Saturday, January 19, 2019

Common Threads

Each year I write about my notable reading from the prior year. While reading on Russian topics dominated my reading last year, I wanted to share three additional books that were unusual and thought-provoking. It was not until I began to write about them that I realized they have many threads in common.  See if you can find them. 

I read In the Dark Room by Susan Faludi because she was coming to town and I was planning to attend her lecture.  I was intrigued by the intersecting themes, a difficult father, with a Holocaust history, who returned to Hungary where he grew up and then became transgender in his 70s. The author explores her relationship with this difficult man turned woman. Faludi is a bit of a detective in her approach as she explores Budapest, its history and that of her family, and of course her father and the complex and changing relationship between them. As a feminist who writes about the female experience, as well as the male experience, she brings a thoughtful and often compassionate lens to that exploration. 

The Last Palace by Norm Eisen took me from Faludi’s Budapest to nearby Prague where he views its history through the lens of a house. There is another lens as well, also a parent. Eisen’s mother, a Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia, is interwoven throughout the book, the voice in the back of Eisen’s head.  Now this is not just any house, but a palace erected by Otto Petschek, a Jewish coal and financial baron, who built the home after WWI to express his artistic vision. Vision became obsession and the house ultimately took seven years to build and nearly bankrupt him. Petschek didn’t get to enjoy it for long, dying just three years after completion. His family then fled Czechoslovakia in 1938  as the Nazis came to power.  The next occupant was a German general who was captivated by the building. The Nazi ownership is still found in a small swastika beneath a table marking their presence. The palace became a home for US ambassadors, including Eisen, who takes us through the residents and the history, from Soviet domination to democracy. My favorite scene in the book involves Shirley Temple Black who was in the country during the time of the 1968 Prague Spring and witnessed its destruction by the Soviets. She returns in the late 1980s as the ambassador where she witnesses the shift to democracy through the “Velvet Revolution.” Black gathered her staff together and solemnly announced that she was only going to do this once. She then proceeded to sing and dance “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in joyful celebration.

I’ve read a lot of Holocaust literature over time, but as you can see, it often rears its head unexpectedly.  A third book also took me into those who were touched by the Holocaust. I was heading off to Warsaw for the International Jewish Genealogy conference. I noted on the schedule that Glenn Kurtz was speaking about his book Three Minutes in Poland and decided to read it in preparation for his talk. Kurtz found a film of his grandparent’s trip to Europe in 1938. Within it are three minutes that capture an ancestral town in Poland, on the cusp of destruction. Kurtz begins to explore the people and the place captured within those three minutes. A woman recognizes her grandfather in the film footage as a young boy. He looks amazingly the same. He connects to another survivor of the town and the networking begins.

 Now I found this personally interesting as I had a similar story on an ancestral town but had explored it in a different fashion. I do the website for Jewishgen on the town of Radom, Poland, home of my paternal grandfather.  In building the website I had run across a film of the community from 1937. I put stills on the website and then decided to do a series of paintings called a Hole in Time based on that imagery. I was asked to exhibit it in my grandfather’s town, coming full circle. I had searched for the story behind it and was initially unsuccessful in finding the owner. Ultimately the niece of the photographer found me and told me the occasion of the film was two family weddings. She still has the original film which has since been digitized.

So, what were those common threads? Each author brings investigative skills, a parent or grandparent plays a significant role and the history of their ancestral town is a presence as well. As each author has Jewish heritage, the Holocaust has become interwoven with their personal family history. In each book, layering complex themes with an unusual entry point results in a textured and interesting story.

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