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Broken Birds

November 6, 2010

Broken Birds: The Story of My Momila by Jeanette Katzir
Genre: Memoir
Age Level: Adult
Published: Jeannette Katzir, April 2, 2009
I Chose It Because: I enjoy memoirs, and though I’ve read many books about the Holocaust, I’ve read little about survivors’ later lives or the effects of their experiences on future generations.
Discussion Points: The Holocaust; prejudice; post-traumatic stress; dysfunctional families

Review:

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 guerilla 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 surivial, and the births of their five children, was 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 is terrified her husband will abandon her, and this warps their relationship. She hides large amounts of cash in various places. After all, when her family was seized by the Nazis and forceably moved to the ghetto, they could carry only what they were able to hide in their clothing. And she conditions her children to expect the worst from life and distrust anyone outside the family.

I enjoyed this book, however the parts at the beginning and near the end, 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 returns to his homeland with three of his children. They look at places where he lived his early life, where he was imprisoned, and where he escaped. They face 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 makes 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.

However, 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 faces 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

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 7, 2010 5:39 am

    I have heard this exact comment over and over and currently am on page 149 of the fictional treatment of only my mother’s journey as a partisan. I’d love to have you review it when it is done.
    Jeannette Katzir

    • November 7, 2010 8:27 pm

      That sounds fascinating. There are so many books and movies about the Holocaust, but the only thing I’ve ever seen/read about the Partisans living in forests was Defiance, a film adaptation of a nonfiction book about Belarussian partisans. This is a story that should definitely be explored! 🙂

  2. November 7, 2010 12:19 pm

    This definitely sounds moving and worthwhile, even if it’s not perfect.

  3. November 7, 2010 2:39 pm

    This sounds like a really difficult book to read, but also interesting and possibly also important. I’m not sure I’d like the fighting over money parts, but the rest of it at least.

    • November 7, 2010 8:30 pm

      There are definitely some compelling stories here, though I wish they had been developed more. I’m sure it’s difficult to write a long, fully developed story based on things your parents told you about their lives. I know I couldn’t do it. Jeanette Katzir just mentioned (above) that she’s working on a fictionalized version of her mother’s experiences as a Partisan in Poland. I am looking forward to it.

  4. November 8, 2010 5:24 am

    Wonderful review! I cant wait to read this one!

  5. November 8, 2010 5:46 am

    Laughing Stars, you’ll be getting a copy as soon as I’m done.
    Jeannette

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