Published September 2009 by Harper Collins
Rita (then known as Ruchel) Gamss was five-years-old when her Jewish family was forced to flee their home in a small village in Poland. Along with up to fourteen other family members, she spent the next two years in the attic of a nearby farmhouse. The ceiling was so low that the adults were not able to stand fully upright, the Germans came by so frequently that even during the day the family could not move around, and the children were not allowed to make any noise. Rita lost both her baby brother and her mother during this time. When the war ended, the family had to, literally, crawl out of hiding, having not been able to stand upright for so long. But when they returned to their home, they quickly learned that things were not going to return to normal and they would have to flee for their lives. For the next seven years, the family went from one refuge center to another. Eventually the family relocated to the U. S. but the family bonds began to unravel, Rita's father had a hard time making a living and he and his new wife were not able to emotionally give Rita and her sister what they needed.
Rita spent the rest of her life dealing with the scars that war experience had left her with. What's more, her fears and depression were passed on to her children and the second part of the book deals with Leslie's experience growing up as the child of a survivor. A child who grows up believing that it is her responsibility to make sure her mother is happy. A child who grows up with irrational fears and an inability to leave home, even as long as overnight. When Leslie has children, she discovers that the wounds of the past carry over into the third generation as well. Leslie's daughter, Mikaela, suffers from a fear of, as she says, everything. The book, then is the story of all three generations.
Gilbert-Lurie is not an author but decided to write this book when her mother decided she wanted to write her story and did not want to write it with someone she didn't know. So perhaps the book is not as well-written as it might have been with a professional writer at the helm. But it is almost certainly more poignant than it would have been if someone who had not been through these experiences and been in charge. Gilbert-Lurie writing style is straightforward and plain but not without emotion. Rita's experiences in Europe are heartbreaking.
"The months wore on. There was no routine or order. No mealtime or wash time. Only praying gave the day any sense whatsoever. We just existed and tried to stay sane, hoping to survive the next hour. Our surroundings came to look increasingly dismal. Where once clean straw had evenly covered our floors, now it grew smelly and was strewn about in clumps. We grew dirtier and weaker. To wash, my father and uncles carried up water from the horses' trough."
"After a year in the attic, depression had descended upon the group. Communication was quieter and less frequent. Everyone withdrew into him- or herself and dozed much of the time. Slowly, I lost the will to talk. This didn't bother anyone, since as soon as one of us children breathed a word, an adult covered our mouth."
"We were dressed in the same clothes we had worn into the attic two years earlier. They were filthy and reduced to shreds. My shoes didn't fit any longer, so my father wrapped my feet in some sort of fabric to protect them. "I don't know any survivors from the war. I certainly understood that the war was something they would carry with them for the remainder of their lives. But guess I had never considered the extent of damage they suffered. And while, I may have given some thought to the fact that it might effect them as parents and grandparents, it never occurred to me that this could be attributed to a biological change in the survivors that would be transferred genetically. As horrific as what happened during the Holocaust was, the fact that there are people that continue to suffer because of what happened makes it that much more tragic. And the three women in this book, as well as the rest of their family, are not merely damaged people. They are strong, resilient and incredibly motivated people. Despite everything, one can't help but feel that they are very fortunate to have such a loving, close family.