Tuesday 14 January 2014

Earrings in the Cellar: Growing Up in Ruined Worlds by Rachel Bernheim.

Published by Gefen Publishing House

The title of this book refers to a deeply emotional moment between a mother and her daughters as she takes a slim tube and places jewellery and money within, to be buried in the cellar so that when her daughters return home at some point, they will have something with which to try and rebuild their lives.

This book covers the lives of Rachel Friedman, along with her father and mother Ya'akov and Matilda, brothers Eliezer and Shlomo, and sisters Chaya and Ada during WWII. Like other books on the holocaust, it does delve into the conditions that people were forced to live with, in the numerous camps. What is different about this one, compared to other books I have read on the subject, is that it delves a little into the Jewish culture. A particularly memorable part for me was when the author describes how a typical Purim festival was celebrated. It painted a picture of a vibrant community. Given that the Friedmans lived in a town which had 37,000 people of which 17,000 were Jewish, it's easy to see why.

The reader gets to witness the atrocities that happened, not just in the camps, but long before that when the Jewish people had their lives limited in many ways. I found myself often filled with sadness for the families, and pure contempt for those who sought to put them in harm's way. What hit me the hardest, or at least in retrospect it feels that way, was the deliberate cruelty that was an everyday part of their lives. One particular moment describes a mother, reaching and crying out after recognizing her son as one of the new arrivals to the camp, only to end up electrocuted. In fact, it's mentioned in the book that when people couldn't face the horror of life within the camps - in this case, Auschwitz, they would frequently end their lives by voluntarily taking hold of the electric fence until death.

There are moments too though, that capture the determination of a people. Those people facing death daily, can still sing proudly, holding on to their identity with all they have left, in spite of the inevitable beating it brought to them.  All in all, Earrings in the Cellar is a powerful read that truly impacts the reader. For those who like reading about this subject - like I do - I'd definitely look this one up. In addition to sharing the everyday life leading up to the imprisonment in camps, it also deals with the death marches, and the aftermath in which family members struggled to reconnect with one another.

Even as I write this, days later, my heart catches in my mouth at the memories and I know that I'll read this title again.

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