At the end of the Second World War, a survivor of Auschwitz makes her way home to Hungary. Of all her family, only she and one sister have survived the camps; her young officer husband disappeared into Russia years before. Believing herself a widow, Shoshanna falls under the protection of an older man who, like her, lost everything in the Holocaust. She gives birth to this man’s child by the time her beloved soldier returns, and she has to make a choice that will cloud her life – and her daughter’s – ever after.
Elaine Kalman Naves is the daughter whose earliest memories are of growing up with the consequences of that decision. Shoshanna raised Elaine with a torrent of family lore and all-too-vivid memories: the glamorous and eccentric aunts; handsome suitors and faithless husbands; death by order of the state and murder at the hand of a lover.
Shoshanna’s stories, haunting and vivid, were both a gift and a burden to her daughter. This is a lush and exotic family memoir set against momentous events yet timeless in its truth-telling lessons.
About the author
Elaine Kalman Naves was born in Hungary, and grew up in Budapest, London, and Montreal. She was for many years literary columnist for The Gazette in Montreal, and is the author of seven previous books, among them the award-winning memoirs Journey to Vaja (McGill Queens) and Shoshanna’s Story (McClelland & Stewart). Elaine's honours include a Canadian Literary Award for Personal Essay, two Quebec Writers' Federation prizes for non-fiction, and two Canadian Jewish Book Awards for Holocaust Literature. Elaine has been a frequent contributor to Ideas on CBC Radio and lectures widely at colleges, universities, and book clubs. She lives In Montreal.
Excerpt: Shoshanna's Story: A Mother, A Daughter, and the Shadows of History (by (author) Elaine Kalman Naves)
When the nurses laid me in a bassinet by Shoshanna’s bedside right after I was born, she couldn’t take her eyes off me. Though it was midnight, she had them leave the lights fully blazing. She wasn’t disturbing anyone else; hers was a private room in a private clinic, before everything was nationalized. Gusti still had money.
In the morning Gusti, wreathed in smiles, brought her tea roses. Roses in November! Out of a small velvet box emerged a surprise, a thick gold ring, with her initials in high relief. He slipped it onto her ring finger. He kissed her finger, then her mouth, and whispered against her neck about the wedding ring that would come later, as soon as such a thing was possible. He lifted me from the bassinet and wept for joy. “To think…,” he said. “To think I could have a child again.”
Shoshanna and Gusti kept a diary of my every ingestion. They laid me on the scales before and after each nursing, subtracted the difference, and entered it in a ledger. “2.80 kilos at birth,” wrote Gusti neatly in pencil; 2.70 kilos ten days later when they took me home. Net weight at the end of the month: 2.91 kilos. On this day Shoshanna inscribed in her slapdash scrawl, “1/4 grated apple + 5 mocha spoonsful lightly sugared orange juice once a day.”
Blanka Néni, my pediatrician, paid us our first house call. We called her Blanka Néni instead of Doktor Kertész, it being the Hungarian custom to refer affectionately to any older person as “Aunt” or “Uncle,” whether related or not. Shoshanna released me from the pólya, swaddling, on the dining room table and removed my tiny undershirt and diaper.
“Her legs are bowed,” Shoshanna observed.
“Nonsense,” retorted Blanka Néni, “all babies have bow legs. It’s the way the fetus folds itself up in the womb. Actually…” Blanka Néni glanced at Shoshanna suggestively. “Actually, she has the shapeliest thighs I’ve ever seen on a baby girl.”
“I’m not talking about her thighs,” argued Shoshanna, who never ceded a point easily, “but her calves. They are so, too, bowed, Blanka Néni.”
Shoshanna had the most beautiful legs in the world: long and firm calves, patrician ankles. Gusti called them the legs of a gazelle. In the camp where Blanka Néni and Shoshanna had first met, Shoshanna had taken first prize in a beauty contest. It wasn’t a formal contest, just something the girls had invented to pass the time. There they were, about a hundred women, herded together in a cavernous hall with their bald heads and not a stitch of clothing among them. They had recently arrived, so they still had shapes. And they awarded each other “prizes” for best shoulders, best breasts, best buttocks. Shoshanna took the prize for best legs. Blanka Néni and her friend Hedy, another doctor, had been the judges.
Blanka Néni was stout and lumpish and wore mannish suits of tweed worsted. Her chin-length hair, pushed back behind fleshy, largelobed ears, seemed shellacked in place. Though she was as Jewish as Shoshanna and Vera, in the camp Blanka Néni had had power and privileges on account of being a doctor. Nothing official, of course. To exercise them she had had to take risks.
Once, in the dinner line, Vera didn’t take the bowl of soup that should have been her due. The soup had nothing in it, not even the carrot chunk that ought to have floated in its scummy broth. Vera reached instead for the bowl next in line. A guard plucked her out of the queue and beat her.
“Raw,” Shoshanna told me. “Her buttocks were raw.”
Shoshanna dragged Vera off to show her buttocks to Blanka Néni. Blanka Néni applied salve to them without a word. But afterwards it was whispered that Blanka Néni had let loose a torrent of invective at the camp commandant, no less. And would you believe, the commandant sent for the offending guard, chewed him out in front of Blanka Néni, and transferred him to another detail. But it could just as easily have gone the other way, Shoshanna said. Blanka Néni had been lucky. She had risked her life for Vera’s buttocks.
Shoshanna looked up from her sewing. She was embroidering a smocked dress that Vera had sent me from Montreal. “Blanka Néni loved women, you know, but she was a plain good friend to me and Vera,” she said. “That’s why she’s your doctor now.”