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 Drawing on an unpublished memoir by Franci, the author describes how her mother survived the camps of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.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.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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.