Of the complexities embraced in this intergenerational drama, some are harsh and difficult to relate to, while others are...

THE SISTERS WEISS

Ragen (The Tenth Song, 2010, etc.) sensitively explores the repercussions in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family when one of its members leaves the fold.

It’s the early 1960s, and though Rose Weiss has seen Marilyn Monroe on the cover of forbidden magazines, she and her younger sister, Pearl, live in the strict world of the ultra-Orthodox in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where knees and elbows must be covered and where each of them can expect to be married off by the age of 16. Though unable, at first, to articulate it to herself, teenage Rose comes to understand that this is not the life for her. Her self-discovery unfurls alongside a passion for photography but results in a series of heart-wrenching events, which culminate in total estrangement from her family. Rose’s story picks back up 40 years later in a circuitous way, when her college-student daughter, Hannah, is contacted by Pearl’s teenage daughter, Rivka. By now, Rose is a successful and famous photographer, and Rivka, raised ultra-Orthodox, is hellbent on following in her secular footsteps, not knowing that Rose’s pain from being alienated from her roots has never subsided. Where the first section of the novel is a simple story, told in deeply felt detail, the second section explodes in turmoil. Runaway Rivka is like a pinball in New York City, ricocheting impulsively from thorny Hannah’s apartment to Rose’s sanctuarylike dwelling, sowing drama along the way. Without the self-knowledge and direction that Rose had at her age, Rivka is less sympathetic, but her combination of ego and innocence seems fitting for 2007, when her story is set, and her future is every bit as vertiginous. Ragen uses Hannah’s role as a scholar of women’s history to remind readers that Rivka’s quest for freedom is as necessary and important as the plight of any subjugated woman in history, but the effect is didactic. Rose and Rivka are more convincing when they speak for themselves.

Of the complexities embraced in this intergenerational drama, some are harsh and difficult to relate to, while others are universal. The book is unflinching and surprisingly suspenseful.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-312-57019-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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