- Becoming My Mother's Daughter: A Story of Survival and Renewal
Wilfrid Laurier University Press's Life Writing Series has become one of the most important venues for publishing original works of autobiography and memoir. The books are often about Canadian experiences written by Canadian authors, but many recount stories that also take place elsewhere. Holocaust memoirs are an especially important feature of the Life Writing Series, and Erika Gottlieb's Becoming My Mother's Daughter is a superb addition. Gottlieb was an established author, literary critic, and visual artist whose education and career traversed Hungary, Austria, and Canada. Becoming My Mother's Daughter tells of her experiences as a member of a Jewish family in wartime Hungary and her eventual emigration to Canada. At its heart is the account of the final months of the war told from the perspective of six-year-old 'Eva,' the author's literary alter ego. It is winter 1944, and [End Page 523] Eva, her mother Eliza, and her sister Sandy are gradually forced out of their home into the Jewish ghetto and from there into hiding. Throughout this period of her life, Eva is terrified of being 'snipped off ' from her mother - a phrase that comes to represent 'a fear that fills [her] private world like a dark vapour.' To be 'snipped off ' from her mother would mean losing that warm, solid body she clings to, that source of soft words and comforting gestures, that person who will not let her be lost or let her starve. Over time, Eva loses much - her home on Tatra Street, for a time her father who hides separately from them, members of her extended family who are killed outright or shipped off to the camps. But she does not lose her mother. And her mother does not lose the large yellow leather handbag she always has with her - the bag in which she keeps family documents, photographs, and whatever else she could salvage of their personal belongings, as well as food, the bag that becomes the symbol of their survival.
While Becoming My Mother's Daughter is an exceptionally moving story about Gottlieb and her family facing the constant threat of being caught by the Germans or the Hungarian Arrow Cross, it is also a psychologically and emotionally rich exploration of Gottlieb's relationships to her extended family, especially the women. The book includes many of Gottlieb's sketches and paintings, which depict scenes from Budapest, memories of the their dispossession, flight, and hiding, and compelling portraits of family members. One titled Self-Portrait of the Women in the Family speaks to the centrality of Gottlieb's relationships with her female relatives, none more important than her mother. While this is a somewhat familiar story of female identity traced through matrilineal stories and lives, by weaving together the narrative of her ties to her mother and her developing female identity with the narrative of her childhood experiences of the war, Gottlieb avoids overly pathologizing her relationship with her mother. Instead readers see a relationship of deep love and mutual care, even if certain questions go unanswered and certain misunderstandings remain unresolved.
Structurally the book is intricate. The narrative begins in the present in Canada with the mature Eva visiting her aging mother Eliza, who is recovering from an operation and a subsequent cardiac arrest; it ends after her mother's death when Sandy and Eva find the leather handbag that made the trip to Canada with their mother. A conversation with her mother before she died and finding the handbag afterwards act as catalysts to Eva/Gottlieb accessing and narrating the deep childhood memories that occupy the centre of the memoir. Crossing this bridge to the past, the narrative voice also shifts from third person to the first, and the 'I' of memoir takes control of the story. She enters the 'tunnel' of memory - Gottlieb likens her descent into the past to riding a streetcar travelling underground - and only when that story has been told can she reemerge [End...