Helen Epstein calls her latest book 'historical repair work', an attempt to understand her family's life before and after the Holocaust. She spoke to Anne Sebba for Jewish Book Week.
Making sense of the past in order to understand the present is a basic drive of humanity. But what if the past has been buried or destroyed, if no documents exist and those who could remember find it too painful to recall?
This is the situation faced by American author and professor of journalism Helen Epstein, whose Czech parents were Holocaust survivors who emigrated to the United States in 1948. The couple left on a sweltering July day wearing as many clothes as they could tolerate, carrying a baby in a canvas bag and 50kg of luggage each. They also brought with them a few family photographs and three porcelain figurines that had been miraculously preserved by friends during the war - and some memories.
With this slender archive Epstein was eventually to begin years of research and travel that have culminated in Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History . The book is a deeply personal memoir about three generations of women set against the turbulent social history of a key part of Central Europe
“I had for years wanted to write about my grandmother, Pepi Sachsel, who ran a fashionable dressmaking salon in Prague and whose photograph hung on the wall of my mother’s workroom. She held a fascination for me ever since I can remember,” explains Epstein, in London to talk about her work at Jewish Book Week. She made a first attempt in 1982 when she was a visiting scholar at Harvard University, but felt she did not have a “handle” on her.
“Also, it was difficult to feel free to research her life while my mother was alive since my mother was the official source of all data about her.” Epstein’s mother, Frances (Franci), died in 1989 and, only then, as she started sorting out her mother’s apartment, did the project take shape in her mind.
She had the benefit of 12 pages of family history written by her mother as well as an unpublished memoir her mother wrote and some audiotaped interviews. She buried herself in books about the period - more than 500 of them, consulted the Czech State Central Archive in Prague and, sometimes with her husband and two sons, visited the tiny villages where her maternal ancestors once lived. The people who live there now were very welcoming.
Twenty years earlier, Epstein had written a pioneering work, Children of the Holocaust , which looked at the social and psychological effects of massive psychic trauma on the offspring of those who had survived Nazi persecution. This book, translated into several languages, immediately resonated with thousands of people who often felt possessed by a history they had never lived.
“What was not entirely clear to me when I finished the book was how the Holocaust narrative had replaced family and community history, how many of us had no idea who our parents were before the war and ascribed all kinds of behaviour to them as a result of it.” She says she saw her latest book as a king of “normalising narrative”. “Since all my maternal ancestors were seamstresses, the notion of repairing holes in the fabric of Jewish society came very naturally to me. It was historical repair work, just as the first book was psychological repair work.”
Author Anne Karpf, also the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, says Epstein’s first book helped her and others. “For a long time we struggled as individuals, believing that whatever happened in our lives was a result of personal defects and flaws. Her book began a process of seeing beyond individual pathology.”
After 20 years, Epstein believes that “second-generation literature” is only just beginning to take shape and that the term applies to other communities, such as Armenians, who have been cut off from their histories by trauma. “I come to the subject as an American Jew separated by an ocean and a genocide from my history. But Czechs are separated from that same history by half a century of totalitarianism from the left and right. For them, my book is part of a huge national project of historical retrieval.”
Karpf believes there is a general importance to the genre beyond the personal, therapeutic effect on the author. “It shows the Holocaust did not end in 1945; it is still impacting in a very direct way on people’s lives today. And, although there is a danger that, by generalising, you may dilute, acknowledging the impact of one event on the lives of subsequent generations can be usefully applied to all sort of circumstances in future.”
According to Adrienne Baker at London’s School of Psychotherapy and Counselling, many people who have suffered unimaginable horrors “are desperately searching for something that will help them fit together pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, especially where there are great areas of their own existence that are unknown to them. It often hits the second generation more than the direct sufferers because, even if their parents have survived, the children have to struggle through the denial and the secrecy.”
Baker, who chaired a weekend discussion with Epstein in London, says this is not a specifically Jewish search - although fleeing, exile and persecution give it an extra dimension and often reinforce a sense of abandonment. Nor is it a specifically female one, although men would express the search in a different way because women’s identity is more bound up with that of their mother’s.
For Epstein, the emphasis on women is important. “Because I came of age during the women’s liberation movement, I wrote a book that looks at Jewish history from a woman’s point of view and that allows women to occupy centre stage while the men are at the margins. In reality, the women in my family all wound up supporting the men. The men, for one reason or another, lost their ability to support their families either through war or recession or immigration.”
Trained as a journalist at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Epstein went on to teach writing for many years as professor of journalism at New York University, becoming the first woman to receive tenure in her department.
“When I started out as a reporter, all my editors were men and all the stories they assigned me were about men. My classmates and I made a pact that we would acquire our skills, gain our credentials and then use them to portray women.”
She is now special projects director for the Hadassah Research Institute at Brandeis University, where one of her projects has been to produce a two-volume CD of Jewish women writers called In Other Words . “Everyone reads Roth, Bellow, Malamud. I’m interested in Paley, Ozick, Piercy etc,” says Epstein.
One of the most difficult aspects to deal with when writing memoir is the issue of privacy, but most of the people in her book are now dead. “I think it’s a good thing to introduce some reality into the image of Jewish women in literature. On the one hand, in the Eastern European shtetl literature we have idealised, air-brushed portraits of Jewish women, then, in the contemporary American Jewish literature, we have extremely misogynistic portrayals of women. The women I’ve written about - my mother, grandmother and great grandmother - are flawed, sometimes troubled, sometimes admirable, sometimes not, but they are indisputably real.”
Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History by Helen Epstein is published in the United States by Penguin Putnam, $12.95.