Troubled Memory

An elderly Holocaust survivor confronts a Holocaust denier, and a historian takes note

BY: Rodger Kamenetz


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At one level, "Troubled Memory" reads like a gripping novel of family survival against impossible odds, with heroes, villains, clever escapes, and ruses. Trapped in the town of Lodz by the Nazi invasion of Poland, and then trapped by circumstances in the Warsaw Ghetto, which the Nazis eventually liquidated, the family endures a series of catastrophes: near starvation, disease, constant fear, while having to witness over and over hideous murder, intense cruelty, and death.

Even when Ruth and her daughters escape the Warsaw Ghetto at the very last possible moment, hiding in a garbage truck, their ordeal is hardly over. The family must survive on the other side of the fence, in Warsaw, posing as Catholics, where one slip of the tongue could mean denunciation and death.

To call the survival of the Skoreckis lucky would be a trivialization. Their survival as a family was miracle after miracle. At the end of the war, when the sad remnant of the Jewish people gathered in Displaced Persons camps, the sight of an intact family was an extreme rarity.

Powell is unsparing in his account of the complex moral ambiguities of the situation: anti-Semites who nonetheless help some Jews, Jewish policemen who betray Jews, and all the difficult morality of survival. As a foreman in a Warsaw Ghetto shop supplying uniforms to the German army, Mark Skorecki may well have acquired the power to save lives--and the dreadful responsibility to choose who would live.

As parents, Ruth and Mark had to take desperate measures. The Nazis frequently inspected the shop where Mark and Ruth worked, and snatched children from their parents. Anne and sister Lila spent much of their childhood literally hiding in the dark. They sat for days on end in silence in forlorn basements, or cramped inside a specially constructed vegetable bin, or hiding under a factory floor--hideouts cleverly constructed by their father.

Meanwhile, Ruth showed courage and pluck, organizing the distribution of food and even finding a way to educate her children. The war years read like an adventure story. With every twist and turn of the plot, you are in fear for the lives of this family, where one wrong word--or even the cry of a baby--can mean death. Powell engages the reader in the intricate details of survival to help us understand how high the cost of survival was and how precious and important to preserve its memory.

Yet memory is troubled. The hiding places and the darkness were not only physical--survivors constructed special trap doors and hiding places in the mind as well. And even after the escape, after living in Germany, after coming to America, these doors do not open easily. The difficulty of memory, the trouble of memory, is a major theme of this work. At one level, it is simply the difficulty of remembering exact dates and times. But the problem goes deeper. Suppressing identity was often the key to survival, and that suppression continued for the Skoreckis long after the immediate danger passed--even after they arrived to the apparent safety of Louisiana.

On his home ground, Powell explores a second, more intimate kind of denial, as the story moves to the arrival of the Skoreckis in New Orleans in the 1950s. At first, in the rush to assimilate, to be like everyone else, the survivors try to leave the past behind. That is why it was so difficult for Anne Levy to confront David Duke--and so necessary.

In reading of Anne's courage, and that of her mother and father, Ruth and Mark, it becomes quite clear that David Duke doesn't deserve to appear in the same sentence with Anne Skorecki Levy, let alone the same book. Perhaps the goal, and reward, of Powell's effort is precisely to make that fact--and the troubled history that lies behind it--undeniably real.

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