After my father died, I found photos of a concentration camp after the end of World War II in his desk. I remembered him saying that he had been in Germany and Poland after the war, and had helped clean up a camp, but I did not know he had photos of the place. I took one look at the top photo, and quickly stuffed them back in the envelope. The pictures were too terrible for me to look at. (My family agreed later that the photos needed to go to the Holocaust Museum).
So for me to read The Pages in Between was unusual. The story, however, intrigued me: Erin Einhorn traveled to Poland to find the family that had cared for her mother when her mother's parents were taken to a concentration camp. I had heard a little of her story in an interview on This American Life, an NPR radio program, enough to whet my appetite. I wanted to know more. Would Einhorn actually find the house she was seeking? Would the Polish family welcome her? Would she find some unknown part of herself in the experience?
The answers are more complex and far more involved and interesting than a simple yes or no.
Rather than dwelling on the Holocaust itself, Einhorn focuses on the effect of the war on ordinary people--the long-term results of actions taken so long ago in desperation, and the continuing struggle of those who inherited, in one way or another, those old tragedies and joys.
Imagine this: a hurried message that the Nazis are coming; a young Jewish family taking flight, and finding in their panic a woman who is almost a stranger to care for their daughter. The father survives, the mother does not. After the war he returns for his daughter, travels to America and drops all contact with the family that sheltered, protected and nurtured his little daughter. Now imagine the Polish family who cared for and loved the little girl, only to have her abruptly taken from them after the war ended. Add a young woman seeking the truth of her past, and you have the basis for a compelling story that explores changing cultures, complex relationships and conflicting views of history.
The story takes unexpected twists as Einhorn tries to get information from her mother, who prefers to look ahead rather than behind, and as she struggles to understand what really happened to her grandparents and to the Skowronskis, the family that took her mother in. Instead of joyous reunion, for example, there is a complicated issue with the house that belonged to her grandfather, where the Skowronskis still live. As Einhorn struggles to untangle the web of the house's ownership, she finds that her dream to reunite her mother with the Skowronskis is more difficult than it might have seemed, and that feelings of wrong, abandonment and confusion had festered over the years when there was no contact between the families.
Einhorn's story kept me reading long past my bedtime. I felt her confusion and frustration, exhilaration, grief and joy. For those of us who had family members serving in or affected by the war, she opens yet another window into understanding and, I have to admit, to sadness. Would that war would be no more, so that no one had such stories to tell.
And yet, after I closed the book on the last page, I was very glad to have had the opportunity to know the people in its pages. None of us is perfect; we all have flaws. But sometimes we are given an opportunity to do what is right, and to love when that love may cause us pain in the future. Einhorn's story explores people who know these truths only too well.
Einhorn, Erin. The Pages in Between. A Touchstone Book published bySimon & Schuster, NY: 2008. $24.95