring book, one that illuminates through the darkness of Holocaust history with glimmers of courage and hope.  The book is a metaphor for friendship, love, loss and yearning.  Marianne Meyerhoff’s book transcends religion, bridging the humanity of friendships that last through the decades, and carry on into new generations.

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The English Disease, by Joseph Skibell

The English Disease, by Joseph Skibell, is a story revolving around Charles Belski, a learned man who is a musicologist (one who studies the history and science of music). He has what is known as English Disease, which in today’s environment is known as depression or melancholia. The dilemmas in his life seem to stem inwardly from within himself, and are often self-imposed. He is a difficult, obnoxious, middle-aged man, with depression, and is extremely manipulative when interacting with those around him. He is a protagonist unlike any I have read, filled with a cynical perspective, yet wickedly funny. He is a depressed, non-practicing Jew, and is filled with guilt over the fact that he married a Catholic, a Gentile.

The differences between Belski and his wife, interplay throughout the novel. There is disagreement on how to raise their daughter, Franny. His wife and daughter try to open his eyes to the joy around him. He is a man in crisis, lost in faith, relying on medication to get him through the hours and days. Belski’s life appears to be a series of reluctant events, which do not include one small spark of happiness. Belski is schlepping through life struggling with his emotional being and his academic side. He is fixated with the past, yet at the same time it eventually evolves into a healing element for him.

“English melancholiacs used to tour the ruins of Antiquity as a cure for their depression, which was, in fact, at the time called the English Disease. It was thought that somehow the contemplation of actual ruins would make one’s own ruined life seem less hateful, and that these dilapidated but still beautiful structures might suggest to the sensitive melancholic the possibility of finding beauty in his own misery, indeed as essential to it.”

He travels to Poland on a conference with a colleague named Liebowitz, a person, who is almost like a sidekick of Belski’s. They visit Auschwitz. Belski’s constant reflections on the Holocaust, anti-semitism, the current social climate in Poland, and on his life overtake his thoughts. They feed his melancholic state.

It gives him power over others, the only form of power he has. Seemingly that depressive state is something that he enjoys being in, although he will tell you otherwise.

Skibell is brilliant in his writing and assessment of Jews, assimilated Jews, Jews marrying Gentiles, the Holocaust, Poland, and depression and melancholia. Skibell’s amazing descriptive observations make it seem as if he is inside the heads of others. He does it all with a dry wit, and you find yourself laughing out loud while reading the book. Who could perceive that writing a novel about a depressed person could be so humorous, and so poignant at the same time. Who knew?

He writes comically, on the neurotic struggle for assimilation, which really isn’t a struggle unique to Jews, but a struggle for all immigrants and first-generation Americans. Skibell incorporates those struggles and burdens within Belski’s journey to self-discovery. Skibell’s book is an excellent psychological character study. The English Disease is bizarrely funny with quirky characters, yet has strong serious undertones, and at times is heart-breaking. It is a metaphor for redemption, and for spiritual and marital contentment in an ever changing world.

The end is a surprise, and fulfilling. I wouldn’t have missed reading The English Disease for anything, as it is that good! Bravo to Joseph Skibell.

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Does the Soul Survive?

Does the Soul Survive?” (A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives & Living With Purpose) is Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz’s extremely thought-provoking book. We travel with him on his steps towards awareness.

Does the Soul Survive? is a compilation of experiences from firsthand accounts that were told to him by others, from experiences his own wife had, to his own experiences with a friend who is dying, and other experience of his own, the book will leave you considering the role that the “afterlife” and the role that “past lives” play in your current life.

Through Rabbi Spitz’s own observations and his participation with individuals (both living and dying), he has documented events that border on the conscious and subconscious levels of these individuals. Their souls are brought forth. Through his exploration of whether immortality of the soul is actual, his writing is stimulating, yet written with sensitivity to the issues within Judaism, regarding eternal life. Rabbi Spitz manages to combine emotions, subconscious thinking, spiritual beliefs and logic within the pages.

He doesn’t force his opinion or his finding on anyone, but rather gently tries to evoke us to consider his information with an open mind, and not with a narrow one. The pages are filled with inspiration and purpose. For him, the end result would be for each reader to search for meaning, both in Judaism and daily life. He realizes the problems within the theory of soul-survival, yet, in my opinion Elie Kaplan Spitz has achieved his goal with his insightful, and inspiring Does the Soul Survive?.

“Elegantly written . . . Rabbi Elie Spitz’s ‘journey’ will inspire its readers to follow his example and search for what is meaningful in Jewish life and learning.”…Elie Wiesel

I personally own and have read this book. Does the Soul Survive? was given to me by a friend in 2004, during the period when my mother was dying.  After his wife had died, it had been given to him by a friend. After reading the book, I returned it to him, and bought my own copy.

~~Book Diva

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The Gravedigger’s Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates

The Gravedigger’s Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates

“You saw him at a distance: the gravedigger Schwart.

Like a troll he appeared. Somewhat hunched, head lowered.”

In The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Jacob Schwart, a Jew, moves his family from Nazi Germany to rural upstate New York. They end up in a small town, where Schwart finds a job as a gravedigger and caretaker of a cemetery. He was a high school teacher in Germany, so the job of gravedigger is very demeaning to him, especially seeing how the residents of the community react to him and his family. He manages to eke out a living, barely making enough for him and his family to survive on, living in a small cottage in the cemetery, at the edge of town. The family lives on the fringes of town, not only in poverty, but the fringes of Jacob’s moods and alchoholism. Jacob becomes disillusioned with his situation and with life.

As time goes by, Schwart’s emotional capacity becomes overloaded, and abusive acts occur, and one final and unspeakable act leads to an incomprehensible tragedy. You will have to read it in order to understand, as I don’t want to give too much story line away.

This is the beginning of a new life for Schwart’s daughter, Rebecca. She eventually falls in love, marries and has a son. She ends up in an abusive situation, herself, and runs away with her son, in order to start a new life, under an assumed name. She literally leaves her past behind her. Her strength and stamina get her through some extreme situations.
<p>One line repeated throughout The Gravedigger’s Daughter is, “The weak are quickly disposed of. So you must hide your weakness, Rebecca.”Her father would say this to her in order to impress upon her that she needed to stay strong.</p>

Rebecca reinvents herself and her son, and they are constantly moving from place to place in order to avoid being found. Her son is a child prodigy, and she encourages him in playing piano, almost to an extreme. She lives through him. August takes his anger at her and his anger at his father out through his music, with its resounding and strong crescendos peaking strongly and wildly.

Oates brings us a strong Rebecca, a woman of determination and strength, a woman of independence and a fierce devotion to her son. She is a woman who has held her emotions in, in order to move forward. She has learned to manipulate the situations she finds herself in. This is both positive and negative.

The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a book about immigration, identity, assimlation, expectations, and family relationships. It is a multi-generational story, and is a long book, not a fast read, which has nothing to do with the 582 page length, but has everything to do the involved story line.

Social history is strong throughout the novel, and Oates deftly defines America during the after-effects of both pre and post World War II. With extreme clarity, she defines the assimilation and the European Jewish Survivor experience, along with their expectations. Oates writes with insight, sensitivity and prose that jumps out from the pages, revealing the dark side of post-World War II America. She is a masterful story teller, and is able to combine both the ugly with the beauty of life. I highly recommend The Gravedigger’s Daughter, not only for its story, its historical factors regarding upstate New York, but also for the perspective of the Jewish immigrant experience and its lasting effects on generations to come.

For me, The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a metaphor for the Jewish immigrant experience in all its fullness, from familial struggles and harshness, ugliness and loss, to strength, assimilation and identity.

As an aside: The Gravedigger’s Daughter is dedicated to Joyce Carol Oates’ grandmother, and much of the novel is based on her grandmother’s actual life.

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