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Salamon's last book, The Devil's Candy, was a wonderfully telling book about Hollywood. This, too, is a wonderfully telling book, but quite different. In 1993 Salamon interviewed Steven Spielberg on the set of Schindler's List in Poland. In tow was her mother Lilly, who survived Auschwitz. Lilly remembers little of the camp, though she recalls that Mengele was a handsome man. As Salamon writes, "dropped into madness, she adjusted to madness." In her life afterward, Lilly was indomitably optimistic. She and her husband-a survivor of Dachau-established their family in the Midwest. There they were a continent and a culture away from a past that nevertheless seeped into their relentlessly American present. Her parents' ultimate triumph is that they achieved ordinariness. Salamon movingly evokes their courage in this extraordinary memoir.
In The Devil's Candy, Julie Salamon reported on the making of Brian DePalma's dead-in-the-water film version of Tom Wolfe's novel Bonfire of the Vanities. Here she gives us her own family's memoir, an altogether more personal report, but one which also begins in the film world. Invited to visit Steven Spielberg on the set of Schindler's List, Salamon asks her mother, Lily, to go along. Lily, herself a survivor of the concentration camps, "came through Auschwitz remarkably unscarred," writes Salamon. "Dropped into madness, she adjusted to madness." Once she saw Joseph Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor, when he visited the camp. "He was good-looking," Lily tells her horrified daughter 50 years later, "though most men look very good in uniform."
Lily's normalcy is part pluck, part denial. Her Ohio-born daughter, by contrast, approaches this visit to the sites of the Holocaust with dread -- at her distance the evil of the Final Solution can only appear inhuman, monstrous, off-the-scale. The film set, with its artificiality in pursuit of real feeling, enhances the contrast. "The crematoria have been knocked down," Spielberg tells Salamon, "except for the one ABC built for In the end, Lily forces herself to remember all the piercing details, the terrible betrayal of the war, and does so in order to help her daughter come to a just understanding of it. The two exchange their stories and their points of view. This moving, intimate and often funny memoir demonstrates how the stories we must make up to survive can bring us to the actual truth, after all. -- Salon
In the end, Lily forces herself to remember all the piercing details, the terrible betrayal of the war, and does so in order to help her daughter come to a just understanding of it. The two exchange their stories and their points of view. This moving, intimate and often funny memoir demonstrates how the stories we must make up to survive can bring us to the actual truth, after all. -- Salon
Actually, Hollywood does put in a brief, distracting appearance in the person of Salamon's pal Steven Spielberg, whose filming of Schindler's List neatly coincides with Salamon's own excavation of her parents' Holocaust experiences on a trip to Eastern Europe. Her quest seems to be threefold: to understand her mother, Szimi, an optimistic, happy-go-lucky soul; her father, Sanyi, the ideal physician and "saint" of Adams County, Ohio; and the reason why these two Czech Jews, survivors of Auschwitz and Dachau, would settle in such a poor, remote town at the foot of the Appalachians. But while Salamon (formerly of the Wall Street Journal) can gather all the information, her unusual parents elude her powers of penetration; each is reduced to a single, most salient quality. Szimi's breezy detachment may have helped her survive the wartime trauma of deportation, deprivation, and resettlement, first in Prague, where she met Sanyi, and then in America. But at its extreme, when she revisits Auschwitz, this every-cloud-has-a-silver-lining attitude is downright bizarre ("You know, if I hadn't gone through this place I probably wouldn't have led such an interesting life"). Sanyi (who died of cancer when Salamon was 18) remains a remote figure; admitting herself that she barely knew her father, she paints Sanyi primarily as a dedicated doctor whose long silences and deep rages were due to the loss of his first wife and daughter at the hand of the Nazis.
In the end, this narrative is at once too private and too impersonal—the reader floats on the surface of events and characters, unable to to enter into the Salamons' search for a safe place to raise their family.
Our itinerary quickly took shape. We would travel to Huszt, which is now in Ukraine (and is now spelled "Khust"), to Auschwitz, and to Prague. The rest depended on Arthur Salcman, my stepfather. He had recently had a pacemaker installed and couldn't decide whether he felt confident enough to make the trip. He had his own reasons both for wanting to go and for not wanting to go. He had spent the war underground, sometimes fighting with partisans, sometimes working with false papers that identified him as a Gentile.
He'd married my mother in 1975, four years after my father died, two years after his wife died. It didn't take long for Arthur, a quiet, orderly man—an engineer—to realize that he was living with a perpetual-motion machine. She was constantly surprising him with announcements: "Guess who's spending the weekend?"
Or, more unsettling: "Pack your bags. We're going to the airport."
So the nickname he had for her, "Sputnik," carried with it both affection and irritation. Arthur often felt as though he was being dragged in his wife's orbit, an experience that galled him but that he found more pleasurable than he would often admit.
This time the balance was tipped by my mother's nagging and by the free frequent-flier tickets I had to offer. Bratislava was added to the itinerary so Arthur could visit his sister, Zhoffka, and her family. She could have left when he had, forty-five years earlier; they had relatives in America who had provided both of them with visas. But for that generation of European Jews cruel irony was the rule. Zhoffka had survived Auschwitz only to find that her American visa didn't include her husband—even though Arthur's included his wife.
I was slowly coming to understand what should have been obvious from the start. This would be like no other reporting trip I'd ever taken. I would have little control over the agenda. I would be traveling in my mother's wake. She would determine the emotional as well as the geographic landscape.
That became clear not long after our first tentative discussions about the trip. A thick envelope arrived in the mail containing two AAA maps of eastern Europe and a brief note: "Can't wait to leave for our trip. Love, Mommy. P.S. Have you called about renting a car?"
It didn't even occur to me to resist, not even when I heard my sister Suzy's persuasive reason for not coming with us. (How could she leave her two small children for two weeks?) I placed some calls to rental car agencies and taped one of the maps to our kitchen refrigerator, outlining our route with a pink marker so my husband and daughter could follow our travels. I ignored the fact that my three-year-old hadn't yet mastered the connection between our apartment on Sullivan Street and the rest of New York. For her, everywhere we traveled, whether it was Fifty-ninth Street or another country, was simply the place where we stepped off the plane or train. As my guilt over leaving my own child heightened, I began filling the house with mementos of me.
My map knowledge of eastern Europe wasn't much better than my daughter's, even though the war in Bosnia had made that map a front-page staple of my daily newspapers. This came as a shocking revelation one afternoon as I stared at the map I'd taped to the refrigerator (I was saving the other one, in pristine condition, for the trip). Suddenly it struck me. Huszt was in Ukraine. The realization should have been no more surprising than the fact that my nose sat in the middle of my face. I knew that after the war my parents had left Czechoslovakia because their hometowns had been annexed by the USSR and Prague was about to fall to the Communists. Why had I never found the locus of these events? I am a reasonably curious person. And I like maps. Whenever I travel, whether on subway or airplane, I always trace my route on a map. It gives me the illusion that I know where I'm going.
Yet I didn't know exactly where the Carpathian Mountains are—Podkarpatská Rus, the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, to be precise. Was I simply avoiding what I knew? That my family was part of the East (uneducated, impoverished, uncultured), not the West. That my family had lived among the shtetl Jews, or awfully close to them. They had always been so proud to be Czech, but it was obvious to me now, staring at the AAA map, that no matter what the political boundaries had become by the time my mother was born in 1922, Podkarpatská Rus was awfully close to the Russian pale. This wasn't the Czechoslovakia of Bohemia or Moravia with its comparatively noble history. This was the land of the shtetl—and of Gypsies, Slovaks, Hungarians, and Ukrainians—an ignorant backwater that had been annexed by the USSR after World War II. Now communism was finished and the place where my parents were from had been reshuffled again. Their birthplace had lost the status of affiliation with Czechoslovakia or the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were from the Ukraine.
As I stared at the map, I remembered a dinner my husband and I had been invited to at a chic Manhattan restaurant. Our host, a man who liked expensive food and lively conversation, had seated me next to a prominent New Yorker, a Jew who had escaped the Nazis and then returned to Europe as a spy for the Allies. He was a combative man who used his cleverness as a weapon. When he asked about my background I told him my parents were from Czechoslovakia.
"What did they do there?" he asked.
I told him my mother's family owned timberland; my father's owned vineyards.
"Impossible," he said. "Those Jews didn't own anything. Where were your parents during the war?"
It's a question I don't like to answer. I hate seeing the pity that follows, the set of assumptions that people attach to "concentration camp survivors," assumptions that don't suit my parents at all.
I found it hard to avoid this direct inquiry, so I told him.
He stared at me coldly.
"Anyone who had anything got out," he said with urbane scorn, the same dismissiveness I'd heard in an editor's voice when I was a new reporter in New York and confessed I was unfamiliar with the city's exclusive private men's clubs.
I wanted to stab him with all three forks at my table setting. Instead I muttered, "They didn't know."
"How could they not know?" he asked with self-righteous disdain. He seemed to be saying, Those stupid Jews, they deserved what they got, the ones who weren't smart like me.
Our host noticed the bumps disturbing the smooth flow of conversation. He raised his voice slightly, to engage the entire group in whatever it was he was talking about.
Now, kneeling in front of the map stuck to my refrigerator, I wondered whether I was any different from the man at dinner. I had been proud to be a descendant of prewar Czechoslovakia, always talked about in my home as a kind of Camelot, a place where the ancient rivalries and hatreds of Europe had briefly been laid to rest. It was something else to be part of the shtetl—something shameful.
The AAA map also reminded me to apply for a visa from the Ukrainian Embassy. I called my mother to remind her to do the same and to ask her whether I should try to rent a car with automatic shift so she could drive. My heart sank when she told me not to worry about renting a car; Arthur's sister knew of a driver who could take us around "for a very good price" and who knew the ropes at the border between Slovakia and Ukraine. We really didn't need to get a visa; the man could arrange everything, my mother assured me. I worried, remembering the last time my family and I had visited my mother and Arthur in Florida, where they spend the winter months.
Before we had made that particular trip, I had begged her not to pick us up at the airport. It's a long drive from the apartment they use in Saint Petersburg. Even though Arthur looks like a trim, hearty man in his sixties and still carries his golf clubs the entire distance of an eighteen-hole course, he is in fact eighty years old. My mother balked at first, unable to bear the thought of us forking over twenty-five dollars unnecessarily to a cab driver. Then she agreed. However, not long before we left, she told us she'd hired a private taxi to pick us up.
"A car service?" I asked dubiously.
"Why do you sound so suspicious?" she asked. "Janet recommended them."
"How much do they charge?" I asked.
Silence. "Don't worry about that. I'll take care of it. You'll just be more comfortable this way."
At the baggage claim in Saint Petersburg we looked around for someone holding up a sign with our names. That someone didn't appear; we collected our bags and were about to look for a taxi when a frail old man who clearly didn't have all his wits about him pressed a crumpled piece of yellow paper into my hand. Being from New York, I automatically reached into my pocket for change. Then I saw that he was pointing at the paper. I glanced at it and saw my name scrawled there, even spelled correctly.
"Oh, nice to see you," I said.
"Shhhh," he said and grabbed my bag, and nodded for us to follow him. If the old man hadn't seemed so pathetic, we might have been afraid; as it was, we didn't want to hurt his feelings by questioning him. So my husband and I took hold of our little girl and our suitcases and followed dutifully, into the bowels of the parking garage. Finally, to our relief, we stopped in front of a car that did indeed have a taxi light on the roof.
Just as the old man opened the trunk and put our suitcases inside, a police car roared up next to us. My husband and daughter and I backed away while the policeman began to ask the old man questions. It was a gentle interrogation.
"Do you have an airport license?"
The old man shrugged and smiled sadly.
My husband and I had been whispering to each other, wondering whether we should cover for the old man and say we were his children. We were spared by the policeman: "Don't worry, I'm just going to give him a warning."
As we began walking back through the parking garage to get a real taxi, the old man waved at us cheerily, as though everything were going according to plan.
"We aren't going to repeat the Saint Petersburg experience in Hungarian?" I asked.
"Slovak," my mother said.
"What?" I replied.
"Bratislava is now in the Slovak Republic. The driver's first language will be Slovak," said my mother.
"Get a visa," I replied.
I felt as though I were trekking into the wild for a stay of indeterminate duration, not flying to places where minimum comfort was ensured and for a brief period of time. Feeling a need to set my house in order, I called my sister and my closest friends, and I left elaborate instructions for my husband on how to deliver the postcards I'd left behind for our daughter.
Then I called Hilu, my Uncle Joe. Joseph Rapaport is my mother's older brother and my only living uncle. When I think of him I smell Bain de Soleil suntan cream, the thick orange goop he used to smear on liberally before we sunbathed all day by the ocean at Miami Beach, where we used to spend Christmas vacations together. I feel a pain in my cheek, as if the mere thought of him brings the inevitable pinch. I feel a different pain, the sweet pain of nostalgia, as I remember his valiant efforts to teach me to speak Russian and the way he used to sneak with me into the cafeteria at the corporate headquarters of Merrill Lynch & Company when he came to Manhattan from Queens—his favorite restaurant because the meals were subsidized by the company. Uncle Joe felt entitled to eat there because he was a Merrill Lynch customer, and he was outraged that the company restricted its cafeteria to employees. I believe he was titillated by the excitement of having to duck past the guard, the feeling of getting something for nothing.
I also feel incredibly anxious because we have engaged in many battles over the years—because, my mother tells me, I don't know when to keep my mouth shut. Uncle Joe is short and round and full of opinions, which he dispenses with exclamatory vividness in an emphatic, gravelly voice. It's impossible to predict whether an event will trigger compassion or accusation, whether the roughness in his voice will seem textured or simply cruel. One Yom Kippur, for example, I walked out of the dinner I had prepared to break the fast because he accused my cousin of murdering her parents (in fact, she had been driving the car at the time of the accident and had suffered greatly for her unintended participation in their deaths). Yet when he heard of the financial troubles of a distant cousin in Israel, my frugal uncle immediately asked my mother how big a check he should send.
He is our family eccentric. In his studio apartment in Queens, he kept complete sets of pots and pans hidden under the bed. Blenders, mixers, and other household appliances still in their boxes were crammed into every corner—relics of the 1970s, when banks gave free gifts to new customers. Uncle Joe had accumulated a fair amount of cash "moonlighting" as a refrigerator repairman. He spent much of his spare time moving his money from account to account to collect the goods.
He moved to Saint Petersburg, Florida, from New York a few years ago. These days his biggest pleasure comes from dining out at a local all-you-can-eat buffet.
The rap on Uncle Joe, who has spent most of his life living alone, has always been that he was born cranky. My mother thinks he may have become a curmudgeon later, when he was made to feel guilty for what it is speculated that he did to my grandmother's beautiful legs.
Berthe Rapaport, their mother, was twenty-three when Joe, her fourth child, was born in March 1914. She was still nursing him six months later when rumors swept through Podkarpatská Rus, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: The Cossacks are coming. Her husband, my grandfather, wanted to try to salvage a business he'd been dabbling in, so he sent Berthe and the children ahead to what they thought would be safe haven, the town where her mother lived. They had time to pack only the silver candlesticks and a feather pillow so the children could rest en route.
They traveled by horse and wagon south to the town where they could catch a train that would take them where they wanted to go. The station was jammed with refugees on the move. There was no place to sit down. Joe began squalling. His later squally nature allowed legend to transmogrify that natural cry for food into unreasonable impatience. Berthe found a cold stone to sit on so she could nurse him.
It's been said that the cold caused the veins in one leg to pop. Whether or not this conforms to medical knowledge is irrelevant. What matters is that Berthe had one beautiful leg and one swollen one, mottled with varicose veins, and baby Joe was held responsible. It was one of those pieces of family knowledge that seem to float in the air—never mentioned but always known.
Joe has lived a life that has given him many reasons to be crotchety. This legitimacy doesn't make it any easier to call him. You never know what will happen. He might launch into a diatribe about the evening news that cannot be interrupted without risking retribution that can last weeks or years. He might do forty-five minutes on your last breach of etiquette. Or, if you're lucky, he'll spin off into a reverie of days gone by. On these occasions I see that, despite the opposition of their manner and world outlook (Pollyanna versus Cassandra), he really is my mother's brother. They share a storyteller's gift, an ability to find narrative splendor in ordinary events and narrative order in chaos.
"So you're going to Huszt," he said when I called to say good-bye.
Anything could follow that opening. I waited cautiously.
"I went back to Huszt after the war," he said, "to see what was there."
I allowed myself to breathe and settled into my chair, fairly secure that a good story would follow.
He didn't disappoint me. "A relative was living in my parents' house," said Joe. "There was some furniture there, but most of the things had been taken out. I went for a walk into town, and a Russian came up to me. I started to talk to him in Hungarian, and he said, 'Talk Russian, this is a Russian town now.'
"'What are you doing?' he asked me.
"I said, 'I just came back from concentration camp and I'm looking around.'
"'Come to work,' he said. 'We're putting up a statue of Stalin in the town square and need workers.'
"'I told you, I just came back from concentration camp.'
"He looked at me like an idiot. 'You look healthy to me. Come get to work.'
"I didn't say a word, but I thought to myself, 'I just came away from concentration camp. I don't need to do this again.' So I went to the train station. When the first train arrived, I asked the engineer where he was going.
Excerpted from The Net of Dreams by Julie Salamon. Copyright © 1996 Julie Salamon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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|4.||The Lucky One||55|
|7.||The Gypsy Woman||111|
|8.||Heaven on Earth||127|
|10.||Set for Life||157|
|14.||The False Spring||227|
|16.||This Is the Place||259|
|17.||The Conspiracy of Happiness||281|
|18.||A Very Good Life||291|
|Epilogue: "Is It So, Suzy?"||331|