Self-discovery meets history in this debut memoir.
Like many Jews of the post-Holocaust generation, the author grew up listening to stories of family members murdered or disappeared. These reminiscences by those lucky enough to get away mingled fact with error, data with folklore, and when Simon began to look into them more closely, she found that the official record was no better, riddled as it was with omissions, distortions, gaps, and outright lies. Seeking on-the-ground truth, she begins with an account of a tour-group trip to the ruins of death camps and shtetls, her fellow travelers similarly seeking evidence that places like Volchin and Visoke actually existed outside the realm of storytelling. Much of Simon’s subsequent narrative centers on her search through archives, interviews, and scholarly literature to discover what might have happened to those long-lost family members who disappeared during the Holocaust. Some, she learns, may have ended their days in places such as Treblinka and Auschwitz, but many Jews, especially in the Ukraine and Belarus, were shot and buried in anonymous mass graves, and postwar Soviet authorities were not eager to determine the victims’ identities. Simon’s tale begins hesitantly but gathers force as her sense of indignation grows with every obstacle present-day authorities put in her way. “I’m beginning to understand why some people still believe that the Holocaust never happened,” she confesses in exasperation. “If history books, tourist guides, and government-sponsored investigative reports show scant or no reference to an entire race of people, then it’s safe to deny their presence.” Marred only by too-frequent passages on the self-indulgent order of, “What began as a search for missing facts, for missing relatives, ultimately became a search for myself,” her narrative is in the main lucid and thoughtful.
Decidedly minor work in the larger literature of the Holocaust, but a useful complement to such recent works as John Garrard’s The Bones of Berdichev (1996) and Eva Hoffman’s Shtetl (1997).