A Lost Identity: The Past Reconsidered

By Dinah Zeltser


Review of After Long Silence by Helen Fremont. Delacorte Press. 322pp. $23.95.

Over fifty years after the war has ended, shots are still ringing in wintry Michigan and sun-drenched Rome, foggy Boston and the rotting Ukraine. The bullets fly loudly past Helen Fremont and graze her soul. To still these eruptions, her mother (with the cooperation of her husband and sister, Fremont’s aunt) built an elaborate identity, hoping to shield Fremont and her sister from the unspeakable memories of Europe ravaged at the zenith of its evil. That identity, which turns out to be as sturdy as a house of cards, eventually tumbles. Each card, however, holds a clue to the puzzle that Fremont and her sister painstakingly assemble in the hopes of discovering who they really are.

Having led a life rather typical for Polish Jews, Fremont’s parents are catapulted into the insanity of the Holocaust and the Second World War, their determination to survive having remained intact throughout their horrific ordeal. Survival, though, comes at a cost and for the elder Fremonts–at the price of their identity as Jews. They spent years in hiding, masked behind false identities–identities ironically similar to those of the very same people who were trying to destroy them. The end result is that Fremont’s parents and aunt have never recovered their precious sense of self.

The Talmud records a strange story of the Pardes–a mystical garden that four rabbis go into and come out of with very different effects. One of the rabbis comes out mad and another comes out an apostate, gently labeled by the Talmud as an “Acher”–the other. Fremont’s relatives went through their own Pardes, coming out of it with elements of both the crazy and the other. They thought of themselves as Catholic yet behaved erratically and strangely, like many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Fremont’s father suffered a fate, explored at length by Solzhenytzin, in a Siberian Gulag. His is a survivor’s tale as well, but sung to a different tune, with the chilling recollection of his oppressor’s cruelty. When raw information about these worlds begins to flow, Fremont and her sister are left to shape new lives with it, eventually succeeding despite the painful memories and detours along the way.

The recent barrage of memoirs and autobiographies has been criticized for its apparent narcissism, its lack of depth reflected in detailed examinations of moods and peccadilloes that never transcend the particular or reach the universal. Against that background, Fremont’s memoir comes as a breath of fresh air and a respite from such self-absorption. Her memoir reminds us that no matter how many times we hear the stories, think we know the details, or can recite the facts by heart, we still do not grasp the loss, the particularity of each experience that needs to be separated from the numbing amalgam of the numbers. Such experiences acquire validation through our interaction with the accompanying stories, giving meaning to the suffering they portray, as well as reminding us of the precariousness of identity.

About Dinah Zeltser

Dinah Zeltser is a recent Queens College grad, now residing in Jamaica Plain, Mass. She is studying Jewish Communal Service and Non-Profit Management at Brandeis Unviersity as a Wexner Fellow and in her spare time she dances and commutes to New York.