October 18, 2018

‘My Mother’s Wars’: Witness From Afar

I met Lillian Faderman last Saturday when we both appeared on a panel titled “Holocaust Lives” at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. To be sure, the Holocaust figures crucially in her new memoir, “My Mother’s Wars” (Beacon Press, $25.95), but her book is more than a testimony of the Holocaust — it is a love story, a family memoir and, above all, an American tale.

“My mother kept no secrets from me about her strange and difficult life before I was born,” explains Faderman, a leading scholar of lesbian history and literature. “But the older I got, the less I understood. … Thirty years after my mother’s death, my young-womanhood long gone, a sadness suddenly came upon me with the thought that though I’d known all her secrets, I hadn’t known her.”

The starting point of Faderman’s search for meaning and memory is her mother’s lifesaving flight, at the age of 17, from Latvia to America, where she hoped to become a dancer. She soon ended up sewing pinafores in a clothing factory on Delancey Street and living with her older sister and brother-in-law in Brooklyn. On the day she left Vilna, she vowed to the rest of her family that she would bring them to safety in America, too: “I swear on my life, as soon as I have the money. All of you!” But when she happens to meet a charming young man called Moishe in a park in the Bronx, it turns out to be a fateful encounter.

“In the old country they would have said it was beshert, destined,” observes Faderman. “I’m not sure that I believe in beshert, but I am sure that … this moment, too, led inexorably to what she would pay for to her last rattling breath.”

The saga of Mereleh Luft — who would soon rename herself Mary Lifton — will remind some readers of Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep” or Abraham Cahan’s “The Rise of David Levinsky.” Indeed, Faderman is a gifted storyteller, and her haunting book carries all the toolmarks of the novel, the sights and sounds and smells that allow the reader to enter the narration in an especially intimate way. But she always reminds us that “My Mother’s Wars” is memoir, not a work of fiction, by heralding each new chapter with a fragment of reportage from the 1930s and 1940s, an era when every private life was impacted, distorted and often ended by the workings of history. “The world was rocking,” she observes, “and would soon tip over.” 

It turns out, in fact, that Mary Lifton is an eyewitness to some of the most momentous events of the era in which she lived. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union organizers in the clothing factory where she works, for example, appeal to the cutters and drapers to strike. “I bet that’s why the bosses didn’t want to fix the toilet,” says one of her fellow workers. “[T]hey don’t want the radicals meeting in the ladies room.” For Mary, the risk of losing her job threatens not only her livelihood but also her ability to send money back to the family in Latvia. Yet she acts on principle: “Welcome, Comrade” she says to each one who joins her on the picket line. She is rewarded with a blow to the head from a horse-mounted cop.

“ ‘F—ing kikes!’ he sneers, and again swings his billy club.”

Now and then, Faderman herself enters the story she tells with an aside, often ironic but even more often tender and poignant. She knows, for example, that her mother’s tumultuous love affair will result in the birth of a child, but not in a marriage. “I cheer her on,” writes the author. “Much better, for so simple a soul, to be obsessed by simple slogans than by a lover who’s as cloudy as a muddy river. Much safer, despite even the baton’s blow, to think day and night about unions and comrades and struggles for justice than about a love as insubstantial as the ether: that’s what I’d like to shout to her across the eight decades. But she would hear such selfless nattering like a deaf person hears the shouting of a mute — which is just as well, for if she’d chosen better and safer, how could I come to be?”

From back in Latvia, even more ominous events are reported to Mary in letters from her younger brother, Hirschel. The so-called Perkonkrusts are the Latvian version of the Nazis, and “they look and sound like that lunatic wind-up doll in Germany with the black toothbrush pasted above his lip.” Hirschel envisions a dire future: “You’d have to be a mole not to see where this is going.” For Mary, love and history are enmeshed: “And if things get worse for the Jews in Latvia and the family has to come here and she has a baby and isn’t married.” But it turns out that Mary makes a choice in her love life that closes off what may have been the best chance of escape for her family.

Thus does Faderman allow us to understand the significance of the title she has chosen for her book. Even as her mother yearned to find love in America, she was forced to witness from afar the workings of history that would ultimately extinguish the lives of her cherished family — “she’s standing on a high cliff watching shipwreck victims, those she loves, foundering in the sea far below.” In a strange and shattering way, her struggle for private happiness worked against her family’s struggle for survival, an irony that impressed itself first on Mary Lifton herself, then on her brave and discerning daughter, and now on her daughter’s admiring readers.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.