I don’t recall where I saw The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival by Sara Tuvel Bernstein recommended: I think it was probably through some of the What’s On Your Nightstand participants. But when I saw it on sale as an audiobook, I decided to try it. It was very wonderfully read by Wanda McCaddon.
Audiobooks don’t always include prefaces and introductions, but I am glad this one did as the co-author, Louise Loots Thornton, explained how the book came to be. Sara had attended a lecture on the Holocaust where the professor said that, although there were camps during WWII, the Jewish people embellished their experiences and made them sound worse than they were so people would “feel sorry for them and buy things in their stores.” Sara was so angry she decided she must write of her experiences. Louise had an MA in Creative Writing and Sara’s son had married into her family, so Sara asked her to help write her book.
The book begins with Sara’s birth (as Seren, which she is called throughout) and early childhood in Romania, where she was one of the youngest children of a Jewish mill owner. Persecution started early, as schoolchildren called her and her siblings “stinking Jews” or “dirty Jews” (after coming home from her first day of school, she smelled her clothes to see if they were indeed stinky. When her mother asked what she was doing and heard her answer, she waved it off with an “Oh that. Don’t even listen to it. It’s nothing.”) The priests presiding over the classroom and school would continually make disparaging remarks about Jews as “Christ-killers” and would respond negatively to the rabbi’s pleas for them to be let out for Jewish holidays. Periodically roving mobs would vandalize Jewish homes and businesses.
When Sara was in the fourth grade, she entered a contest where she was chosen to represent their school as a student in a more prestigious boarding school in another town. She was its first Jewish student. Things were not terribly different in this school, and when one teacher warned students to keep their distance from Jews during Passover because they used Gentile blood in their rituals, Sara threw an inkwell at him, marched to her room, packed up her things, and left.
She did not go home, however. She decided to try to apprentice as a dressmaking salon and found one salon owner who seemed to size up the situation and take her in. Sara did not tell her parents for a long while, as in the village she came from, young ladies did not work outside the home. When her father finally found out, he was furious: he had not wanted her to go to school there in the first place. But he finally came around.
When Sara completed her apprenticeship, she worked at the salon for many years and enjoyed outings with a group of friends. Many of them began sharing rumors they had heard about strange things happening to Jews in other areas, and then, suddenly, some of their number began disappearing one by one. As persecution escalated, Sara made it back home with the help of her supervisor’s son. There Jewish businesses were being closed down, and Sara and her father were arrested and accused of being spies. They were sent to a labor crew and then to prison. Sara was released, but her father was not. She then had to scramble to find work to support her mother and sisters. Eventually she moved to a different town with better prospects. Because she did not look like a Jew, with her blond hair and blue eyes, she got more work than she would have otherwise. Eventually two sisters joined her. When she was out with one sister, they were picked up and forced to work with a labor crew for months. When it was discovered her sister was pregnant, she was shot. Sara was released and went back to her other sister, but eventually all the Jews were rounded up and sent to prison camps. Sara, her sister, and two friends were taken to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women north of Berlin. I had not known that this camp was only for women and that not many survived: I did know that Corrie Ten Boom and her sister were there, but unfortunately there was not much chance of their meeting as the Jewish prisoners were kept in a separate barracks.
Sara tells of the beatings, starvation, and inhumanity of the camps. She and her sister and friends became a foursome who managed to stay together, although Sara was careful never to stand next to her sister in line-ups for counting (some of which lasted four hours long) so it would be less likely that anyone noticed their resemblance and used their relationship to torture either of them. Sara was the oldest and helped the others know what to do (like choosing a top bunk for the four of them, since the bottom bunks were by windows which caused some of those in them to freeze to death), sought for (and stole, sometimes) food for them.
As the war wound down and Germany was losing, they tried to evacuate the prisoners for seemingly endless days of being packed together in cars with little food and less water. I believe she said they started out with 10,000 women, but by the time they finally stopped they were down to a few hundred because so many died on the way. At every stop the soldiers removed all the corpses.
After the war Sara ended up in a hospital for several months, where she weighed 44 lbs. on arrival, and later found work in Germany. Even at that time, if Jews boarded a bus, the Gentiles would vacate the bus: if Sara stood in line at different stores for provisions, the butcher or grocer would just happen to run out as she finally got to the counter.
Sara married, and eventually she and her husband received permission to emigrate to Canada, and later on to the US. Her daughter fills in details from the rest of her life in the epilogue.
I found this account riveting. Man’s inhumanity to man just astounds me, but Sara faced all of the events in her life with pluck, courage, and wit. She had an independent spirit early on which stood her in good stead through her trials.
Though she was a Jew in ethnicity, unfortunately she was not in her faith. Her daughter shares in the epilogue that her mother continued with many of the Jewish rituals because they were comfortable and familiar, but she didn’t understand why her friend through the horrors of labor camp became devoutly religious. She couldn’t believe in a God who let such things happen, and she felt that if there was a hell, it couldn’t be worse than what she had already experienced. She would be sadly mistaken on that point, and I can only hope she found that out before it was too late. That’s the down side of an independent spirit: one doesn’t recognize or acknowledge that God sends His rain on the just and the unjust, that He was the one who led her to food in unexpected places or to a coat with money sewn in the hem or gave her the will and drive to survive and to help her friends as well. Unfortunately, her experiences with so-called Christians early on caused her to see “the cross was used as a backdrop for persecution of the Jews.” I hope somewhere along the way someone was able to share its true meaning with her.
I’ve skimmed through a number of reviews, and some of them mention that she describes some of the horrors as well as the deaths of friends and family seemingly unemotionally. I didn’t get that impression, perhaps due to the narrator’s sympathetic inflections, but I would guess that was perhaps the only way she could write about such gruesome, wrenching details was to distance herself from them a bit in the telling. It is also possible she would not have wanted to seem as if she was embellishing the facts or pulling on readers’ heartstrings with her own emotions: she wanted to details to speak for themselves.
This will probably be one of my top ten books of the year.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)