The Gravedigger's Daughter

( 33 )


Fleeing Nazi Germany in 1936, the Schwarts immigrate to a small town in upstate New York. Here the father—a former high school teacher—is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. When local prejudice and the family's own emotional frailty give rise to an unthinkable tragedy, the gravedigger's daughter, Rebecca heads out into America. Embarking upon an extraordinary odyssey of erotic risk and ingenious self-invention, she seeks renewal, redemption, and peace—on the road to a ...

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Fleeing Nazi Germany in 1936, the Schwarts immigrate to a small town in upstate New York. Here the father—a former high school teacher—is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. When local prejudice and the family's own emotional frailty give rise to an unthinkable tragedy, the gravedigger's daughter, Rebecca heads out into America. Embarking upon an extraordinary odyssey of erotic risk and ingenious self-invention, she seeks renewal, redemption, and peace—on the road to a bittersweet and distinctly “American” triumph.

Finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

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Editorial Reviews

Brian Hall
This is neither a depressing story nor an uplifting one. Oates succeeds here, as she often does, in making such judgments feel simple-minded. What it all seems is true and therefore moving and somewhat terrible, but in an exhilarating way. Every aspect of the ungainly plot feels right, including its ungainliness. Resolutions fail to arrive; lost people fail to return. Flowing through and past it all, surfacing for these 600 pages, is Oates's turbulent, cross-currented prose, with its hot upwellings and icy eddies. It's the opposite of lapidary, and has the disadvantage of being impossible to quote effectively in a brief review, but for the enthralled reader, Oates's water will eventually have its proverbial way with other writers' stone.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

At the beginning of Oates's 36th novel, Rebecca Schwart is mistaken by a seemingly harmless man for another woman, Hazel Jones, on a footpath in 1959 Chatauqua Falls, N.Y. Five hundred pages later, Rebecca will find out that the man who accosted her is a serial killer, and Oates will have exercised, in a manner very difficult to forget, two of her recurring themes: the provisionality of identity and the awful suddenness of male violence.

There's plenty of backstory, told in retrospect. Rebecca's parents escape from the Nazis with their two sons in 1936; Rebecca is born in the boat crossing over. When Rebecca is 13, her father, Jacob, a sexton in Milburn, N.Y., kills her mother, Anna, and nearly kills Rebecca, before blowing his own head off. At the time of the footpath crossing, Rebecca is just weeks away from being beaten, almost to death, by her husband, Niles Tignor (a shady traveling beer salesman). She and son Niley flee; she takes the name of the woman for whom she has been recently mistaken and becomes Hazel Jones. Niley, a nine-year-old with a musical gift, becomes Zacharias, "a name from the bible," Rebecca tells people. Rebecca's Hazel navigates American norms as a waitress, salesperson and finally common-law wife of the heir of the Gallagher media fortune, a man in whom she never confides her past.

Oates is our finest novelistic tracker, following the traces of some character's flight from or toward some ultimate violence with forensic precision. There are allusions here to the mythic scouts of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, who explored the same New York territory when it was primeval woods. Many of the passages are a lot like ablown-up photo of a bruise—ugly without seeming to have a point. Yet the traumatic pattern of the hunter and the hunted, unfolded in Rebecca/Hazel's lifelong escape, never cripples Hazel: she is liberated, made crafty, deepened by her ultimately successful flight. Like Theodore Dreiser, Oates wears out objections with her characters, drawn in an explosive vernacular. Everything in this book depends on Oates' ability to bring a woman before the reader who is deeply veiled—whose real name is unknown even to herself—and she does it with epic panache. (June)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Reader Bernadette Dunne captures the mesmerizing pace of Oates's prose in an almost hypnotic rhythm as the novel unwinds in past and present time. The daughter of a family that escaped Nazi Germany only to land in America in a situation well beneath their previous status, Rebecca tells a story of violence, betrayal, secrets, forced silences, and misperceptions. She will suffer the deflected and intentional slurs directed at her father and his new profession, carrying her shame into her unfortunate marriage, her escape, and her uncertainty about her true identity as she attempts to secure a chameleon's invisibility throughout her life. A harsh and demanding book but recommended for libraries whose clientele favor serious fiction.
—Joyce Kessel

Library Journal
Having fled Nazi Germany, Rebecca Schwarts's father is compelled to dig graves for a living, but he encourages Rebecca to feel that she's part of America. With a ten-city tour; reading group guide. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The lingering residue of survivor's guilt and trauma shape a battered woman's life on the run in Oates's latest novel (Black Girl/White Girl, 2006, etc.), which is stuffed with echoes of her earlier fiction. Following a terse "Prologue" in which young wife and mother Rebecca Tignor rejects memories of her harsh immigrant father Jacob Schwart, we observe her fending off a stranger who follows her home from her factory job, addressing her as "Hazel Jones," a name that means nothing to her. Then, in juxtaposed narratives, we learn of her girlhood among a German-American family scarred by the resentment of her father (a teacher and intellectual reduced to working as a cemetery caretaker) and the violence of her older brother, and the life to which she alone escaped after a family tragedy: a hopeful marriage to traveling salesman Niles Tignor, blighted by his violent abuse of Rebecca and their young son "Niley." Escaping again, Rebecca reinvents herself (as "Hazel Jones," also renaming Niley "Zacharias"), moves around upstate New York for years and finds love with a decent older man (Chet Gallagher), who also nurtures "Zacharias's" precocious musical gift-until the pull of her own life brings Rebecca/Hazel to obsession with the nihilistic "wisdom" preached by her doubtless insane father. The arc thus traced virtually repeats that of Oates's 1967 novel A Garden of Earthly Delights (itself recently republished, in substantially rewritten form), and circumstantial details recall similar material in such novels as The Assassins (1975) and Angel of Light (1981). Furthermore, the novel ends with an exchange of letters which incorporates a short story published in her recent collection High Lonesome(2006). The resulting patchwork is an amalgam of tedious rehashing and compelling drama, whose best feature is Oates's painstaking portrayal of a woman so persistently exploited and betrayed that she loses all sense of who she actually is. A truly representative sampling of this unpredictable author's grind-it-out strengths and mind-boggling weaknesses.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061236839
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/1/2008
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 624
  • Sales rank: 341,650
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including We Were the Mulvaneys; Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award; and the New York Times bestseller The Accursed. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Rosamond Smith
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 16, 1938
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lockport, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

Read an Excerpt

The Gravedigger's Daughter

Chapter One

Chautauqua Falls, New York

One afternoon in September 1959 a young woman factory worker was walking home on the towpath of the Erie Barge Canal, east of the small city of Chautauqua Falls, when she began to notice that she was being followed, at a distance of about thirty feet, by a man in a panama hat.

A panama hat! And strange light-colored clothes, of a kind not commonly seen in Chautauqua Falls.

The young woman's name was Rebecca Tignor. She was married, her husband's name Tignor was one of which she was terribly vain.


So in love, and so childish in her vanity, though not a girl any longer, a married woman a mother. Still she uttered "Tignor" a dozen times a day.

Thinking now as she began to walk faster He better not be following me, Tignor won't like it.

To discourage the man in the panama hat from wishing to catch up with her and talk to her as men sometimes, not often but sometimes, did, Rebecca dug the heels of her work shoes into the towpath, gracelessly. She was nerved-up anyway, irritable as a horse tormented by flies.

She'd almost smashed her hand in a press, that day. God damn she'd been distracted!

And now this. This guy! Sent him a mean look over her shoulder, not to be encouraged.

No one she knew?

Didn't look like he belonged here.

In Chautauqua Falls, men followed her sometimes. At least, with their eyes. Most times Rebecca tried not to notice. She'd lived with brothers, she knew "men." She wasn't the shy fearful little-girl type. She was strong, fleshy. Wanting tothink she could take care of herself.

But this afternoon felt different, somehow. One of those wan warm sepia-tinted days. A day to make you feel like crying, Christ knew why.

Not that Rebecca Tignor cried. Never.

And: the towpath was deserted. If she shouted for help . . .

This stretch of towpath she knew like the back of her hand. A forty-minute walk home, little under two miles. Five days a week Rebecca hiked the towpath to Chautauqua Falls, and five days a week she hiked back home. Quick as she could manage in her damn clumsy work shoes.

Sometimes a barge passed her on the canal. Livening things up a little. Exchanging greetings, wisecracks with guys on the barges. Got to know a few of them.

But the canal was empty now, both directions.

God damn she was nervous! Nape of her neck sweating. And inside her clothes, armpits leaking. And her heart beating in that way that hurt like something sharp was caught between her ribs.

"Tignor. Where the hell are you."

She didn't blame him, really. Oh but hell she blamed him.

Tignor had brought her here to live. In late summer 1956. First thing Rebecca read in the Chautauqua Falls newspaper was so nasty she could not believe it: a local man who'd murdered his wife, beat her and threw her into the canal somewhere along this very-same deserted stretch, and threw rocks at her until she drowned. Rocks! It had taken maybe ten minutes, the man told police. He had not boasted but he had not been ashamed, either.

Bitch was tryin to leave me, he said.

Wantin to take my son.

Such a nasty story, Rebecca wished she'd never read it. The worst thing was, every guy who read it, including Niles Tignor, shook his head, made a sniggering noise with his mouth.

Rebecca asked Tignor what the hell that meant: laughing?

"You make your bed, now lay in it."

That's what Tignor said.

Rebecca had a theory, every female in the Chautauqua Valley knew that story, or one like it. What to do if a man throws you into the canal. (Could be the river, too. Same difference.) So when she'd started working in town, hiking the towpath, Rebecca dreamt up a way of saving herself if/when the time came.

Her thoughts were so bright and vivid she'd soon come to imagine it had already happened to her, or almost. Somebody (no face, no name, a guy bigger than she was) shoved her into the muddy-looking water, and she had to struggle to save her life. Right away pry off your left shoe with the toe of your right shoe then the other quick! And then— She'd have only a few seconds, the heavy work shoes would sink her like anvils. Once the shoes were off she'd have a chance at least, tearing at her jacket, getting it off before it was soaked through. Damn work pants would be hard to get off, with a fly front, and buttons, and the legs kind of tight at the thighs, Oh shit she'd have to be swimming, too, in the direction the opposite of her murderer . . .

Christ! Rebecca was beginning to scare herself. This guy behind her, guy in a panama hat, probably it was just coincidence. He wasn't following her only just behind her.

Not deliberate only just accident.

Yet: the bastard had to know she was conscious of him, he was scaring her. A man following a woman, a lonely place like this.

God damn she hated to be followed! Hated any man following her with his eyes, even.

Ma had put the fear of the Lord in her, years ago. You would not want anything to happen to you, Rebecca! A girl by herself, men will follow. Even boys you know, you can't trust.

Even Rebecca's big brother Herschel, Ma had worried he might do something to her. Poor Ma!

Nothing had happened to Rebecca, for all Ma's worrying.

At least, nothing she could remember.

Ma had been wrong about so many damn things . . .

Rebecca smiled to think of that old life of hers when she'd been a girl in Milburn. Not yet a married woman.

The Gravedigger's Daughter. Copyright © by Joyce Oates. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Interviews & Essays

The following is Edmund White interviewing Joyce Carol Oates about her new book, The Gravedigger's Daughter.

Q: The Gravedigger's Daughter has some connections to your own life, I've been told, or at least to your grandmother's. Could you tell me what those links are?

A: The novel is an imagined journey through the life of my "Jewish" grandmother who had hidden her Jewishness, like most of her family background, from everyone including her husband and son. Because my grandmother Blanche Morgenstern--the name was changed to "Morningstar"--seemed to have no history, she came to seem to others admirably selfless; only decades later did I come to realize that she must have been terribly lonely, bereft of a family background and any ancestral history if even a despairing one. My grandmother was the person who bought me my first typewriter when I was fourteen, and always gave me books as presents; she has come to seem to me, across the decades, as across an abyss whose depths are obscured by picturesque mists, an utterly mysterious woman: the "muse" of much of my writing which has always been for me an exploration of mystery, though not invariably an explanation of it.

Q: This novel seems to me to be about the Holocaust though it takes place entirely in America and mostly in the period after the Second World War. Would you ever consider writing a direct, head-on account of the Holocaust-or do you feel more at home with this indirect approach?

A: No, I would never wish to attempt writing about the Holocaust since there is no point of entry for me. Such an obsessive quest would belong to the descendants of Holocaust sufferers orsurvivors who would likely be haunted by their relatives' memories.

Q: Tignor is a vibrant male who gradually falls apart and becomes dangerously jealous and violent. Another character, glimpsed fleetingly, is a serial killer. What I find remarkable is how well-rounded your representations of these characters are. Do you find it difficult to humanize these monsters?

A: I don't consider these men "monsters" really; they are not so very different from us, but the trajectories of their life-stories take them in ways radically different from our own. Writers are fantasists, not unlike serial killers who are utterly enthralled by the contents of the unconscious which they cannot expel or comprehend but which seems to guide them in their acts. Only when obeying the dictates of the unconscious is the serial killer "really alive"--so too for many artists, only when immersed in art are they "really alive."

Q: Just when it seems you have exploited all the possibilities of your tale you shift into a new, unexpected epistolary mode at the end of the book which provides a shocking and deeply moving coda. You have always struck me as a writer fully in command of her craft but if anything to me it seems that in Blonde and the novels that have followed you have reached new technical heights. Not that you are showing off your skills for their own sake; rather, you seem now to be able to go anywhere at anytime with a resourcefulness that is always surprising.

A: I had always intended the cousins Rebecca and Freida to meet after many years. In fact, it isn't clear if they will meet. The letters at the end of the novel --though written by me--yet have the power to bring tears to my eyes, after repeated readings. Isn't this strange! I think it must be because I feel that I am a kind of Freida, though more benign than this Freida, writing to my grandmother who has been dead for decades....

Q: Do you see any direct relationship between your teaching of fiction at Princeton and your own finesse as a writer? Between your work as a critic and as a novelist?

A: I don't think that there is much connection between my teaching and my writing. The one is so very social and outgoing, the other very solitary and often exhausting.

Q: Though your main female character changes her name several times in the course of the novel, this variability only serves to underline her rock-solid toughness, her amazing ability to endure. Are you an optimist about human nature -or are her survival skills merely idiosyncratic?

A: I don't think that I am particularly optimistic or pessimistic: so much of life is sheer contingency, sheer luck good or bad, one's perspective is inevitably an expression of one's luck good or bad. The optimist is someone to whom the bad things have not yet happened.... (This sounds like an Oscar Wilde aphorism though Oscar would have been more perversely witty in expressing it.)

Q: What are your favorite parts of the book?

A: My favorite parts of THE GRAVEDIGGER's DAUGHTER are the scenes in the gravedigger's miserable little house and in the graveyard, the exchanges between the father, the brothers, and Rebecca. The strange haunting rawness of a certain kind of utterly uncivilizable being like Rebecca's older brother and the furious befuddlement of the father who'd once been a math teacher and must now dig graves in a Christian cemetery; next, the scenes with Tignor. I think that this is a powerful "nostalgia for the depths" (is that the expression?) that evokes distant memories from my childhood, not to be replicated in any way in my present life, and not desirable in any case. I grew up amid men not unlike these, and while the warm and loving women of my childhood are not at all absent from my present life, these men are utterly absent and seem to belong almost to a pre-history.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 33 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 33 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2007

    Her Best to Date

    I've read most of Oates' books, but this beats all predecessors. Simply put, this book is in a class all its own. While intricately written, the book has a very basic theme, I think. Not strictly about being abused by males, whether by a father, husband, son, is about choices on the one hand and fate on the other. I saw the abuse, but I think the story line focused more on the hand we are dealt in life and what we make of it. Rebecca/Hazel chose to run from it. In my opinion, a wise choice. In the end, sad though it was, she ended up returning back to her roots. We don't choose what race or generation we are born into no more than we choose the color of our eyes or the texture of our hair. I believe the underlying theme is the lack of tolerance in this world and the utter sadness and fear that are the ultimate result.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 5, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    A long journey..

    This was the first Oates novel I read and it was pretty good. It was longer than it should have been (and would have been better if it was condensed) but it was a good story. I will definitely read more of her books in the future.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Worth Reading!

    I read this book while I was on vacation, and I could not put it down. The plot is original and I always wanted to know what was going to happen next. There is romance and scandal; some parts are thrilling while other parts are sad. I would definitely recommend reading the book.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer


    In 1959 in Chautauqua Falls, New York, a stranger tries to abduct Rebecca Tignor nee Schwart. Stunned especially since her kidnapper insists she is a Hazel Jones, Rebecca reflects on the violence of her life. Her parents and two older brothers barely escaped the Nazi final solution. When she was thirteen, her father killed her mother and almost murdered Rebecca, before finally killing himself in a murder suicide. She married a violent man, traveling beer salesman Niles Tignor.----------------- When she got away from her captor she comes home only to be beaten by her husband. Rebecca knows she must leave before Niles kills her and their nine year old child Niley. She becomes Hazel Jones and Niley becomes Zacharias. Hazel and Zach move all over New York until she meets kindhearted wealthy Chet Gallagher, but although she loves him she still hides her roots even from him.-------------- This is an entertaining look at the life of a woman who always has chose flight over fight. She was raised in fear, married in fear, and became a nomad out of fear, and now with Zach has a chance to live outside of fear if she takes the risk with Chet that he is as kind as she thinks. The ¿Beyond¿ ending seems odd and the basic theme is one that Joyce Oates has used often, but fans of the author will not mind a bit as no one better gets inside the psyche of a person who believes that relationships especially with males means being used, abused and you lose.------------- Harriet Klausner

    5 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 22, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Waste Of Time

    No ending, I am not an author, therefore, it is very annoying when a book does not end with an ending. This book was a waste of time.

    4 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 8, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:


    This is a LONG book. It took me about 3 weeks to finish it, but I think it was worth it. Hazel Jones (AKA Rebecca Schwart) is a very intriguing. Her life is a series of ups and downs. This novel takes you into the world of a girl from an immigrant family. She is born in New York harbor and grows up under unusual circumstances. I don't want to say to much so that I don't ruin the story for you. But, read this novel! You wont regret it.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2008

    Her best work

    I absolutely could not put this book down! Despite the length, it kept my attention.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2012


    An amazing book that only Oates could write. She writes with deep knowledge of her characters. They are so developed you get to know them. A great story that encompasses many years from the hovel in which the Grave Digger's Daughter was "raised" to the triumpth of her later years. Her secrets are never revealed but they totally shape her and her son.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2012

    Really enjoyed this book!!

    such a good story...I had trouble putting it down. I hadn't read anything from Oates in awhile and am so happy to re-discover her....

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2009

    great book, will stay with me for a long time

    first one of Joyce Carol Oates books I read, definitely makes me want to read more

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 19, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Could be better written.

    This novel would be better if it was shorter and had less detail. There is too much descrptions about details that have nothing to do with the novel. It has potential, but it seems like I am reading a draft of this book.<BR/>I do not recommend this book.

    2 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2012

    Long and Painful

    The plot had great potential and there was good character development, otherwise this book is garbage. The cussing was too much and in places that didnt seem to belong, almost as if the author in a desperate attempt to make the book exciting started randomly adding foul language. At times I thought about not finishing, but did, and honestly I dont see why I bothered. I wanted to feel something for Hazel after everything she had been through, but the writing just never gave me a chance get emotional like other books I have read.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2008

    Just Ok

    I waited anxiously for this to come out in paperback. But, I don't know why I keep reading her books. They start out good and keep you reading. But, the ending just leaves you hanging. She doesn't really tie everything up very well. Three quarters of the way through, you are just wishing it would end soon as it gets boring.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2007

    Didn't 'get it'

    I couldn't wait to start this book after what I'd heard about it, but I ended up being disappointed. I thought it was way too long and boring. It sort of felt what? I must have missed something!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2010

    One of the best novels I have ever read

    A touching story of a girl with a troubled life who only wants a family. From a master writer, one of the best alive.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2007

    A reviewer

    such a complex & compelling gift your newest book is.Wonderful writing. Much food for thought.The end I cried-not just for the cousins exchange of letters, but all whose life was completly changed by the halocaust. I read many 'camp books' but never thought of those lucky enough to escape and yet not.What a beautiful story--Thank YOU!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 33 Customer Reviews

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