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The escape artist

There are many factual accounts of people who have survived and lived through torture, terrorist attacks, wars, genocides. Many survivors go on to live productive, successful lives, but suffer residual emotional and psychological trauma that are not obvious to them or to others. In this sequel to After long silence: a memoir, Helen Fremont writes about those very effects that are not visible to anyone outside a family. She and her sister were raised as secular Catholics, but uncovered the facts about her parents’ past lives during World War II. They were Jewish and Holocaust survivors. Her father survived six years in the Soviet Gulag, and her mother escaped Poland to Italy with the help of a young Italian, who disguised her as a young soldier. 

Six weeks after her father's death, Fremont received a legal doument stating she had been disowned by her family. There was a codicil to the will, declaring her to have "predeceased" her father. This was the impetus that began another search for meaning and facts about her family's torutured and torturing lives. Told in sequential format that begins with early childhood memories, she lays bare the confusing, alarming and contradictory family life of four people: father, mother and two sisters. Both parents ingrained in their daughters the paramount importance of secrecy. Even when the mental breakdown of her sister forced the family to get professional guidance, each family member did not factually present the family dynamics. The family did not have the fortitude and ability to do that. Their survival, over a horrendous past life, had inflicted so much damage that they were incapable of reflection. It would awaken the very memories they had buried under secrets, in order to be alive. At the time her family was going through therapy, the concept of PTSD was not known and/or considered, and her family's outbursts during sessions were professionaly qualified as only "borderline" psychological issues.

As Fremont unearths her family's trauma and secrets, she gradually dislodges herself from them, at times at great cost. It is a painful, horrific memoir that includes her wonderful ironic sense of humor and wit. Her parents were caught in multiple layers of self-deception and psychological trauma that did great but unintentional damage to their two daughters. Fremont is the one who was able to face the past and move on, but not without personal hurt that she acknowledges has given her the courage to face the truth.

For Holocaust survivors and their children, the denial of being Jewish is not that uncommon. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did not know until adulthood that her family was Jewish. Journalist Kati Marton was raised as a Catholic, and did not know about her Jewish ancestry. These denials of one's religion and culture were deemed necessary by those whose families had been persecuted and killed because of being Jewish. It was a type of self-defense innoculation against further hateful persecution and what it could engender. Holocaust survivors are not the only ones who deny or do not want to talk about their past experiences with family or friends, and include the following: combat soldiers from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnamese War, combat in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. They lived it, and do not want to relive it, or inflict the memory of those experiences on others.

Helen Fremont's memoir is one of those rare books that I could not put down.