MEMOIR | I WAS A CHILD OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS

review

BY MARK E. HAYES

I WAS A CHILD OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS.

Bernice Eisenstein. Riverhead. 192 pages. $23.95.

Any writer who takes on the topic of the Holocaust labors in the shadow of some intimidating predecessors (Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt), writers whose work is rooted in the catastrophic facts of Nazi Germany’s so-called final solution. And for any storyteller who wants to illustrate the effects of the Holocaust on those who survived it and their families and children, there is the looming presence of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic memoir Maus. Angry and grieving, stark and satirical, Maus is a powerful work that seems to give the final word on the subject as far as graphic novels are concerned.

For Bernice Eisenstein, then, it is no small accomplishment to work in the shadow of Spiegelman. But in crafting a thoughtful, loving and ultimately hopeful book, Eisenstein enriches Holocaust literature by creating a world of her own understanding. Her intimate and courageous illustrated narrative is all the more profound for the dark place it often imbues with new light. By orienting I Was the Child of Holocaust Survivors around the subject of love rather than grief or frustration, Eisenstein finds her way to an understanding of her family’s tragedy.

Eisenstein, who grew up in the 1950s, chooses a title that clearly alludes to the cheesy horror movies of the period and highlights the alienation and simple freakishness felt by anyone who believed they were different. She lacked the direct experience of the brutalization and horror of the death camps. But in her home, there was a particular forbidden zone in the interactions of the family, an unseen center of gravity around which many of her relatives moved.

From an early age, she became obsessed with the Holocaust. She writes of her family gathering to watch the 1961 trial in Israel of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann: “The Holocaust is a drug and I have entered an opium den, having been given my first taste for free, innocently, by everyone here. I have only just glimpsed its power, scanning the trail of needle marks on the left forearms of each person in the room. This is when my addiction takes hold. My very own monkey on my back. I will discover that there is no end to the dealers I can find for just one more hit, one more entry into a world of hallucinatory ghosts.”

For all the opportunities Eisenstein has to be preachy, sensationalistic or sentimental, she stays close to home. The memoir focuses on her father and mother, aunts and uncles, and close friends all living in close proximity to each other in Toronto. Her cast is well-drawn and lively; they’re survivors starting over in the New World, short on money but long on wits and will, culture and tradition, faith and loyalty to each other. Food, religion and Yiddish help hold them together, and they prefer to celebrate life rather than dwell too much on the dead.

Although some readers might find Eisenstein’s organization haphazard, the book is unified by blood and memory, and the text’s development is emotional, not chronological or political. I Was A Child of Holocaust Survivors is not strictly a graphic novel, but it is generously illustrated with black and white artwork. Like much of the writing, the artwork reflects Eisenstein’s ongoing attempts to draw meaning from her family’s past and present, fascinating components of a larger, engrossing mosaic.

One of the more haunting sections of the book concerns Eisenstein’s father, who loved to watch movies and television programs about the Old West. Although he never explained his sheriffs-and-outlaws obsession to his daughter, she finds that the Holocaust brings fresh significance to even this small personality quirk:

“Where did my father go when he rode out across the Wild West? Didn’t he feel uncomfortable, have a Yiddish sense of deja vu, been there, done that, as he passed under the bowed entrance to the OK Corral, his horse hesitating for a moment, refusing to go any father? Giddyup . . . Over and over again in this dusty frontier, standing up to the rustlers, the corrupt sheriff, the frightened townsfolk, he wasn’t in Tombstone, he was back in a different past. Only here, lying in bed watching television could he stand alongside his heroes. There was never a question as to evil being vanquished. Good beat Evil. This was paradise and the rules were simple. Stand up to the enemy, shoot him down, save the town, and you’d never need to look back.”

Mark E. Hayes reviewed this book for The Miami Herald.