Gutmann, Sylvia Ruth. “A Life Rebuilt: The Remarkable Transformation of a War Orphan”, Epigraph Publishing, 2018.
The Stories We Need to Hear
I am quite sure that some of you are already over reading abut the Holocaust and I must admit that I have sometimes felt that way but we are now at the end and the Holocaust survivors that are still here will be leaving us and their stories are much too important to lose. These are stories that we need to hear—not so much because of the horrible ways that Jews were treated but how they managed to hold on during the darkest event in history. It is hard not to notice the tremendous number of books that come out very year about the rise of Nazism and the destruction of European Jewry but each book is different and while the terrible atrocities rarely vary, the people who were forced to endure them certainly do. It is really amazing to some of you to know that there are many people who know nothing about the Holocaust and it is only in recent years that it has become part of the curriculum of schools. We have been told you never forget and I do not see how we can especially when so many were affected by it.
That takes us to Sylvia Ruth Gutmann’s “A Life Rebuilt”. We do not always think of rebuilding lives but after considering what the victims of Nazism endured, it is easy to see why people want to build anew and leave behind what they experienced but that is easier said than done. Besides writing is therapeutic and doubt that anyone can deny that those who lived through the period of Nazi power, is in need of therapy. We have those whose lives were taken from them and it was necessary to rebuild. This is a story of loss and survival, resilience and the desire to live to live. It is also a story that inspires its readers to say, along with the rest of us, “Never again!!”.
Sylvia Ruth Gutmann was born to Jewish parents in 1939 in Belgium. Just six months before her birth, her parents were forced out of their Berlin home and fled across borders. From Belgium it was on the south of France where she spent the first three years of her life hiding. Then in 1942 during the summer, she and her mother and sisters were arrested by the Vichy police and sent to Rivesaltes, a French interment camperHear. After that her mother was sent to Auschwitz. In the summer of 1942, three-year-old Sylvia, her two older sisters, and her young mother were arrested by the Vichy police and shipped to the French internment camp in Rivesaltes. Shortly thereafter, her mother was deported to Auschwitz and forced to leave her children behind. Her father who was bedridden was also sent to Auschwitz and the children never saw heir parents again. Needless to say, she was traumatized and then when she was just seven, she was sent to New York where her aunt and uncle would help take care of her but this was not easy. Her uncle was a caring man but his wife was quite cruel. Sylvia was told to think ahead and not to look back and try not to remember what she had seen. The kind of messages she received in this country made her a silent person and she was forced “to hide in plain view”. For the next fifty years Sylvia tried to put her life together again. When all of this happened she had been too young to grasp what was going on but she knew she lost her parents. Like so many others, Sylvia had to build a life but she had no real awareness of what to build it on. Really the only memory that she had was that of her mother leaving her behind as she got on a train. I cannot imagine a more difficult basis upon which to build a life.
Having lived in Israel with many Holocaust survivors and being active in the American Jewish community, I have had no shortage of Holocaust stories and each affects me differently. I have tried to picture Sylvia saying goodbye to her mother at such a young age and I can’t but that is probably because I do not want to see something so terrible. I do not want to feel what Sylvia felt that day. Yet I do see it and so much more like it whenever I think about that period of history. This is a bloody and cruel heritage that we must never forget. From all of this Sylvia suffered from depression; she gained weight and it appears today that she was suffering from PTSD. She writes of her marriages, financial problems and being a mother to a child with special needs.
Sylvia was saved and hired by the United Jewish Appeal as a spokesperson and began to piece her life back together as best she could. Sylvia is a wonderful story teller which is difficult for a story of this kind but I must say that I was totally mesmerized and read the book in one sitting. And, yes, I wept because I am human. This is a story that covers sixty years and three countries. Sylvia even returned to Germany to live there for several years and while she was there, (as to why and how she got there, you will have to read to find out and then try to understand) she began to share her family’s story and fate with German students, senior citizens, and even neo-Nazi groups. She says that when she returned to Germany, she was able to honor the memory of her parents and remarks that the irony is that it was the Germans who took her parents and their freedom but then turned around and gave it to her. Her time in Germany allowed her “to reconcile with the people she had feared and loathed, and resurrected the lives of the parents she cannot remember, and cannot forget.” I doubt that there are many others who could say the same or even want to. I have a hard time with that but I did not allow it to take away from the read.