Full disclosure. I have a great deal of admiration for Tommy Schnurmacher and we are friends and colleagues. This award-winning broadcaster and journalist needs no introduction to you, our readers. But that is not the reason for this review. Tommy and I are part of something more important than just a circle of friends or a profession. We are part of what is called the “second generation.” The children of survivors of the greatest horror ever unleashed by man against his fellow man. The Holocaust.
In the Jewish tradition, we have something called “Mesorah.” That word has several interpretations, particularly in scriptural studies. But in short, it means the passing on of law and lore, tradition and memory. Originally it was done orally. But it is at the core of our second generation’s duty of memory and witness. What Nehru once called, “The golden thread of history.” But our Jewish threads are tear-stained and Tommy has done honor to the duty.
We have tens of thousands of Holocaust histories and memoirs. Many of you have read many of them. Make time for this one. Because what makes Tommy’s memoir of his mother’s survival at Auschwitz so special is that though he paints pictures of the horror, he has lovingly and eloquently brought to life how the personal determination of self-worth and the unflinching resolve to maintain personal dignity — even in the face of great evil and power — can make all of us survive the most frightening challenges of this mortal coil.
I come from a fighter survivor family. My father, mother and six other family members served as partisans or soldiers in five Allied forces. But Tommy’s memoir demonstrates that there are other ways to survive. You survive through your wits, through steely courage and yes, through vanity, in the most positive sense of that word. A vanity that drives one not to allow circumstances to define who we are. A vanity that drives us to maintain — spiritually and physically — each of our singular worth as a human being. That is what Tommy’s mother did and that is what helped her to survive.
The story is compelling enough on its own. But Tommy’s writing brings it home. He makes it personal in the sense that his style makes it seem that through the pages the words he has woven together jump out at us — each individual reader — as if Tommy is talking directly to us face-to-face. And it makes the searing drama of how his mother got two infamous Nazis to save her life and the impact that had on Tommy as a child of survivors and, later on, as a caregiver dealing with her dementia, even more suspenseful and poignant.
The book interweaves scenes from her life and Tommy’s, and takes us from Montreal and Monsey, New York to Gramercy Park in Manhattan and the Academy Awards in Hollywood. Anna Porter, award-winning publisher and author, commented that this work is, “A deeply affecting memoir at once tragic and very funny. Well-written and an addictive read.” And world renowned psychologist Dr. Eva Fogelman, who has done so much work with survivors, wrote in her Amazon review that, “it is a book that will make you laugh, cry, think and admire.”
She went on to say “As a psychologist who has worked with hundreds of children of Holocaust survivors in individual, group and family therapy and has trained many other mental health professionals to work with historically traumatized populations, I can say that this memoir is a fantastic book to read for the general public as well as professionals to understand how trauma seeps into everyday life while continuing to live a productive life and to love.”
This book is not morbid in any way. Besides the story behind the title, it is filled with funny anecdotes about the Hungarian immigrant experience and will appeal to anyone who has had to deal being a caregiver for an aging parent. And the remembrance of Tommy and his parents escaping from Hungary across a mined, muddy field brought back memories for me when as a three year old my parents and I with an uncle, aunt and their child, crossed from the Soviet Union to Poland. This book will move you and change you. And it puts our everyday problems into much needed perspective.