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Shoshanna’s Story

by Elaine Kalman Naves

Elaine Kalman Naves brings a crisp, beguiling voice to her contemplation of her complicated childhood in Hungary, England, and Montreal. Born to Holocaust-survivors Shoshanna and Gusti, Ilushka (as she was then called) grows up against the horrifying aftermath of the Second World War and the looming threat of the Communist Revolution. An escape to England to start a new life feels more like exile as Ilushka finds herself “mute behind the wall of my foreigner’s clothing and locked tongue.”

In addition, English anti-Semitism, less virulent than the Hungarian variety but scarcely less common (the English are enthusiastic about helping Christian Hungarian refugees), still thwarts the family’s efforts to establish themselves. In 1959, in the throes of the Cold War, the family relocates to Montreal, where sister Vera resides and where the advantages of becoming Protestant (as several members of the extended family have done) continue to evoke feelings of deep conflict. Life never regains the ease and comfort of pre-war Hungary, but Elaine and her sister enroll in school and Shoshanna and Gusti find jobs.

Shoshanna’s Story has a diverse, offbeat cast of characters (crazy aunts, town sluts) and a multi-strand narrative that spans four decades. There is a horrifying description of Shoshanna’s imprisonment in the notorious death camp Birkenau, and later a German armaments factory, that still manages to shock the reader familiar with this territory. There are also heartfelt passages about the immigrant experience that offer fresh insights.

But although she eschews the traditional memoir’s nostalgic tone, Kalman Naves fails to interpret the events she describes and seldom delves beyond the surface of the family members she has brought to the page. The cursory nature of the narration feels glib, and savvy memoir readers will find little to distinguish it from its many generic shelf-mates.