The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather was a War Criminal by Sylvia Foti was the fulfillment of a pledge Foti made to her dying mother to write a memoir of the author’s highly esteemed grandfather, Lithuanian general and national hero Jonas Noreika. Foti grew up in the Lithuanian community of Chicago, sustained by the adoration for Noreika both abroad and in the mother country. The national and personal narratives would change dramatically with Foti’s pursuit of the truth. Her grandfather had collaborated with the Nazis and had given the order to exterminate at least 8000 Jews in 1941 and 1942 during the German occupation. (Noreika was executed by the Russians in 1947 for fighting their occupation. Of note, he conflated the Communists with the Jews.) Lithuania, writes Foti, killed a higher percentage of its Jewish population than any other country, and Noreika was one of the major tools for accomplishing that.
Foti’s research – interviews, official documents, family letters , KGB interrogation records– is exhaustive; her findings are conclusive. Too many in Lithuania even today have yet to acknowledge their complicity in the Holocaust. Advanced publicity and prefatory materials mean the reader knows where the book is going from the outset, and the takeaway is appreciation for Foti’s courage and perseverance in finding and presenting the truth.
The Postcard by Anne Berest is another search for truth about one’s ancestors. The Postcard is a highly autobiographical novel about the writer’s pursuit of her great grandfather, great grandmother, great aunt and uncle, all of whom died in Auschwitz. The search is triggered when Anne discovers an old postcard sent long ago to her mother, Leila’s, home, unsigned and inscribed only with the names Ephraim, Emma, Noemie and Jacques, all victims of Hitler’s extermination strategy for eliminating Jews. Another sibling, Myriam, had escaped, gotten involved in the Resistance, and survived to carry on the family line. Berest unearths much about grandmother Myriam, and four generations of the family.
The “greats” had fled Russia in 1919, lived for a time in Latvia and Palestine, and returned to Europe in 1929. The most perilous part of their lives was their sojourn in France, especially under the German occupation. In 1942, deportation led to death camps and their extermination. The family history is brought to life by powerful imaginings of the daily experiences and conversations of the key figures. The novel is deepened by the author’s examination of her own identity as a Jew and her beginning to communicate that to her own daughter, Clara.
Both these books, non-fiction and “fictionalized” memoir share a distressing recognition of the persistence of antisemitism, throughout history and no less today.
In The Country of the Blind by Anthony Leland, the grandson of playwright Neil Simon, is a memoir by about Leland’s gradual descent into blindness. A journalist and podcaster, he suffers from retinitis pigmentosa (RP), which began to affect his vision in his teens. Doctors told him the condition would accelerate by middle age. Today he is legally blind, down to the last six percent of his sight. The memoir is a deep and honest plunge into his physical and emotional journeys over decades. Using his reportorial skills, Leland explores societal attitudes toward the blind and other disabled, the history of their treatment, technological developments that have assisted those losing their vision, and tensions among different blind advocacy groups.
But it is his personal experience in which he wraps the reader. We empathize and share Leland’s terror at learning his diagnosis and prospects, the emotional and physical adjustment to using a white cane, bumping into things, getting lost, the tactile and intellectual pleasure of learning braille, the wonder of other adaptive technologies. He shares with us his deepening understanding of his own identity, his unwillingness to let himself be defined by his disability. Exhilarating ways of connecting with the world open up through other senses. As Leland immerses himself in a short-term program for the blind in Colorado and interacts with other people with different levels of blindness, he becomes optimistic about a future of full integration in the seeing world, personally and professionally. His attitude and this book are inspirational.