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Halina Rubin, Journeys with my mother (Review)

January 27, 2016

Halina Rubin, Journeys with my motherI’ve read a lot of World War 2 literature over the years, but very little from the Polish point of view, so I was more than willing to read Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother when it was offered to me a few months ago. Rubin was born in Warsaw on 27 August 1939. Note the date: her mother, Ola, was still recovering in hospital when Germany invaded Poland a few days later. Within two months, her parents, secular Jews, had fled to the Soviet Union, and this is where the young Halinka and her mother saw out the war. It’s a fascinating story – and it’s told in a thoughtful way.

Rubin divides her story into two parts. Part 1 is mainly background. It provide some family history about her parents, Ola and Władek, and their parents before she was born, but it also describes the depth of anti-Semitism with which they lived, long before the war started. It tells how her parents were radicalised early, how for them “the ideals of communism offered a way to solve the twin problems of unemployment and poverty, and put an end to racial hatred”. Oh, such idealism … but her parents, despite experiencing political betrayal, never fully lost their values and commitment to social causes.

Anyhow, part 2, which conveniently aligns with the start of the war, tells the story of her nuclear family after she was born. “I try to imagine” she writes of those opening days of the war, “how abruptly, how without mercy, their world changed”. She describes how, with their faith in the Soviet Union, her parents fled to Białystok, once a Polish town but now under Soviet control, while other members of the family made different decisions or timed their flight decisions differently, with, in most cases, tragic consequences.

Halina and her family lived there for nearly two years, Ola working as a nurse, until Germany betrayed the Soviet, invaded – and the atrocities began. So, they fled again, heading further east for Russia itself. Władek was taken to join the Red Army, but Ola and Halina made it to Oryol where Ola worked again as a nurse. Later, mother and daughter, who were evacuated under German orders from Oryol, went to Lida in Belarus, and from there they escaped into the forests where they joined the partisans – because, remember, Ola was a committed communist. It’s astonishing, really, that Ola and her oh-so-young daughter survived the threats and privations of such a life, but survive they did:

Around us was a forest so dense that even wild animals – boars, deer and wolves – chose to follow the same known tracks. The myriad of lakes made the terrain marshy.

Only the locals knew how to get their bearings, how to keep away from the swamps ready to swallow you up; how to keep the wolves away. It was a perfect place to hide, but tough to survive.

They were wet, cold, and desperately hungry. A truly amazing story of survival against a backdrop of egregious political treachery.

Journeys with my mother doesn’t end with the war, however, but follows her parents as they return to Poland, then move to Israel, and finally, after her father’s death, her mother’s move to join her in Australia. Rubin describes the early days of peace – the adjustments that had to be made as people separated from war-time friends and connections, and reunited, if they were lucky, with family members; the impact of political decisions being made about governance and borders; and, shockingly, the continuing anti-Semitism. She asks:

Who could have predicted that peacetime would be so difficult?

Although a very different book about a different war, this reminded me of Olivera Simić’s book Surviving peace which I reviewed a year or so ago.

But I’ll leave the story here – to move onto the telling.

I’ve categorised this as an autobiography or memoir but it could also be described as biography, since Rubin’s prime focus is the life of her parents. And that required research, as she didn’t manage to capture all she could before they died. This is partly because she didn’t start thinking about (aka wasn’t very interested in) documenting her parents’ lives until after her father had died, by which time her mother was old, but also because the story was so stressful that her mother found it hard to tell. Rubin writes:

As always, whenever remembering her parents or sisters or the years of the war, eventually her voice would turn into a whisper and tears would well up her eyes. In the very last tape, I hear her say, ‘That’s enough, I cannot go on.’ The tape is still recording when I say, ‘Let’s have tea.’ The conversation was never resumed. I did not have the heart to put her through that ordeal again.

Rubin had done this taping before her mother’s death in 2001, but it was not until some years later, with the encouragement of her daughter, that she delved into “two boxes filled with papers, photographs, letters, notebooks and correspondence”. These plus her mother’s stories got her going, but there were gaps, so she travelled back to the places they’d lived, talked to old friends and a surviving cousin, trying to complete the story. She reports this directly and consciously in the book, switching between describing her fact-finding trips (revisiting places, meeting people) and recounting her and her parents’ lives in the places she visits. In other words, she takes us on her research journey – and I like that. It does give the story a disjointedness that might irritate some readers, but for me it adds to the interest and, yes, authenticity.

Like all such research, there are serendipitous finds and wonderful coincidences. One such occurs during a meeting with Valerii Slivkin from a museum in Lida. He shows her a document written by partisans after the war. They mention “the presence of ‘a four-year-old-girl'”. That girl of course was her! Earlier in the book, during one of her discussions of her mother’s stories, she says:

My mother was my first, albeit sketchy, narrator. When talking about the past she would get distressed so her storytelling could be convoluted, meandering around events, places, people. And I had not been a good listener. Perturbed, intent on not missing as much as my mother’s sigh, I could hardly concentrate. Later, however, I would discover how clearly she, in fact, remembered the events of the past.

Slivkin is one of those whose information confirms “how accurate she was”.

However, Rubin is also realistic about the limits of what you can know or discover. Looking at photo of her aunt who died early in the war, she wonders about the story behind the photo:

Ewa looks pregnant. I wonder if this is another family secret or simply a never told story. And if the complexities of our lives are at times impossible to unravel, how much more impossible are the events of the past. Nothing is certain.

It sure isn’t. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look for the certainties – and Rubin, in this book, has given it a red hot go.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the book.

awwchallenge2016Halina Rubin
Journeys with my mother
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2015
ISBN: 9781925272093

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)

16 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2016 4:49 am

    Sounds like a good book. It reminds me a little of a book I read last year to review for Library Journal by a Polish daughter born a few years after the war. She found out from her mother when she was 18 that she was Jewish. Her mother had wanted to protect her. The book is essentially a family biography that is heartbreaking in so many ways.

    • January 28, 2016 6:26 am

      It’s fascinating how different families handled their stories, isn’t it, Stefanie. I’m in Melbourne, for the tennis, so don’t have the book with me, but Rubin says she didn’t realise she was Jewish until she was 18. But, her parents were socialists/communists from a secular Jewish family. She comments how she and her friends, who went to a secular school in Warsaw, were looked down on. I guess most went to Catholic or other religious schools there? She doesn’t explain. Here, of course, like the US, secular schools were more the norm.

  2. January 28, 2016 8:29 am

    So much of this book was a revelation because I had not read much in the way of stories from behind the Iron Curtain – but what stays most in my mind is that four year old child in the forest. When we look around at today’s bratty four year olds tormenting entire shopping centres, it is hard to imagine a child disciplined somehow into survival strategies like keeping quiet, getting by on limited, intermittent food, and, crucially, suppressing their wants. Not unlike those Jewish children hidden in cellars, or the ones that suddenly had to take on a new Christian identity, new name and all, and learn never to trust anyone.
    Your review is excellent, I like the way you have commented on the author’s telling of the story.

    • January 28, 2016 10:49 am

      Thanks Lisa, yes, that’s just amazing isn’t? And particularly the period that she was on her own when her mother was taken away sick. No wonder she was undernourished for years afterwards.

      • ian darling permalink
        January 28, 2016 9:10 pm

        The well of historical memoirs of this period of history should never run dry. There is so much painful history recorded in this book and books like it I liked the honesty about how difficult to unravel personal and family pasts let alone a “larger” past.

        • January 28, 2016 11:39 pm

          Thanks Ian, your right though I guess as the generations who experienced it die we’ll move more and more into biography rather than memoir.

          And yes, I like it when authors are honest about what they can and can’t do.

        • ian darling permalink
          January 29, 2016 9:09 pm

          Hpoe you are enjoying the tennis!

        • January 30, 2016 12:37 am

          Haha, Ian, just saw Andy Murray beat Raonic – in 5 sets as you probably know. We had a Scottish tourist, and her English husband, sitting in front of us. It was a great game. Saw Jamie Murray win his Men’s doubles semi-finals too.

          Yes, the tennis was good, thank you.

        • ian darling permalink
          January 30, 2016 1:05 am

          I hope Andy and Jamie Murray can do it…..don’t fancy his chances against Djokovic though!

        • January 30, 2016 1:21 am

          No, I agree, Ian … Novak can be beaten but the Australian Open is one he’ll fight for I think. He wants his 6th. We saw him and Federer too. He’s good!!

  3. ablay1 permalink
    January 29, 2016 7:29 am

    I enjoyed reading your review. Halina Rubin managed to write a moving account of what must have been a time of trauma and suffering, but without sentimentality or excess. I loved how the reader travels with her to revisit the places of her journey and can visualise them so clearly. As you say, first-hand accounts are very precious as soon there’ll be no more.

    • January 29, 2016 9:22 am

      Thanks Anna. Yes, that’s it — there’s no sentimentality, and yet it’s warm. I liked its reflectiveness (is that a word!).

  4. January 29, 2016 3:32 pm

    I loved how authentic and raw this book read. I actually had a little covert cry as I was reading it in the office. (Shhh…don’t tell anyone!)


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