After Long Silence

( 14 )

Overview

"To this day, I don't even know what my mother's real name is."

Helen Fremont was raised as a Roman Catholic. It wasn't until she was an adult, practicing law in Boston, that she discovered her parents were Jewish--Holocaust survivors living invented lives. Not even their names were their own. In this powerful memoir, Helen Fremont delves into the secrets that held her family in a bond of silence for more than four decades, recounting with heartbreaking clarity a remarkable tale of survival, as vivid as fiction ...

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After Long Silence

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Overview

"To this day, I don't even know what my mother's real name is."

Helen Fremont was raised as a Roman Catholic. It wasn't until she was an adult, practicing law in Boston, that she discovered her parents were Jewish--Holocaust survivors living invented lives. Not even their names were their own. In this powerful memoir, Helen Fremont delves into the secrets that held her family in a bond of silence for more than four decades, recounting with heartbreaking clarity a remarkable tale of survival, as vivid as fiction but with the resonance of truth.

Driven to uncover their roots, Fremont and her sister pieced together an astonishing story: of Siberian Gulags and Italian royalty, of concentration camps and buried lives. After Long Silence is about the devastating price of hiding the truth; about families; about the steps we take, foolish or wise, to protect ourselves and our loved ones. No one who reads this book can be unmoved, or fail to understand the seductive, damaging power of secrets.

What Fremont and her sister discover is an astonishing story: one of Siberian gulags and Italian royalty, of concentration camps and buried lives. AFTER LONG SILENCE is about the devastating price of hiding the truth; about families; about the steps we take, foolish or wise, to protect ourselves and our loved ones. No one who reads this book can be unmoved, or fail to understand the seductive, damaging power of secrets.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A story of safe but costly passage from one identity to another that takes us from Europe to America via World War II...[Fremont] has the intelligence and imagination to question her own motives. This allows her to question the memoir form, even as she deploys it so beautifully."
--The New York Times

"An extraordinary tale...eloquently written....Its complex narrative weaves back and forth between past and present, the tale and its discovery."
--The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Fascinating...A tragic saga, but at the same time it often reads like a thriller filled with acts of extraordinary courage, descriptions of dangerous journeys and a series of secret identities."
--Chicago Tribune

"Riveting...painfully authentic...a poignant memoir, a labor of love for the parents she never really knew."
--The Boston Globe

"Mesmerizing...Fremont has accomplished something that seems close to impossible: She has made a fresh and worthy contribution to the vast literature of the Holocaust."
--The Washington Post Book World

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385333702
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/11/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 365,707
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.05 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Helen Fremont lives in Boston, Massachusetts.  She has had fiction and nonfiction published in The Harvard Review, The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Marlboro Review, and Ploughshares.  After Long Silence is her first book.
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Read an Excerpt

Lara and I were raised Catholic in a small city in the Midwest. In 1960, at the age of three, I went to nursery school at the convent of the Saint James Sisters, and at six I wore Lara's hand-me-down itchy white petticoat dress to my First Communion. It was the first and last time I would ever swallow a wafer, however, since our family always tiptoed out of church every Sunday before Communion. "It's not an important part of Mass," my mother explained, and for a long time we believed that Communion was a curious American addition to Catholicism.

My sister and I knew that our parents were from a distant and dangerous world, that they had come out of a war, and that no one else had come with them. Although we could not hear their accents, our playmates told us our parents spoke funny English; and when our schoolmates asked about our grandparents and aunts and uncles, we said we didn't have any. Except, of course, our auntie Zosia, who lived across the ocean in a place called Italy.

I also knew that my parents had been in concentration camps. I misunderstood the meaning of concentration and assumed that in prison, the inmates were consumed by intensely focused mental activity. I believed that these camps were so deadly that they had sewn my parents into pockets of complete silence. And so I understood that two things could happen to you in a war: either you were suddenly, breathlessly, swept off the streets by a bomb, or you were scooped into a concentration camp, where you swallowed a terrible silence.

My mother, I knew, was finally sprung from the camp by her sister, Zosia, who baked goodies and buttered up the camp warden. My father had it worse--he was off on a sheet of ice somewhere in Siberia for six years, until he escaped. I never knew how he escaped, except that he had managed to jump a train and hang on for days. I pictured him dangling from his one good arm, long, tattered legs swinging an arc each time the train banked a curve.

Their love story I had been fed early and often, until it seemed part of my bones. I knew that they had fallen in love before the war, and they had been separated for six years without knowing if the other was alive; my mother escaped Poland dressed as an Italian soldier, and my father walked across Europe after the war, found my mother in Rome, and married her ten years to the day after they had first met. This was the tale they liked to tell and retell, the story they used to summarize their lives. It was a good story, because it ran a thread across the war and connected the two lovers before and after. It tied a knot in their tongues at the end, and the war remained silent; the intervening six years could never be spoken.

My father, Kovik Buchman, was a self-employed family doctor with a sharp Slavic accent, pure white hair, and a chip on his shoulder the size of a Soviet tank. He was forty-two when I was born, twice as old and almost twice as tall as other daddies. He built a little office downtown, having drawn up the blueprints and supervised the construction himself. He bought all the latest equipment, an X-ray machine and elaborate instruments, lab equipment and simple furniture. His office was dark and smelled of medicine, with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, textbooks, and illustrated medical periodicals. My mother sewed the curtains--bold op-art designs without a trace of heritage.

His patients poured in, Poles and Lithuanians, Czechs and Hungarians. They liked bantering with him in their home tongues, liked his European approach, his punctuality, his efficiency, his dry sense of humor. He worked from early morning until late at night, six days a week. He made house calls on a moment's notice, day or night. You could almost hear him click his heels as he marched from one patient to another. His stride was enormous, his smile brief, his gaze intense. "Sit," he would command, slapping on a blood-pressure band. "Inhale deeply." "Cough." "Say 'Aaah.'" His exam was quick and thorough. "All set," he would snap. "You may dress. Call me tomorrow." In a flash he would be down the hall, ushering the next patient into his other examining room.

My mother was a more slippery figure. Slender and supple, she was half my father's size and twice as elusive. She spent the day at home up to her elbows in yellow Playtex living gloves, cleaning house. She smelled of ammonia and lemons. "Be a doctor," my mother always instructed us. "Don't marry one."

In the fall she tied her hair in an aqua-green surgeon's cap and began rearranging nature, brandishing a rake that was taller than she was. She stuffed leaves into barrels, dragged them from one end of the property to the other, and dumped them over the cliff behind our house. In the spring she planted an elaborate rock garden under the white pines, using rocks she had kidnapped from nearby streams. Kneeling in dirt for hours, she separated and reunited plants from the woods and the rock garden, until it was hard to tell where her garden ended and the woods began.

Our house itself was a crazy-shaped glass-and-brick affair surrounded by a small forest--a swank fifties Frank Lloyd Wright knockoff. My parents had fallen in love with it instantly because it looked like nothing they'd ever seen before. We moved in just after I was born, after they'd changed their name to Bocard and settled into their new American identity.

It was a loud house. The sun danced through the pines and smashed through our floor-to-ceiling windows. An overbearing sky trumpeted each new day and tossed us out of bed. From the living room, violins wept on the hi-fidelity. A fat medical text lay open on my father's lap, the Sunday Tribune spread at his feet. The dog a respectful distance away, banished from the Oriental rug.

Kazakhstan followed my father to the new world in the form of floor covering. He wiped his feet on Middle Asia. Solzhenitsyn lined his bookshelves. The First Circle, Cancer Ward, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. The Gathering Storm, volume after volume after volume, by Churchill. Books soared for the ceiling: The Art of Florence, The Operas of Puccini, The Roman Ruins. Dictionaries in every color and language. Volumes of German grammar, Duden.

From the moment my mother moved to the States, she and her sister, Zosia, wrote each other three or four times a week. Pale blue aerograms with every millimeter of available space filled in elite type, with handwritten notes squeezed into the margins. The Italian post was terrible, and my mother would go days without mail and then get a bonanza of letters. Sometimes the letters arrived in little plastic bags, charred, torn, and taped back together.

They wrote of the same things day after day: the weather, their bridge games, the children, books, movies, opera--or so my mother claimed whenever I asked her to translate the letters. From the excerpts she read to me, I couldn't fathom why my mother's face lit up every time she found a letter from my aunt in the mailbox. "Zosia!" she would exclaim, and race up the driveway to make herself a celebratory cup of pale tea with lemon. Then she gently pried open the aerogram with a knife, careful not to lose any words clinging to the inside edge of the folds, and settled into the chaise longue in her bedroom to read.

When I was small, maybe five or six, my mother came to my bed every night to tuck me in. She would teach me the sign of the cross in six languages: Polish, Russian, German, Italian, French, and English. Each night I selected a language, and we said the sign of the cross in that language: In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. Then she taught me the prayer Our Father in these languages, and I rehearsed them until I knew them by heart. I loved the way gumdrop syllables rolled off the tongue in Italian and the way consonants crashed in German; I loved the tongue-twisting sounds of Polish and the fur-lined purr of French and Russian. And of course, I loved our conspiracy--my mother's and mine. It was our time alone, our time together, and she was sending me into a night of sleep, protected by a God who could respond to me in any language, under any sky.

What I didn't understand was that my mother was equipping me with the means of survival: proof of my Catholicism to anyone in a dozen countries.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 14 )
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  • Posted April 24, 2010

    Family at the center of the story

    Ms. Fremont's writing is lush and beautiful, leading to a memorable and affective read. The research and interviews she spent years putting together bring out a hidden family history, one which brings out a daughter's longing to understand where she came from. The book is very hard to put down, and I have now read it twice (both for graduate school courses). The empathy and generosity she shows when writing about her family helps drive the book. Clearly-labeled imagined scenes make her characters vivid.

    The book is as much, if not more so, about family and the secrets parents keep from children in an effort to protect them as it is about the Holocaust. If you are concerned it may be yet another Holocaust book when so many are already out there, you'll find that's only one piece in the large puzzle that is Ms. Fremont's family. At the center of that puzzle is a pair of sisters, Fremont's mother and aunt, and the attempt to find answers also centers on a pair of sisters.

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  • Posted March 12, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Interesting story

    I found the premise of this book to be very interesting, and the story did not disappoint. I was drawn in right away, and found it very hard to put down. I would definitely recommend this to friends.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2008

    Very inspirational

    I loved this book. I've passed it to all of my friends as it is an incredibly inspirational story. Horrible topic, amazing bravery. It's highly memorable and worth the read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2008

    A story of hidden family secrets to protect their loved ones

    After Long Silence is a heartbreaking story of a woman¿s search for the hidden truth of her family¿s secret history as well as her attempt to discover her own identity. A story of survival despite the evils of man it is filled with the pride of self worth and a family¿s effort to protect their loved ones. It defines man¿s unbelievable strength and the will to overcome unbearable odds in the pitiless world of Nazi domination and Stalin¿s Russia. It is the first book that I have read that successfully blends the past with the present by flashbacks interwoven into a cohesive and naturally flowing story. Excellent prose combined with poetic descriptions make this a beautiful story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2004

    Awesome Book

    I read this book for one of my college courses and I could not put it down. Books that tell about the lives of others are so inertesting. My school had a book reading by Helen Freemont and it was very interesting. Her book keeps you on the edge of your seat. After A Long Silence has helped motivate me to make my life story into a book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2004

    GREAT!

    It was an amazing story. It opened my eyes to how much the holocaust effected the survivors, to have to change your life. What if you woke up one day realizing your parents weren't who you thought they were? I've read this book time and time again, and it still is hard to believe.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2002

    After Long Silence is GREAT!!!

    AFTER LONG SILENCE: A MEMOIR was the most interesting book that I have read in a long time. It isn't the same trajic Holocaust story that you always hear--this book is also has mystery and excitement in it. It is one of those books that you begin reading and then lose track of time because you are so into it. If you haven't read it, you really should.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2001

    A scared life!

    This book really touched me. The author never new her past until she had to face it. She was scared for life. I recommend this book for a good read. The book was poignant and the story was realistic to me as a reader.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 24, 2000

    Amazing story of survival

    This book would make a great movie. The story of the author's parents during the war is truly a tale worth telling. They've overcome tremendous odds but did not survive unscathed. It made me realize that although people physically survive wars, they are scarred for life. They live with the price of their survival everyday. Theirs is an amazing story, very poignant.

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    Posted May 15, 2010

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