Mother-Daughter Team Pens Book On Holocaust
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, we update some of our top stories in our Back Talk segment. But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about how religion and spirituality influence our everyday lives.
Today, millions of the world's Jews are preparing for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar. It begins this Sunday at sunset. According to the faith, it's the day when you are or are not inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. Following Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, this is the time of year when families gather, worship together, and remember those no longer with them.
And as such, it is a time that can cast a long shadow, especially for those millions of Jews whose families were torn apart or destroyed by the Holocaust. For such families, how far does that shadow fall? For how long does the pain last through the generations? And how can it be healed?
Those are the provocative questions asked by Leslie Gilbert-Lurie in her new memoir, "Bending Toward the Sun." It's actually the story of three generations: Leslie's mother, Rita Lurie, who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the attic of a Polish farmer with 14 members of her family, and Leslie's daughter, Mikaela Gilbert-Lurie, who is on her own quest to make sense of it all. And they are all here with us now from NPR West. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
Ms. LESLIE GILBERT LURIE (Author): Thank you.
Ms. RITA LURIE (Author): Thank you.
Ms. LESLIE GILBERT LURIE: Pleasure to be here.
Ms. MIKAELA GILBERT LURIE (Author): Thank you.
MARTIN: Now, Leslie, for all that has been written and said about the Holocaust, I got a sense that this is still something of a taboo topic, how surviving marked a generation and the generations to follow. Do you find that to be true also, that it's something still a bit unspoken?
Ms. LESLIE GILBERT-LURIE: I do. It's not overtly spoken by those who were alive during that time because it was so traumatic for the Holocaust survivors. And then I think for my generation, people often feel that, I know there were concentration camps, I know there was Anne Frank, and that's enough.
MARTIN: Well, what inspired you to take this on?
Ms. LESLIE GILBERT-LURIE: Really, my mother inspired me. She is an extraordinary woman. And she had begun to tell her story of survival to high school students in churches and schools and found that rather than being saddened by her story, they were actually inspired by her story. And she also found herself increasingly hearing the Ahmadinejads of the world and people who are denying that the Holocaust had ever occurred. And she realized that she was the last generation but the last really few years of people who could directly counter those accusations.
MARTIN: Well, Rita, can you pick up the thread there? And I have to say, yes, it is important to hear these stories, but the fact is you are the one who has to relive the telling of it. And I wanted to ask, was it hard for you to do?
Ms. LURIE: Yes, it was. It was very difficult. And I went through many stages of emotions. That's why it took us quite a few years to write it. But as we continued working on the book, I found myself more and more inspired. First of all, I just feel that those people that perished during the Holocaust, in a sense, will live on in history through my book and other books written.
MARTIN: Rita, can I ask you and forgive me, living in that attic for two years with your family, can you just tell us a little of what that was like?
Ms. LURIE: That was an experience that for many years, I had blacked out. There was a sense of numbness. And as time went on, more and more our feelings were numb. But there was hunger and just a sense of desperation and not knowing if we were going to live another day. There was fear.
MARTIN: How did you eat?
Ms. LURIE: At first, the person who hid us brought up some food. As time went on, he brought less and less food. He and his wife were concerned about their family's survival. So, they wanted us to leave. And the adults from the attic would go down during the night and bring food from the farms, whatever they could scrounge up from time to time. They would knock on neighbor's doors and ask for food. Sometimes some was given to them and other times, they were turned down.
MARTIN: How did you bathe?
Ms. LURIE: We didn't. We didn't bathe for two years. Some water was brought up to the attic from the horses that was left over from the animals. And we would sometimes just kind of wipe ourselves, but we didn't bathe, as strange as that may sound.
MARTIN: You know, one of the most remarkable things that I learned from the book is that you taught yourself never to speak above a whisper. So -at the point at which, you couldn't remember how to talk.
Ms. LURIE: That's right. I couldn't talk. The letters sounded funny. When I went into the attic, I was only 5 years old. And after having had pillows stuffed down my mouth, that taught me - or the message was, you can't talk, you can't express yourself. So, it took me a long time to actually speak clearly.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Rita Lurie, Leslie Gilbert-Lurie about their new book, "Bending Toward the Sun." Also with us, Leslie's daughter, Mikaela. And it's a memoir about Rita's survival of the Holocaust. But it's also a story of the effect on two generations later, of that experience. Leslie, one of the things that resonated with me, because I also grew up in the time of children are to be seen and not heard, is how those bits and pieces of your mother's story began to come out. How do you remember learning about what happened to her?
Ms. LESLIE GILBERT-LURIE: The way the story came out, as I remember it, is usually over Sunday brunches I would be reminded, as I was sitting with my mother, of my mother's mother. And I could never fathom her not having had a mother. So I would ask her limited questions, and I would gauge her reactions. And when she seemed too sad, I would stop asking.
MARTIN: And I have to say, at this point, it's almost unbearable to say that Rita, you literally watched your mother and your little brother die in that attic.
Ms. LURIE: Yes, I did.
MARTIN: And it's just, you know, words fail, words fail. But I wanted to ask how each of you began to see the way in which that trauma was affecting the way you raised your own children, and the way you were being raised. Leslie, why don't I start with you?
Ms. LESLIE GILBERT-LURIE: I knew as a child that I had extreme separation anxiety, that I felt a sadness that seemed unrelated to anything I had experienced in my life. But I didn't directly connect it with the Holocaust until probably I was in my 20s. And I think when I went back to Poland to help my cousin film a documentary, we interviewed the woman who hid my family in the attic, we sat up in the attic - that I began to connect more and more of the way I was to the way my mother raised me.
And I never had any idea that my experiences or my mother's experiences would have any impact on my daughter because I was so determined to raise her in a way that she would somehow, miraculously, be fearless.
MARTIN: Mikaela, what about you? How did you think your grandmother's experience has shaped you?
Ms. MIKAELA GILBERT-LURIE: I'm actually not sure because I'm only 14. So, I'm sure it's going to continue to shape me. But as of now, I have some of the same fears my mom describes, as she had growing up about leaving her mom. And I'm sure that has had an effect on me.
MARTIN: One of the things that - you wrote in the book, in your words: Even now, two generations later, I'm too scared to go to sleepaway camp or even to sleep over at friends' houses. I feel the most safe when I am at home but even there, I worry whenever my mom leaves the house without me. If something were to happen to her, I would feel 100 percent responsible for it. Why would you feel responsible?
Ms. MIKAELA GILBERT-LURIE: I actually don't know why, because I couldn't protect her. And - but somehow, I just do.
MARTIN: Leslie, what about you? You felt that way toward your mother. You also describe being very reluctant to leave her side. In fact, there's this one scene, which I know a lot of parents will be familiar with, you demanded to be brought home from sleepaway camp, even though you were supposed to go home 12 hours later.
Ms. LESLIE GILBERT-LURIE: Right. First of all, I thought if I was not with my mother, she would disappear. I knew her mother had died suddenly when she was very young. And I thought mothers were not that permanent necessarily. So I wanted to keep my eye on her and make sure she stayed alive.
MARTIN: Rita, what is your advice for passing on heritage without passing on the trauma? Rita, do you have any thoughts?
Ms. LURIE: Well, it depends on how affected the person has been by their experience because I didn't intend to pass anything on, and yet I tried to hide it and it didn't work. So then I decided it's best to just talk about it, and my emotions just came through - and come through. I mean, it's hard to control.
MARTIN: Yes, and I must tell you this: I'm surprised we're getting through this interview as well as we are because this is a very powerful experience you're sharing. And the fact of living - it's a living experience is, I think, what I learned.
Leslie, are you at all worried some people will see your book as kind of damaging the heroic picture of these survivors by telling, you know, your truth about how this pain lasted, and how hard it is to vanquish? Are you at all worried that people will think oh, that's airing dirty laundry. We don't want to hear all that. We should focus on the positive, the strength of these people.
Ms. LESLIE GILBERT-LURIE: I teach the Holocaust to high school students, and I had one student who walked in every day last semester, and she said: Is it going to be sad today? And I said: This is a class about the Holocaust. It's not a happy story.
And so I hope that people look at the people in our story and think that they are heroic, but I don't think heroes are relatable if they also don't have flaws and damage. And I think these are real people. They're not pretend heroes. They're true heroes who have suffered a lot and are stronger as a result.
Ms. LURIE: Michel, if I could just add something.
Ms. LURIE: I wasn't sure that I wanted to speak to schools and churches and synagogues, but I began talking about my experience, and I realized that people were inspired, especially young people. They would speak up after my talk and tell me how it changed their lives to see me standing up there looking like I'm in pretty good shape.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: More than pretty good shape from the pictures in this book, Miss Glamour Woman.
Ms. LURIE: Thank you. Thank you. And I would receive letters telling me how it changed their life just to see that people can survive the situation that seem unsurvivable.
MARTIN: Rita Lurie and Leslie Gilbert-Lurie are the authors of "Bending Toward the Sun: A Mother and Daughter Memoir." They and Leslie's daughter, Mikaela Gilbert-Lurie, joined us from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California. Ladies, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. LURIE: Thank you so much for having us.
Ms. LESLIE GILBERT-LURIE: Thank you, Michel.
Ms. MIKAELA GILBERT-LURIE: Thank you so much for having us.
MARTIN: We asked Rita Lurie to read a passage from her new book, "Bending Toward the Sun." Here it is.
Ms. LURIE: My father never lost faith. His morning and evening prayers probably helped him to keep some sense of order and feel in control of at least the spiritual part of his life. I was still confused about God's role, but I didn't want to ask too many questions.
By early 1944, we had been in the attic for more than a year and a half. My brother Nachum, then 5, became very ill with dehydration, malnutrition, and probably lack of stimulation. He lay helplessly in a corner and weakly cried: Mama. I don't think he had ever been seen by a doctor.
One morning, I awoke to a lot of commotion. He can't be dead, my mother sobbed, cradling my brother in her arms. Nachum, wake up, little baby.
The adults were crying hysterically. My father was trying to comfort my mother. Dead. What did that mean? My brother couldn't be gone. It was incomprehensible to me.
As Uncle Max took Nachum's lifeless body out of my mother's trembling arms, I closed my eyes and pretended that what was happening was not real. Nachum's death left 13 of us in the attic, at least for the time being.
MARTIN: You can also hear passages read by Leslie Gilbert-Lurie and Mikaela Gilbert-Lurie on our Web site, the new npr.org. Just go to programs and click on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.