1487 The uncomfortable in-between
Afterlight: In Search of Poetry, History, and Home
by Isa Milman
Victoria: Heritage House, 2021
$24.95 / 9781772033830
Reviewed by Christopher Levenson
What do we expect of a memoir? Henry James famously referred to the novel as “a great baggy monster,” but the memoir, unconstrained by the exigencies of plot and character development, can be at least as baggy. The reader probably expects a consistent angle of vision and some sense of a time line but beyond that everything will depend on the individual memoirist’s command of language and the intrinsic, or manufactured, significance of the events and attitudes recalled. Whereas some memoirs, especially those of celebrity sports fans, entertainers and politicians, are simply by-products of a PR machine, others are their authors’ serious attempts to understand and evaluate major events in their lives.
In the case of Afterlight, however, while the author’s own life provides the narrative framework, and while we do indeed as readers get to know her fairly well, the book focuses mainly on finding out more about her now deceased mother’s life and that of her mother’s twin sister, who was murdered in the Holocaust. In doing so it links up with many other more general explorations of the aftermath of that event.
If remembering and commemorating are two basic human needs, nowhere in recent history has this been more apparent than with the Holocaust. For the systematic murder of six million Jews destroyed not only individuals and the communities to which they belonged but also all their possessions, all the treasured objects that would otherwise have allowed families and friends to remember them and celebrate their lives.
This is the situation of the Victoria-based poet Isa Milman. As was often the case with the children of holocaust survivors, as a child she knew very little of what her mother and her mother’s four sisters underwent before, during and immediately after the Second World War. Her difficulties in establishing what really happened is a timely reminder to all children and grandchildren to at least ask the important questions about family history while their elders are still around and capable of answering them.
Obviously, any serious memoir will involve questioning and weighing up, interpreting, events in the writer’s life. But usually documentation is available. In this instance there was almost nothing. Hence the importance of the words “in search.” The book, which juxtaposes chapters from the 1930s and the DP (displaced persons) camps of the immediate post war period with chapters from the present, where Milman herself as researcher is the main protagonist, virtually an archaeologist, is a record of her struggle to locate people, or the descendants of people, who knew her family in Poland and if possible find artifacts that they might have used.
All this took place not just in two villages in a geopolitically fluid border region of Poland and Ukraine: after escaping from Nazi-occupied Warsaw her parents fled to Russian occupied territory only to be sent by Stalin first to Siberia and then to Uzbekistan, places that we rarely read about, where they were treated little better than as prisoners of war. At the end of the war, unable to return to their native villages, they and her mother’s three remaining sisters became DPs and stateless, before finally making it to the US and Israel, respectively.
It is her aging mother’s memories of her beloved twin sister Basia that first motivates Isa Milman’s search. She concentrates on finding poems that the teenager Basia might have published. This, with the help of friends and e-mail correspondents, eventually leads to Milman’s visiting Poland. Her reception there is by turns heart-warming and shocking: in one village remnants of its Jewish heritage have been carefully preserved and she is treated with great hospitality, while in the second all evidence of the killing fields and of former Jewish homes had been deliberately erased. Sadly, no matter how many accounts we have read of antisemitic brutality, both in the concentration camps and pre-war in the shtetls of central Europe, the individual first hand testimony of friends and family never fails to shock and sicken.
Yet although what Milman discovers, first by research and then in situ, is often horrific, her calm, assured style, free of rhetoric, inspires confidence: she writes in order to let the truth speak for itself, and she aids one’s further inquiry by ample notes and bibliographic references.
Moreover, despite poetry being the first element in her subtitle, there is nothing conventionally “poetic” about this book. At the same time, as a good poet herself, she is more intensely aware than most people of the crucial role of language and how it ties in with our concepts of humanity. Of her mother’s arrival in America in 1950 without English, she writes: “Without language she was helpless and she hated the feeling of being so reduced in her capacity to be human.”
Milman’s own poetic gifts are evident in some striking analogies. Thus, when speaking of Poland (which has recently introduced new laws forbidding “telling the historical truth about what happened during the Holocaust”) she writes – and this deserves to be quoted in full —
Could I really conceive of the notion that Poland was my ancestral home? Or would it be Ukraine? Or even Belarus, where my father’s family lived for generations? New borders had put my parents’ origins in different countries and in the aftermath of the war and the vicious bloodletting that followed, thousands of locals were exiled because they belonged to the ‘other’ non-dominant, tribe. Our experiences in Poland and Ukraine had been intense in different ways and going there helped me appreciate that the history of each was entwined by tribal hatreds as strangulating as convolvulus vines in a garden. Yes, the morning glory blossoms were appealing, but they bloomed on cords so tightly twisting they destroyed the healthy growth of whatever lived near. I had always believed that my parents’ ancestral home was Poland, but this was never the belief of the Ukrainians and Belarussians who considered themselves overpowered by Polish colonizers (or Russian colonizers, depending on location.) Caught in the tendrils of these perilous, suffocating vines, clinging to life in the small crevices available to them, was my tribe, the Jewish nation, a foreign species blamed for all the ills surrounding them.
With the possible exception of the chapter where Milman visits Israel for a long postponed reunion with her (Zionist) aunts and cousins, the tension and excitement of the search and discovery, the crises and the disappointments never let up. This is in part due to the fact that politics as such is never made the main issue. In a book that is above all about concepts of family and home, we are constantly struck by Milman’s emotional honesty, her readiness to revise her feelings, as when she asks: “Why couldn’t I revise my notion and accept that Poland is a place that I can love as well as despise and fear? Why must it be either/or? Was it possible to live in the uncomfortable in-between, where both realities co-exist?”
This is not a book that one could read simply as yet another document of past evils. Rather, it is a passionate, clear-sighted affirmation of our common humanity.
Born in London, England, in 1934, Christopher Levenson came to Canada 1968 and taught English, Creative Writing, and Comparative Literature at Carleton University from 1968 to 1999. He has also lived and worked in the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, and India. He has written twelve books of poetry, the most recent of which is A Tattered Coat Upon a Stick (Quattro Books, 2017). He co-founded Arc magazine in 1978, was its editor for the first ten years, and was for five years Series Editor of the Harbinger imprint of Carleton University Press, which published exclusively first books of poetry. He has reviewed widely, mostly poetry and South Asian literature in English, in the UK and Canada. With his wife, Oonagh Berry, Christopher moved to Vancouver in 2007 where he helped re-start and run the Dead Poets Reading Series. Editor’s note: Christopher Levenson has recently reviewed books by H.C. (Hans) ten Berge, John Barton, John Pass, Rob Taylor, Kevin Spenst, and Derk Wynand.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster