A book review by Dr. George Halasz
There is a famous Chasidic saying, “In the end is the beginning,” which I had in mind as I read Suzanna Eibuszyc’s refined translation of her late mother’s moving memoir, “Beshert – It was Meant to Be.” The end of each handwritten word, penned in Polish by her mother in her Los Angeles apartment, became a new beginning of her daughter Suzanna’s translation. Her mother had fulfilled her daughters’ request to write about her life as a Jew in Warsaw from 1917. “My daughters have convinced me to write about my life.” And what a life!
As I read the book it occurred to me that “Beshert” – it was meant to be – is the expression used by deeply spiritual people as a way to endure the sometimes unbearable lot that life casts our way. And Roma Talasowicz-Eibuszyc surely drew on her spiritual sensibility to endure, survive and commit her experiences as testimony, a legacy for her daughters and grandchildren.
Her diary is deeply personal, her style, at times, left me feeling as if I was with her in her apartment. “I am putting my pen down and walking around my apartment, my thoughts flooding my mind, there are so many. They come and go too quickly for me to capture them on paper. Paper, as always, is patient and will wait.” I wished I was there to reassure her that such agitation is normal. It is what we call “traumatic flash-backs.” I have never read a more honest description of a flashback, which she no doubt endured over the years, before and during the writing of her diary. She had a natural gift for learning foreign languages together with her gift of writing; her writing is a heart-felt testimony, rich with extraordinary experiences spanning over half a century, including the years leading up to the Second World War and follows her afterwards, right up to her new life in America.
The side-by-side story of the past and the present, contrasting the “cheers, excitement and optimism that the people of New York Generate” around New Year with the her memory of the dark clouds at the outbreak of war in 1939, Poland. There, she lived in constant fear with no place to run, burdened by moral dilemmas of family loyalty and self-preservation and
decisions no one should be forced to make. And her memory of how the most important Jewish Holy days, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the Sabbath, were all extinguished with the untimely death of her mother.
But here is another level of this past-present side-by-side story.
The author’s daughter, who recognized the need for her mother to go back in time, brought her both comfort and torment. I thought about how it was obvious to me that there had never been any closure for my own mother, a Holocaust survivor, and so I wondered why we would expect closure in one generation after such massive trauma.
I was reminded of an interview a decade ago I started with Daisy Miller, herself a child survivor, then working for the Visual History foundation in Los Angeles, which later recorded over 50,000 Holocaust testimonies. Daisy asked me why I wanted to interview her. I said I wanted to learn about how child survivors healed their trauma. Daisy’s previous warmth suddenly transformed into a cold stare, with a steely voice she confronted me: “George I’m really disappointed in you (as a mental health professional). Do you really think that we can be healed?”
In an apologetic voice, I replied, “No.” “So why did you say it? Maybe you could put the question another way?” she encouraged me. I returned with, “Maybe to see how you can repair the trauma.”
She smiled and our recorded interview started. The lesson I learnt from that encounter was the need to be most thoughtful about how we use language when speaking with survivors and their next of kin, particularly about recovery.
So I was very moved by the brutal honesty in Suzanna’s description of her family life – “Growing up in the shadow …Sometimes I was sympathetic. Other times I was filled with contempt. I was angry, and overwhelmed for being connected to my mother’s ongoing grief.” Later she added to that, “To this day I do not have any emotional attachment to holidays, but now at least I understand how this disconnection came about.” So it is with the inherited trauma across the generations. The detachment her mother needed to make with Jewish holidays is passed unknowingly to her daughter who learns the reason through the act of translating her mother’s diary.
Thus, it was with surprise that I read Suzanne’s regret: “…huge regret was that I did not get to translate her memoir while she was still alive. We never had the chance to journey and emerge together from her trauma.”
Now, as someone who had the good fortune to travel to Auschwitz Birkenau with my mother on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camps, I have learnt that it is not really possible “to emerge,” either individually or together, from the massive trauma endured by survivors. Rather, I now believe that at best we incrementally repair such trauma, neither to emerge from nor heal the trauma. I believe it is through the acts of remembering, whether while survivors are live, or after their passing, that this critical act of repair may takes place. In the case of translation, I believe that Suzanna has followed in her mother’s footsteps, which she described as “at great risk to her safety and sanity that my mother entered the world she suppressed for so long.”
Like her mother, reading this remarkable translation is ample testimony to her daughter’s equal measure of courage to enter that world, to enjoy the legacy bequeathed to her and her daughter, to live with hope in the future. That is how it was meant to be in the end, the beginning of the new generation – it is Beshert.