Humor and tragedy blend seamlessly in this memoir of childhood upbringing and family trauma.
The daughter of Holocaust survivors and one of seven sisters, Pressman recounts her youth in Skokie, Ill., and how it intermingles with her family history. Throughout her young life, she often derides her parents’ obsession with their harrowing past, at one point scoffing that “Holocaust Judaism” has become their surrogate religion in place of more established movements of American Judaism. But as much as she tries to mold the haunting tales of her parents to her “happy ending template,” or even ignore them altogether, these stories—and the lessons they tell—play a crucial role in her formative years. Interweaving various events across time, the memoir juxtaposes Pressman’s angst at her ancestry’s ineluctable grip with the pre-adolescent and teenage tribulations she experiences in her comfortable suburban milieu. These strands occasionally diverge too widely, causing some family anecdotes to feel arbitrary as much as they prove entertaining. Still, the poignancy of Pressman’s voice and her meticulous attention to detail instill life into the characters and settings that surround her, as well as the ghosts of horrors past. This work separates itself from the ever-expanding memoir pool by emphasizing the universal aspects of deeply personal issues. Anyone with siblings can relate to the author’s amusing descriptions of the complicated power dynamics among her sisters. Even if one has never met a Holocaust survivor, he or she can empathize with Pressman’s attempts to grasp the weight of her parents’ struggle to survive. The memoir doesn’t unequivocally justify the actions or beliefs of any one character, but its overriding sense of pathos honors each person’s way of dealing with triumph and defeat. Since it deals with issues of existence, this quality has never been more necessary.
A memoir whose heart pays considerable homage to its subjects.