Thursday, August 25, 2011

Recommended Reading II: Family Searches and Unexpected Places

This is Round II of recommended reading.  Many of these books I’ve stumbled over by accident, others have been recommended by others.  If you are aware of other books that you would recommend, please don’t hesitate to share them.

In the course of my reading I’ve read several books on the search that others have pursued for their family roots.  In the case of Jewish roots that often takes you headlong into the Holocaust.  Perhaps the best known book of this genre is The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn who launched an extensive and well documented search into the fate of relatives from the town of Bolechow, Ukraine.  I feel a certain kinship as his guide on this effort was Alex Dunai, who also accompanied me to the Ukraine. 

Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History by Helen Epstein chronicles three generations of Czech women.  It presents the impact of the Holocaust on the Czechs, but is also an interesting story from the standpoint of the lives of the women it chronicles.  

The Pages in Between by Erin Einhorn relates the story of her mother, hidden as a child in Poland in exchange for the family’s property.  Erin’s grandmother dies in the Holocaust, but her grandfather survives, reclaims his daughter and moves with her to the US.  Einhorn, a journalist, goes back to Poland to find the people who hid her mother and finds that a property transaction lies unresolved raising many of the sensitive issues that remain between Jews and Poles.

A family history written from a very unique angle is the recently released The Hare With the Amber Eyes by Eduard de Waal.  This book tells the story of the Ephrussi family, a wealthy banking family, through the lens of netsuke that were collected and then gifted within the family.  Originally from Russia, he traces the family through Paris and Vienna.  This is not your typical family history.  These family members were written about by Proust and were friendly with and collected artists such as Moreau, Renoir, Whistler and Monet.  The author’s grandmother corresponded with Rilke.  They lived in a rarefied world, but were ultimately driven from their home and property by the Nazis. Today the netsuke that have made this arduous journey through time reside with the author and his children play with them.

There are also a cluster of books about the families of those with Jewish heritage from regions quite outside the typical Eastern European roots.   The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado  chronicles the move of her family from Egypt to the United States reminding me of the mass exodus of Jews from Arab lands after the creation of Israel.   From comfortable and settled lives, they became immigrants, not always ready to embrace this new world so different from what they had known.  Often they struggle with living at an economic and social level much lower than their prior status.

My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel  Sabar  looks at his father’s prior life in Iraq.   His father is now a preeminent Aramaic scholar and part of the story is about the son learning to appreciate the color and texture of his father’s life.  His father came from a Kurdish enclave in Iraq where Jews had lived for 3000 years.  Jews were expelled from Iraq in 1951 and his father moves to Israel.  Here he experiences the low regard in which Kurdish Jews are held, considered to be rather backward and at the bottom rung of the society. Ultimately working his way into Yale, he becomes the expert in Aramaic, the language spoken by those who lived in Kurdish Iraq.   This book is in part a family roots search, but in the framework of an unexpected region.  It also is a story of a son coming to an understanding of his father’s life experiences.   

In the same vein is a fictionalized story, Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer.  The story tells the harrowing tale of a Jewish family in Iran in 1981.  The author’s family escaped from Iran in 1982 after her own father was imprisoned so one gets the sense that this is semi-autobiographical.

The Girl From Foreign by Sadia Shepard is a journey into a Jewish family’s past in India and Pakistan. At her grandmother’s deathbed the author learns that her grandmother was born as a Jew in India and moved to Pakistan after becoming the third wife of a Muslim businessman.  The book is as much about the search as the discoveries and takes the reader along on the journey into a world that is both foreign and fascinating.

I am struck by the fact that several of these books were written by authors who were not raised as Jews and come from mixed marriages.  The search into their Jewish heritage was often a search to better understand an aspect of themselves.  Virtually all of the non-fiction memoirs were written by journalists or in one case a documentary maker.  All were very accustom to finding and telling a story.  The one exception to this rule is de Waal who is actually a very accomplished potter.  He too succeeds in crafting a compelling story.  And for most the story is as much about the search as the discoveries, a lesson all genealogists know well.

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