Poet and children’s author Wachtel views her mother’s remarkable life, first recounted in The Story of Blima: A Holocaust Survivor (2005), through a creative new lens.
In 1941, Blima Weisstuch, the eldest daughter of a shoe merchant in Dombrowe, Poland, was abducted by the Gestapo before her mother’s eyes, shattering forever a domestic Eden of fresh-faced sisters, quarreling brothers, ritual dinners and the warmth of a mother’s embrace. Transported by cattle car with hundreds of other Jewish women to Grünberg labor camp, Blima is made to sew German uniforms and begins, slowly, to starve. Only a Catholic guard with a mothering instinct guarantees her survival by slipping her crusts of bread. Finally liberated and reunited with a brother, Blima marries a fellow Holocaust survivor, emigrates to Brooklyn and gives birth to Shirley, a coddled mother’s girl, who eventually grows up to write this richly imagined memoir. Wachtel (In the Mellow Light, 2009) structures her story in flashbacks narrated by Blima, Shirley and Betty—the name Blima takes in America. Each woman’s story propels the others’ over five decades. Betty and her husband, Chiel, run a Laundromat and produce a son. Shirley marries and becomes a writer. As family tables are set, the past bubbles up until an aging Blima faces death. Among Wachtel’s adroitly rendered scenes of Jewish domestic and communal life, of wartime Poland and 1950s New York, are several small masterpieces; a baby is accidentally dropped and dies, an apple is menacingly peeled in a labor camp, ice melts under a woman’s exhausted body in a Polish forest, a father weeps openly over his failure to provide, matzos are broken and challah is dipped. Wachtel entwines the singular and the ordinary with quiet lyricism. In the end, the eponymous shoes are upstaged; it is food that beckons, vanishes and sates. From the raisin breads of the Old World to the tenderly saved chicken bones of the new, food binds mothers to daughters and women to the world. Wachtel tells us she cannot fathom the Holocaust. That food is love and manna is life—this she proves.
An evocative, moveable feast plumbing past and present with equal grace.