Troubled Memory

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

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"Troubled Memory" is the title of a new book by Powell just published by the University of North Carolina Press. It's unusual in many ways. Powell is a historian, but certainly not a standard Holocaust historian. His previous books are on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Louisiana politics. It's the last term that provides the link: "Troubled Memory" grows from Powell's effort to understand with proper respect and depth what happened in those few moments in the State Capitol of Louisiana.

Two citizens of Louisiana met. One, a woman who suffered as a child because of the Holocaust, another who celebrated Hitler's birthday, sold Nazi books, and denied the carnage ever happened. The confrontation had the immediate effect of galvanizing anti-Duke efforts, including Powell's own remarkable organization, the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism.

But clearly, something about the confrontation haunted Powell. Going against the norms of academia, which dictate focus on areas of expertise, Powell spent the past eight years researching and interviewing members of Anne Levy's family. He went to Poland and interviewed survivors there. The core of "Troubled Memory" is a powerful, harrowing account of the war years and their aftermath, in which Anne Skorecki, her younger sister, Lila, and their parents Mark and Ruth, survived together as a family. 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.

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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.

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