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Reviewed by Emily-Jane Hills Orford for Readers' Favorite
Some people call it ‘survivor’s guilt’, that violent sense of abandonment from reality, that robot-like functioning in a world that carries on, the survivor forever feeling guilty for having survived when all around him or her have died, have been sacrificed. The generation that followed the Second World War is full of stories of children abused by parents who suffered, in one way or another, the tragedies of such a horrific war. Jewish children, born of parents who survived the Holocaust, were brought up in a home full of ghosts and guilt, a melancholy full of fear and anger. While the world recalls in horror the events of the Holocaust itself, the world also overlooks the aftermath, the victims of the victims, the children of the survivors.
Florence Grende’s heartrending account of her Jewish upbringing, a child of Holocaust survivors, weaves a story of pain and sorrow, fear and anger, and the hidden melancholy (the Dee Melchome), the depression that makes monsters out of otherwise ordinary people. The Butcher’s Daughter is a memoir that speaks for those too traumatized to voice their stories: the survivors and their children. The story is unveiled in patches, fragments of a fragmented childhood and an uncertain survival even in the land of plenty and opportunity, America. And the symbolism of the torn black ribbons worn at Tateh’s funeral, the story, which at first appears fragmented, becomes a testament of the sorrows of not just one generation, but two: the Holocaust survivors and their children.
And through it all, the ever-uttered words, “Ess. Ess.” (Eat. Eat.) Survivors who have faced starvation enforce the importance of eating – and eating lots – on those they love. It’s a means to protect those remaining loved ones. The author claims that she “grew up among the dead”, and, in many ways she did. In between the lines of her story unravels the story of her parents; Tateh, who was a Guerrilla in the Polish woods, fighting back and providing food for the starving Jews hiding in the woods, and Mameh, who, as a young girl, survived the harsh Polish climates by hiding in a dugout in the woods. Tateh and Mameh lost family in the Holocaust, but they survived. They married after the war, but they never seemed happy or content with each other.
Food, the ever present need of nourishment, something that was sorely missing while surviving in the woods, reappears frequently in the story. Food is the sustenance that binds body, mind, soul and the unity of friends and family. In her mother’s notebook, the author finds incomplete recipes, which reminds her of “the spaces within and between us. Only the basic amenities moved our brief conversations – stock greetings, inquiries into health, family news: never a topic that might carry the weight of emotion, the hint of vulnerability, or the gift of the personal.”
This story is much more than just a memoir. It’s a testament: a statement of a life shattered because of a brutal war. Hitler’s evil affected more than just those who lived through it. His evil stretched into the next generation, not just amongst the Jews, but also amongst the children and the grandchildren of high ranking Nazis. A powerful story told with compassion. A must-read.