Thursday, December 1, 2011

Broken Birds by Jeannette Katzir

Katzir's articulate, well written memoir is really three separate stories. The first two stories tell how each of her parents survived the Holocaust. Her mother, Channa, joined her brother in a band of Partisans when she was just 12 years old. They lived in the forest, waging guerrilla warfare against the Germans. The author's father, Nathan, survived the ghettos and two concentration camps. They met in New York after the war and began a family; their survival and the births of their five children were an affirmation of life and a triumph over Hitler.

The third story was about the life of the author, Channa and Nathan's second child. Most of it focused on the long, grueling legal battle that followed their mother's death. This enmeshed family, including the author, her father, and four siblings, fought over Channa's estate, churning up a lifetime of rivalries, heartbreak, and pain. The effects of her parents' wartime experiences, particularly Channa's, run throughout the story.

We see how their family's life was shaped, in part, by the lasting terror and insecurity this imprinted on Channa. She was terrified her husband would abandon her, and this warped their relationship. She hid large amounts of cash in various places. After all, when her family was seized by the Nazis and moved to the ghetto, they could carry only what they were able to hide in their clothing. And she conditioned her children to expect the worst from life and distrust anyone outside the family.

The parts at the beginning and near the end of this book, which dealt directly with the Holocaust, were by far the most powerful. I was absorbed in Channa and Nathan's experiences during the Holocaust. Near the end of the book, Nathan returned to his homeland with three of his children. They looked at places where he lived his early life, where he was imprisoned, and where he escaped. They faced baffling denial in modern day Germany about the Holocaust. This part of the story was riveting.

The author's account of her life, and of battles fought with her siblings, were not as compelling. She made a case that everything that happened stemmed from her parents' experiences in Europe; they were deeply scarred, and they handed these wounds down to their children. I don't challenge this. The author knows her family best, and I believe family history causes ripples that last for generations. Yet while I find the impact of their suffering on their children and grandchildren an intriguing topic, this didn't fully come together. A great deal of the conflict was about money and business squabbles, and this thread wasn't enough to hold the whole narrative together.

On the other hand, there are many things I liked about this book. In addition to the parts exploring the Holocaust, there were many things that moved me, including the author's description of her mother's deterioration and death. And I was intrigued with the way she came to understand her troubled, complex parents, loving them even as she faced their flaws. For most people, this is a complicated, ongoing journey that doesn't end after childhood, and Jeanette Katzir explored it eloquently.

Other Reviews: The Bookworm; The New Podler Review of Books

Rating: 3

5- Cherished Favorite4 - Keep in My Library3 - Good Read2 - Meh1 - Definitely Not
For Me

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