Narrative Style: First person
Genre: Memoir, Biography, History
Synopsis: Long after Hadley Freeman’s grandmother, Sara, died, Freeman found a box of keepsakes and photos tucked away in her grandmother’s closet. The discovery led to Freeman on a quest to discover exactly what happened to her family during the war, something which her family did not talk about.
Time on shelf: Not long. I’m a big fan of Hadley Freeman’s column in The Guardian and I often agree with her opinions so I was looking forward to reading this and finding out more about the Jewish experience during the war.
Freeman begins this memoir with the moment she found her grandmother’s box of keepsakes. She then describes the road that led her to look in her grandmother’s closet in the first place. This road starts with the description of a holiday to France to meet some of her father’s family as a five year old. Freeman was nervous of her paternal grandparents who always seemed to be bickering and she found her grandmother difficult as she always seemed so sad. She had similar difficulties with the old people she met on the holiday in France. Only two of them could speak English and Freeman felt too shy to speak to any of them. She was initially pleased when she saw her grandmother but she kept herself apart from her siblings, crying quietly to herself. Growing up, Freeman had no idea what might be causing her Grandmother’s depression and her parents didn’t explain. As a result, Freeman never became really close to her grandmother and had little information about her and her siblings. Even so, she decided that she wanted to try and write about her grandmother which is what led her to her grandmother’s closet.
Freeman begins the story of the Glass – then Glahs – family in the early 1900s in Chrzanow, an Eastern European Shtetl where Sara was born Sala, along with her siblings, Alex (born Sender), Henri (Jehuda) and Jacques (Jakob). No one talked about their childhood and Freeman turned to historical documents to try and find out some details about their lives. Lucky for Freeman, her Uncle Rich found a memoir written by Alex. He describes a hard early life. The family were poor and their father had very little luck with employment and health. Then came bigger problems as the Polish started to reject the Jewish people within their country and the Glahs family changed their surname to Glass, the first of many changes they would have to make in order to survive.
Freeman follows the siblings when they escape Poland to France, changing their first names now to sound more French. Each tried, with varying levels of success to make a new life for themselves. Sara suffered from ill health and spent time in a sanatorium but despite this she loved living in Paris, having a great interest in fashion and art. She would always keep this love of French style and Freeman mentions that she always seemed completely French rather than Polish. Unfortunately for her, she was not able to stay in the country she so loved.
I was aware of anti-Semitism in Poland and whilst the Glass family’s experiences there were upsetting, they were unsurprising. I had very little knowledge of life in Vichy France and the consequences for France’s Jewish population and was shocked by the lengths that the Vichy government went to, going further than the Nazis commanded them to. The Glass family loved France and were quite settled by the time that the Nazis invaded and the government started to remove their Jewish citizens. It is hard to imagine what it would feel like when the country you had adopted as your home and which had accepted you suddenly turned on them in such a horrible way. They had already been through the Pogroms in Poland and now here they were again, facing the same horrible problem.
They react in a variety of ways. In fact, Freeman suggests that between them, they represented the various paths that European Jews took during this time. Sara is forced to marry an American that she does not love and who takes her to the States where she will be safe. Jacques refused to believe that his adopted country would hurt him, registered as Jewish and consequently was taken to a concentration camp. By contrast, Henri assimilated and managed to survive the war in Paris. Finally, Alex was likely involved in the resistance and was able to survive due to his pragmatic nature.
They are vividly painted before, during and after the war. I quickly became attached to each of them – heartbroken when Jacques and his wife died in a concentration camp and when Sara is forced to leave the love of her life in France when she goes to America; hopeful and then relieved when Alex and Henri survive the war. Freeman doesn’t stop with the end of the war but carries on their stories until their deaths later in the century. This made it a more hopeful narrative and one that gave more than one version of the Jewish experience. I couldn’t put it down.