JULY 27, 2017 – L’dor v’dor. From generation to generation, a phrase repeated in the daily observance of Jews everywhere, is given new meaning by North Shore author Tammy Bottner.
A pediatrician and longtime resident of Newburyport, Bottner is both the daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. Her new book, “Among the Reeds: The True Story of How a Family Survived the Holocaust,” is a memoir of the atrocities with a difference.
The title is clarified by the book’s epigraph, a passage from Exodus: “She put the baby in the basket and laid it among the reeds.” The stories here pivot around the heart-wrenching decision faced by so many European parents during World War II to give life to their children by giving them up, entrusting them to strangers.
There have been many Holocaust memoirs and biographies, and the pace of publication seems to have picked up in recent times as the last of the survivors reach their final years. This book is not itself a firsthand account of the well-documented horrors of the camps or of slave labor or the death marches. In a sense, this book documents another side of the Holocaust: the mix of drama and dreary days, of deprivation and great risk, that many had to endure to evade the Nazis and survive the war.
The book is an account of the quiet courage and painful perseverance of survivors on the run or in hiding. Here, the extremes of Nazi violence and cruelty are offstage, the backdrops for a different kind of torture; the pain of parents separated from their children, not knowing whether they will ever see them again.
Bottner’s volume is a pastiche of episodes, part history lesson, part geography review, told in multiple voices and from multiple perspectives but centered on the war years when her paternal grandparents fled to the Netherlands and Belgium to escape the rise of Nazi oppression, only to be engulfed by its spread into the Low Countries. We learn of the preternatural bravery of Bobby, a toddler who must remain silent in order to survive in the frigid basement of a convent. We learn of the heartbreaking conflict as his younger sister is wrenched back from the Catholic family that fostered her during the war.
A spill-over crowd at the Jabberwocky Bookshop in Newburyport recently listened with rapt attention as Dr. Bottner read from her book. She spoke of her own personal experience with the legacy from those distant days, a record written in family photographs and remembered vignettes and even, possibly, in the very encoding of her genes.
As she recounted her own experience as an anxious young mother, she noted new findings about how the consequences of physical deprivation or emotional extremes can become chemically imprinted on the way our genes are expressed and thus be passed on to children, and even grandchildren.
In “Among the Reeds,” we learn in detail what Melly and Gelek, Bottner’s grandparents – along with their young children, Bobby, her father, and Irene, her aunt– needed to do to survive the war. The book traces their journeys across war-torn Europe to their last stand in Belgium. Along the way, we see families escaping capture by the Gestapo simply by walking out a back door that the Germans did not know was there. We watch Melly as a young married woman talking and bribing her way out of certain death when she smuggles sugar in her purse and is caught by a young Nazi officer.
This book is a valuable addition to the accumulating literature on the Holocaust, not just for the story of Bottner’s family, but also for that of the others, the non-Jews such as Andrée Geulen, who put their own lives at great risk by shielding the children of Jews or by shepherding them into hiding.
It is a book with much to recommend it, a story of strength and determination in the face of great trials.
Larry Constantine’s 10th novel, “The Intaglio Imprint,” will be released in September under his pen name, Lior Samson.