“See, Leslie dear?” Aunt Sonia was saying to me, “We’re still half broken. Even today when we talk about the past, it puts us in a state of numbness. Horrible feelings return.”
The “horrible feelings” expressed by her aunt concern the war and the lives of a Polish Jewish family
- Leslie Gilbert-Lurie’s mother’s family - forced to hide for more than two years in a filthy hayloft, the children forbidden to speak, the parents beset by depression and all in the grip of fear. The baby had to be sent away because its crying might cause the hiding place to be discovered. Then, after her little toddler brother died, Rita, the mother in this “mother and daughter memoir” watched in horror as her own mother languished from malnutrition, guilt and despair and died as Rita and the rest of the family looked on, speechless and helpless.
From early childhood, Rita’s life was a hell of silent, play-less, fearful starvation and pain. She didn’t grow. She had a giant boil on her leg. Her limbs became weak, her clothes were nothing but filthy shreds. Day after day and night after night, two couples and their children existed in listless, soundless inactivity, hoping to survive but scarcely knowing why. The Polish Christian farmer who sheltered them tried more than once to get rid of them because his family was in constant danger from their presence. The news that most of their family had been shot down (some just outside the barn where they crouched in terror) made hanging on seem even more futile.
When the war was over, the family was still imperiled, hounded by Poles who did not want Jews in their midst. They became refugees, traveling from Poland to Czechoslovakia, to Romania, to Italy (where Rita had to spend almost a year in a Catholic hospital) and finally to America, where their wanderings did not cease. They were handed off from relative to relative. No wonder Rita married the first kind man she met and was soon a mother of three, one of whom was Leslie.
Leslie, who has interwoven the story of her mother’s deprivations with her own more fortunate life, grew up in a world colored by Rita’s glamour
and strength but also by her bouts of depression as she battled with the ghosts and monsters within. Rita wanted to believe that her mother had died of starvation in the barn rather than to accept that perhaps she did not find her daughters sufficient reason to stay alive after her little boy was gone. The strains on the survivors were intolerable at times, even after the war was over. They tried to find happiness in their liberation but were never able to let go of the harrowing, unspeakably dreadful past. Even when she began writing this paean to her mother’s courage, Leslie was pulled into her mother’s latest struggles against her inner demons.
Leslie’s daughter Mikaela also writes poignantly in a short contribution to this multigenerational biography: “I’m not sure whether my grandmother’s Holocaust experience makes me different from other kids my age, but I feel that I am different…when I react a certain way, or I see that my mother is mad about something, I assume that something that happened a long time ago probably triggered our reactions.”
The Holocaust “happened a long time ago.” Bending Toward the Sun has brought some of its sorrow and ugliness back to life, along with the hopes of the next and future generations. Rita’s father got the family to America so they could prosper, even if he himself was not able to find the streets that were paved with gold. Unfettered by the chains of broken lives, Leslie and her children will find those streets, each in their own way.