A Jewish clan battles hardship and upheaval in America and wartime Poland in this sprawling historical epic.
Like many Polish Jews in 1911, Anna Appelavitch can’t wait to leave the grinding poverty and anti-Semitism of the shtetl behind, so the decision to take her children and join her husband Yakov in America seems like a no-brainer. Alas, after a horrendous crossing in steerage–her only respite from the storm-tossed dank and vomit is a quickie with a handsome ship’s officer that bequeaths her a lifetime of secret fantasies–the grim factory city of Baltimore proves anything but a promised land. To make ends meet, Anna and her eldest daughters follow Yakov into the garment industry for long hours of backbreaking labor at meager wages, a plight they feistily resist by helping to organize a union. Decades of want and insecurity, drawn with a sharp realism by the author, ensue, poisoning Anna’s marriage to the bitter, withdrawn Yakov and threatening the family with dissolution. Still, bad as industrial America is, it isn’t Poland, where war, famine and persecution stalk Anna’s sister Dvoyra and her family. They persevere through a series of crises while debating Zionist politics and agonizing over whether to stay or go as the threat of Hitler’s Germany looms; staying too long, Dvoyra finds herself in a ghetto where she bears witness to Nazi arrogance and atrocities. At times the novel seems like a pageant: battles and elections pass by in the background, historical figures walk onstage for brief cameos and major characters die off abruptly or disappear in the tide of events. Fortunately, Gershowitz peoples the story with lively characters torn between the desire for a better life and the pull of family roots; their travails feel real even as they drift along in a flood of calamity.
A meticulously reconstructed, moving saga of Jewish life in a terrible and hopeful century.