WHERE SHE CAME FROM by Helen Epstein


A Daughter's Search for Her Mother's History
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 With this family history, Epstein (Children of the Holocaust, 1979, etc.) adds a vivid and telling chapter to the reconstruction of Jewish women's history, one life at a time. While she can't recover all the details of her great- grandmother Therese's, grandmother Pepi's, and mother Franci's lives in Czechoslovakia, she more than compensates by re-creating the times, the milieus, and the circumstances in which they found themselves. The settings range from the Bohemian town of Brtnice, to the Belle Epoque Vienna of assimilated Jews such as Freud, Mahler, and Herzl, where Therese committed suicide after her oldest son's death from peritonitis, to newly independent and cosmopolitan Prague in the 1920s, where Pepi ran a fashion salon in which wealthy women gathered to gossip, exchange intimacies, and catch up on the latest Paris fashions, and ultimately to Auschwitz, Bergen- Belsen, and finally New York. Focusing in particular on the social roles of women, Epstein presents Pepi's salon as ``a rare institution that allowed a woman to acquire expertise and authority . . . a feminine realm, where women could speak.'' For Pepi and for Franci, who took over the business at the age of 18, it also provided a solid income and a refuge from harsh realities: marital unhappiness, the advent of Hitler, impending war. All three, Therese, Pepi, and Franci, were strong, capable women who faced great adversity, from poverty to the loss of loved ones to war and near-extermination. Other remarkable women figure in Epstein's tale: sternly pious Aunt Rosa, who raised the orphaned Pepi and lived to regret marrying her off to a man who turned out to be syphilitic (he did at least refrain from consummating their union); a friend of Franci's who worked for the Czech resistance during WW II. There is much more in this real-life family saga, about Czech history, and relations between men and women, Czechs and Jews, rich and poor. It is a compelling account, one that any woman trying to recover her history will value.

Pub Date: Nov. 3rd, 1997
ISBN: 0-316-24608-5
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1997


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