Tag Archives: memoirs

Book Diva Review: The Golden Willow

thegoldenwillow The Golden Willow: The Story of a Lifetime of Love, by Harry Bernstein is the third book he has written (the previous books are The Invisible Wall, and also The Dream).

I will not delve deeply into the story line of The Golden Willow, as I would then be giving much of it away. Suffice it to say that the memoir is one that reflects on Harry’s marriage to his wife, Ruby. It chronicles their life together, from their first meeting to their journey of love through the decades.

They fell in love at first sight, so to speak, at a dance, and that meeting took them through the trials and tribulations of marriage. They had a happy life together, at first living in a small rented room in Manhattan. From there they moved to Greenwich Village in order to be surrounded by those whose interests coincided with theirs…the cultural arts. Harry wanted to be a writer, and they both felt living within writers, painters, dancers, etc., might give him not only inspiration, but an advantage.

After approximately four years, they moved to the suburbs, and their life held new meaning, as they were parents of two children. The reader is taken through the phases of their life together, through the decades of political and social turmoil, through the decades in which their undying love for each other, and their dreams survived. Each one held the highest respect for the other, and both Harry and Ruby had a marriage full of the deepest and enduring love, combined with mutual interests, admiration and caring.

Ruby died at the age of 91, from Leukemia. Harry felt the loss deeply, after being married for so long. He eventually began writing, hoping to fulfill his long-held dream of having a book published. That dream came true in the form of The Invisible Wall.

The Golden Willow is a lovely book, and one that is a testament to their marriage, and a tribute to Ruby. It is also a tribute to Harry’s determination to try to move forward after Ruby’s death, and to tell their story. It is illuminating, filled with humor, and with much poignancy. It is not filled with the same details and lessons as The Invisible Wall and The Dream, held, as it is more of a story outlining Harry and Ruby’s marriage and deep love, and its endurance over decades. It is a memoir that will be a lasting legacy to their children, a legacy of undying love.

Harry Bernstein has written another inspiring book/memoir, and one I recommend to everyone.

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Filed under Book Diva's Book Reviews, Family Dynamics, Inspiration, Memoirs, Non-Fiction

The Black Seasons, by Michal Glowinski

The Black Seasons by Michal Glowinski is a poignant rendering of portions of Glowinski’s childhood memories from the Warsaw Ghetto to his life while hiding from the Nazis, to being rescued by Catholic nuns and becoming a Holocaust Survivor.

The word drifted into my ears as people around me deliberated: will they lock us in the ghetto or not? I didn’t know what this word meant, yet I realized that it was connected with moving; I sensed that it was something adults were speaking of with fear, but to me it seemed that moving would be an interesting adventure.”

Glowinski writes with visual descriptives so vivid and clear that one can almost feel them and inhale the scents of ghetto life. The struggles of daily existence within the confines allocated to the Jewish people is written with deep clarity. The Black Seasons might seem disjointed at times, but that is due to the fact that events are remembered in that fashion. Can one fault Glowinski for writing in such a manner? No! One is transported by the word-paintings, and the canvas and back drop are not a pretty.

The Black Seasons is painterly, the horror well-articulated by Glowinski, and he documents his accounts of fear and anxiety in fragments, remembered through a young boy’s pieces of visual and emotional memory. Glowinski brings us insight into the human condition of the Jewish family unit during the Holocaust. Glowinski illuminates within us the fact that life is fragile. Combining the transition from childhood to adulthood, Michal Glowinski manages to transport us through history and time, effectively, brilliantly and with skillful writing. I highly recommend The Black Seasons. It belongs in every school library, college and university library, and on your own book shelf.

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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 Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman is an amazing book on so many levels. From incredible word-images, to profound scenarios, Ackerman takes us on a journey through Warsaw, Poland, through the eyes of two zookeepers, Jan and Antonina Zabrinski. Jan was the director of the Warsaw Zoo, Antonina was his wife.

It is an incredible story of fortitude and strength, love of animals (large and tiny) and love of humanity. The Zabinskis felt that every organism, no matter how minute, was a part of the scheme of the earth and universe. This attitude prompted them to take the course of action that they did. The force involved in Jan and Antonina’s acts of human kindness are not only conceived out of circumstance, but out of their almost innate necessity to save Jewish individuals in WWII Warsaw. They were not Jewish, in fact Jan declared himself an atheist, and Antonina was a Catholic. They knew the risks they were taking, but chose to help others at the expense of not only their lives, but their young son’s life, and their newborn daughter’s life. Jan and Antonina had a deep respect and devotion to caring for life, in all of its forms, from the most minute insect, bit of algae or moss, to the largest of animals, including their favorite lynxes.

It was this devotion, their ideals and values for what constitutes life and its worth, and their moral code, which consumed their every thought and emotion during World War II. This innate passion for saving life, turned their villa and the zoo into a refuge, for animals that you wouldn’t expect to find in a zoo setting. This is true account is one of many unusual stories to come out of World War II.  Antonina played a large role while Jan was off at war, and when he was imprisoned, in continuing to keep the Jews and partisans hidden. Through journals, articles, and historical documentation, the author has written the Zabrinksi’s unique Holocaust story, from their extremely unusual perspective.

The author had access to Antonina’s diary, and has infused the pages with direct quotes from it. It was a barbarous time period, and the brutality and harshness is reflected quite well within the book. The word imagery is strong, and it is sometimes difficult to discern where Antonina began, and where Ackerman evokes her own telling. Nonetheless, the book is factual, within its poetic aspects. Some details are sweetened, mainly pertaining to the people, animals and their lives within the confines of the villa. The author infuses some of her own thoughts, blending them with Antonina’s (she, herself states this) The Holocaust itself, and atrocious events and occurrences are not sugared in any aspect. The entire family is portrayed in the book.

The zoo and the villa become a human menagerie, no let me say they become a menagerie for both humans and other life forms, tiny to huge. It was like a Noah’s Ark. Each with their own respective and unique personality, each with their own needs and strengths, adapting within unique surroundings and under difficult circumstances. All life forms in the villa live together in a carnival and tour de farce environment, yet live in harmony. The Zookeeper’s Wife chronicles human and animals, and their lives within the confines of the Holocaust and war-torn Poland like it has never been documented before.

The heroine’s actions are vividly demonstrated throughout the book, Antonina’s almost innate sense of not only caring for the animals in the zoo, but getting into their minds, and reading their thoughts, sparked her passion for the value of life, the worth of all animals, small to great, that encouraged her in her endeavors to shelter almost 300 Jews in the zoo, within the confines of barred cages, underground passages, huts, secret hiding places in her villa, etc. Any place she could conceive of as a dwelling for hiding Jews, became one. Any disguise thought of was utilized for the Jews, whether it be aunt, uncle, or other visiting relatives and friends, ruses were created.

Antonina’s story, taken from her journal is captivating, poignant, intriguing, humorous, tear-jerker material, and compelling as no other story you have read. Ackerman’s story, which surrounds Antonina’s, is poetic prose, a weaving of lives. She is often seems long-winded in her descriptions and word images, but once you get past them, you realize there is a purpose behind the prose. Ackerman wrote this way for a reason, and it isn’t necessarily apparent in the beginning.

The Zookeeper’s Wife often reads like a beautiful prose-poem, of breathtaking writing and astounding imagery seeping through the pages. Ackerman is brilliant in not only her prose, but also in the scientific aspect of the animal kingdom. She sometimes rambles on regarding various species (much like I have rambled in this review), but in the end, it is for a reason, and coincides with the humans and their own stories of survival. She compares and contrasts humans and their evolution with animals.

He was intrigued with being able to control the fate of producing animals with excellent traits, and animals of purity, through mating, reproducing, etc., until he produced the perfect example. He used eugenics in his experiments (breeding animals with specific traits). The love of magical and mythical animals enthralled the Nazis. Those animals were elevated in status.

Animals are almost humanized in the Nazi world, and of course the humans, the Jews, are thought of and treated as less than impure animals by the Nazis. Experiments performed on Jews were abundant. From brain surgery to agonizing and tortuous experiments, the Jews were tools utilized. One has to read carefully in order to perceive what Ackerman is trying to accomplish.

Jews, the Polish resistance, the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, and then the Warsaw uprising of 1944, we are given a look at Warsaw daily life during the Nazi occupation, both the willing “prisoner’s and caged humans, and the unwilling Jews in prison camps. Life in the ghetto is depicted frankly and truthfully. The horrid and unsanitary conditions are explored and painted.

The perspective is almost incomparable, and the historical facts and documentations are gleaned from newspapers, witness accounts, Survivor stories, scientific research, and from Antonina’s diary, her incredible diary.  Within the pages humor is reflected within living arrangements and lives inhabited within the confines. Man and animal live together, eat together, sleep together. Lives are saved by courageous and empathetic individuals.  At times the book can be difficult to follow, and I found myself rereading excerpts due to the fluidity.  Overall, Diane Ackerman weaves the tapestries together with excellence. Both the scientific and historic aspects work well together, and The Zookeeper’s Wife is brilliant in its illumination of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, their moral code, and their courage to save lives despite risking their own lives. The story binds the threads of an unusual perspective in this amazing Holocaust telling. What an accomplishment! Bravo!

Jan and Antonina Zabinski are honored by Yad Vashem’s The Righteous Among the Nations.

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Five Chimneys, by Olga Lengyel

Five Chimneys, by Olga Lengyel is an incredible and intense personal eyewitness accounting and Holocaust memoir. Five Chimneys was published in 1947, in English, two years after liberation, when Olga Lengyel’s mind and memories were still, fresh regarding the events she witnessed while a prisoner in Auschwitz.

The title, Five Chimneys, stems from the five crematorium chimneys at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It isn’t enough that she witnessed the horrendous atrocities, but she also lost her family there. They all were exterminated in the gas chambers…her husband, two children and her parents. Her husband was under orders to be deported to Auschwitz. Olga Lengyel was determined, and went to the authorities insisting that she and her children be deported with him, as she assumed that he would be put to work in a hospital, as he was a medical doctor. She did not believe any of the stories she was told, about the actual situtation, and thought they were exaggerations. Her parents decided to go with her and the children, and the entire family went together. Little did she know it would result in the death of everyone, but her.

Her memoir is often harsh and brutal, but so were the conditions she had to live under. Her writing is well-articulated, filled with extremely clear descriptives that make our skin crawl. She doesn’t seek sympathy, but rather wanted the realities and truth to be told. Olga Lengyel writes as if she is a reporter, with an unbiased-like mindset. As a survivor and a witness, she reports what she, herself, experienced, and what she saw. The facts and truth of the events are what motivated her to stay alive, when everyone she loved had been murdered. What Olga Lengyel witnessed and went through in Auschwitz, nobody should ever have to be a witness to, or have to endure.

From watching the crematorium workers load several bodies into the large ovens at once, to having to pile dead bodies atop one another…herself, to standing naked for hours in the freezing cold while waiting for roll call, to the beatings, to lack of food, and having to eliminate in a bucket…the same one used to eat in, and to the unbelievably horrific events that pregnant women went through, etc., the book is intense testimony to the brutality and inhumanity of man. It is also a testament to Olga Lengyel’s strength and courage during the extreme circumstances she endured (that is putting it mildly). Her motivation for survival was the necessity to bear witness to the atrocious inhumanity of the Nazi Germans.

Albert Einstein, himself, read Five Chimneys, and actually wrote a letter to Olga Lengyl. Part of that letter is included in the book.

…Thank you for your very frank, very well written book. You have done a real service by letting the ones who are now silent and most forgotten speak…

With best regards and wishes,

A. Einstein

The infusion of such atrocities, in great numbers, into one memoir is beyond belief, as Olga Lengyel manages to describe with graphic clarity the most minute detail of daily existence (if you can call it that) in the Women’s camp at Auschwitz. She leaves nothing to the imagination, and each atrocious act is written boldly, powerfully, concise and to the point, no stone left unturned. Five Chimneys is heart wrenching, horrific, and overwhelming. It is not for the weak of heart or weak of stomach. Olga Lengyel’s Five Chimneys describes the essence of man’s inhumanity, and is a memoir that should be read with that in mind, as her overpowering documentation of the nighmares she experienced and witnessed is not coated over, in any fashion. The book is extremely haunting.

Olag Lengyel died at the age of 90, in 2001. Olga Lengyel’s spirit and strength will survive through time, within the pages of her extraordinary memoir, Five Chimneys.

We must never forget the events of the Holocaust…

I personally own and have read this book.

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The Dream, by Harry Bernstein

“The Dream“: A Memoir, by Harry Bernstein, is Bernstein’s follow-up memoir to his critically acclaimed “The Invisible Wall“, which I read and reviewed, when it was first published.

When I saw “The Dream” on the shelf of newly released books, in the book store, I grabbed it immediately, because I was enthralled with “The Invisible Wall” immensely. I am not sorry I did, as reading the book paints a picture of America both before and post-depression era. In particular, “The Dream” focuses on the hardship Bernstein’s family went through, both physically, socially, emotionally and mentally.

The family members that made up Bernstein’s family are as different as they are alike. Each member relates to the whole, each member’s personality a reflection of their harsh and abusive environment. The dominant force within the family was Bernstein’s mother, the ever protective mother, the one who held the family together during times of crisis, and held the family together from her emotionally abusive husband.

Bernstein’s father was an alcoholic, a verbally, and sometimes physically, abusive man, who kept the family hanging by monetary threads, as he doled out as little as possible in order for them to survive, and meet the essentials of food, clothing and shelter. He spent most of his earnings in pubs. His own father earned a living as a beggar in New York. This didn’t stop Bernstein’s mother from her goals and dreams.

DREAMS PLAYED AN IMPORTANT PART IN OUR LIVES IN THOSE EARLY days in England. Our mother invented them for us to make up for all the things we lacked and to give us some hope for the future. Perhaps, also, it was for herself, to escape the miseries she had to endure, which were caused chiefly by my father, who cared little about his family.”

Bernstein’s mother had a dream, a dream to move to America and make a better life for herself and her children. When they were sent tickets (anonymously) to emigrate, she didn’t hesitate to leave. She envisioned a new beginning, a life of opportunity.

Without those tickets, and subsequent events, Bernstein would never have met his beloved wife, Ruby. They were married for 67-years, before her death in 2002. Their courtship and romance is deeply touching.

Although 98-years in age, Bernstein’s mind is as cognizant as that of a much younger person. His wit, poignancy and incredible word paintings fill the pages of “The Dream“, flowing from one scenario to the next. Bernstein’s zest for life is apparent throughout the book. He brings us not only a compelling memoir, but an accounting of a dysfunctional family, within the confines of Chicago and New York during the 1920s and 1930s. “The Dream” is an inspiration to all of us, each sentence written with emotion, strength, eloquence and brilliance. Harry Bernstein, himself, is an inspiration to all of us.

If you read “The Invisible Wall“, you must read “The Dream“. It will not disappoint you. If you didn’t read “The Invisible Wall“, I suggest you do so, but in any event, definitely read “The Dream“.

I personally own and have read this book.

~~

Book Diva

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