By Erin Einhorn.
Touchstone. 288 pp. $24.95.
Reviewed by Helen Epstein
In 1991, when she was a 17-year-old living outside Detroit, Erin Einhorn wrote a profile of her mother for her high school newspaper. Irena - or Irene, as she was called in the Midwest - was born in Poland to a Jewish couple during the Second World War. Irena's mother was murdered by the Nazis. The toddler was hidden by a Polish family for the duration of the Holocaust, then reclaimed by her survivor father, who took her first to Sweden and then to the United States.
Einhorn's account of her mother's story was so well received that she determined to become a journalist. She worked as a reporter first in Detroit, then in Philadelphia, then in New York.
The Pages in Between
is a journalistic memoir. Einhorn makes the most of this emerging and very elastic form of nonfiction. The catalyst for her project is a car ride from Detroit to Philadelphia with her mother in 1999, during which Irene recalls a childhood detail she hadn't mentioned before. For her daughter, hearing it "was like picking up a book I'd read a hundred times and realizing there were pages stuck together, pages that, when pried apart, revealed an entirely new drama."
The reporter had been planning to take a year off for a "great adventure" in Peru or China. But reflecting on the story she had written as a teenager and judging it "the product of perfect folklore," Einhorn decides to relocate her adventure to Poland. She'll re-interview her mother, learn some Polish, move to Krakow for a year, become acquainted with the country, then track down and question the descendants of the people who rescued her mother.
Perhaps the best part of Einhorn's book is her reporting from Krakow. She describes the two young Poles with whom she shares an apartment. They serve as her translators, help her research Polish-Jewish history as well as the history of her own family, and interview the descendents of Honorata Skowronska, her mother's rescuer. Prominent among them is the aging Wieslaw, Honorata's son, who describes acquiring "a little sister" as a teenager, milking the goat for her nourishment, and hiding her in a drawer when German troops marched through town.
The family brings out a Righteous Christian Medal from Yad Vashem that Honorata was awarded. (It turns out she had nominated herself.) Irena never contacted the family that saved her. As Einhorn's meetings with the family continue, it turns out Einhorn's grandfather had allegedly made promises to Honorata regarding ownership of the family home; now the family wants Irena to come back and make good on these promises. Thus is Einhorn introduced to the complexities of post-Communist real estate transactions and the intricacies of Polish property law.
The author candidly observes that she had conceived of her project as a one-way deal of reconnecting with her mother's past. "It had not occurred to me," she writes, "that there was a past out there waiting to reconnect with her."
Because that past is messier and far more complicated than Einhorn had imagined, she sometimes seems like a Henry James heroine caught in a web of sinister European intrigue. She's aware of visiting the dead end of a sometimes benign but often brutally violent history. No resident of Krakow can be oblivious to the ads for genocide tourism (Auschwitz-Plaszow, 60 zlotys! Klezmer in Kazimierz tonight!). Her roommates are only two of the many locals finding their way in the new capitalist economy and in relation to Jews from all over the world visiting the sites of extermination and trying to document their family histories.
Alcohol is often the social lubricant in this uneasy and ambiguous setting. Everybody drinks and says things under the influence - as Wieslaw eventually does - that might not have come out otherwise. Einhorn has the added difficulty of not speaking Polish and relying on her translators to figure out what's going on. And unforeseen personal developments complicate her project: She falls in love with a man back home; Irene develops cancer and dies; Magda, her Polish roommate and sometime translator, decides to convert to Judaism.
In what I imagine must have been a long, hard struggle to shape this book, Einhorn chooses to include all these elements. This makes for a lively narrative, but often allows only superficial attention to matters that deserve deeper examination. Although there are extensive literatures about many of Einhorn's subjects - Polish-Jewish relations, hidden children, rescuers, families of Holocaust survivors - the author cites none of it. Her omission of Eva Hoffman's work is especially striking, since Einhorn walks the same streets Hoffman did in her book
Lost in Translation
and builds on Polish-Jewish themes Hoffman introduced in other books.
The Pages in Between
is, however, a memoir jam-packed with reportage, interesting characters, unexpected humor, as well as grief and conflicting memories - individual and collective. The book provokes many more questions than it can explore, let alone answer. It's a promising debut.