Halina Rubin, Journeys with my mother (Review)

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)