Books: Beasts and the blonde Blondes: Losing the Dead by Lisa Appignanesi Chatto & Windus, pounds 15.99, 232pp
Carole Angier admires a daughter's search for parents who buried their tragic past
Saturday 06 March 1999
In Montreal, I did not encounter (although they did) any overt anti-Semitism. Yet the destruction of six million of us was still too close for comfort. I seized the chance to flee my Jewishness eagerly. My friends were rarely Jewish, my boyfriends never; and as soon as I could, I changed my name.
Lisa Appignanesi's name then was Borenstein. Her parents were not survivors either: at least not in the main sense of that term. They had not been in a concentration camp; but they had been in Poland. They had survived the war in a much rarer, though not unique way: by passing themselves off as Aryans. Losing the Dead is their story.
Or rather, it is Lisa's telling of their story, through their memories and her own. And that's what makes it so interesting. It's not just the account of a terrible, triumphant adventure but also an exploration of its costs and effects; of memory, ideology, and growing up Jewish in Quebec.
The book begins with that, and it's the very best part. It brought Quebec back to me like Proust's madeleine - Esplanade Avenue, outside staircases, French kids with false teeth at 18 (from drinking Pepsi, Canada's Coke: that's why we called them pepsis, a meanness Lisa does not mention). Slowly, the Polish objects disappear, and Canadian ones take over; linen gives way to Formica, china and crystal to pottery and plastic.
But the Polish past does not give way to the Canadian present. Lisa's mother Hena had saved her family from the Final Solution by lies and charm, by relying on her instinct and blonde beauty. Her husband, Aron, dark and male, condemned by his own body the moment he dropped his trousers, could only follow and fear.
Now teenage Lisa cringes when her mother flirts with the doctor, cares only about looks, surrounds their peaceful suburban life with an intricate web of lies.
She cannot understand her father's sweating terror when they cross the Canadian border, she rages against his anti-German prejudice, she takes German courses, she makes German friends, she becomes "a whole reconciliation process in myself". She cannot bear those endlessly repeated stories; she doesn't want to know.
Later, of course, she did want to know. She goes back to Poland, she ransacks her memory, her brother's, her mother's; and in the second part of the book, she retrieves those hated stories.
This part is important. We should know these rarer truths, about Jews outside the camps, and their Polish helpers. But, as writing, it lacks the lived and layered intensity of the first.
What is profound and tragic about this book is its portrait of the internalisation of ideology by its victims (the blonde master, the dark slave); and of the impossibility of sharing memory, except destructively, until it is too late. By the time Lisa Appignanesi wrote Losing the Dead, her father had died and her mother's mind was going. But it is a powerful and tender memorial to both of them. The blurb suggests that Lisa's key relationship was with bold blonde Hena. But I think it was with Aron, who was dark like her: the emblematic emigrant, always in a hurry, always secretly afraid.
Carole Angier is completing a biography of Primo Levi
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