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  • I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors
  • Written by Bernice Eisenstein
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780771030642
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I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors

Written by Bernice EisensteinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Bernice Eisenstein

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors distills, through text and drawings, including panels in the comic-book format, Bernice Eisenstein’s memories of her 1950s’ childhood in Toronto with her Yiddish-speaking parents, whose often unspoken experiences of war were nevertheless always present. The memories also draw on inherited fragments of stories about relatives lost to the war whom she never met.

Eisenstein’s parents met in Auschwitz, near the end of the war and were married shortly after Liberation. The book began to take root in her imagination several years ago, almost a decade after her father’s death.

With poignancy and searing honesty, Eisenstein explores with ineffable sadness and bittersweet humour her childhood growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust. But more than a book about the Holocaust and its far-reaching shadows, this moving, visually ravishing graphic memoir speaks universally about memory, loss, and recovery of the past.

No one who sees this book will not be deeply affected by its beautiful, highly evocative writing and brilliantly original and haunting artwork created by the author. I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors is destined to become a classic.

“I am lost in memory. It is not a place that has been mapped, fixed by coordinates of longitude and latitude, whereby I can retrace a step and come to the same place again. Each time is different. . . .

“While my father was alive, I searched to find his face among those documented
photographs of survivors of Auschwitz — actually, photos from any camp would do. If I could see him staring out through barbed wire, I thought I would then know how to remember him, know what he was made to become, and then possibly know what he might have been. All my life, I’ve looked for more in order to fill in the parts of my father that had gone missing. . . .”

—Excerpts from I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

I have always been able to step into the presence of absence. It is something that I have needed to do. But I have never found for myself the right distance from the time when my parents’ lives had been so damaged.

I was born in October 1949, in an area of downtown Toronto called Kensington Market. Bordered by Spadina Avenue, one of the city’s main north-south arteries, the streets to the west – Augusta, Kensington, Baldwin, Nassau, Oxford – held a maze of narrow alleys and densely packed-together houses. Eastern European Jewish immigrants arrived in the early twentieth century and made their first homes here. Residents quickly set up shop with bolted-down pushcarts in front of their houses from which they sold a variety of goods.

Those who prospered over time left their frame houses and moved north, to other parts of the city. After the war, room was made for the next wave of immigrants and, with them, shtetl life became transplanted and took root.

The day of my birth that year happened to coincide with Yom Kippur. I don’t know whether or not my mother fasted on the eve, but her Day of Atonement provided a new name for the Book of Life. I’ve never been quite sure if being born on this auspicious date meant that from then on I was off the hook for feeling guilt over any deed or thought or so riddled with it that I believed The Guide for the Perplexed, written centuries before my arrival by the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, was intended for me. Whatever. A state of confusion seemed an appropriate place to start from, especially within the labyrinth of Kensington Market, which was home for the first four years of my life.

***

Kensington Market is my babysitter, while my father and mother are in their shop just around the corner, plucking feathers from chickens.

I’m standing in front of the Lottmans’ bakery on Baldwin Street, a pint-sized version of the Michelin Man, unable to move in my quilted snowsuit. Silver-coated sugar ball bearings – the kind that decorate wedding cakes and break your teeth when you bite into them – roll around in my hand. Someone from the bakery must have given them to me, and anyway, the broken baby tooth of a child would not be such a tragedy.

The warm smell of baked goods escapes each time a customer goes in or comes out, and instead I wish I had been given a Nothing – a puffed baked confection sprinkled with sugar, manna from heaven. Who would have named something “nothing”? Probably the same person who first tasted the sweet and then, with a shrug, said in Yiddish, “Vus eppes” – literally, “What something.” It should have been called a Something from the start, but that would have been too simple. Vus eppes, go figure. It must be itself and its opposite at the same time, both present and absent, much like this place from the past where I stand.

Across the street is the cheese emporium, displaying giant wheels of cheese in the window. From the market’s small, narrow stores, all crowded one on top of the other, everything can be purchased. Fish fresh from a tank or scaled and filleted, chicken plucked and trussed or sectioned into parts, barrels of herring – brined and pickled – barrels of pickles – brined and pickle-pickled – bagels, braided breads, rye bread, with or without kimmel, black bread, with or without raisins, and a cornucopia spill of fruit, vegetables, and nuts. Chickens, trying to cheat fate, can be seen roaming the concrete sidewalks and streets that might as well have been made of the straw and mud of the past.

The Anshei Minsk Synagogue on St. Andrew, with its Russian-Romanesque architecture, watches over the streets half a century before its windows will be broken, its books burned, in 2002. But for now it is still able to pulse klezmer music into the air and over the rooftops of the market, cadences of the Yiddish soul, another kind of sweet Nothing. Marc Chagall must have floated paint onto his canvasses in Russia with these sounds on his brush.

Our first home in Kensington Market is an apartment on the second floor of a house on Wales Avenue. There are two bedrooms, one for the four of us, the other for a boarder, Mr. Pick, with whom we share the kitchen and bathroom. He was alone and old and I would come to think of him as Mr. Toothpick, wanting to complete his name so that he more closely resembled how I saw him – skinny and tall. Sometimes after my mother bathed me, while I was being dried off and changed, our lodger would appear with a LifeSaver tied to the end of a string, which he dangled over my head to lick.

We lived on Wales for less than two years. In 1950, my mother’s parents, Moishe and Machele, and my aunt and uncle, Jenny and Jacob (whom we called Jack), and their son, Michael, arrived from Sweden, where they had found themselves after the war. Finally, they are all reunited, and from then, my parents, my grandparents, and my aunt and uncle will live within close proximity to one another, no matter how often moving house was entailed.

My father and his brother buy a building on Spadina Avenue that has a grocery store on the street level. Jack will run the store while my father continues to work in his shop nearby on Kensington Avenue in the market. My grandparents find a home for themselves just a few streets away. When our family and Jack’s merge under one roof, filling the two floors above the store, Mr. Pick is invited to gather his few belongings and move into the room in the attic, and the taste of candy on a string will sweeten a new home.

***

Yiddish was the soul and substance of the life in our home. A veltele, a world within a world. Looking back, it is embodied in the intense gaze of my father and in the resilience of my mother. It is in the stern silence of my mother’s father and in the endurance of his wife, and in the close presence of my aunt and uncle. It is every bar mitzvah, wedding, picnic, and weekend gathering of my parents’ friends. Yiddish is spending the summer at Wasaga Beach, where several cottages make up a shtetl of Greenie families, and watching overweight, overtanned sunbathers bend, knee-deep in the lake, abluting themselves with scooped handfuls of water and ­sighing, “Ah, what a mechaieh,” what a pleasure.

Yiddish was our home. It was outrunning my mother to the bathroom and locking the door so that she couldn’t patsh my tochis again, and it was the shreklech shrieking of my parents’ anger. It was the dining-room table laden with memorial yorzeit candles on Yom Kippur, the day’s serious meaning relived for the rest of the year when we drank juice out of the small glass containers that once held enough wax to burn for twenty-four hours. It was the toasted rye bread rubbed with knobl, garlic, that I had for breakfast before being sent off to kindergarten with a salami sandwich, thickly sliced, spread with shmaltz. Yiddish was the medicinal remedy my mother used when she hollowed out a potato and placed it over my throbbing, badly burned thumb. Five pounds of potatoes later and a sizable infected blister, she finally allowed a doctor to prescribe antibiotics.

I don’t remember hearing English as a language until I went to school. As my parents’ English vocabulary grew they attached these words to Yiddish, although at the time I was only aware of one harmonic language being spoken. From an early age, my ear became tuned to hear words voiced with a certain cadence and pitch. To this day, any time my mother and I have a conversation, I absorb what she says without any consciousness of her mixing in Yiddish words.

The primary residence of Yiddish in our home managed to affect my relationship to English after I began to go to school. Example: Imagine that you’ve gone on holiday, a stranger in a strange land. You’re all dressed up – fartrasket – ready to go out for an evening of exploration. You get into your rented car and drive for a while until you run out of gas on the highway on a country road in the middle of who knows where – that’s a farshtinkener (really lousy) situation. Then you realize that you have fargessen (forgotten) to take your cellphone with you, having left it in your farkrimmt (crowded) hotel room, and you start to feel the whole holiday is farkuckt (screwed up). In hindsight, the excursion was poorly planned and the fault is yours and now you feel farblondjet (not only lost, but way off track). Suddenly a swarm of wasps comes out of the finster (dark) and you are completely farpotshket (messed up) from head to toe. All is farfolen (lost). The day is fertig (finished) and you lie down in a farkrimmt, farshtinkener, farkuckt ditch by the side of the road.

Farshtaist? Understand?

With its syllabic repetitions, Yiddish often rattled the way I heard English when it was being spoken. Now in order to experience the full flavour of my predicament, start to speak and then sneeze at the same time. Try it: far-fetched, far-flung, far be it, forspent, foreshadow, for shame, furnish (could be confused with gornisht, nothing), forlorn, forbidden, foreplay, furtive (often confused with fertig), and fermented – one of my favourites because it sounds as if it should really mean something that was intended to be, as in fate.

In the late 1950s, I used to watch a TV show called The Millionaire. Every week, Michael Anthony was handed a cheque to deliver to some deserving individual, changing a life forever in American-dream-come-true-land. The only things revealed about the magnanimous benefactor, at the beginning of each show, were his voiceover, the sight of his two hands, and his name: John Bears Fartipton.

Or, at least, that’s what I heard. Only much later, during a conversation about TV trivia, was I corrected: John Beresford Tipton. Even so, my spliced-together interpretation made more sense, since to be fartipt means to be askew, off-centred, which this man had to be if he was handing out one million dollars weekly. But instead of being a meshuggener, a crazy person, perhaps he was a televised version of the ultimate do-gooder, a genuine tzaddik, someone who will magically do God’s bidding and then vanish, since a deed done anonymously is deemed the worthiest. “Heaven will know and God will remember.”

Yiddish defines the world that I came from. It was the language that was spoken for most of my childhood years. It was my parents’ mother tongue, their mamaloshen, filling every step they had taken from one country to the next. Once, when I was very young and never again, I saw my father sweep up crumbs from the living-room floor, using the wing of a goose, a fledervish, as a dust broom. He then burnt the small pile of crumbs, the chometz, on a plate, symbolically ridding our home of the last remnants of cereals and grains, the final readying of the house for Passover. As my father crouched low over the small fire in the corner of the room, I felt the wonderment of a strange sight and sensed for the first time the way the past and a language are fastened together.


From the Hardcover edition.
Bernice Eisenstein|Author Q&A

About Bernice Eisenstein

Bernice Eisenstein - I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors

Photo © John Silverstein

Bernice Eisenstein was born in 1949 in Toronto, shortly after her parents immigrated to Canada. She is an artist whose illustrations have appeared in a variety of Canadian magazines and periodicals, including the Globe and Mail. She has worked as a freelance editor while also writing the occasional book review for the Globe and Mail. She lives in Toronto.

Author Q&A

1. Can you talk about when and how this book began to take shape in your mind?
About five years ago, I began to do portraits of my father, sometimes in pen and ink, a sketch, and then I’d do an oil painting. I found that while involved in capturing his likeness, his physical semblage, the process kept me close to my father, as I remembered him, and how I had missed him since he had died. It was comforting, and at the same time combined with a mix of emotions that not only hovered but took me further into trying to put my father together. Before this, I had not taken the time, or felt pulled by a need, to stay in a place that might allow me to consider that who my father was in the past was also central to the ways in which I had known him.

The nature of drawing is an organic process for me. I don’t begin with a completely defined image in mind, being more interested in what comes forth once I have a sense of direction. Being led by that seems to open into a deeper relationship to what it is I think I may want to evoke. So, while I drew my father, I thought about our relationship, how I knew him, and also about his past, of which I knew so little. And since the little I knew stemmed from the Holocaust, the importance of that was too great for me to not try to enter as deeply as I could. It’s not easy to explain how one thing led to another. But a shape was formed. When a drawing was done, I felt that it contained the experience of memory, where the motion of time dissolves – a private wandering in my mind, about who my father was, which then moved on from there to places that were confusing and difficult. I think my nature is one based in feeling that then circles around thought, then tries to put the two together in an attempt to discover something that is more complete. It’s not so different from trying to answer even this question. Once beginning to respond, a shape starts to form, and continues, taking you further.

2. What is it that made you decide whether to express certain ideas in words or visually? Or was it not a decision in that sense?
I’ve worked as an illustrator for a long time, responding to the words of others, trying to encapsulate or expand upon what I understood visually. And for many years, as well, I freelanced as an editor of fiction. Image and words were natural tools, even though I did not consider myself to be a writer. Drawing, using it as a language, is more innate to me. But I found that writing was needed as well since neither one alone seemed capable of complete expression. I don’t have just one position that I look out from. So no, I don’t think there was a decision initially – a conscious one – as to what to draw or what to write, just that I trusted both were necessary. I felt that both could take me deeper into reflection about my family, the Holocaust, how they had shaped me. And what I had made of them.

In the beginning – I know, those words sound somewhat biblical – I didn’t know that what I was doing was going to become a book. You start something, and strangely it reveals itself to you. I didn’t have a blueprint as to how to do it. I didn’t have at the outset an end result in place, only that it was something, once begun, that was necessary to pursue. The process is what pulled me along, relying more on a personal journey without the expectation of what, later, presented itself in the form of a book.

Early on, while my thoughts were focused on my parents, and their friends, survivors I had also grown up with, I had not been aware that there was so much more. Eventually I understood that I could not avoid myself, my own feelings about their lives, what they had gone through, and what that meant to me. I was overwhelmed by wanting to speak for myself, to speak to my parents, to their friends, to their past. The only thing that became clear at first was that I needed to explore all of it. I knew I could draw and knew I needed to find the words that belonged.

3. Did you concentrate on drawing and writing at different times?
At first, I moved between writing and drawing. A drawing led me to thoughts that I wanted to write down, and when I wrote, ideas for drawings came out of there. There were times when I could feel the synaptic workings of my brain, going from left to right, moving from my drafting table to my computer. Somewhat dizzying. And by then I knew I was set on a course that kept moving forward, and that what I had already completed was becoming a book. Then there came a point when out of a desire to have a response, forcing exposure as a form of assistance to continue, I decided to present the material I had thus far to publishers. But at that stage, I did not yet have a clear enough idea of the fuller shape of the book. So it was back to the proverbial drawing table, which for me meant two desks.

Later, when the book was taken on, and with the focused demands of the editing process in full swing, I concentrated on the writing while keeping a journal of drawings that I wanted to do, which would extend from where the writing left off. It was complicated, but made less confusing to work on one facet at a time, knowing that I could fully concentrate on the drawing once the writing was finished.

Strangely, I understand that if I had written what I drew and then drew what was written, the book would still be the same, an integrated whole.

4. At times the tone of the drawings and the text in the accompanying thought balloons has a humorous or darkly ironic tone, a playful quality, yet it doesn’t collide with the subject matter or the deeply moving quality of the prose. Can you talk about this relationship between the visual and the textual, and how they interact in the book? One thing is the parallel presence of you the narrator in the drawings – appearing as a child, sometimes a child with an adult persona – and your distinctive and haunting narrative voice in the text, blending your adult perspective with your child self, as memories are excavated.
I think the Holocaust is the largest banana peel the twentieth century ever slipped on. I’ve opened this response, using the most common shtick in comedy. The statement would be no different for me if it was made without using humour, black as it may be, because the same questions are raised. How could such a thing have happened? How could it have been foreseen or avoided? What do we learn from it? Once having seen the danger of slipping, what measures would we take to safeguard against finding it again in our path, even in the dark? Humour seems able to raise the same questions for me, but from a different angle, and it is part of a perspective from which I look out. Otherwise, I would remain completely immersed in unspeakable sadness. This aspect of my sensibility sometimes entered the text and the drawings.

I wanted the relationship of the visual and the textual to be fluid and dynamic. And once we began placing drawings into the text, an additional meaning, a meaning not necessarily held in one or the other, was created. Positioning the drawings where they belonged created a kind of magic. Some things that already existed, embedded, in a drawing or a line of text, were revealed to me for the first time. The elements contrast and add more information all at the same time, and integrate aspects of not only their relationship to one another, but of mine to them. All I know is that I wanted to erase the linear quality of time in order to see something more completely. And sometimes there is irony, painful at times, but pieces of a puzzle once put together join dark and light, humour and gravity. The text and the drawings were the pieces of that puzzle.

As for the adult/child mini-me, I think that many ages live inside of us, a five year old, or ten, or thirty, and who we are chronologically in the present. As children, we experience things without reflection. Feelings of sadness or joy, the whole range. That self doesn’t disappear, but is no longer visible to the outside as we grow older. I had several voices from which I needed to speak through while remembering. So if I put adult words into the speech balloon of a younger self, it was the way in which to create more layers in order to understand where ideas and thoughts and feelings came from, and how they build one on top of the other. Putting adult words into a younger self allowed me to show how ever present the past is.

The book, in some ways, is an extended conversation, visually and textually, with myself and to myself, to my parents, to my parents’ friends who were also survivors, to ghosts, to the past.

5. To what extent do you think you were influenced by the graphic novel?
When I was growing up, I read comic books, and even though I had my favourites – Superman, Archie, Little Dot and Richie Rich, Comics Illustrated and Mad Magazine – I was not a collector. It wasn’t until years later, when my husband and I made our first home, that my library of books married the world of graphic material. He was a collector. And then I started poring over the works of Will Eisner, George Herriman, Winsor McCay, Robert Crumb, and Art Spiegelman. As an artist, and working as a freelance illustrator, I found myself often looking to their art for visual references: how to draw a foreshortened arm, the variety of ways to handle shading, perspective, and design. My admiration, if not awe, for their work is great. So yes, I was inspired by their art, much in the same way as I had already been inspired by other artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Chagall. More specifically, with regard to my own book, the graphic novel helped me to understand how text and image combined in order to tell a story, even when it unfolds in panel form. In a sense, in my book, I suppose you could say I split the two elements apart, word and picture, and then brought them together on the page so that each could extend the intention of the other.

6. It is extraordinary how you’ve been able to distill your memories and express your deepest, at times hardest to find feelings with such honesty and poignancy, and without a sense of speaking for anyone else. It is a very brave and unsentimental book that isn’t afraid of exposing anger or the tenderest, most personal of emotions. Were you aware of that bravery when writing?
No, bravery isn’t a word I would apply to myself during the process of the book. I think that someone who goes to the dentist is brave. I’ve seen “Marathon Man” too many times to know it’s never safe. But, more seriously, I was always aware that I couldn’t draw or write anything unless I was honest with myself, and at times that was difficult and unsettling. What mattered greatly to me was that I found a way to express myself that belonged to how I felt. It was more like something I couldn’t turn or look away from.

7. The experience of writing about your family, about the Holocaust, confronting your parents’ past and your own, must have been intense. Was there in the end a sense of catharsis?
As hard as it was, it is also easy for me to say how much I discovered while working on the book, about myself and my relationship to my parents and to their past. Writing and drawing about what I remembered had its moments of soul searching while staying close to what mattered to me, what was central to my world. I needed to articulate things in the way that I had felt them and how I feel them now.

"Catharsis" is not a word I would apply. For me, it is a word that suggests closure of some sort, something that can then be put behind in order to move on. And writing about my family, about the Holocaust, about myself was complex and difficult – the word itself should appear in caps and in italics and made to jump up and down – but not anything that can be fixed in one place or completely resolved. What I needed to do was not look away, and try to see and feel as much as I could. No, there isn’t a sense of catharsis for me. But I am in a different place. Although this process may have changed me in ways I don’t fully understand, the Holocaust is not something to ever put behind.

8. In writing about the Holocaust, its strong presence in your life, though you yourself did not experience it directly, you are also revealing universal truths about the effects of tragic loss and suffering and how it reverberates throughout generations.
When we see a film, or read a book, or look at a painting, or listen to someone relating a story, we enter the narrative of someone else’s experiences and consciousness – their world – no matter how different it may be from our own. And in that way we discover communality. I wonder if that is any different from universal truths? If I’m affected in one way, then so are others. I don’t think what hurts me is so different from what hurts others, even if our backgrounds and ways of considering may not be the same. I do know that I have tried to consider what those things mean to me, and what I have felt them to mean to my parents and their generation.

9. How do you think others from your generation, as the children of survivors, will respond to your book?
Although it is impossible to measure to what degree anything has shaped who I am, I have always believed that the Holocaust is central to who I am. In my book, I have tried to be as honest as I can about my own feelings about being raised by survivors, about the Holocaust, and how it has informed me. And while I can’t say how others from my generation of survivors’ children will respond, I feel that where we have come from is shared common ground.

10. In revealing the stories of your parents’ harrowing experiences in the war, and those of your grandparents and aunt and uncle, you have been careful not to embellish in any way, in order to remain true to the facts as you know them.
Over the years, I’ve seen many films, documentaries, and read some books, where survivors speak about their experiences. And I found voices that were familiar, similar to my mother’s when she did speak about what she had gone through. They spoke about events in direct and spare language, even when talking about their tragic losses of loved ones or the horrific events they lived through and witnessed. It’s their story, their history. It felt wrong for me – disrespectful – to place alongside those facts anything from myself. To what purpose? My place for revealing what it had meant to me, what they had gone through, is written and drawn around their truth.

11. In the book, you create a moving picture of how you were surrounded by your parents’ past, yet at the same time felt isolated from it, at times from them, the tragedy in their lives becoming a barrier that made you feel an “outsider.” Is this something you were aware of while growing up?
Partly, I think I was hard-wired with a particular nature. As a child, I remember looking, watching, always taking things in. And I was also shy, more content to observe. That was the way in which I engaged with the world. That would have to be one aspect to feeling outside. Yiddish was spoken in my household and English was outside the door, as I discovered in our neighbourhood and later at school. But there are other things, layers to feeling outside that develop while growing up, and are added to a disposition. It builds. My parents worked very hard all their lives, and whenever they could be, they were in the company of their friends. It was a community of other survivors in which they and their friends had a special bond. Sometimes it seemed to me that my parents’ bond with their friends was greater than theirs with me. My feeling, as I had said in the book, was that I didn’t possess the particular magnetism to draw them to me. I may have needed more reassurances from my parents than they were aware of, but I don’t think I had been able to find a way to let them know.

12. Your writing, freighted with beauty and intelligence, contains such compassion and insight. One of the most moving moments is your articulating the impossibility of being able to fully grieve for what you cannot entirely know, leaving an unquenchable desire to make up for what your parents lost. This would seem to stand as part of the legacy of the generation after.
It’s not easy for me to find the words to respond. It took me a long time to be able to accept that there are things that I will never know about my parents’ losses, and those of their generation of survivors, people who were part of my years growing up. The fact that they are nearly all gone has a presence in my life, and as I myself am now older, it’s become more intensely felt, the importance of their passing more relevant. I’ve come to understand that the impossibility of making up for their past allows that sorrow to be solely for them. And that understanding holds a bittersweet sense of release. There’s no end to wanting things to have been different than they were.

13. Do you think you will write another book? Do you have other things in mind?
I do intend to write another book. But something different. I have other things in mind that right now need some time to ferment, to become what it is meant to be.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“A powerful and emotionally charged memoir. . . . Some of the best writing ever on the subject of the 20th century’s most brutal human catastrophe.”
NOW magazine (5-star review)

“A uniquely gripping articulation of the heart. . . . An emotional and aesthetic triumph.”
Canadian Jewish News

“Beautifully conceived and constructed, intimate and engrossing.”
Quill & Quire

“The most lucid, funny, moving book I encountered in 2006. . . . Remarkable. . . .”
— Molly Peacock, Globe and Mail Books of the Year

Awards

FINALIST 2006 Trillium Book Award
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. The book begins with the story of a ring — the ring her mother discovers in the lining of a coat while in Auschwitz, and which becomes what she offers in her marriage to her husband, Bernice’s father, as a wedding ring, shortly after Liberation. The idea of a circle can be said to recur in the book in different ways. Discuss how this works thematically and in terms of the book’s overall structure.

2. Discuss what Eisenstein’s insights bring to bear about the well-known notion of remembrance and the need for it.

3. As a child of survivors, Eisenstein always felt in some way set apart from her parents, an outsider, because of their unimaginable experiences during the war and their unspoken pasts. Discuss the author’s relationship with her parents as it has been revealed in the book. What has she revealed about her relationship with her mother? And in what ways was that relationship different from the one she had with her father and why?

4. At times the tone of the drawings and the text in the accompanying thought balloons has a darkly humorous, playful, almost irreverent quality, yet it doesn’t seem inappropriate to the subject matter, or to the deeply moving quality of the prose. In what way do these two elements — humour and gravity — interact so effectively? Are they, in a sense, like puzzle pieces that may contrast, dark to light, but at the same time fit together?

5. Eisenstein has written about the strong presence of the Holocaust in her life — how it shaped who she is — but she also seems to be revealing truths about the effects of any tragic loss and suffering. What aspects, if any, are relevant universally for different situations and times?

6. Eisenstein has written the book in a personal way, without attempting to speak for anyone else, but what aspects of her experiences and responses might be common to other children of Holocaust survivors?

7. Why do you think the author chose to illustrate her text, and how do words and pictures work separately and together to enlarge the scope and emotional depth of the book?

8. One of the most moving elements in the book is Eisenstein’s articulation of the agony of never being able to truly understand the nature of her parents’ losses, or to grieve fully for them because of what she can’t know. What situations in the book bring her and the reader face to face with this idea?

9. In one among many harrowing stories told in the book, there is a chapter focusing on what happened to Eisenstein’s mother and her sister, then young girls, and their mother in Auschwitz that is narrated in simple, unadorned prose. Why do you think the author chose to handle the material in this way, and what is the effect — straightforward prose describing unspeakable event?

10. “Once I began to read,” Eisenstein writes, “I could follow the unending trail left by writers, in order to try to understand what I could not comprehend.” What do you think Eisenstein is saying in the book about the relationship of art to the way we can look at the world?

11. In the chapter “Without the Holocaust,” Eisenstein powerfully likens the Holocaust, once discovered, to an addictive drug in her life. Why do you think this is? And discuss some other examples in the book where certain longings and questions have persisted in the author’s consciousness until this day.

12. Eisenstein “never discovered the Holocaust’s vanishing point, has never been quite sure where to stand on its horizon.” In the end, has she gained a new perspective?

13. The book is infused with ideas of opposites connecting and the twinning of different emotions — remembrance and forgetting, celebrating and grieving, anger and love, the dual meanings of certain Yiddish words. What other examples can be found in the book? And discuss what Eisenstein is saying about each.

14. Eisenstein has repeatedly drawn herself as part-child, part-adult throughout. What do you think she is saying about the process of memory, for her in particular and in general?

15. Bernice Eisenstein’s memoir of growing up as the daughter of survivors doesn’t dwell on too many actual details of her own life, yet she brings the reader intimately into her own thoughts and feelings. The book must have been, for her, a process of discovery. In the end, has she, do you think, discovered in a new way what her legacy means?


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