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Book Forum: Personal Accounts   |    
Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History
ELISSA P. BENEDEK, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2000;157:1351-a-1352. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.157.8.1351-a
View Author and Article Information
Ann Arbor, Mich.

by Helen Epstein. Boston, Little, Brown, 1997, 352 pp., $24.95; $12.95 (paper, published 1998 by Plume [Penguin Putnam]).

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Helen Epstein, a journalism professor, author of four previous books, and daughter of a concentration camp victim, has written a remarkable story about her search for her mother’s history. When she was 22, Frances Epstein, Helen’s mother, was sent with her first husband and her parents from Prague, Czechoslovakia, to a nearby concentration camp. Frances’ mother and father were then deported to Poland, where they died. Her first husband also died in the camps. Frances survived other concentration camps (including Auschwitz), typhus, three births, one abortion, one appendectomy, two disk fusions, back injuries, tuberculosis, and bleeding colitis. She also managed to survive poverty-stricken post-World-War-II Czechoslovakia and Communist Czechoslovakia. She flourished after a second marriage in Czechoslovakia and immigration to America. After all her horrendous experiences, Frances became a wife, mother, and high-fashion couturier.

Helen, author of this memoir, was estranged from her mother during late adolescence and reconciled with her a decade before Frances’ death. Helen reconciled when she too became a mother. The reason for the estrangement and reconciliation is never clarified and remains private.

After her mother died in 1989, Helen mourned in traditional and nontraditional ways. A nonobservant Jew, she did not sit Shiva, the seven days of Jewish mourning. However, she did resolve some of her grief and guilt by sifting through her mother’s workroom, her papers, her closets, her drawers, and her kitchen. In addition, she found a memoir her mother had written 10 years before her death. This memoir contained her mother’s memories of her own family and her personal history. This was the map that started Helen Epstein on her quest for a personal and historical understanding of her family. However, even with this understanding, Helen never overtly reveals her reaction to her role as the child of a concentration camp victim.

Helen used her mother’s memoir to research and reconstruct the life of her mother, Frances; her grandmother, Pepi; and her great-grandmother, Therese. Helen traveled to Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Israel, searching out friends, relatives, and people who had known her family. She researched material in libraries and archives on three continents. She pieced together an account of the women in her family and other women who lived in Central Europe during the period her great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother lived there. Thus, Where She Came From is not only a memoir of three generations in an assimilated Jewish family but also a social history documenting the daily lives, occupations, and preoccupations of women who were contemporaries of Helen Epstein’s relatives.

Helen’s great-grandmother, Therese, was an innkeeper’s daughter who fell in love with a Czech Christian but was married to a Jewish peddler, a man who was more interested in his books than in earning a livelihood for his family. In 1890, Therese leaped to her death from a fourth floor window in Vienna. Disappointed in love and in the death of her beloved only son, she sought refuge in suicide. Her daughter, Pepi, orphaned at the age of eight, grew up in a Jewish section of Kolin; she was raised by a devoted aunt, Rosa.

At the turn of the century, Pepi became one of Prague’s "new women" and launched a career as a seamstress. She ran her own house of high fashion and dressed the elite in Prague. Pepi’s daughter, Frances, left school and joined her mother’s business as an apprentice and then business manager at the age of 15. Frances was a proud, assimilated citizen of the first Czechoslovak republic, where Jews enjoyed unprecedented freedom until the German invasion in 1939. Her mother, Pepi, sank into despair and depression even before the invasion.

Life changed dramatically after the invasion. At first, the change was subtle and unnoticed, but more and more rights and privileges of Czech citizenship were taken away from Jewish citizens. Finally, Jews were ordered to wear a yellow star as a badge of their dishonor. Despite this, Frances continued to work diligently as the owner and then manager of the fashionable Salon Weigert. She was her mother’s business partner and the family breadwinner in a family where her father, Emil Rabinek, talked rather than worked and borrowed money from relatives and friends. Pepi, Emil, and Frances were deported from Prague and spent 3 years in Terezin (Terezienstadt), Auschwitz, Hamburg, and Bergen-Belsen.

In her mid-50s, Frances wrote a memoir of those 3 years, entitling it, "Round Trip," beginning with her deportation from Prague and ending with her solitary return, without husband or parents, who died in the camps. Her memoir is quoted in Where She Came From, and Frances’ life in concentration camps is recounted in poignant and heart-rendering detail. Like other concentration camp victims, Frances had told Helen of these events only in bits and pieces during Helen’s childhood in an attempt to spare her the terror, horror, degradation, and humiliation that her parents endured. Helen recounts the full picture of Frances’ experience in wartime Czechoslovakia in Where She Came From.

Even after the war, Frances had little cause for joy. She had been displaced from her previous home and her business, she had lost contact with most of her friends, and her relatives had been annihilated. Still, she managed to survive, and with the help of a cousin and a new husband, Kurt Epstein, she emigrated to America. Frances and Kurt flew out of Prague July 21, 1948, carrying several kilos of hand luggage and baby Helen in a canvas bag. With the diapers and baby things, she packed a few old family photographs and three porcelain figurines that had belonged to her mother and grandmother. In New York, she borrowed money, bought a sewing machine, and started a high-fashion business.

Helen’s book begins with Frances’ death and ends in 1996 with a trip to Vienna and a visit to her great-grandmother Therese’s grave. She reports that during that visit she "acted out" in many ways. She refused to speak German, wore tee shirts and jogging shoes in a fashionable, ornate Viennese breakfast room, and whistled in inappropriate places. Ultimately, a small group of friends and relatives accompanied her to Vienna’s central cemetery for a visit to plot 19-19-84, her great-grandmother’s final resting place. She resisted the longstanding Jewish tradition of placing a stone on her great-grandmother’s tombstone because it seemed too cold a thing to leave. She wanted her great-grandmother to have something alive. She ends the book by reporting that she returned to her great-grandmother’s grave with a trowel and a pot of heather that she hoped would prove hearty and take root, a symbol of her family’s heartiness, deep-rootedness, and ability to survive.

Because of my family’s European origins and the decimation and annihilation of my great-grandmother’s generation, I read this chronicle/memoir with a special interest. It brought back memories of the stories my father and grandmother told me about their life in a small Polish-Jewish community before World War II. Their community was unlike Prague in that it was rural, unsophisticated, and very poor. Yet even in this backwater community, Jewish life and traditions were mocked and then destroyed in the days before and during the war. The souvenirs I have from my father and grandmother’s life are few and precious—a photograph, a letter, a piece of silver, and many fragmented stories. Through Where She Came From, exhaustively researched and beautifully narrated, Helen Epstein has fleshed out some of my family’s similar and yet different background. In chronicling the lives of her ancestors, Epstein has given readers fascinating glimpses of a lost and unfamiliar world, a world whose long history ended suddenly and tragically, a world, however, that can still be glimpsed through stories, memoirs, and pictures of survivors and their children.

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