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What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past by Nancy K. Miller (review)

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 27, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 431-433 | 10.1353/abs.2012.0016

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Part of the pleasure that many of us experience when reading an autobiography is the convergence of the uniqueness of the life writer’s individual story with the universality of human experiences. Nancy K. Miller’s nonfiction account of piecing her family history together from the scraps of odds-and-ends beckons the reader to join her. She embarks on exterior journeys across countries and continents. In addition to the external, physical travel, she contemplates the interior movement—a sort of time-travel—while she traverses through the past, seeking to uncover the identity of ancestors in photographs and the meaning of a hurriedly drawn genealogical chart. Such journeys, both exterior and interior, are required of all adults who wish to discover more about their family heritage. She grapples with such identity questions as: Who are her relatives? Why did they come to America? What might be the significance of specific items that, after the owner’s death, remained behind? To a large extent, Miller’s search for meaning could be the story of almost any American. However, the “Jewish past” referred to in the subtitle is an overarching theme of the book, made all the more poignant for the twenty-first century American Jew whose family members suffered from pogroms and the Shoah.

Miller, no stranger to autobiographical acts, tells the story of her initiation into the genealogical process. Doubtless she began her quest before the proliferation of television programs about discovering one’s family heritage, such as Who Do You Think You Are?, and Finding Your Roots, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Yet the zeitgeist seems to reveal a hunger to learn more about our ancestors, and how they—even when unknown to us—shaped us into who we are. Miller’s voice in What They Saved is personal, not scholarly, although she brings her academic rigor with her as she learns the complexities of genealogical research. She writes of her unfolding awareness of the mysteries, deadends, and eureka moments that comprise the genealogical adventure. She begins her detective work, as do so many other amateur sleuths who seek meaning in their family tree, simply wishing to learn more. Indeed, in desiring to become acquainted with a neglected side of her family, she realizes that she had been unaware of her lack of interest in one branch of that family tree. Working with the flotsam tossed up by the “Jewish past,” she tracks down information. As she collects material and grows in her knowledge of the investigative work involved in the genealogical process, she realizes that she is engaged in “a posthumous collaboration” (70) with her family, some of whom are still alive, some long dead. The collaboration spreads over physical distances as well as temporal ones.

The search for specific family members is, at its core, a completely personal one, yet she is aware that the convoluted story of her ancestry must engage her audience. “If you are also a writer,” she muses, with her use of “also” meaning, in addition to being engaged in an individualistic search for private reasons, “you must ask yourself why anyone else should care about what you find, and admit that they might not” (104). Fortunately for Miller and her readers, she deftly conveys the characters—her family members, some of whom she knew, but most of whom were strangers—and her search for their meaning in such a way that readers will want to stay with her on the adventure.

The book is comprised of three sections. Part One, “How I Found my Family in a Drawer,” launches Miller on her quest for her family’s history, particularly as the death of her father had caused her to be, as she puts it, “a middle-aged Jewish orphan” (3). Because she had been closer to her mother’s side of the family tree, she realized that she knew little about the paternal line. The title of Part One perfectly expresses not only the genesis of her research process but captures the finite physicality of what the family could bequeath to her, in an emotional or spiritual way. The second section is “Saving the Name.” Here she explores a development in...



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