Novelist and memoirist Raphael (Hot Rocks, 2007, etc.), contemplates with stark honesty his changing attitude toward the nation that persecuted his parents.
His mother, whose comfortable family had lived in Vilna since the 17th century, was a slave laborer at a munitions factory in Magdeburg, Germany, during World War II. His father, who grew up in eastern Czechoslovakia, was conscripted for forced labor on the Russian front, then sent to Bergen-Belsen, where he became a Kapo and tried to alleviate the sufferings of other Jews. Both lost family members in the Holocaust, and these ghosts created a wall of silence and sadness around them in Raphael’s childhood home in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. His parents spoke Yiddish to each other and did not share stories about their experiences with their two sons. They openly scorned the prewar German Jews of Washington Heights and the Reform synagogue down the street; indeed, Raphael absorbed his parents’ hatred of all things German and their shame at being Jewish. Ironically, their decision not to circumcise their sons separated the boys not only from other Jews, but also from the majority of Americans. The author records his gradual, painful coming to terms with his identity as a Jew, a gay man and a writer finding his voice. Recognizing that he deeply craved more knowledge about his Jewish heritage, he attempted to break the silence imposed by his parents and “heal my own split from Judaism” in his first published story, which appeared in Redbook in 1978. Compared to the memoir’s searing early chapters, Raphael’s recollections of pleasant book tours through modern Germany seem rather pallid, despite stirring descriptions of his visits to the camps that haunted his parents’ dreams. Nonetheless, it’s moving to read that the author finally felt liberated from his family’s tragedy by the warm reception he received from contemporary German audiences.
A cleansing, passionate memoir.