True Tales of Survival: Thanks to My Mother by Schoschana Rabinovici

It’s not easy finding books to represent Lithuania for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Way back in 2013 I was lucky enough to discover Eliyahu Stern’s biography of Elijah ben Solomon The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism and in 2019 it was David E. Fishman’s The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis. Unfortunately, that’s been it. Until however, one day at my small town public library I came across a copy of Schoschana Rabinovici ‘s 1998 memoir Thanks to My Mother.

Rabinovici was born in Paris in 1932 to parents who were in France pursuing their studies. A few years later her family moved back to Wilno (Vilnius), then a Polish city with a significant Lithuanian, German and Jewish population. (A vibrant Mecca of Jewish life and Yiddish culture, until World War II the city was called the Jerusalem of Europe.) In 1939 the Soviet Union invaded the region as part of a secret pact with Nazi Germany to divide up Poland and the Baltic States. A short time later her family’s department store was nationalized by the Communists.

But as horrible as things were living under Soviet rule, it would get much worse under the Germans. In 1941 just two days after the Germans occupied the city they arrested and murdered her father. Just like Sara Zyskind’s family in Poland Rabinovici and her co-religionists were soon imprisoned in the local ghetto and subjected to malnutrition, disease and abuse at the hands of the Germans and their collaborators. After narrowing escaping being selected for execution, Rabinovici and her mother were eventually sent to the Kaiserwald concentration camp in nearby Latvia. As an 11 year old she was deemed too young for forced labor and therefore subject to extermination selection. Once again she narrowly avoided being selected, but this time not once but twice. Later, she would live through two additional concentration camps and an 11 day long death march in the dead of winter. Her health wrecked by the ordeal, she emerged from a week-long coma to learn she’d been liberated by the advancing Red Army. After the War her and her mother relocated to Poland before immigrating to the newly-founded State of Israel in 1950.

Memoirs like this can be grim and heartbreaking to read. But read them we must, lest we forget the horrors human beings are capable of inflicting upon each other. These books are both testimonies and warnings.

The Sunday Salon Rides Again

Three weeks ago marked my return to The Sunday Salon after a year-long hiatus. It felt good getting back in the swing of things so here’s another post. Hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz this weekly tradition is a great way to check in on other book bloggers and get a glimpse of their lives. 

Once again I’m trying to read four books at the same time. The first one is for a book club, the second for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, third is part of an ongoing research project and the fourth is well, because I can. 

Summer Reading Challenges. You might have noticed in my earlier posts I’ll be taking part in both the 20 Books of Summer and Big Book Summer reading challenges. Even though I’ll probably fail miserably I can’t wait to start reading! 

Listening. As always I’m up to my eyeballs in podcasts. Here’s what I listened to last week. 

Watching.  Peaky Blinders has been off the charts good and I can’t get enough. Still kicking myself for not discovering it sooner. Last weekend we continued watching 90s space opera Babylon 5

Everything else. We’re still experiencing warm, summer-like weather. I’m still spending my mornings and evenings on the cabin porch reading. And yes I’m still joined by a large black cat.  

Old Book Reading Project: Stolen Years by Sara Zyskind

When it comes to books about, or novels set in Poland for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge my choices in reading fare have been pretty predictable. Be they memoirs like Frank Blaichman’s Rather Die Fighting: A Memoir of World War II, novels like Gwen Edelman’s The Train to Warsaw or histories like Matthew Brzezinski’s Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland I’ve read stuff dealing with World War II and the Holocaust. (The only exception being Benjamin Weiser’s spy biography A Secret Life: The Polish Colonel, His Covert Mission, And The Price He Paid To Save His Country.) For good, bad or otherwise this trend continues with Sara Zyskind’s 1980 Holocaust memoir Stolen Yearsthis year’s choice to represent Poland for the European Reading Challenge.

Finding a book published in 1980 might be a rare occurrence at most public libraries but my three small town public libraries are gold mines when it comes to older books. In addition to Stolen Years I’ve come across books 50 or even 60 years old. Even though I’d never heard of this book I could not pass up a Holocaust memoir by a Polish survivor.

A young resident of Łódź when the Germans attacked and annexed Poland it wasn’t long before Zyskind, her relatives and the rest of Łódź’s  Jews were imprisoned in the city’s newly designated ghetto. Surviving several years of malnutrition, disease and abuse she also avoided “deportation” to the Nazi killing fields through luck, cleverness and happenstance. Eventually, luck ran out and her, and the remaining Jews of the ghetto and were forcibly transported to Auschwitz. Fortunately Zyskind was selected upon arrival for slave labor and thus avoided being gassed. Nevertheless, she endured beatings from sadistic guards and their Jewish collaborators (Kapos), malnutrition, disease and overwork all while escaping frequent selections for the gas chamber.

Considering the seriousness of the subject matter I quickly progressed through Zyskind’s memoir. A young teen at the onset of World War II she was forced at a tender age to confront the worst horrors of the 20th century. Seen through the eyes of a child these recollections makes for powerful reading. Stolen Years both moved and impressed me, and deserves to read alongside more notable Holocaust memoir like Elie Wiesel’s Night and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz

Big Book Summer Reading Challenge

Not only am I doing the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge I’ve also decided to participate in the Big Book Summer Challenge. This will be a first time I’ve taken part in this reading challenge and I thank book bloggers Helen of Helen’s Book Blog and Deb Nance at Readerbuzz for bringing it to my attention. Hosted by Sue of Book by Book the goal is to read at least one book that’s over 400 pages long. As the title implies it’s a summer challenge, running from May 26 through September 4. Big Book Summer synchs well with my other summer reading challenge 20 Book of Summer since there’s half dozen books of the requisite length on my list . It’s doubtful I’ll get through all six but I’m gonna try my darnedest.

20 Books of Summer 2023

Summer is around the corner and that means Cathy of 746 Books will once again be hosting 20 Books of Summer. After lots of thought and second guessing I slapped together a collection of 20 books and five alternates I’d like to read this summer. All 20 are books I own, of which only two are Kindle editions. The five alternates are library books. Of course every year I do this challenge I never end up reading all 20 books and frequently deviate my original list. Fortunately for me Cathy is a forgiving host and lets all of us pretty much do whatever we want. Here’s this year’s intended 20 books. 

  1. On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein (2012)
  2. Travels in Jewry by Israel Cohen (1953) 
  3. 5 Ideas That Changed the World by Barbara Ward (1959)
  4. The Emperor’s Last Island: A Journey to St. Helena by Julia Blackburn (1993) 
  5. Golden Century of Spain 1501-1621 by R. Trevor Davies (1965) 
  6. The Promised City: New York’s Jews, 1870–1914 by Moses Rischin (1977) 
  7. Operation Chastise: The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II by Max Hastings (2022) 
  8. Going to Extremes by Joe McGinniss (1980) 
  9. The Outbreak of World War I: Causes and Responsibilities edited by Holger Herwig (1991) 
  10. The Undiscovered Self by Carl G. Jung (1959) 
  11. The Zimmermann Telegram by Barbara Tuchman (1985)
  12. The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II by Edvard Radzinsky (1992) 
  13. The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East by Olivier Roy (2008)
  14. Europe Between Revolutions, 1815-1848 by Jacques Droz (1967)
  15. The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us by Keith Lowe (2017) 
  16. The Knowledge Web : From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Back — And Other Journeys Through Knowledge by James Burke (1999) 
  17. Early Modern Europe: From About 1450 to About 1720 by Sir George Clark (1962)
  18. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson (2009) 
  19. The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age by James Kirchick (2017) – Kindle
  20. Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder (2015) -Kindle, not shown

And five alternates.

  1. The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup (2019)
  2. How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them by Barbara F. Walter (2022)
  3. Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life by Amber Scorah (2019)
  4. Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby (2020)
  5. The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian (2012)

This is the perfect opportunity for me to also tackle my to be read pile (TBR) while at the same time participate in other reading challenges like the TBR 23 in ’23 Challenge, Mt. TBR Reading Challenge, European Reading Challenge and Books in Translation Reading Challenge. With a number of these books published prior to 1980 this is also a great chance to promote my Old Books Reading Project.

The Continuing Return of The Sunday Salon

Last week marked my return to The Sunday Salon after a year-long hiatus. It felt good getting back in the swing of things so here’s another post. Hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz this weekly tradition is a great way to check in on other book bloggers and get a glimpse of their lives. 

Right now I’m reading four books. The first one is for a book club, the second for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, third is part of an ongoing research project and the fourth is well, because I can. 

Listening. As always I’m up to my eyeballs in podcasts. Here’s what I listened to last week. 

Watching. After finishing the inaugural season of The Diplomat the good people of the farm needed a new show to binge. By accident we discovered Peaky Blinders and oh man is it GOOD! We also watched the recent PBS Frontline episode “Clarence and Ginni Thomas: Politics, Power and the Supreme Court.” Highly recommended! 

Everything else. We’re still experiencing warm, summer-like weather but today it’s cloudy and much cooler. Like before I’ve been spending my mornings and evenings on the cabin porch reading. And more often than not a large black cat still joins me. 

Book Beginnings: Europe Between Revolutions, 1815-1848 by Jacques Droz

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 23 in 23 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, last year I decided to finally participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

In the period 1815 – 1848 two great social forces were pitted against each other: the traditional ruling class whose roots lay in the Ancien Régime, and the new men of the Industrial Revolution who made their bid for power in the name of Liberalism. 

Last week I featured Sara Zyskind’s 1981 Holocaust memoir Stolen Years. The week before it was Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2016 memoir In Other Words. This week it’s Jacques Droz’s 1967 Europe Between Revolutions, 1815-1848

Stolen Years was published in 1981 but this week’s selection is even older. I’ve been itching to read Droz’s 1967 book for the last several years and I think now’s finally the time. I’ll be applying towards a number of reading challenges including Introverted Reader’s Books in Translation Reading Challenge, Rose City Reader’s TBR 23 in 23 and Book’d Out’s Nonfiction Reader Challenge. I couldn’t find a lot on the Internet about the book’s author Jacques Droz but using Google Translate here’s what a Spanish language Wikipedia entry had to say.

Jacques Droz, (Paris, March 12, 1909- March 3, 1998), was a French historian and specialist in Germanic history and political ideas (liberalism, socialism and fascism).

He taught at the Colmar high school, fought in World War II and was taken prisoner in 1940. During the years of the German occupation of France, he taught at various Parisian high schools. After the Liberation of Paris he was a professor at the Institut d’études politiques de Strasbourg.

In 1945, he defended his thesis on Rhenish liberalism during the period from 1815 to 1848. He was a professor at the University of Clermont-Ferrand from 1947 to 1962, and from 1957 also dean of the Faculty of Letters. In 1962, Droz was appointed successor to Professor Maurice Baumont at the Sorbonne, where he was granted emeritus status in 1972. Many of his works were translated into German and English, especially those on socialism, with some of his books published in other languages.

About Time I Read It: In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

Even though I’d heard great things about Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2016 memoir In Other Words I never made an effort to read it. Then the other day at the public library I was wandering through the shelves of biographies, autobiographies and memoirs and stumbled across a copy. Remembering it was written in Italian and translated into English I suddenly realized I could apply it towards Introverted Reader’s Books in Translation Reading Challenge. So even with my perpetual mountain of library books back at home I borrowed it.

Lahiri, born in the United States of Bengali Indian immigrants from Calcutta has a passionate love of the Italian language going back to her days as a young college student. After spending countless sessions laboring with private tutors to achieve fluency she decided to immerse herself in the language. With her husband and children in tow she packed up and relocated to Rome where she spent a year in the Eternal City speaking, reading and writing solely in Italian.

In Other Words is her intimate account of this ambitious project, told in Italian and with an English translation beautifully translated by acclaimed translator Ann Goldstein. (Known for skillfully rendering into English the fiction of Elena Ferrante, I first encountered her work a decade ago thanks to the Algerian-Italian novelist Amara Lakhous.)  A presumed rarity among most memoirs, even travel memoirs Lahiri describes a journey external but also internal, thanks to her adoption of a new home and most impressibly a new linguistic identity.

In Other Words is one of those rare books I knew was good but didn’t know just how good until I read it. Worthy of every ounce of hype, Lahiri’s memoir is both brave and beautiful.

Book Beginnings: Stolen Years by Sara Zyskind

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 23 in 23 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, last year I decided to finally participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

The picture of a young girl rises in my mind’s eye. She is eleven years old. Her long, blond hair is plaited in two heavy braids, and she wears a beret with a school emblem, tilted at a rakish angle. Her school bag is tucked under her arm, and she is walking along Piotrkovska, one of the most beautiful streets in the Polish city of Lodz.

Last week I featured Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2016 memoir In Other Words. The week before it was Joseph O’Connor’s 2023 historical thriller My Father’s House. This week it’s Sara Zyskind’s 1981 Holocaust memoir Stolen Years

All three of the public libraries not far from the farm where I live have a surprising number of older books, some published as far back as the 1960s. Needing something to represent Poland for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I decided to take a chance on one of these older books, specifically Sara Zyskind’s Stolen Years. Since it’s a memoir translated from Modern Hebrew I’ll also be applying towards Introverted Reader’s Books in Translation Reading Challenge and Book’d Out’s Nonfiction Reader Challenge. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the its author Sara Zyskind.

Sara Zyskind, also Sara Plager-Zyskind (Hebrew: שרה פלגר-זיסקינד) (b. 26 March 1927 in Łódź; d. 1 January 1995 in Tel-Aviv), was a prominent Polish–Israeli writer on the Holocaust. She was a survivor of the Łódź Ghetto, and of the Auschwitz, the Mittelsteine concentration camp, and the Grafenort Nazi concentration camps.

Her style as a writer on the Holocaust has been praised for its effective literary technique that allows the reader to identify with the reality of the period. Her writings constitute valuable primary sources in Holocaust historiography.

My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor

For almost 10 years I’ve been raving about the historical thrillers of Alan Furst. Set in continental Europe during the run-up and early years of World War II his novels, with few, if any exceptions follow a formula. A 40-something male protagonist, almost always without any formal military or intelligence training finds himself in the fight against the Nazis. As I burned through the various novels of Furst’s Night Soldiers series I soon developed an appetite for World War II-flavored fiction, be it set in Europe like the works of Philip Kerr, or the American home front like Dan Fesperman’s The Letter Writer.

But alas Furst is 80 years old and quite possibly has written his last novel, while Kerr passed away a few years ago. Lately I’ve been wondering if there’s an author out there who might follow in the footsteps of Furst, or even Kerr and a bless us with series of enjoyable thrillers set in wartime Europe. After discovering at the public library a copy of Irish writer Joseph O’Connor historical thriller My Father’s House I might have an answer.

Published in 2023 by Europa Press, the same publishing house that introduced the English-speaking world to the novels of Elena Ferrante (or if you’re me, the fiction of Alergian-Italian Amara Lakhous) O’Connor’s novel shares much with Furst’s time-honored template. Our hero is Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a middle-aged Irish cleric and seminary instructor assigned  to the Vatican during World War II. A citizen of neutral Ireland residing within the confines of neutral Vatican City, his situation isn’t as dire when compared to almost everyone else in Italy and occupied Europe.

But after witnessing Nazi thugs assault a Jewish couple on the street in Rome and the mistreatment of Allied POWs in a German-run camp he sheds his neutrality with a vengeance. Before long he’s recruited a small multinational cabal of individuals to help spirit escaped POWs to the Italian countryside. Unfortunately, these covert activities have not gone unnoticed by the German high command. As the Nazi noose begins to tighten O’Flaherty and his conspirators fear it’s only a matter of time before they’re are caught and executed.

This is a great piece of historical fiction because O’Connor is an excellent writer. His carefully crafted supporting characters, each with intriguing backstories help narrate the story from their own perspectives. Those sharing their voices range from a world-weary Italian countess to the wife of an Irish diplomat to a pugnacious British jazz saxophonist and former bouncer.

Intriguing most of all is the Monsignor himself. Highly educated, fluent in multiple languages and versed in the ancient languages of the Bible he’s a cultured man comfortable at the opera or an art exhibition. But true to his humble Irish roots he’s just as comfortable discussing boxing matches with Italian workmen. And he can throw both insults and punches when needed.

Not only is this is the first novel of a planned trilogy, it’s also one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Lastly, as I mentioned in an early post it’s also based on a true story. Alan Furst fans take note, this one’s for you.