Memoir Review

Rasia Kliot and Helen Mitsios
Waltzing With the Enemy:
A Mother and Daughter Confront the Aftermath of the Holocaust

(Penina Press, 2011)

Anyone who has ever regretted not asking their parents more about their lives or struggled with the psychological burden of being a child of a Holocaust survivor should read this book. Waltzing With the Enemy has a wide message, especially for Europeans who don’t always appreciate the traumatic dislocation suffered by displaced survivors of the Holocaust.

For Americans, perhaps, stories of mixed parentage and mixed religion are relatively familiar. Less so in Europe. For me as an Englishwoman born in the North of England and brought up by practicing Baptists, the story of Mitsios’s exotic parentage is extraordinary. Her parents, a Jewish woman from Vilnius (now capital of Lithuania) and a Greek Orthodox man, met in Vienna during the war, immigrated to Montreal, and finally wound up in Arizona. From sleigh bells in the snowy forest to the halogen light of the desert.

Mitsios and her mother have produced a joint memoir, exploring Kliot’s experience of the Holocaust and the effect of her silence and hidden Jewish identity on her daughter’s life. Both women have written with great personal honesty and the result is a moving testimony to the healing power of truth.

After a lifetime of concealing her Jewish identity and persuading her daughter to do so as well, Rasia Kliot has written a detailed account of her life as a persecuted Jew in Vilnius during the Second World War. Vilnius, where 95 percent of the Jewish population was destroyed—over 50,000 men, women, and children.

Kliot, then a teenager, describes her heroic efforts to survive and save her mother and brother from the ghetto, where daily massacres were taking place. She succeeded in slipping out of the ghetto, removing her coat with the yellow star, and acquiring false IDs in order to remain outside as a Christian. Her near escapes from arrest and certain death are heart-stopping. She moves from refuge to refuge, the homes of a few friends willing to risk their own lives to shelter Jews, and others who would help Jews for payment. She writes in compelling, gruelling detail of her experiences working as a maid and farmhand. She is constantly alert to denunciation, ill-fed, brutally treated, and nearly raped several times, while she searches for a safe refuge for what remains of her family.

For Mitsios, her mother’s suppressed identity as a Holocaust survivor proves to be a difficult burden to cast off. She describes her own background with growing self-knowledge. With the insight provided by literature and therapy, she comes to realize how much she internalizes her mother’s fears. She finally accepts that she has to learn to live for herself and explore her own Jewish identity, while detaching herself from her mother’s memories, and her own sense of responsibility for her mother’s happiness. Finally, she makes a trip to Vilnius, including a visit to the memorial in the Ponary forest where the Jews were shot and buried in mass graves. Her experience of present day Vilnius, where the ghetto is barely mentioned in the tourist literature, provides welcome closure.

The book is written in two halves, and the two voices are distinct and memorable. For both women it is a brave and moving attempt to come to terms with the past and its effect on their own relationship. Helen describes suppressing tears as she types her mother’s handwritten account, but she herself writes with wit and an easy grace that makes a story of brutality, despair, and loss into a highly readable contemporary memoir, and a precious contribution to the need for carefully distilled memory to repair the world.

Contributor

Rosemary Bailey

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