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

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"A deeply felt, yet refreshingly unsentimental memoir of an assimilating, Central European Jewish family and three generations of remarkable women. In chronicling the lives of her own ancestors, Helen Epstein gives us fascinating glimpses of a still unfamiliar world, with its complex history, its hopes, vicissitudes, and its tragic end. A richly informative, moving book."
-Eva Hoffman
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Editorial Reviews

Susan Zuccotti
Epstein is supremely qualified for her task.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This eloquent memoir by freelance journalist Epstein (Children of the Holocaust) traces her mother's Czech-Jewish family back through three generations. The author's prodigious research, based on interviews and archival material housed in four countries, not only yields compelling portraits of Epstein's female ancestors but also presents a history from the 1800s to WWII of the area now known as the Czech Republic. Combining objective reporting with dramatic detail, Epstein recounts the ebb and flow of anti-Semitism that affected her family. After her depressed great-grandmother killed herself by jumping from a window, the author's orphaned grandmother learned to be self-supporting and became a renowned couturier in prewar Prague. Epstein's mother, Franci, took over the business and prospered until 1941, when Germany imposed martial law. Drawing on an unpublished memoir by Franci, the author describes how her mother survived the camps of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. This rich personal story encompasses historical events and the varied lives of Eastern European women over the last century.
Susan Zuccotti
[Epstein is] supremely qualified for her task. -- New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
With this family history, Epstein (Children of the Holocaust) adds a vivid and telling chapter to the reconstruction of Jewish women's history, one life at a time. While she can't recover all the details of her great-grandmother Therese's, grandmother Pepi's, and mother Franci's lives in Czechoslovakia, she more than compensates by re-creating the times, the milieus, and the circumstances in which they found themselves. The settings range from the Bohemian town of Brtnice, to the Belle Epoque Vienna of assimilated Jews such as Freud, Mahler, and Herzl, where Therese committed suicide after her oldest son's death from peritonitis, to newly independent and cosmopolitan Prague in the 1920s, where Pepi ran a fashion salon in which wealthy women gathered to gossip, exchange intimacies, and catch up on the latest Paris fashions, and ultimately to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and finally New York. Focusing in particular on the social roles of women, Epstein presents Pepi's salon as 'a rare institution that allowed a woman to acquire expertise and authority . . . a feminine realm, where women could speak.' For Pepi and for Franci, who took over the business at the age of 18, it also provided a solid income and a refuge from harsh realities: marital unhappiness, the advent of Hitler, impending war. All three, Therese, Pepi, and Franci, were strong, capable women who faced great adversity, from poverty to the loss of loved ones to war and near-extermination. Other remarkable women figure in Epstein's tale: sternly pious Aunt Rosa, who raised the orphaned Pepi and lived to regret marrying her off to a man who turned out to be syphilitic (he did at least refrain from consummating theirunion); a friend of Franci's who worked for the Czech resistance during WW II. There is much more in this real-life family saga, about Czech history, and relations between men and women, Czechs and Jews, rich and poor. It is a compelling account, one that any woman trying to recover her history will value.
Jill Jaracz
Basing most of her research on a 12-page letter and an unpublished memoir written by her mother, Epstein traces her history by searching for information in archives and hunting down people who knew her family. Rich in detail, this work is told with a strong voice, and the result is a moving account of a family history and the strength of its women.
Ruth Gay
What we so coldly call "acculturation" is a major theme of Helen Epstein's rich and absorbing new book, Where She Came From. In the guise of a family memoir, she brilliantly evokes Jewish life in the Czech lands.... Epstein is unsparing in her examination of the trials of transplantation, and unlike many family biographers, who are in thrall to their characters, she steps out of the frame to observe herself.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780841914445
  • Publisher: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/1/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 322
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Helen Epstein is the author of six books of literary non-fiction including the two memoirs Children of the Holocaust and Where She Came From: A Daughter's Search for her Mother's History and the biography Joe Papp: An American Life. All three books were named New York Times Notable Books of the Year.

Her other works are Music Talks: The Lives of Classical Musicians; Tina Packer Builds a Theater; Meyer Schapiro: Portrait of an Art Historian; Memoir: How I Read, Write and Use It; The Shakespeare & Company Actor Training Experience; Ice Cream Man: 25 Years at Toscanini's in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and her translation of Heda Kovaly's classic memoir Under A Cruel Star. Her book on memoir, Ecrire La Vie, was published in 2009 by La Cause des Livres (Paris).

Born in Prague in 1947, Helen grew up in New York City, where she graduated from Hunter College High School in 1965. She became a journalist after the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia of 1968 when her personal account was published in the Jerusalem Post.

In 1971, Helen graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and began freelancing for diverse publications including the New York Times where her first Magazine cover story on freelance musician Ed Birdwell ran in 1974. Her profiles of legendary musicians such as Vladimir Horowitz, Leonard Bernstein and Yo-Yo Ma are collected in Music Talks.

She began teaching journalism at New York University in 1974 and became the first woman in the journalism department to be awarded tenure. In 1986, she left NYU to move to the Boston area. She has an active speaking career and has lectured at a wide variety of venues including universities in Europe, North and South America; health organizations; high schools; synagogues, libraries and churches; the United States Military Academy at West Point; the Embassy of the Czech Republic and the U.S. Holocaust Museum. The mother of two grown sons, Helen shuttles between the Berkshires and the Boston area with her husband and blogs about the arts for www.theartsfuse.com
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 29, 2013

    Great insights into a time many want to forget

    This book paints a moving and fact-filled description of one woman's journey through the Holocaust. It describes not only how it affected her, but also how it impacted her daughter (the author). Very moving. Makes the reader realize just how lucky we are to live when and where we live.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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