In the tumultuous 1970s while women, African Americans, and the gay and lesbian community march for equality, three sisters wrestle with the legacy of their family’s Holocaust past. Memory’s Shadow is a compelling story of sisterly conflict and loyalty, the broader politics of sisterhood, and the power of the human spirit to rise when faced with the unimaginable recurrence of tragedy.
“Growing up in the 1950s and 60s the Berk sisters are united by love and divided by secrets. All of them live in memory’s shadow, whether they know it or not. In this, Benick’s second novel, they confront the polarizing events of the late 20th century, even as they grapple with the family’s tragic past in the Lodz ghetto. Memory’s Shadow is as spare as it is sweeping, taking in the minutiae of each sisters’ life, as well as the enormous historical events that buffet them, revealing the different worlds inhabited by members of the same family, even as they share an inextricable bond. History does not stop for healing, and violence and injustice continue to cut through the Berk family’s lives. In this multi-generational story of legacy and survivorship, there are no easy answers. All the characters must find their own forms of commemoration, their own paths to resiliency and hope.”
—Maria Meindl, author of The Work and Outside the Box
“Memory’s Shadow is a moving story that addresses the question of what makes and connects family. It is an emotional account of three sisters and their relationships, set in historical and cultural backgrounds carefully and effectively woven into each sister’s journey. It is writing that can’t help but prompt family reminiscing on a personal level for every reader.”
—Cissy Lacks, author of Miriam’s Way and a recipient of the PEN/Newman Award
“In Memory’s Shadow, Gail Benick sensitively deals with a common feature in Holocaust survivor families – the inability to speak about their experiences. What makes this story unique is that two of the protagonists are child survivors of the Lodz ghetto, who, following their parents’ example of silence, block a younger sister’s questions. In journal entries, the author skillfully depicts the inner world of the three sisters and their fraught relationship. Only after suffering more loss, do the two survivor sisters learn that by accepting and integrating the memory of trauma, they can heal and pass on their family’s history and legacy to the third generation.”
—Renate Krakauer, author of Only by Blood
“Gail Benick’s second novel, Memory’s Shadow, is an earnest exploration of the bond between three sisters as they care for their aging father and struggle, each in a different way, with their family’s Holocaust history. A heartfelt book about facing the past and building a future.”
—Nora Gold, author of The Dead Man, Fields of Exile, and Marrow
Linda Sue smoothed the wrinkles from the white tablecloth in Papa’s dining room. She was helping to prepare for Shabbat dinner, a winter Shabbat on one of the darkest and coldest evenings of the season, when threats of global cooling and a new ice age seemed eminently possible.
In such a climate, with weather experts predicting polar bears in Manhattan and penguins in Florida, a meal of heavy food, most of it salty and overcooked, felt particularly welcoming as they braced for another storm. Linda Sue walked into the kitchen where Josh and his younger sister, Stacey, were removing dishes and glassware from the cupboard to set the dining room table. As soon as Josh saw his aunt, he began needling her about the promised trip to Poland.
”I’ll be ancient by the time you get around to organizing this thing, Aunt Linda,” Josh taunted her.
“Okay, this summer for your high school graduation present,” she said.
Hetty, bending over the oven to rustle the roasting potatoes in hot oil, listened to their banter. Each hour delaying their trip, every millisecond of postponement, felt triumphant to her. She dreaded the moment that Josh would leave for a country she wanted only to forget. Furthermore, none of her synagogue friends had teenage sons or daughters who were travelling behind the Iron Curtain. Maybe Linda Sue could chaperone Josh on a Grand Tour of Europe, like upper-crust Englishmen used to take when they finished their education at Oxford or Cambridge. Hetty was prepared to pay great sums of money for Josh to trek through France and Italy in search of art, culture, and the origins of Western civilization. She imagined his postcards from Paris, Venice, Rome, and Pompeii. He might even perfect his French and learn a bit of Italian. It never hurt to have more than one language, Mama had often advised her, because a girl never knew where she might end up.
For Linda Sue, the endless dithering—her own fault, she would be the first to admit—felt like madness. There was nothing more quirky, she was convinced, than the Berks’ inability to make firm decisions and get on with it. Tilya couldn’t figure out how to bring a baby into her life. Hetty couldn’t decide whether to sell her house and move farther west. And she couldn’t even plan a simple two-week holiday with her nephew. Reaching over Stacey’s head for a wine goblet stored on the cupboard’s top shelf, Linda Sue could barely grasp the fragile stem. The goblet slipped through her fingers and shattered. Josh began to pick up the pieces, but Hetty wouldn’t let him or Stacey go anywhere near the slivers of glass. She feared—although she didn’t dare to say it aloud—a bloodbath.
When Hetty rose to bless the Sabbath candles a bit later, her voice sounded weary. She kissed Josh and Stacey on the tops of their heads, lingering for a moment with her hands on their shoulders, hesitant to let go. Papa said the blessing over the challah, and then he pulled a small piece from the end of the twisted bread and salted it before he took a bite.
”Gut Shabbos, my kinder,” he said.
“A-a-men,” said Josh, holding a hunk of the yellow bread in his hand, the sesame seeds on the crust falling onto his plate. “This summer,” he announced, “Aunt Linda is finally going to take me to Lodz. And no arguing. It’s my grad present.”
“I want to go, too,” Stacey said. Her thick auburn curls were held back with a narrow headband, which made her look much younger than fifteen and drew attention to the dramatic V-shape in her hairline near the centre of her forehead.
“That’s enough,” Hetty said. She glanced several times at Lenny across the table, registering his increasing discomfort with the direction of the conversation. She knew that her husband would never allow both of their children to leave St. Louis with Linda Sue in search of the Berk family’s elusive past. Absolutely not. Over the years, he had expressed a touch of skepticism regarding the family’s survival in the Lodz ghetto during the war. He was frankly detached from all things European because his family came to the States in the previous century and regarded themselves as one hundred percent American. Without being disrespectful, he wished the whole business of the Berks’ past would go away. Papa frowned at Josh and shook his head in mild distress while Hetty set the charity box on the table. She gave Josh and Stacey a few coins to push through the opening at the top of the tin container. “You don’t need to go to Poland to dredge up injustices from the past,” she told Josh and Stacey. “Charity and good deeds start at home.”
“That’s like comparing chalk and cheese,” Linda Sue said to Hetty.
“I don’t get it,” Stacey said. “What do chalk and cheese have to do with Poland?”
“Maybe the Berks were dairy farmers in Lodz,” Josh said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Hetty corrected him. “Who was milking cows in the ghetto?”
Papa winced at his grandchildren’s ignorance, the gaps in their understanding of his identity and his geography. They knew next to nothing of Warsaw or Lodz and even less about the shtetls in Poland, where Jews had lived long before the Holocaust—where, in fact, his own ancestors had roots. Yet, he listened and said nothing.
“Okay, Josh,” Linda Sue said. “I’m going to start looking for cheap flights tomorrow. And a little information about Jews in Poland wouldn’t hurt either.” She rattled the charity box that had once held her own sweaty nickels and dimes.
Three Shabbat dinners later, between the gefilte fish and matzah ball soup, Linda Sue announced the August dates for their Poland trip. It would be the first time any of their family members had stepped foot in the old country since the end of World War II. The response around the dinner table on Friday night was less than joyous. Linda Sue was not surprised. She herself felt overwhelmed. Every inquiry about trains in Poland forced her to picture what could have happened to Mama, Papa, Hetty, and Tilya. Each time she studied the map of Poland, she imagined the four of them hiding somewhere in a forest or a barn or cellar. As she searched for a tour guide, she wondered what a complete stranger would be able to tell her and Josh about the Berks’ survival. This guide would have to be some sort of diviner. A magician pulling ghostly relatives out of a hat.
As their departure loomed closer and closer, Linda Sue resented the veil of secrecy cloaking the Berks’ past more and more. She wished her family understood that their secrets caused her considerable pain. How could they not see that? Just before she finalized the purchase of the airplane tickets, she gave Tilya one last chance to divulge what she knew. Big mistake, Linda Sue thought, as soon as Tilya answered the phone in New York. Her flat, disinterested tone seemed to be reserved especially for her sisters.
“So, what’s doing?” Tilya barely managed to ask after an awkward pause. The emotion in her voice was so tempered that Tilya could have been speaking to a brick wall.
“Not much,” Linda Sue said. “Are you in the middle of something?” No matter how callous Tilya appeared, Linda Sue never stopped thinking of her as the family’s brightest star, maybe even the Jonas Salk of women’s studies. Who was she, Linda Sue, to interrupt her sister on the cusp of a big breakthrough in the study of androgyny? But she couldn’t wait any longer for Tilya to become a national heroine. “You’re sure you don’t want to go to Poland with Josh and me this summer?” Linda Sue spoke as if this were a straightforward question rather than an indirect appeal for some sort of communion with her sister.
“Yep. Absolutely sure,” Tilya said. “Is that why you called?”
“Sort of.” Linda Sue sighed. “I just don’t want any surprises when we get there, Tilya. Josh is still a pretty impressionable
kid, you know.”
“I’m well aware of my nephew’s age and the way he’s been shielded from the big bad world we live in.” The phone line began to crackle. “And your point is?”
“It must be snowing or raining where you are, Tilya. There’s so much static, I can hardly hear you. Anyway, if you could stop being such a cold cucumber for one second…” Her voice trailed off.
“I am not a cold cucumber,” she pushed back. “It’s just that I’m looking forward, not backward, like some people I know.”
Linda Sue twirled her hair around her fingers, nervously, then licked her upper lip, which felt dry and in need of her misplaced ChapStick. The static on the phone line was becoming intolerable. “Well,” she said to Tilya, “maybe, just maybe, a memory, even a tiny fragment from those times, still rattles in that head of yours. Would it be so terrible?”
“Actually, it would,” Tilya replied. “I’ve got to go.”
“But… how is your search for a baby going?”
“So so,” Tilya said. “Listen, Linda Sue, I need to—”
“Wait. Don’t hang up yet. I want to tell you one more thing.”
“Make it fast.”
“Well, all thirty-three buildings of Pruitt–Igoe are now gone,” Linda Sue said. “Finito. Can you believe it?”
“I know,” Tilya said. “It’s terrible. My friend Marion from Wash U. told me about it. And lots of the people in those buildings were women. Single parents.” With a flick of her wrist, she put down the receiver of the phone, leaving Linda Sue to wonder what just happened.
June 25, 1976
I’m so sick and tired of Tilya’s smug attitude. Does she really believe that she is so superior just because she wants to liberate women? Like she’s the only one who’s ever tried to make the world a better place. Oh, sure. She should only know what my fifth graders are doing with their history projects on heroes. I’m clipping my lesson plan to this page in case my holier-than-thou sister ever gets her hands on my diary. She promised she wouldn’t read it, but you never know what will happen. I’ve marked up my copy of the lesson plan with a few notes in parentheses just to show that I’m a very conscientious teacher, the best I can be. I, too, am saving the world in my own way, one student at a time.
Toodle-oo for now,