New York Times journalist Joseph Berger has created a masterful, evocative and moving account of the ever-present duality of his life: his identity as an acculturated American child of Holocaust survivors. This duality gives his account of his mother's life and his own evolution from a bewildered refugee child into an accomplished American a poignancy and power. "Displaced Persons" will stand as an important contribution, not only to our understanding of the long-term implications of being a survivor of the Holocaust, but of the unique burdens, pressures and responsibilities children of survivors inherit from their parents.
Berger is acutely aware of "the unmentioned sorrow that was the subtext to everything [his] parents said or did." Haunted by memories, devastated by enormous loss, handicapped by their arrival in America in their twenties and driven to provide security for their families, Holocaust survivors often perceive their children as replacements of beloved family members who perished and as repositories of hopes and dreams denied them. Worried about their children's safety, happiness and future, Berger muses about his parents' perspective, "What could I say about the dread and suspicion with which they encountered a world that had proven maliciously fickle?"
As the author emerges from childhood, he begins to chafe from his mother's protective, controlling instincts and desires to assert himself as his own man. Berger's wrenching analysis of his status becomes the overarching theme of his memoir. "I saw myself now an an American...I would no more be the timid refugee boy with one leg planted in the fearful shtetls of Poland, with a mother ever vigilant that no more perils come to the remnants of her kin." It is this unspoken loving tension between Joseph and his mother, Rachel, that gives "Persons" its dynamism.
Alternating between two narratives, one his own and the other the gripping account of his mother's survival, Berger deftly intermingles past and present. Aware of his distinct heritage, the young Berger recognizes others in his impoverished Manhattan neighborhood who share his background. "We knew one another, knew in our young bellies that our parents were the same dazed and damaged lot, had the same refugee awkwardness, the same whiff about them of marrow bones and carp." Now attempting to wrest coherence in America, Holocaust survivors tend to frustrate Berger with their problem solving techniques. Berger prefers the American way of standing up directly; survivors "were always scraping by on a willingness to do what was necessary to survive, even if that meant surrendering pride or principle."
Raw emotion floods "Displaced Persons." Rachel's symbolic mourning of a dead child in Warsaw at the onset of World War II serves to remind us that she has no "mental picture" of the actual murder of her family. Unspoken grief undulates throughout the memoir. Berger's stoic father Marcus scarcely articulates his unfathomable sense of loss; nearly half a century passes before he can utter the names of his sisters. Guilt ebbs and flows in Rachel's description of her survival. Anguished over refusing to bring non-kosher food to her hungry brother during World War II, she has never forgiven heself, calling it "the worst thing I ever did in my life."
Yet life surges and humor emerges in Berger's descriptions of growing up in New York City in the 1950s and 60s. With both parents working at dreary, tiring jobs, the author experiences a freedom of movement he admits he would never conceive of allowing his own daughter today. His descriptions of his initial exploration of Manhattan reveal the sheer joy of discovery, the incredible exuberance of youthful hopes and the awesome sense of possibilities Berger recognizes in his new home. Berger's frantic disposal of an illicit girlie magazine carries universal appeal; he becomes an American everyboy. His struggles with self-confidence, academic competition and sexual frustrations are those of not only his generation, but of those before and after.
Written with conviction and compassion, "Displaced Persons" is that kind of memoir that not only describes, but instructs. Through the author's descriptions of his resolute, stubborn and proud mother, survivors attain an identity beyond that of suffering and loss. His own life's story shapes our understanding of the purpose of our national experience and the sacredness of an American identity. Treating both the Holocuast in its past brutality and its implications for the second-generation children of survivors, the memoir blends sorrow and joy, heartache and hope, pain and redemption.