Where She Came from: A Daughter's Search for Her Mother's History

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Memoir by Helen Epstein, 1997

This book breaks new ground in second generation writing. Simultaneously a memoir, a family history, and an exploration of the saga of the Jews in Czech lands, Epstein's book is a search for personal and tribal connections. She wishes to know her foremothers and to understand more about Jewish history. Specifically Where She Came From (1997) is a compelling story of the author's great-grandmother, Theresa Furcht, who committed suicide in Vienna after the death of her teenage son; Pepi Rabinek, Theresa's daughter and Epstein's grandmother, murdered by the Nazis; and Franzi, Pepi's daughter and Epstein's mother. The memoir is a secular version of what observant Czech Jews of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries called megillot mishpachah (family scrolls). Epstein notes that she "liked the idea of taking my mother's twelve-page chronicle and bringing three generations of increasingly secular women to life in an old Jewish literary form."

In terms of genre the author hopes that her work will be read not as journalism but as "literary non-fiction." This is a work that integrates many different types of sources, which involved the author becoming an archaeologist of Jewish memory. For instance, in compiling her book Epstein worked in Harvard's Widener Library, where she read communal ledgers from Bohemia. In addition, she utilized historical works in Czech, English, and German and wrote letters of inquiry to various people in Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, Epstein integrated the observations of novelists; the contents of political speeches—especially excerpts from the BBC broadcasts made by Jan Masaryk, son of the founder of the Czech Republic; and her own imagination in weaving the rich tapestry of Where She Came From. The result is a work that illuminates the sometimes contradictory interplay between Czech and Jewish history as well as helping Epstein better understand where she came from. Moreover, the memoir offers an intimate portrait of the intense relationship between mothers and daughters.

The two key women in Epstein's work are her grandmother, Pepi, and her mother, Franzi. Epstein views Pepi's life as emblematic of the Jewish experience in central Europe. For example, Pepi was raised by her Orthodox aunt. Consequently the young girl was imbued with normative Jewish teaching (halakah) and its strictures against getting involved in the Gentile world. Yet Pepi moved to Prague, abandoned Jewish ritual, owned her own dress salon, and had a ten-year affair with Emil Rubinek, the man she eventually married. Pepi retains a strong commitment to her fellow Jews, especially the refugees spilling into Prague. Rubinek is Jewish, but baptized, and is not interested in identifying either religiously or ethnically with Judaism. In fact he insists that Franzi be baptized in order not to have any Jewish encumbrance. Epstein notes that both her grandmother and her mother, who was also a dressmaker, were "strong, liberated women who supported the family and kept house." Thus when the Women's Liberation Movement swept America in the 1970s, the author reports thinking, "What's the big deal?"

One of the memoir's more poignant moments occurs when Franzi realizes that an action she had taken in defense of her parents led instead to their further suffering. She and her parents had been arrested by the Gestapo in 1942. Franzi returned and discovered a box of poison pills in Emil's desk. Frightened, she went to the pharmacist, who replaced the poison with saccharin. Thus when Pepi and Emil where deported to Riga, Franzi understood that "Instead of being protective, I had deprived my father of the last possibility to decide his fate as a free man." Franzi remains guilt ridden and battles suicidal impulses for the rest of her life.

Epstein's relationship with Franzi is intense. Franzi was a Jew who did not practice Judaism. On the one hand, Epstein views her mother as a "heroine more compelling than any in the Bible, any novel or myth." On the other hand, however, Epstein writes, "I was never sure what belonged to whom, where I ended, and she began." Reflecting on the origin of her odyssey of Jewish identity, Epstein observes that it was in her mother's workroom that she "fell in love with the dead women in my mother's family." Utilizing a beautiful metaphor, Epstein differentiates her work from that of the girls who at the end of the day "swept up and threw out threads and scraps of cloth" that remained in the workroom. The author's task was different. Rather than throwing things away, she "collected threads and scraps of stories, hoarding them, mulling them over." Reflecting on the distinction between how her mother sewed and how she told Holocaust stories, Epstein notes that Franzi was an expert seamstress. But unlike the clothes that she skillfully made, the story threads contained "wide gaps in the fabric." She "never fixed the way she told her past."

Epstein's memoir is itself a type of Holocaust legacy. She reports several rituals that have assumed significance among the second generation—for example, pilgrimage to parental birthplace. In addition, she articulates the contours of the meaning of secular Jewish identity. Finally, Where She Came From is an exemplary work for those wishing to connect to the Jewish past and thereby place the Shoah within the context of the continuing panorama of Jewish history.

—Alan L. Berger

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Where She Came from: A Daughter's Search for Her Mother's History

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