Rita Lurie was five years old when she was forced to flee her home in Poland to hide from the Nazis. From the summer of 1942 to mid-1944, she and fourteen members of her family shared a nearly silent existence in a cramped, dark attic, subsisting on scraps of raw food. Young Rita watched helplessly as first her younger brother then her mother died before her eyes. Motherless and stateless, Rita and her surviving family spent the next five years wandering throughout Europe, waiting for a country to accept them. The tragedy of the Holocaust was only the beginning of Rita's story.
Decades later, Rita, now a mother herself, is the matriarch of a close-knit family in California. Yet in addition to love, Rita unknowingly passes to her children feelings of fear, apprehension, and guilt. Her daughter Leslie, an accomplished lawyer, media executive, and philanthropist, began probing the traumatic events of her mother's childhood to discover how Rita's pain has affected not only Leslie's life and outlook but also her own daughter, Mikaela's.
A decade-long collaboration between mother and daughter, Bending Toward the Sun reveals how deeply the Holocaust remains in the hearts and minds of survivors, influencing even the lives of their descendants. It also sheds light on the generational reach of any trauma, beyond the initial victim. Drawing on interviews with the other survivors and with the Polish family who hid five-year-old Rita, this book brings together the stories of three generations of women — mother, daughter, and granddaughter — to understand the legacy that unites, inspires, and haunts them all.
The inside front cover copy really tells the story here. If you ever wondered what it was like to be a Holocaust survivor or to be the child of one, this is the book for you. It begins with the Gamss family's experiences hiding out in an attic for 2 full years (14 people in a 15 ft long attic, 4 ft high).
Sections are told by Rita, who lived in the attic, Leslie, her daughter, and Mikaela, her granddaughter. Rita was incredibly honest about her depression, her stepmother (by whom she felt horribly mistreated), and all else in her life. It took incredible strength to look inward and tell her story honestly and openly.
Rita tells of the time spent in the attic of a both brave and fearful couple, with 14 of her relatives, watching as first her baby brother and then her mother succumb to illness and heartbreak. She speaks of being forced to remain silent, of watching her relatives being shot and killed, of the hurt and anger of having her father withdraw from her emotionally. She speaks of not being able to walk afterward, because her bones were so weak and bowed from not being able to stand in a 4 ft tall by 15 ft long attic so cramped with people that there wasn’t room to move even. Of having to toilet in front of everyone. Of the feelings of depression and inconsolable sadness she felt every single day from these losses that she lived for two years and, really, for the rest of her life.
Leslie then tells of what it was like growing up in a household with a depressed mother, always feeling responsible for her happiness and safety, afraid to spend a night away from home because she didn’t know if her mother would be alive when she got home. And of somehow passing that same fear on to her own daughter. Her brother and sister felt the same fear, but managed to live a little more normally. From the opening:
Finally, some researchers have proposed that memories of fear can actually be carried across generations through biochemistry. Children of severely traumatized Holocaust survivors have been found to have lower than average levels of the stress hormone cortisol, just like their traumatized parents. They also have been found to be more likely than average to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder when exposed to a traumatic event, and more likely to view a non-life threatening event, such as illness or separation from a loved one, as traumatic.
Interestingly, I went to school with the younger Lurie daughter. We weren’t good friends (I “knew who she was”), and I had no idea that so much was going on in her household. Rita Lurie signed the book for my brother in law and sister, because they are friendly. The progression of Rita and Frank's life and the life of their family very much mirrored my own family's life, from the middle class upbringing to the three children and all that accompanies that, all the way down to the bat mitzvah each woman had as adults because they were not allowed as young teenage girls. It felt very much like looking into a mirror at times, but yet still being removed just enough to sit back and absorb it all.
I related to so much of this story – I almost felt like they were my own memories from hearing my parents’ friends and my grandparents’ friends talking and reliving. There’s a point in the book where Leslie relates how Rita didn’t want her going to Germany in the late 80s. My own mom had a very hard time when I said I wanted to go to Germany. Even all these years later, it carries a stigma among people of my parent’s generation (and I have to admit – my own, too). While in my head I know that Germany is a democratic, liberated country, and the people who live there are also generations removed from what their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did, I still feel a twinge when I think about the people who “choose” to live there. And how silly and dumb is that, since I know tons of people who live there, including my hubby’s cousin. And really? It’s a dumb thing to put on this generation. But there you have it. I do still want to go there and the surrounding countries and visit the concentration camp sites, the Anne Frank house, and more. Someday I will do it with a clear heart.
Because my own parents lived through that time, and I was the first generation to be educated about the Holocaust, it’s something that hits very close to home for me. As I noted in my review of The Kommandant’s Girl, it’s really difficult – impossible really – to separate my own personal experiences as a first generation post-Holocaust Jew from the literature.
This book is an inspiration and achieves its goal – showing that you can overcome, you can win, and damn if it doesn’t take every ounce of your strength sometimes. I was in awe not only of Rita, but of her husband Frank, who has supported her unquestioningly and unconditionally all these years. I think this is a must read for anyone, but especially as we lose the folks of this generation, it's so important not to forget their experiences. I recognized a lot of myself in Leslie, and a lot of my mom in Rita. Although mom was not in Europe, we had family there, and the profound effect of the Holocaust on both my mom's and my generation should continue to be told.
Also visit the website dedicated to the book that includes memories, interviews, photos, and much more.