Appignanesi’s Losing the Dead

Lisa Appignanesi, a child of Holocaust survivors who grew up in Montreal, recounts her parents’ wartime experiences in Losing the Dead (McArthur & Co., 2000), a family memoir that takes the form of a personal quest of research and discovery.

Appignanesi (nee Borensztejn), born in postwar Poland and now living in London, has already proved her literary prowess with several works of non-fiction and a handful of bestselling novels, including last year’s The Dead of Winter. In Losing the Dead, she applies her adept writerly skills to telling a three-generational family history that largely focuses on the Holocaust years and a tale of survival outside of the camps.

Her mother came from the Polish town of Grodzisk Mazowiecki, her father from Pruszkow, both a short distance southwest of Warsaw. The author recounts their strange behavior around authority figures; their need, like so many survivors, to conceal even as they reveal aspects of themselves and their histories; and other behavioural elements of what has become known and studied as the “child-of-survivors” syndrome.

Given that many similar survivor accounts already exist, what distinguishes Losing the Dead, besides its value as testimony, are the vivid characterizations. Appignanesi excels at painting in-depth psychological portraits of her parents.

The author asserts that writing this book was a means for her to exorcise certain familial ghosts from her psyche by shining upon them the light of knowledge, which she attains through family interviews and trip to Poland and Israel.

In one iridescent moment, she also seems to encounter the ghost of Warsaw’s main synagogue which the Nazis destroyed in 1943. Glancing one sunny day from the window of the Jewish Historical Institute next door, she sees not the expected modern glass tower that replaced the former Jewish landmark but a building of grey stone that to her looks uncannily like the synagogue itself.

“I stare at the building, and see a dark-haired woman move closer to the window to look back at me,” she writes. “It takes me a long moment to recognise my reflected image.”

Losing the Dead belongs to a literary genre defined by recent books such as Journey to Varna, by Elaine Kalman Naves; Where She Came From, by Helen Epstein; and Konin: A Quest, by Theo Richmond.

Presented by authors keen on recapturing a lost ancestral world, such works focus on people and places from the vanquished Jewish civilization of Eastern Europe. In essence, each offers a sort of cultural bridge between the rootless present and a richly storied, albeit devastated past. The tellers present their findings as a personal journey across both geographical, temporal and psychological space. The result is both history and mythology — and often approaches genealogy as well. Anyone interested in the Holocaust era will appreciate this well-crafted memoir. ♦

© 2000