Tag Archives: Holocaust

“I Am Forbidden” by Anouk Markovits

I Am ForbiddenTitle: I Am Forbidden
Author: Anouk Markovits
ISBN: 9780307984739
Pages: 320
Release date: May 8, 2012
Publisher: Hogarth
Genre: Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 5 out of 5

There are some books that are so good, as soon as you finish reading you’re ready to tell the world exactly what you loved about it; the words have been forming in your mind the whole time.

I Am Forbidden may not be one of those books.

It’s a book that you read obsessively—it takes over your thoughts—and quickly—because you have to know what happens, you have to stay with these characters. Yet when you put it down, you don’t know how to explain the book, much less why you loved it.

You will spend months feeling guilty that you haven’t reviewed it yet. You owe it to the author and the publisher to shout from the rooftops why you love this book so much. Yet you will pass it over when you pick up a book to review; you will write about another book, one that is less complicated, that lend itself to ratings and reflections. Not because those other books deserve a quicker review, but because this book is still steeping in your mind, and your thoughts on it are still brewing.

You will feel, after reading the book, as though you understand, now. You may have been raised religiously, even perhaps in a conservative religion. But you may not have understood Orthodox Judaism. It wasn’t just a problem with knowing the customs and religious rites. It was the struggle to understand the feeling: of belonging to a sect like this. The sense of inclusion, of community, that can turn suffocating. But you will understand, somehow, through some alchemy of language, the sense of yearning for things to be so simple. The sense of being tied to your upbringing, your past, your heritage. It’s something, you will realize, no one can run away from—where you come from, who your people are. No matter where you go, you take some small part of this history with you.

When you do force yourself to sit down and try to capture the book, you will struggle from the beginning. What, exactly, was it about? Too many months have passed to pin down the intricate plot. You’ll read and re-read the back-flap copy:

In 1939, five-year-old Josef witnesses the murder of his family by the Romanian Iron Guard. He is taken in by a Gentile maid, who raises him as her own son. Five years later, Josef rescues a young girl, Mila, whose parents are killed in the wake of Nazi deportations. Josef helps Mila find safety with Zalman Stern, a leader in the Satmar community, in whose home Mila is raised as a sister to Zalman’s daughter, Atara. The two girls form a fierce bond, but as they mature, Atara feels trapped by the restraints of Jewish fundamentalism, while Mila embraces her faith and her role as a respected young woman in her community. When Josef returns and chooses Mila to be his bride, she eagerly strives to be an ideal wife, but a desperate choice after ten years of childless marriage threatens to separate her from everything—and everyone—she cherishes.

ANOUK MARKOVITS grew up in France, in an ultra-orthodox Satmar home. She attended a religious seminary in England instead of high school, and left the fold at the age of nineteen to avoid an arranged marriage. She went on to receive a bachelor of science from Columbia University, a master of architecture from Harvard, and a PhD in Romance Studies from Cornell. Translations of I am Forbidden are forthcoming in a dozen countries. Markovits’s first novel, Pur Coton, written in French, was published by Gallimard.

But it’s not just about these people and what happens to them, you’ll argue with yourself. This book builds something more than that.

You will jot down words that begin to scratch at the book’s depth, but you don’t know how to begin organizing them. So you simply list them:

  • theme: Jewish life before, during, and after the Holocaust
  • a sweeping story
  • spanning four generations and eight decades
  • moving from Transylvania to Paris to New York
  • theme: Orthodox beliefs and traditions
  • poetic, jagged prose – so much pressed between the pages
  • intricate portrait of an Orthodox family
  • each character is perfectly formed – their motivations, their conflicts
  • themes: faith, love, family, community, compromises
  • voice crackling with energy, sadness, love
  • sometimes sorrowful, always beautiful

You will marvel at Markovits’ way with words. You will wonder if it is because she wrote her last book in French. But you’ll conclude no. It’s not just the way she says something. It’s what she has to say:

“In the forbidden books, the colored words sometimes continued inside her even after she finished reading the story; then Atara wondered whether a secret passageway might link her to the outside world.”

“Was it a selfish heart that dreamt of living her own life?”

“The sky unleashed itself and they whirled as they had as children, arms stretched wide as their tongues searched their lips for the taste of clouds.”

“If she were happy, how could she explain happiness far from her family? If she were unhappy, had not they warned her?”

You will, I think, like this book.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy I Am Forbidden from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available). Each sale from these links helps support Melody & Words.

TLC Book ToursAnd be sure to check out the other (much more detailed!) reviews from the tour:

“A Train in Winter” by Caroline Moorehead

Title: A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France
Author: Caroline Moorehead
ISBN: 9780061650703
Pages: 384
Release date: November 2011
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Historical nonfiction
Format: ARC
Source: TLC Book Tours/publisher
Rating: 4 out of 5

Watch a video about this book at BBC News Magazine!

In January 1943, two hundred and thirty women of the French Resistance were sent to the death camps by the Nazis who had invaded and occupied their country.

In 1941, Nazi Germany easily defeated France and struck a deal with a well-loved World War I hero, Marshal Philippe Pétain, who would lead the occupied country. In return, the Vichy government would collaborate with the occupiers.

But not every Frenchman—or woman—was as content as Pétain to collaborate with the Nazis, and a Resistance movement sprang up almost immediately. Caroline Moorehead’s impeccably detailed book follows the story of several Frenchwomen in their efforts to stymie the occupiers—and the unimaginable punishment that awaited them.

The French police, for the most part, assisted vigorously in the round-up of their fellow citizens who participated in the Resistance. One man, unsuccessfully fleeing before his execution without trial, cried out as he was caught, “Look what French police are doing to Frenchmen!”

This was a common refrain among resisters, but still their harsh treatment in the hands of their countrymen was shockingly unfettered. One French policeman, Poinsot, tortured his subjects so brutally that the Gestapo would threaten to hand other prisoners over to him if they didn’t cooperate. (At the end of the war, Poinsot was charged for the “death in deportation” of 1,560 Jews and 900 French political prisoners, as well as the execution of 285 men and “for torture so extreme people were ‘literally massacred.’”)

But if few cared about the treatment of French political prisoners, no one seemed to care about the country’s 350,000 Jewish inhabitants:

The country that had so fervently embraced the Rights of Man seemed curiously willing to sit by while one decree after another was enacted against the Jews, watching them debarred from professions, forbidden places of entertainment, relegated to the last carriages on the métro, and now herded on to cattle trucks bound for Poland.

Moorehead notes that the Gestapo had not even asked for the cattle trains; that was established on the initiative of the French railway, which charged the occupiers a set fee per transported individual.

But it is the political dissidents–and women in general–that Moorehead chooses to scrutinize. “To be young and active in France in the 1930s was to care passionately about politics,” Moorehead writes, and indeed, most of the women she focuses on were full of youthful vigor and naïve confidence.

Women in France in the thirties and forties were considered weak, less-than, a second-class citizen. Contraception was made illegal after World War I to replenish a faltering population, and during World War II, punishment for abortionists meant the guillotine. Women did not have the right to vote. But the bright side of the women’s marginalization was that they were treated differently when they were arrested. Only the most ebullient were tortured, as opposed to what seems to be the majority of the men, and Moorehead makes no mention of women being among the hundreds of untried men who were executed every time a German was attacked.

For a time, their femininity saved them. Before long, however, they faced a fate that may have been worse than death: Nazi death camps.

First in Auschwitz, the infamous extermination camp, and then in Ravensbrück, ostensibly a work camp but one in which death ruled supreme, the women faced unimaginable horrors. Of the 230 women who were deported, only 49 survived. Moorehead reports that if a woman lost her shoes—whether they were stolen by another prisoner or sucked into the ubiquitous mud at interminable roll calls—she was immediately sent to the gas chambers, “women being easier to replace than shoes.”

That any of the Frenchwomen survived is surprising. Moorehead describes the horrific treatment of the prisoners in detail, and the images of disease-ridden, rat-bitten corpses sprawled in the mud and babies drowned in barrels are stark. The survivors say that what kept them together was their selfless solidarity; they looked out for each other in ways that few of the other women at the camp did.

Of the 75,721 Jews were deported from France, a mere 3,500 returned. In comparison, nearly half of the deported political prisoners, who were admittedly treated slightly better by the Nazis, survived (40,760 out of 86,827). Possibly because so few Jews returned, they were left out of nearly all of the post-war associations planned by survivors, and for several years, the story of the death camps were written by Communists, not Jews.

Moorehead aptly describes the new pain facing survivors of the death camps:

What each of the survivors was now faced with was the question of how they would remake their lives, and how they would convey to their families what they had been through. Auschwitz and Ravensbrück, as Marie-Claude had remarked, were so extreme, so incomprehensible, so unfamiliar an experience, that the women doubted that they possessed the words to describe them, even if people wanted to hear; which, as it turned out, not many did.

The women who returned were haunted by their fallen comrades even as they tried to make new lives for themselves. Marriages—often with other deportees—were formed and then dissolved; children left behind during the war did not always warm to the strangers calling themselves their mothers.

Though the women were reluctant to speak to their children about their painful memories, they were more willing to talk to their grandchildren about it, after age had put enough distance between them and the horrific events. Yet the women never forgot the experience, and several described the incomparable closeness they still felt with their surviving friends.

In a time of unprecedented brutality and innumerable crimes against humanity, these women knew that the only thing that might allow them to survive would be solidarity. They cared for each other selflessly with little thought to their individual survival, and that, they believe, is why any of them survived the death camps.

At first, the book’s timeline sprawls, moving from one region of France to another as it introduces a seemingly endless cast of characters. But by the end, the book has moved in to focus on a handful of women as they move from prisons to camps.

I would have liked to see better references; there were many quotes, figures, and studies cited in the text that were not backed up by sources in my advanced reader copy. However, Moorehead’s heavy reliance upon interviews with survivors and their relatives gives this overlooked corner of history a new urgency. The book is dark, but rightfully so, and Moorehead somehow imparts an unshakeable faith in the ability of people to help each other survive no matter the circumstances.

Quote of Note:

“I had to hold fast to the end, and die of living.”
-One of the women prisoners

But don’t just take my word for it. Check out what other reviewers on the tour have been saying:

November 8: Unabridged Chick
November 11: Elle Lit.
November 14: Diary of an Eccentric
November 16: Among Stories
November 16: Unabridged Chick (author interview)
November 17: Broken Teepee
November 18: Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms
November 21: Jenny Loves to Read
November 22: Picky Girl
November 23: Books Like Breathing
November 28: Reviews by Lola
November 29: Buried in Print
November 30: Savvy Verse & Wit
December 1: In the Next Room
December 2: Wordsmithonia
December 2: Books and Movies
December 5: Take Me Away

“The Storm at the Door” by Stefan Merrill Block

Title: The Storm at the Door
Author: Stefan Merrill Block
ISBN: 9781400069453
Pages: 368
Release date: June 21, 2011
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Fiction
Format: ARC
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 3 out of 5

Win this book!


I will be giving away this book along with Ellen Feldman’s Next to Love, which I’ll be reviewing on Wednesday. Just leave a comment on this entry or Wednesday’s entry and you’ll be entered to win! I will be choosing a winner at midnight on July 31.

Possible theme song: “Flagpole Sitta” by Harvey Danger
Short and sweet: A grandson pieces together the relationship between his grandparents, one of whom suffered bipolar disorder.

Long before Stefan Merrill Block was born, the marriage between his grandparents, Frederick and Katharine Merrill, was pushed to the breaking point. Frederick’s alcohol abuse and infidelity had wounded Katharine for years, but his manic depression took him too far one night. Katharine convinced the police to take him to a renowned mental hospital in Massachusetts instead of placing him under arrest.

Months pass and Frederick is not released; in fact, the doctors tell his wife, his condition seems to be worsening. Katharine finds herself drifting further from the scandal her husband has created, and she grapples with questions of whether he is mentally ill or brilliant—or both.

Now, decades later, their grandson wants to know exactly what happened during his grandfather’s long hospitalization. The Storm at the Door, Stefan’s fictionalized account of their relationship, explores the line between genius and madness and whether such a distinction can be made.

For years, Katharine struggled to tether Frederick to the ground during his manic episodes and to pull him from the dirt during his depression, “a fathomless depth over which they both had to work, laying tenuous ropes and gangplanks, to try to continue to navigate the world’s surface.” She questions whether their situation is a unique one, or whether “this was simply the truth of adult life, this unending project of keeping up appearances.”

Every adult relationship contains myriad secrets and compromises, but Katharine and Frederick’s seems built on them. They fell in love shortly before Frederick shipped out for World War II, and the hopes and illusions that they build in their months apart later form the foundation of their marriage:

“Across great distances, they had loved and mourned notions of each other. . . . They could not then have known that to love each other in the way they imagined required that distance.”

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Frederick clearly struggles with alcohol and, probably, sex addiction; even in the ‘60s, that would be reason enough for Katharine to leave him. Locking him up in a mental hospital, though, seems like an overreaction. But not much was known about manic depression then.

Over the last few decades, the stigma against bipolar disorder—and other behavioral and psychological conditions—has lessened greatly. Both Katharine and Frederick seriously question his sanity. And the doctors who oversee Frederick’s care—the experts upon whose word Frederick stays or goes—are convinced that his problems are more deep-seated than he lets on. For the most part, Katharine believes the doctors, but at times she questions their expertise:

“But isn’t this how indoctrination always works, an entire deferral of your own judgment to a higher authority, whom you are instructed not to question?”

Shlomi Schultz, one of the patients Frederick befriends in the hospital, is the shining accomplishment of the novel. He is compelling and enigmatic, and I was fascinated by the ties between language and schizophrenia that Block skillfully displays.

Schultz believes that the secret language only he can hear—the sounds so easily diagnosed as schizophrenia—is the pre-Babel language of his ancestors. Here the book takes on an almost magical realist element. Schultz’s pain at losing everyone he has ever loved is palpable, so a diagnosis of schizophrenia seems logical. But what if the doctors are wrong? What if there really is a language, as old as God, that he has been given in exchange for everything that has been taken from him?

In prose as ornamented as a Christmas tree, Block navigates between the reality of what happened to his grandparents and his imaginings about what happened between them. Though the narrative occasionally seems a little too slow-paced and overwrought, his insight into human nature is striking, as when Katharine observes the bridge parents construct to convey children to the adult world: “Most adult failures, Katharine believes, can be attributed to the failure of that conveyance, adults marooned at the age at which their parents failed them.”

Katharine reminds me, strangely, of the main character of Laura Lippman’s I’d Know You Anywhere (my review here). Both are young women held captive by madmen, afraid of what will happen if they stay and even more afraid of what would happen if they left the men with such strong holds over them.

I was curious the entire time how the author and narrator of the novel, Stefan Merrill Block, would fit in to the narrative. It reminds me of Chekhov’s gun theory: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Though Merrill appears in the beginning and end of the narrative, he never has any significant role in the story aside from being the curious descendant of a man long gone. I wondered if perhaps the story would not have been stronger as a pure novel, without bringing in the grandson as narrator; an epilogue explaining that many elements of the story took place between the author’s grandparents might have sufficed.

However, I enjoyed the story that Block has captured of the post-war generation grasping for normalcy and happiness. Perhaps it is true, as Aristotle has said, “There was never a genius without a tincture of madness.”

But don’t just take my word for it! Check out what other bloggers have been saying:

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