Tender, honest, filial love

by Mordechai Ben-Dat

Considerable time elapsed after the Shoah before its survivors, in the main, could speak about their experiences even to their children, let alone publicly.

Those who were able did find ways to separate memory from nightmare and talk or write openly, if painfully, to the world about what they had witnessed or, worse, experienced. Though even they, in doing so, would never be able to lift the heavy, leaden stones from their hearts.

Today, more than 6-1/2 decades after the war, a considerable number of survivor memoirs have been published. Indeed there are even public foundations, such as the Azrieli Foundation, that encourage and assist survivors to write their personal stories.

Children of the survivors, too, have written about their parents’ experiences. Many, if not most, of these next-generational works have focused on the emotional disability and the resulting familial dysfunction that the war wrought. Often, the narrator tries to explain but always also escape from  and not help carry the burdens borne by his or her parents.

An Italian Renaissance: Choosing Life in Canada (Urim Publications), by Robert Eli Rubinstein, is also a book by a child of survivors about his parents’ experiences. But it is unlike most second-generation works.

It is not a memoir of survivorship; it is not a chronicle of horror and rescue; nor is it a self-obsessed exculpation of personality disorder.

An Italian Renaissance is a thoughtful, purposive reflection about the experiences of the author’s parents before, during and after the Shoah, a near-philosophical exploration of history, memory, facts, truth, character, human strength and human frailty.

Rubinstein writes tenderly, yet always honestly, about his parents. He reconstructs, as best he can in the circumstances, pieces of a broken narrative into an unbroken story without embellishment. He reconciles truth with memory without concealment.

“I believe in honesty even when it hurts”, the author told the CJN at his north Toronto office. Quiet and reserved, soft-spoken and precise, Rubinstein has a commandingly authoritative presence. “Things are not always what they seem. I accepted my mother’s stories in childhood quite uncritically. Not everything I was told, I subsequently found out, was accurate.”

Truth can be a complex matter. Sometimes something may not necessarily be factually accurate, but true nevertheless to the individual, or serve a higher purpose. Survival sometimes requires us to take certain liberties with the truth and what matters is the result, namely, to become successful, good human beings.

Understanding how his parents became successful, good human beings, despite their experiences in the Shoah, is the touching core of the book.

With forthright observations conveyed through straightforward, elegant writing, Rubinstein pays moving tribute to his parents. This is clear from the dedication page of the book.

“There are parents for whom
endowing life to their children
is a profound declaration of faith
and an act of soaring courage.

And there are children for whom
receiving life from their parents,
though the most unlikely happenstance,
inspires unbounded love and devotion.

Such are my parents.
And such is their child.”

The book takes its title from the fact that Rubinstein’s parents spent the immediate postwar period as refugees from Hungary in a displaced persons’ camp in Grugliasco, northern Italy, near Turin (Torino). The author was born in Torino during his parents’ internment in Grugliasco.

“Italy represented the spiritual rehabilitation of my family”, Rubinstein writes. In a profoundly symbolic and actual sense, Italy was where his parents were reborn. It was where their souls began to heal in preparation for the next phase of their lives, which was to be in Canada.

“For me, Italy was the key to all the blessings that subsequently befell my family”, Rubinstein writes of an earlier stage in his life. True to his loyalty to honesty, the book depicts Rubinstein’s determined testing of that key, seeing which far-past chambers of his family’s painful story it really unlocked.

The book was a long time in the making. Everything was thought out very carefully, Rubinstein emphasized.

“As children of the 20th century, my parents have lived through an astonishing range of transformative events”, Rubinstein writes. “The changes my parents witnessed and the challenges they overcame along the way boggle the mind. But never did they lose their moral compass, even in the darkest days when it appeared that the bulk of humankind had done so. The coexistence of such extraordinary adaptability and dedication to principle within a single individual is rare to find. It is a special privilege to be the child of two such individuals and to have had the opportunity to learn from their personal examples.”

This is a rare work of filial homage that contains within its pages example and inspiration for us all.

From The Canadian Jewish News.

The original article may be found here.

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