Come Spring: an Autobiographical Novel

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Novel by Maria Lewitt, 1980

Maria Lewitt, a volunteer guide at the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Melbourne, Australia, has been troubled by the fluidity of narratives that are constantly retold, reshaped, and polished. She was a 15-year-old schoolgirl in Lodz, Poland, when World War II started. Her wartime diaries did not survive, but when she embarked on her autobiographical novel, Come Spring, she made a conscious effort to preserve its authenticity as testimony. Come Spring relives the vicissitudes and perils of the German occupation from the viewpoint of a touchy, vulnerable adolescent. This first novel won a major Australian literary award prior to publication in 1980. At a time when knowledge of the Holocaust was limited, it attracted great publicity and interest. Publication by the Australian/New Zealand edition of the Reader's Digest gave it a readership of more than 180,000.

The raw material of most Holocaust memoirs is an individual's struggle for survival against the odds. The historical event that destroyed most of European Jewry is mediated by an individual story in which the reader is exposed to the conventional dynamics of fiction and the cathartic effects of suspense, awe, and pity. Come Spring also conforms to this pattern as Lewitt records how people reacted to extreme conditions. But in addition it is a novel about thresholds of awareness and development. At the beginning of the occupation, Lewitt's father was beaten to death in his own home by a member of the SS. Shortly afterward her mother fled with her daughters to Warsaw. Lewitt and her mother symbolized the traumatic rupture with the past, the sudden loss of a prosperous home and family, by burning treasured letters and photos. Lewitt also cut off her schoolgirl plaits. From this point one follows the girl's unconscious struggle to fulfill the developmental norms of ordinary adolescence in extraordinary circumstances. The tensions of adolescent separation and independence from family are complicated by a hostile environment in which family is the only resource for survival.

As in Anne Frank's diary the reader is drawn into an ordinary teenager's inner life. Self-pity over her perceived victimization by her mother is as intense as awareness of external danger. Sexual and romantic impulses contrive fulfillment in the most confined, awkward settings. Though there are many touching similarities, the canvas is broader than Frank's diary. In 1940-41 Lewitt lived in relative security and comfort in the Warsaw Ghetto, while children died on the street of disease and starvation. She witnessed summary executions and other arbitrary brutality. Often hungry and frightened herself, she also had to contend with survivor guilt, which intensified after leaving friends behind in the ghetto.

Apart from their own danger, inability to help or protect others was often unbearable, and her mother experienced an acute episode of depression. The strains of clandestine existence outside the ghetto never eased. A visit by thugs (szmalcowniki ) whose racket was blackmail and denunciation of hidden Jews forced the family to move to the secluded village home of Lewitt's aunt, who was married to an impoverished Polish nobleman.

Lewitt also began to grapple with the implications of her parents' mixed marriage. Her mother Lydia's "good look" (that is, blond and Slavic) was the family's passport to survival. Unlike documents, the "good look" was an internalized category that could not be forged or bought. The emotional fault lines within the family were deepened by this ethnic divide.

A convert to Judaism, Lewitt's mother remained Russian to the core. She saved her children and their extended family and was generous to a fault to others. But those she protected often questioned her judgment. They resented her risk-taking and feared their security was compromised by her irrepressibly extroverted temperament.

Lydia and her sister Olga are depicted through the eyes of a dependent yet increasingly critical teenager. The ironic obliqueness of this portrayal is one of the novel's artistic highlights. Outside the square the reader sees how the risky, ambiguous allegiances that Maria and her Jewish relatives so distrusted were their salvation. Lydia and Olga liked, and were liked by, all kinds of men. Equally at ease with professed anti-Semites and Jews, they bridged a divide that had become a fatal chasm in wartime. Olga had married an outspokenly anti-Semitic Polish aristocrat of the old school who sheltered his in-laws and their extended family in their hour of need. The sisters' indiscreet relationship with the local leader of the Polish underground also produced unexpected dividends at a time of crisis. Their undisciplined Russian ways represented a small victory for humanity over murderous ideology. By the time it was Lewitt's turn to love, the teenager had learned from her mother not to let anything, least of all fear or caution, get in the way of her happiness.

Lewitt spent five extraordinary years under German occupation. When the war ended she was a young adult of 20, about to marry and have a child. The effect of the suffering she witnessed and experienced is probably still immeasurable, even to her. By nature Holocaust testimonies are skewed to the resilience of survivors. This late twentieth-century coming-ofage novel faithfully records the interplay of light and shadow.

—Felicity Bloch