I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors By Bernice Eisenstein Riverhead Books, 192 pages, $23.95.
Early in her new memoir, author-illustrator Bernice Eisenstein recalls the experience of having seen the 1982 Holocaust drama “Sophie’s Choice,” which arrived in theaters when she was in her early 30s. Eisenstein describes her deep, visceral response to the picture and the visit she paid her father afterward, while she was still very much in the film’s grip. She arrives with eyes red and swollen from crying. Alarmed, her father asks what happened. “After I described the movie,” she writes, “he had only one question: Why would you want to see something that did this to you?”
Holocaust movies, she goes on to say, meant something very different to her Polish-born, Auschwitz-surviving parents than they did for her. For them, seeing something like “Sophie’s Choice,” was a scholarly exercise. “Their primary goal,” she writes, “was to search the screen for authenticity, to make sure the enactment of events was correctly portrayed.” As a result, they would leave the theater not puffy-eyed but “emotionally intact.”
The fact that her parents could maintain so measured a relationship with the Holocaust and she could not is the fundamental tension that enlivens Eisenstein’s “I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors,” a reckoning with the outsized role that the Holocaust has played in her life, despite the fact — or even, to a degree, because of the fact — that it happened before she was born. Half text and half pictures, the book is sure to invite comparison with Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” but here word and image do not coalesce into a unified whole. Rather, like Eisenstein and her parents’ differing reactions to Holocaust movies, they are at odds — competing narratives vying for supremacy.
As author — and as child — Eisenstein sees herself as a restorer. “All my life,” she writes, “I have looked for more in order to fill in the parts… that had gone missing.” When it came to their Holocaust experiences, Eisenstein’s parents, like many survivors, were mostly silent. To round out their stories, Eisenstein turned to Holocaust literature, which she provocatively, if a bit unsettlingly, likens to an addictive drug. “Andre Schwarz-Bart’s novel ‘The Last of the Just’ was inhaled three times,” she writes, “just so that I could have the same hit over and over again, leading me to the supreme all-time transcendence of Primo Levi, who left me nodded out, under my bed, curled up in fetal position, still quivering for more.”
Eisenstein’s parents, meanwhile, come across as nothing if not resilient and well adjusted. They meet during the liberation of Auschwitz, marry just a few months later and, after a few years in a displaced-persons camp, begin life anew in Toronto. Both lose loved ones in the war — she, a brother; he, his mother — but on the whole, the two families were lucky. Parents and siblings follow the couple to Canada, as does an extended community of friends and neighbors — an assemblage that Eisenstein affectionately refers to as “The Group.” Sure, Eisenstein’s parents have the occasional fight, and her father has something of a gambling problem, but, for the most part, Eisenstein’s recollections are, for those with even a passing familiarity with postwar, immigrant Jewish life, nothing out of the ordinary. It is really only when Eisenstein breaks free of memory’s confines and gives herself leave to enter a more imaginative realm that the book comes alive.
For reasons that Eisenstein could never truly fathom, her father loved Westerns. “I don’t think he had favorites,” she writes, “he loved them all.” In searching for an explanation, Eisenstein figures that, for him, the appeal sprang from the Western’s tidy moral code. There are good guys and there are bad guys, and “there was never a question as to evil being vanquished,” she writes. But then she gets sly. One turns the page, and there’s a drawing of Eisenstein’s father standing imposingly at the gates of Auschwitz, a six-shooter by his side and a six-pointed sheriff’s star pinned to his vest.
Another image lingers. A series of drawings has a young Eisenstein puzzling over how the Yiddish phrase “oyf simchas” — “may we meet at joyous occasions” — is used both at celebrations and in offering condolences. The author juxtaposes images of a bar mitzvah and a funeral. In both, the assembled greet each other with the phrase. But then, on the opposite page, there stands a lone figure at what is again clearly a concentration camp. Railroad tracks snake their way behind him. “Oyf simchas,” he says bizarrely, hilariously, heartbreakingly.
Though not without its pleasures, “I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors” is ultimately a frustrating book. It may be an effort to restore what the war took from Eisenstein’s family, but for the reader, the book, with its jumbled, impressionistic presentation, opens up as many gaps as it fills in.
Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward.