Cover image for After long silence : a memoir
After long silence : a memoir
Fremont, Helen.
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Publication Information:
New York : Delacorte Press, 1999.
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322 pages ; 25 cm
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E184.37.F74 A4 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
E184.37.F74 A4 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Biography

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Helen Fremont was raised Roman Catholic in America, only to discover in adulthood that her parents were Jews who had survived the Holocaust.  Delving into the extraordinary secrets that held her family together in a bond of silence for more than forty years, she recounts with heartbreaking clarity and candor a remarkable tale of survival, as vivid as fiction but with the eloquence of truth. When Helen was small, her mother taught her the sign of the cross in six languages.  Theirs was the tender conspiracy of a little girl and her mother at bedtime, protected by a God who could respond in any language.  What she didn't understand was that she was being equipped with proof of her Catholicism, a hedge against persecution, real or imagined. It wasn't until adulthood that she began to comprehend the terrible irony of her mother's gesture, as she and her sister discovered their parents' remarkable, long-held secret.  She knew that her father had spent six years in the Siberian Gulag, surviving nearly on will alone; that her mother's elder sister, fearless and proud, had married an Italian Fascist whose title and connections helped them to survive during the war.  But their faith, their legacy as Jews, was kept hidden for decades. After Long Silence is a searching inquiry into the meaning of identity, self, and history.  It's about the devastating price of hiding the truth; about the steps we take, foolish or wise, to protect ourselves and our loved ones.  No one who reads this book can be left unmoved, or fail to understand the seductive, damaging power of secrets.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Fremont and her sister, Lara, grew up in a house filled with secrets, not the least of which was Fremont's lesbianism, which she kept from her distant parents until she was well into her thirties. But her Polish parents had a secret they had carefully guarded even longer: they were Jewish, not Catholic as they had led their daughters to believe. The surprising revelation explained many things the sisters had felt and experienced during their growing up, but the reason for their parents' elaborate lie remained a mystery until the pair began to investigate, exposing "a hole the size of a crater at the center of [their] mother's heart." Fremont pieces together past and present in this account of her parents' horrific ordeal as victims of both Nazi and Soviet persecution. In the tradition of books such as Helen Epstein's Where She Came From (1997), this personal perspective shows how the effects of brutal times shape a legacy for the generations that follow. --Stephanie Zvirin

Publisher's Weekly Review

Fremont's memoir is an incredible tale of survival, a beautiful love story and a suspenseful account of how the author's investigation of her roots shattered fiercely guarded family secrets. Raised Roman Catholic in a Michigan suburb, Fremont knew that her parents had been in concentration camps. Her Polish mother, Batya, was interned in Mussolini's Italy, and her Hungarian-born father, Kovik, was sentenced to life in the Siberian gulag. But her parents refused to talk about their past, and they never let on that they had been born Jews. Fremont, a Boston lawyer and public defender, and her sister, Lara, a psychiatrist, pieced together their parents' hidden past by examining archives and tracking down Holocaust survivors. As Batya and Kovik gradually opened up to discuss their ordeals, Fremont was able to reclaim her Jewish faith and to make sense of a childhood marked by panic attacks and a hyperactive fantasy life. She also divulged a secret of her own when, at the age of 35, she finally told her mother that she is a lesbian. The bombshell coming-out story is secondary to the harrowing account of her parents' traumas: Batya's escape from Nazi-occupied Poland only to be arrested on the Italian border; the bizarre marriage of Fremont's maternal aunt to a government official in Fascist Rome who helped secure Batya's release from an Italian concentration camp; Kovik's escape from Siberia after six years of hard labor and his 1947 reunion with his fiancée in Rome, where they married as Catholics; the couple's emigration to the U.S. in 1950. Though the story is at times emotionally overwhelming, Fremont writes with an admirable restraint that enables her to turn her parents' life, and her own, into a triumphant work of art. Author tour. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Along with her older sister, Lara, Fremont was raised in an ostensibly Roman Catholic family in the Midwest, although her secretive and tight-lipped parents didn't follow many of the customs. Although Fremont knew that her father had been in a Siberian gulag for six years and that her mother had been in a concentration camp, she and Lara later discovered (through perseverance and detective work) that their parents were actually Polish Jews whose families had been virtually wiped out in the Holocaust. Fremont's voyage of discovery is engrossing, as she not only learns of her family's tragic history and heroic survival but also of the powerful relationships between sisters: she with Lara and her mother with her own strong-willed sister, Zosia, who saved them from the Nazis. Unlocking her family's past helps draw Fremont closer to both her sister and her parents, who had remained silent for 50 years. Recommended for all public libraries and for academic libraries with large Holocaust collections.‘John A. Drobnicki, York Coll. Lib., CUNY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Lara and I were raised Catholic in a small city in the Midwest. In 1960, at the age of three, I went to nursery school at the convent of the Saint James Sisters, and at six I wore Lara's hand-me-down itchy white petticoat dress to my First Communion. It was the first and last time I would ever swallow a wafer, however, since our family always tiptoed out of church every Sunday before Communion. "It's not an important part of Mass," my mother explained, and for a long time we believed that Communion was a curious American addition to Catholicism. My sister and I knew that our parents were from a distant and dangerous world, that they had come out of a war, and that no one else had come with them. Although we could not hear their accents, our playmates told us our parents spoke funny English; and when our schoolmates asked about our grandparents and aunts and uncles, we said we didn't have any. Except, of course, our auntie Zosia, who lived across the ocean in a place called Italy. I also knew that my parents had been in concentration camps. I misunderstood the meaning of concentration and assumed that in prison, the inmates were consumed by intensely focused mental activity. I believed that these camps were so deadly that they had sewn my parents into pockets of complete silence. And so I understood that two things could happen to you in a war: either you were suddenly, breathlessly, swept off the streets by a bomb, or you were scooped into a concentration camp, where you swallowed a terrible silence. My mother, I knew, was finally sprung from the camp by her sister, Zosia, who baked goodies and buttered up the camp warden. My father had it worse--he was off on a sheet of ice somewhere in Siberia for six years, until he escaped. I never knew how he escaped, except that he had managed to jump a train and hang on for days. I pictured him dangling from his one good arm, long, tattered legs swinging an arc each time the train banked a curve. Their love story I had been fed early and often, until it seemed part of my bones. I knew that they had fallen in love before the war, and they had been separated for six years without knowing if the other was alive; my mother escaped Poland dressed as an Italian soldier, and my father walked across Europe after the war, found my mother in Rome, and married her ten years to the day after they had first met. This was the tale they liked to tell and retell, the story they used to summarize their lives. It was a good story, because it ran a thread across the war and connected the two lovers before and after. It tied a knot in their tongues at the end, and the war remained silent; the intervening six years could never be spoken. My father, Kovik Buchman, was a self-employed family doctor with a sharp Slavic accent, pure white hair, and a chip on his shoulder the size of a Soviet tank. He was forty-two when I was born, twice as old and almost twice as tall as other daddies. He built a little office downtown, having drawn up the blueprints and supervised the construction himself. He bought all the latest equipment, an X-ray machine and elaborate instruments, lab equipment and simple furniture. His office was dark and smelled of medicine, with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, textbooks, and illustrated medical periodicals. My mother sewed the curtains--bold op-art designs without a trace of heritage. His patients poured in, Poles and Lithuanians, Czechs and Hungarians. They liked bantering with him in their home tongues, liked his European approach, his punctuality, his efficiency, his dry sense of humor. He worked from early morning until late at night, six days a week. He made house calls on a moment's notice, day or night. You could almost hear him click his heels as he marched from one patient to another. His stride was enormous, his smile brief, his gaze intense. "Sit," he would command, slapping on a blood-pressure band. "Inhale deeply." "Cough." "Say 'Aaah.'" His exam was quick and thorough. "All set," he would snap. "You may dress. Call me tomorrow." In a flash he would be down the hall, ushering the next patient into his other examining room. My mother was a more slippery figure. Slender and supple, she was half my father's size and twice as elusive. She spent the day at home up to her elbows in yellow Playtex living gloves, cleaning house. She smelled of ammonia and lemons. "Be a doctor," my mother always instructed us. "Don't marry one." In the fall she tied her hair in an aqua-green surgeon's cap and began rearranging nature, brandishing a rake that was taller than she was. She stuffed leaves into barrels, dragged them from one end of the property to the other, and dumped them over the cliff behind our house. In the spring she planted an elaborate rock garden under the white pines, using rocks she had kidnapped from nearby streams. Kneeling in dirt for hours, she separated and reunited plants from the woods and the rock garden, until it was hard to tell where her garden ended and the woods began. Our house itself was a crazy-shaped glass-and-brick affair surrounded by a small forest--a swank fifties Frank Lloyd Wright knockoff. My parents had fallen in love with it instantly because it looked like nothing they'd ever seen before. We moved in just after I was born, after they'd changed their name to Bocard and settled into their new American identity. It was a loud house. The sun danced through the pines and smashed through our floor-to-ceiling windows. An overbearing sky trumpeted each new day and tossed us out of bed. From the living room, violins wept on the hi-fidelity. A fat medical text lay open on my father's lap, the Sunday Tribune spread at his feet. The dog a respectful distance away, banished from the Oriental rug. Kazakhstan followed my father to the new world in the form of floor covering. He wiped his feet on Middle Asia. Solzhenitsyn lined his bookshelves. The First Circle, Cancer Ward, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. The Gathering Storm, volume after volume after volume, by Churchill. Books soared for the ceiling: The Art of Florence, The Operas of Puccini, The Roman Ruins. Dictionaries in every color and language. Volumes of German grammar, Duden . From the moment my mother moved to the States, she and her sister, Zosia, wrote each other three or four times a week. Pale blue aerograms with every millimeter of available space filled in elite type, with handwritten notes squeezed into the margins. The Italian post was terrible, and my mother would go days without mail and then get a bonanza of letters. Sometimes the letters arrived in little plastic bags, charred, torn, and taped back together. They wrote of the same things day after day: the weather, their bridge games, the children, books, movies, opera--or so my mother claimed whenever I asked her to translate the letters. From the excerpts she read to me, I couldn't fathom why my mother's face lit up every time she found a letter from my aunt in the mailbox. "Zosia!" she would exclaim, and race up the driveway to make herself a celebratory cup of pale tea with lemon. Then she gently pried open the aerogram with a knife, careful not to lose any words clinging to the inside edge of the folds, and settled into the chaise longue in her bedroom to read. When I was small, maybe five or six, my mother came to my bed every night to tuck me in. She would teach me the sign of the cross in six languages: Polish, Russian, German, Italian, French, and English. Each night I selected a language, and we said the sign of the cross in that language: In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. Then she taught me the prayer Our Father in these languages, and I rehearsed them until I knew them by heart. I loved the way gumdrop syllables rolled off the tongue in Italian and the way consonants crashed in German; I loved the tongue-twisting sounds of Polish and the fur-lined purr of French and Russian. And of course, I loved our conspiracy--my mother's and mine. It was our time alone, our time together, and she was sending me into a night of sleep, protected by a God who could respond to me in any language, under any sky. What I didn't understand was that my mother was equipping me with the means of survival: proof of my Catholicism to anyone in a dozen countries. It never occurred to me that someone in my family might actually be Jewish, until a few years ago, when I was already in my thirties and working as a public defender in Boston. One evening, at a Bar Association cocktail party, I was introduced to a statuesque high-heeled, slim-hipped woman, the wife of a partner in a Boston firm. She told me she was the daughter of a distinguished family of Philadelphia WASPs, and only after she had married and had three children did she discover that her mother was in fact Jewish. We exchanged family stories over a glass of wine, and she threw back her head and laughed. "You're Jewish!" she said. "No," I insisted, "Catholic. Polish Catholic." "Then why were your parents in concentration camps?" Her eyes gleamed a beautiful emerald-green, and she tried to suppress a smile. She did not look the least bit Jewish. When she laughed, her yellow hair seemed to break around her shoulders like waves on a beach. "Lots of Poles were imprisoned during the war or taken by the Germans," I explained. "They--" "Of course," she interrupted, "but if they were Catholic they wouldn't have had to escape and emigrate to the States. I bet your parents were Jewish. Or at least your mother." It didn't take more than half a glass of wine for me to grow fond of the idea. This would explain so much, I thought--all those mysteries of childhood, my endless tiptoeing around a jigsaw-puzzle past in which all the pieces were missing except my parents. As a child my questions about our family had always elicited strange, winding soliloquies that led to bedtime or, worse, dinner, the two most dreaded events of my day. And when Lara and I had fought as children, my mother sometimes fell to her knees, sobbing, "I should have died with my parents! I shouldn't have lived! Bosze, Bosze, Bosze ." God, God, God. This was always a shoe-in to make Lara and me stop fighting and turn into perfect children before her eyes. But by the time Mom had called upon Bosze, she was beyond noticing us. Perhaps, I now thought, all these mysteries could be explained: Maybe we were Jewish. A few months later I ran the idea past Lara, who was living in San Diego and working as a psychiatrist. "I have this theory," I told her over the phone. "What if Mom and Dad were Jewish? Or maybe one of their parents was Jewish." A long silence. "I really doubt it," she finally said. "Well, I know it sounds crazy," I said quickly. "I mean, it's just this idea I have. But think about it. I mean, Mom escaped from Poland dressed as an Italian soldier ! Why would she have to do that if she was Catholic? And why wouldn't any other relatives be alive? This would explain so much." "I just can't see it," Lara said. "Why would they hide their religion now?" I was disheartened by her lack of interest. "I know," I agreed, "it's pretty strange. But still..." I couldn't let go of the idea. Believing we were Jewish offered me the possibility that my parents were still in hiding, that we were all in hiding, that all the underground emotional tunnels in our house were not just figments of my imagination. But the more I thought about it, the less I could justify my suspicions. Lara had a point--why would my parents deny their Judaism here in America, fifty years later? Perhaps, I thought, we were Jewish, or partly Jewish, but my parents didn't even know themselves that they were Jewish. I tried this idea out on them at Christmas a year later. Lara had flown in from San Diego for the holiday, and I had arrived from Boston after finishing a legal ethics report for my office. Before dinner I found my mother in the kitchen, hoisting the twenty-two-pound turkey to the counter. "Hey, Mom," I said. She muscled the bird onto the cutting board. Her forearms were covered with little notchlike burns from years of cooking. "Want some help?" I asked. I knew she never accepted help with anything. "No, no," she said. "So here's my theory, okay?" She rustled through the drawer for a serving spoon. "Maybe your mother was Catholic, and your father was Jewish, okay? Something like that. Big taboo. So when they married, your grandparents went through the roof, and that's why you don't know anything about them. Huge mega-rift in the family. And you wouldn't even have known about it." My mother was hacking up the turkey now, twisting its legs with her bare hands. The bone and cartilage broke, and steam poured from the leg sockets. "So what do you think?" I prodded her. She shrugged and took a butcher's knife to the wings, then started on the breast. Juice streamed down the sides of the turkey and gurgled in the pan. Her eyes narrowed, examining the turkey's exposed pink breast. "I don't know," she said. "Why do you think so?" "I'm just guessing," I said. "But it would make sense. It would make sense if someone in your family was Jewish." Thin slices of meat curled off the knife blade and onto her palm. She placed them on four waiting plates of white china. "I doubt it," she said, pushing her bifocals back up her nose. "But I don't know. The Germans would have known about that, I wouldn't." Her cheeks gleamed under the bright kitchen lights, and slight folds of skin gathered under her chin. She'd grown self-conscious about this lately and had taken to wearing turtlenecks. "Put some broccoli on here," she said, pointing with the knife to a steaming pot. "And some of these baby potatoes." She swung the pot of boiled potatoes from the burner toward me in a swift, fluid motion: Mikhail Baryshnikov in oven mitts. It was hard to believe she was in her mid-seventies. "That one's for Dad," she said, pointing to the plate in my left hand. "Now, take that in before it gets cold." It's crazy, I told myself--these wild guesses of Jewish roots--as if I were casting about for some adventure to beef up my ordinary American existence. I carried the plates into the dining room, and our family sat down to dinner. My mother brought in the last plate and passed the salt and pepper. "But what is it with you girls," she said, puzzled and slightly annoyed. "What is it with all this Jewish business?" She turned from me to Lara. "All I hear now for months from you is about the past, our family, and so on. What is it all about?" I glanced across the table at my sister, but she avoided my eyes. She was researching our family history for her fellowship in child psychiatry, and now I wondered whether she, too, was beginning to think we were Jewish. "I don't know," I said, "but I have the feeling that I'm Jewish. I don't know why, exactly." My mother stabbed a piece of turkey with her fork and smothered it with dressing. "Like that time," I said, "I went to visit Rachel after my first year of law school." Rachel's mother was a Jewish Holocaust survivor. I'd spent a weekend at their house twelve years earlier. "Remember what I told you when I came back? That it was just like being at home. With her father listening to a violin concerto in the other room, and the living room filled with books, and all her mother's plants in the windows. And we sat at the kitchen counter, Rachel and her mother and I, and sipped coffee and talked and talked--and for a moment I thought I was with you and Dad--it was just so much like home . I can't explain it--but I remember I told you about it--there was a deep resonance somehow." My mother snorted with disgust. "It's not as if we discuss religion or anything," I said quickly, "but it just so happens that most of my closest friends are Jews. I can't help noticing it." My mother was chasing a bit of cranberry relish around her plate with a piece of roll. When she finally captured it, she chewed thoughtfully. "And most people assume I'm Jewish," I added. "It's always a surprise to them when I tell them I'm not." I named some of my closest friends in recent years: Kari and Allen, Sue Klein, Annie and David. "Oh, I suppose next you're going to tell me that Jean Sacks is Jewish," my mother spat out. I wasn't prepared for the hostility in her voice. Jean Sacks was my boss. African-American. "I'm not saying my only friends are Jewish," I said quietly. "It's just that--" "What about Paula?" my mother said, glaring at me. "She's not Jewish!" "Yes," I agreed, adding irrelevantly, "but she married a Jew." As soon as I said this I winced. I was undermining my own argument by descending to a finger count of the number of my friends who were Jewish and Gentile. Instead, to my surprise, it gave my mother pause. "Yes, that's true," my mother said thoughtfully, pondering the fact of Paula's marriage to a Jew, as if this somehow compromised Paula's non-Jewish identity. "You're right about that." Amazingly, this seemed to carry great weight with my mother. She thought about it awhile and remained quiet. Oh, I thought, what a ridiculous argument. We finished our turkey in silence, and my mother returned to the kitchen and brought out the salad. She placed the bowl on the table, a bit too abruptly, and it teetered before righting itself. The serving utensils jumped against the wooden sides of the bowl with a dull clatter. "What difference does it make!?" my mother suddenly exclaimed. "What difference does it make?" She was shaking with anger. I stared at her, dumbfounded. "What difference does it make whether you're Jewish or Catholic or Protestant or Buddhist?!" she screamed. "Who cares?" I felt my eyes widen. Across from me, thin flames from our dinner candles gleamed in the framed Emilio Greco sketches on the wall. There was a story behind those drawings, but I didn't understand it yet. I looked at my mother, unable to speak. "I care," I said finally, " I care." "Then I've failed as a mother!" she cried. "I've failed! I brought you up to be tolerant, not to size everyone up by their religion or color, or--" Her voice broke, and she exploded with emotion, tears streaming. "I am tolerant," I tried to reassure her, suddenly aware of how ridiculous this sounded. My father and sister waited to see how I would dig myself out of this. Dinners in our family are often a kind of spectator sport. "Oh, look--I'm sorry, Mom," I said. "I didn't mean to upset you. Really, I'm sorry." I was stunned by her reaction. I vowed never to raise the subject again. The following evening my mother showed Lara and me a postcard written by Dad's mother in 1943, shortly before she was killed. We'd never seen this card before. Zosia had brought it with her on a recent visit. The postcard was addressed to Zosia in Rome, and dated April 29, 1943. It was postmarked Galicia. A twelve-pfennig German postage stamp clung to the right-hand corner--Hitler's face. His right profile, with a bright ear against dark hair, a stern expression on his lips. His hair combed over the left forehead, his mustache short, his cheeks haggard. Below this stamp was Zosia's Rome address, written in calligraphy with blue ink by Dad's mother. I picture her now, putting pen to paper, and I see my father--the steel-blue eyes, the slight smile, the pride with which he carves letters like rhapsodies of pen and ink. The return address on the postcard was filled out by Dad's Ukrainian music teacher: Anya Karelewicz, Musiklehrerin, in Buczacz, Galizien, Frankengasse Nr 15. Beneath her address were various stamps and signatures of censors, as well as the stamp of the Italian censor: Commissione Provinciale di Censura. On the reverse side the message, first written in the elegant handwriting of my grandmother Helen, and then an additional few lines added by Anya. Kochana Pani! my grandmother writes. Dear Madam: On the 28th of this month, I received the greetings sent to me along with the news from you indicating that you are in good health and think of us. So I take this opportunity to convey to you all my sincerest greetings. You must have passed Easter happily . . . but I am not complaining since the holiday went pleasantly and quietly here. Now here, too, it is getting warmer and we expect a warm spring. If it does not cause any great inconvenience, I would appreciate a rosary or a similar item consecrated by the church in Rome. Even without it I have you in my prayers and wish you good health. I kiss you all. Beneath, scribbled in blue ink, are a few words from Dad's music teacher: I, too, include my best wishes and again beg for news. Have you heard anything about Kovik? Anya K. The next night, back in Boston, I couldn't sleep. At midnight it finally dawned on me. The postcard was proof: My grandmother was Jewish. My grandmother, a woman named Helen Buchman under the Nazi occupation, was writing a postcard that would be read and stamped by the censor, writing for a shred of hope, the trappings of a Catholic cover. She must have been desperate by then. I didn't begin to know the whole story. But the card, for all its Catholic dressing, was the clearest proof we had that she was Jewish. I called Lara up. "Lara," I said, "you know that postcard? Dad's Mom was Jewish. I know it. And you know what? She didn't die in a bomb as Mom and Dad always said. She was killed at Auschwitz. Or on the way to Auschwitz. Or somewhere. She was killed by the Nazis, I'm sure of it. If you write to the Red Cross, I bet you anything she was killed in Auschwitz, not in her hometown. That's why Dad never found her grave. She wasn't bombed in Buczacz." I was right, and I was wrong. All I knew was Auschwitz. I had a lot to learn. Excerpted from After Long Silence: A Memoir by Helen Fremont All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.