Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Review: Dirty Jewess by Sylvia Fishbaum

We have seen many acts of anti-Semitism in the past few years and the incidence of such hate seems to be rising so it is curious to me that Fishbaum would title her memoir, Dirty Jewess, about growing up in Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain the daughter of Holocaust survivors with such a slur, even if it reflects the hatefulness she encountered especially in her early life. In fact, my son was horrified to see the book (not having read the subtitle of course) on my stack of books. I assured him that it was not a hate-filled book but even having read it, I question the wisdom of the title.

Using the pseudonym Sophia, explaining in the author's note that she had intended to stay anonymous, Fishbaum writes of growing up in communist Czechoslovakia and the religious persecution her family faced, first in a small town as the only remaining Jews living there and then in a larger one where there was at least a small Jewish community to belong to. She writes of not understanding the importance of her religion and the ways in which it set her family apart even as she watched her parents refuse to allow her older sister to marry out of the faith but eventually comes to understand the religious legacy she carries. As she grew up, she knew that she didn't want to stay under communist rule and so she worked hard and saved against the day that she could escape, refusing to marry or even consider marriage as she was expected to do in order to be free to escape when the opportunity arose. And despite several setbacks, her determination ruled the day in the end and she ultimately made it to the US, where she met, fell in love, married, and had children.

Early in her memoir she mentions a man in the larger town her family lived in, Ludovit Feld, who the children all called Uncle Lajos. He was a little person, an artist, and an art teacher who had survived the Holocaust. Fishbaum speaks of taking art classes from him for a brief period and of his being one of the people who the evil Dr. Mengele experimented on in the concentration camps but her connection with him doesn't seem that deep until she reveals that she and her husband bought all of Feld's art work in the hopes that they will one day be exhibited in a museum and helped to see that a life-sized statue of the man was erected in his home town. Her story is very personal but she keeps an emotional distance from the reader by not showing the deep emotional attachment she surely has to many of the people in her life who helped shape her into the woman she is. This understated remove is not only there with Uncle Lajos but also with the Italian family with whom she lived for months before being granted asylum in the US. She mentions her American aunt and uncle very little beyond having lived with them in the first days of her life in Chicago. The superficial handling of Fishbaum's relationships with people so important in her life make this much less emotionally resonant than it should be. She says that she wrote this so that her children, family, and friends would know her story and if they already know pieces or the emotional importance of the others in her life, perhaps they didn't need a more full account but those of us who are strangers could have benefitted from more depth. It's an interesting story, one that we don't often see, but it feels sepia toned rather than full color.

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