When the German forces surrendered to the Allies in May 1945, World War II in Europe ended. However, for the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, the trauma of what they endured wasn’t over. For many, the effects lingered on in ways large and small, noticeable and not, often in ways their families came to know.
Rita Lurie was one such person. She survived the war in hiding, a young child hidden for two years in a Polish farmhouse attic with more than a dozen members of her family, and she witnessed both her mother and her infant brother perish before her eyes. At war’s end, she passed through a succession of Displaced Persons camps along with her extended family before arriving in New York. Her father remarried, to a Holocaust survivor he met in the DP camps.
In time, Lurie herself married and moved to California, where she raised three children. Her eldest daughter, Leslie, became quite accomplished: while an undergraduate at UCLA, she held the student seat on the California Board of Regents; after graduating UCLA Law School, she held a 9th Circuit clerkship; she was an NBC television executive and producer; she was a founding board member and past president of the Alliance for Children’s Rights; she is a member and former president of the Los Angeles County Board of Education and has been on the board of several other nonprofits. She married Cliff Gilbert, an attorney (they have since hyphenated their names as Gilbert-Lurie), and they are parents to two children and a stepson.
Reading this, you might think that you already know everything you need to know about Rita Lurie and Leslie Gilbert-Lurie – another story of the triumphs of a Holocaust survivor and her overachieving progeny – but in the pair’s recently published “Bending Toward the Sun: A Mother and Daughter Memoir” (Harper), the reader is given an extraordinarily candid account of the deep impact the Holocaust has had on survivors and their descendents.
I recently sat down with Lurie and Gilbert-Lurie to discuss how the book evolved and the insights it yielded.
Lurie explained that she was encouraged to write her story because of the feedback she received from students when she spoke at schools. Although she feared her stories would seem frightening, the students found them inspiring. Lurie wanted to record those stories, and she wanted to pay tribute to her mother and the others who had died in the Holocaust.
Over the years, Lurie had written bits and parts of her story for herself. Various friends had encouraged her to write her story more fully and even offered to help her, but Lurie found the process difficult and frustrating. At one point, Gilbert-Lurie offered, “Maybe I could help you write it.” Her mother was ready to start immediately.
“I don’t think she heard the word ‘maybe,'” Gilbert-Lurie now says.
“I really wanted those stories out there,” Lurie said. “Frankly, I thought it would be cathartic.”
The process took 12 years. The first several were taken up by fact gathering. Two or three times a week, Gilbert-Lurie met with her mother, getting her to tell her story from the beginning. At the same time, they realized they also needed to consult Lurie’s sister, two of her uncles and three first cousins, all of whom had also survived in the attic and were still alive. So they traveled to interview them.
Almost from the start, Gilbert-Lurie sensed that she wanted to tell her mother’s story, but also how it had impacted her.
“I knew that my mother’s story was distinctive,” Gilbert-Lurie said. Very few families were able to survive hiding together in such large numbers for so many months, as has been so famously illustrated by Anne Frank’s story. At the same time, Gilbert-Lurie was well aware that the world might react with, “Oh, not another Holocaust story.”
“We wanted to tell the story a different way,” she said. So Lurie tells her story with extraordinary attention to detail, both factual and emotional. “I think I hung onto those facts and details,” she said, “because it made me feel more complete. I wasn’t just a mannequin; I was a person.”
Lurie relates her life after the war and in the United States, and the difficulties she has had in her relationships with her family members, relatives and in feeling loved, as well as the roles her husband and her children have played in her life. She is unusually honest and extremely frank about her feelings of inadequacy and about her years of therapy and episodes of recurring severe depression.
Lurie told me that she surprised even herself with her candor.
She also describes how, after the war, she was molested – once by a survivor in the DP camps and another time by a relative. These events, she says, “had a profound impact on me, and that I worked through in therapy.” She was concerned about possible reactions to such revelations, but felt they needed to be in the narrative.
Gilbert-Lurie stressed that the book makes the point that no one is all good or all bad. In Poland, Lurie’s family may have been saved because a German told them not to show up at the train deportation. It was Polish peasants who hid them, and there were others who did not denounce them, although their attic hiding place was not a complete secret (the extra body heat melted the snow on the roof – a giveaway). And on the other side, not all the Holocaust’s survivors were good people.
The book’s second part includes Gilbert-Lurie’s account of her life, including her extreme separation anxiety, as well as the separation anxiety that her own daughter, representing the third generation, has experienced. Gilbert-Lurie said that writing about herself was in some ways more difficult than writing her mother’s story, in part because she knew it would be less dramatic. Nevertheless, she felt it was important to share how the trauma of one generation impacts the next, and the one after that. Whether the reason for the impact is biological, as some scientists are now suggesting, or psychological or sociological is not as important for Gilbert-Lurie as recording that it occurs.
“There are so many children in so many parts of the world who experience deep trauma and don’t get the psychological help they need,” Gilbert-Lurie said. “I want people to be aware it’s not just their generation … but generations after that will be more fearful and more anxious as a result of what their parents went through, and there are probably ways to mitigate that if we are aware of some of this impact.”
Gilbert-Lurie recounts how at one family gathering, one of her relatives said of her fellow survivors, “We’re all still half-numb.”
Writing the book was difficult, and on occasion the authors had to take breaks from the material. At the same time, Lurie became very attached to the experience of working on the book with her daughter – so much so that after they finished she felt a tremendous loss. And to this day she is plagued by feelings of guilt – often in the face of her own or her children’s or grandchildren’s happiness. Still, Lurie says, “one thing I don’t want is pity,” adding, “I am very happy with my life. I feel very blessed.” To which Gilbert-Lurie is quick to add, “My mother was very focused on giving us the love and security they never had.”
Yet … yet there is a private world of deeply felt emotions that “Bending Toward the Sun” exposes, revealing the long shadow of the Holocaust from generation to generation.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears regularly in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.