Some of the most vivid memories of my Sydney-based late teens and early twenties relate to spending time with Jewish people, business friends of my father. We went to parties in their homes, to weddings and bar mitzvahs. These were always happy, family-oriented occasions. I had crushes on the sons. I knew that most of these people had come to Australia after the war, had suffered during the war, many in concentration camps, but I knew little more than that. The war was back then and this was now. I have no idea what those sons knew or thought about their parents’ pasts. Anna Rosner Blay’s biography-cum-family-memoir, Sister, sister, has reminded me of those days and made me wonder, yet again, about the lives whose paths I so airily crossed.
Around that time, I also started reading “Holocaust literature”. I’ve read memoirs about surviving the war, including most recently Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother (my review), and novels about survival, such as Imre Kertèsz’s Fateless (my review), but Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister adds new ground to my reading. Not only is it about two sisters, Polish Jews, who survived the war from the early restrictions, through ghetto, concentration camps, death marches and factories, to their eventual emigration to Australia, but it also exposes the longterm effects of Holocaust experiences, particularly on the next generation. It’s a moving book.
Blay presents the story in three voices: those of her aunt Janka and mother Hela, and her own. Janka and Hela’s voices are clearly identified interview-style, while her voice is conveyed via italics without her name being appended. An interesting decision, but it works. Blay captured the sisters’ stories via tape-recorder and notebook, and then “transcribed and rearranged” them, primarily, I’m assuming, to get them into chronological order, given the stories came out in fits and starts, late in the sisters’ lives. Towards the end of the book Blay writes:
My mother’s accounts are often disjointed, abbreviated, shreds that veer away from the painful reality. But at other times they are laid out before me, complete and pulsating with life, precious jewels that I must handle very carefully.
She has, indeed, handled them (and her aunt’s) memories very carefully to produce a story that is horrifying, horrifying as a personal story, but also because it is clearly representative of a more universal experience of the millions of Jews who suffered under the Nazi regime, which just compounds the horror.
I’ll start with the universal. A survival story, Sister, sister describes the brutality, degradation and humiliation which the Germans visited upon the Jews during the war. You’ve heard the stories before, but, oh dear, to read yet again of the utter inhumanity is appalling. I couldn’t possibly quote the most brutal, so here’s a minor example. Both women ended up separately at Auschwitz. Both were stripped, shaved, sent into showers (that were – what a relief – real showers) – and then tossed random clothing and mismatched shoes. Hela received two left clogs causing blisters, while Janka’s pair comprised “one with a high heel and the other flat. I therefore walked with a limp.”
Surviving this war was, Janka tells, “a macabre game of chance”:
We hardly ever knew what would turn out to be good for us and what should be avoided, possibly by subterfuge. Sometimes being led to a train could mean being sent to a small camp with a factory, and easy work; other times it could mean being sent to death. Sometimes you could save your life just by lingering, which was dangerous in itself. There was no way of knowing how to survive …
And this brings me to the personal, because while the sisters’ experiences are universal, they are also deeply personal. One of the things that Blay does very well is capture Janka and Hela’s individual personalities. Janka tends to be more expansive, telling more stories in more detail. She is also “braver”. She lingers (drawing her sister or friends back) when she thinks to go forward means death; she lies about her skills when she thinks that will get her a better “job” and/or keep her with people she knows; she negotiates black market deals (to swap her mismatched shoes, for example); and so on. She identifies these, and other situations she survives, as “miracles”. The younger Hela – just 18 years old when the war ends – is, by her own admission, less brave, more fearful. She relies on her sister and later, a friend, to keep herself together when times get tough. She’s lucky to end up, towards the end of the war, as a Schindlerjuden, through her musician husband. But this is not to say she’s a wuss. She’s a hard worker, a skilled seamstress, and she survived. You had to be strong as well as lucky to survive. Janka, ten years Hela’s senior, says:
When we were girls Hela was like a flower that had opened too early, its fragile petals still crumpled and sheltered from the ways of the world. But she also had the strength to persist in harsh times, and to continue to flourish even in a storm.
Through directly presenting the sisters’ personal voices, Blay brings them alive as individuals in addition to representing them as survivors in general.
But, there’s a third prong to this story, the one that apparently forms the crux of Magda Szubanski’s recent memoir Reckoning. I’m talking the impact on the next generation. This is where Anna’s voice comes in. Again Blay handles this well, with Anna’s italicised reflections appearing intermittently in response to comments by one or other sister. Her voice is mostly gentle, without histrionics, but we are left in no doubt as to the longterm impact of the experience on the sisters and the way this has transmitted to the next generation. There are losses galore – losses of people and connections, for a start. Anna describes visiting a school friend who shows some of her “treasures” – a war medal, photos, some family jewellery. Anna writes:
She asks if I like the treasures; I nod, unable to speak. The tightness grows to a hollowness, an empty feeling that can’t be filled. The threads that link Linda to her past are strong, glowing. They are made manifest by the treasures before me, and I sense that it is not the objects themselves that have so taken my breath away. It is not their beauty or value that tugs at me, but the world of significant connections that surrounds them.
So, not only are there no grandparents, but there no objects to provide a link, a sense of history. Other losses are deeper, more psychological. Hela’s fear of hunger, of death, of fear itself, are also transmitted, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so, to her daughter:
My mother is always anxious at mealtimes. She coaxes me to eat more and checks how much I am putting in my mouth.
I never trust strangers.
My earliest nightmare is of a narrow cobblestoned lane. Fences on both sides crowd me in. As I walk along, alone, I realise I am being followed. An old man comes behind me with a sack, and grabs me …
Anna’s comments are not chronological, because they respond more organically to the sisters’ experiences, but together they convey how experiences – even when the telling of them has been withheld until late in life – carry through to the next generation. Anna’s stories, though, never overwhelm her aunt’s and mother’s because they are the main game. Anna sums it up best late in the book:
the enormity of the injustice and of the horror defies expression … [yet] … The power of the human spirit to survive, despite everything, is limitless.
Sister, sister was shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year Award and the New South Wales Premier’s Award in 1998. It’s not hard to see why.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also read and admired this book.
(Review copy courtesy the author)