Los Angeles County Board of Education president Gilbert-Lurie teams with her mother in this occasionally unwieldy yet affecting memoir depicting how the deep psychological wounds from the Holocaust span three generations.
The first and most vivid section is told in the voice of Rita Lurie, née Ruchel Gamss, born in Urzejowice, Poland, to a family of Jews caught in the terrors of the Nazi invasion during World War II. By 1942 the Germans had occupied their remote town, and five-year-old Rita and her family were required to report to the train station for deportation. They split into groups to elude capture and persuaded a neighboring Polish farmer to harbor the group in their attic. Everyone believed the refuge was temporary, though they managed to hide out for two years—but not without casualties. Rita’s toddler brother died, possibly from suffocation to keep him from crying, and Rita’s mother died shortly thereafter. After liberation, they spent five years in displaced-persons camps, during which Rita’s father remarried an Auschwitz survivor. The remaining Gamss family immigrated to America in 1949. Rita suffered from physical weakness and mental anguish for years, and her subsequent account records her painful attempts to come to terms with debilitating feelings of abandonment and anger at her controlling stepmother. In the second section of the book, her eldest daughter recalls growing up with her anxious mother and her own fears and the drive to succeed. Gilbert-Lurie’s narrative is unavoidably less dramatic, except when she and her cousins returned to Poland in 1987 with a film crew to seek out the still-living Polish farmwife who hid the Jews. The third section, which introduces the author’s daughter into the narrative, is more tedious, but the essential story remains riveting.
A flawed memoir, but an amazing story of wartime survival.