Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Displaced Persons by Ghita Schwarz — 368 pgs

Displaced Persons: A NovelIn this haunting and penetrating novel that explores the lives of a handful of Holocaust survivors, strangers and family alike become enmeshed in remembering a brutal history and creating a new and more peaceful future. For Pavel, a man who escaped a concentration camp, his new life as a displaced person in Germany is aided by his blatant opportunism. He’s also taken in a woman named Fela and a boy much like himself named Chaim, who have both lost their families. As the three learn to live in a war-torn country, their hope is to one day emigrate to America, but after failure and betrayal, it’s many years before they finally land in New York. Even then, things aren’t what they had hoped. As the three start a new life, with Fela and Pavel marrying, and Chaim relocating to Palestine before coming to America, the lives they lead are drenched in the difficulties of assimilation. As three generations of the family recount their lives from the moment the Allies arrive in Germany to the year 2000, when lives have been altered and different circumstances lived, Displaced Persons shares the hopeful, yet at times grave circumstances of those in-between people who somehow survived the unthinkable.

One of the things I found most interesting about this book was that it examined the Holocaust form a very different perspective than most other books about WWII. In my opinion, the stories of survivors have the potential to be one of the most potent types of stories from this period. In Schwarz’s portrayal of the difficulties these survivors faced, there was an elegant sorrow and a pervasive uphill climb for them to ever regain a sense of normalcy. The book opens just as the Allies are coming to the rescue of the Jews, so in fact, there aren’t many details about the Holocaust in the pages. Instead the book focuses on the way these displaced persons deal with their circumstances, which are strangely more hopeful, yet also understandably reduced. While it’s obvious they are grateful for their lives, at the same time they are broken and dispirited by their tremendous losses and the things they’ve experienced.

Part of the focus of the book was on Pavel and the makeshift family he surrounded himself with. Though he still has a few living relatives after these terrible circumstances have been wrought, he decides to provide a home for Fela and Chaim, and by providing both for them and himself, he regains a modicum of his stolen manhood. His love for Fela is something that grows over time, and after an inexplicable betrayal by a fellow survivor, he and Fela decide to unify and they eventually escape to America. Here they’re met by Chaim and his new family, and even others who have immigrated to form a small pocket of survivors living in the States. As the book moves through time, Pavel and Chaim's families grow, but no matter how far into the future they reach, they cannot leave their shared past behind.

As survivors of a tragedy like this, they are of course resilient, but also suspicious and fretful. At times they fade into the background, afraid to make their grievances known, afraid to trust fully in their new circumstances. As I was reading, it was hard for me not to feel the waves of discomfort coming from these people. To feel their heartache like a stone in my throat. In a way they maintained a sense of innocence and incredulity, due to their inability to fully process what had been done to them and taken from them. In their grief they sometimes become emotionally closed off to each other and to the world around them. It was chilling and saddening to realize that many years later, they would still question new acquaintances about possible survivors. I can’t even imagine the hope and terror that lives at the heart of a question like that. Sometimes it even seemed that they lived on the brink of an insidious paranoia, with all their joys tinged with a darkness that subtly revealed itself as they moved through their new lives.

At its heart, this was a book that, while enlightening, was also sometimes painful to read. It was a story that was steeped in the tragedy of the past but also in the ephemeral hope for the future. The characters in this tale maintained a passion for life but also harbored secret bruises that left them unable to exist in the same ways as others who hadn’t been a part of the Holocaust . It was a tenuous balance for them to maintain, and sometimes they were more successful than others. I think most of this book centered on the very ways that the survivors tried to make their lives as plebeian and normal as possible, despite the very unusual and horrible tragedies of their past.

This was a very serious and emotionally sticky book, but one I’m glad I experienced, because it told a very well known tale from a very different perspective. While there seem to be a glut of books that deal with the WWII experience, this book felt very different, and because of that, the voices of the characters seemed fresher and more immediate. I think those readers who have a fascination with this time period and subject would do really well to pick up this book and give it a try. It was unusually beautiful, but it was also a book that made one stop and consider the impact that the war had on the victims and survivors.

Author Photo About the Author

Ghita Schwarz is a civil rights lawyer specializing in immigrants’ rights. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Displaced Persons was a finalist for the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Goldberg Prize for Outstanding Fiction.

Visit Gita at her website,

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, August 23rd:Reviews from the Heart
Wednesday, August 24th:nomadreader
Thursday, August 25th:Raging Bibliomania
Friday, August 26th:Books Like Breathing
Tuesday, August 30th:The House of the Seven Tails
Wednesday, August 31st:Rundpinne
Thursday, September 1st:Man of La Book
Friday, September 2nd:Diary of an Eccentric
Monday, September 5th:Life in the Thumb
Tuesday, September 6th:Crazy for Books
Wednesday, September 7th:Reading Through Life
Thursday, September 8th:Life in Review
Friday, September 9th:Diary of a Stay at Home Mom

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


Jenny said...

Wow, sounds intense!

Veens said...

I totally agree when you say - "In my opinion, the stories of survivors have the potential to be one of the most potent types of stories from this period.". So true.

I am adding this to my wishlist.

Wall-to-wall books said...

Oh no, such a serious book! This book sounds so sad. Sometimes I do like reading books like this though. I like history and I even like sad intense books (sometimes).
My daughter and I were just talking about the Holocaust yesterday! She went with her boyfriend to Boston and she got the see the Holocaust memorial-
My daughter is half Jewish (my ex is Jewish)she said that when she saw the memorial she just cried! It was so intense for her. She said "There were so many people, mom" Visit the link and take a peek at it.
Thanks for your great review - I will have to check into this book.

bermudaonion said...

One of my mother's cousins served in the Lithuanian Army and spent some time as a prisoner of war. He was a DP before he got to this country but would never talk about it. I look forward to reading this book.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I like books about survivor experience too. The best I ever read was called New Lives: Survivors of the Holocaust Living in America by Dorothy Rabinowitz. I forget a lot of what I read, but I never forgot the stories in that book. There is one in particular, a survivor who cringes in disbelief every time someone says this or that is "to die for." Ever since then, I also cringe at that phrase!

nomadreader said...

I'm participating in this tour too, and I'm eager to read it. I inadvertently read two other books back to back that talked about displaced persons (When I Lived in Modern Times and Far to Go), so I'm even more excited to start. I am glad to be reading a few less historically intense books before I start this one though. Beautiful review!

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

I always like when I find books that dig into already covered topics but do so in a new and different way.

Anonymous said...

Books like this help me connect with people who went through experiences I could never imagine. Though they are painful to read they are also worthwhile to me.

Thank you for your review for the tour.

Anna said...

I'm so glad to see you liked this book, as I'm on the tour too. It does sound like nothing I've read in this genre before. I've linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

Tracy said...

This book does sound needed. I can't bear to read about the Holocaust, but a few days ago I watched the end of the movie Schindler's List (Having watched the first hour, I then had to abandon it, as it was too painful to watch - but I watched the final half hour) which if you've seen it you know it shows some of the real survivors portrayed in the movie, as they are now (or were when it was filmed), and what struck me about that end scene was how did they pick up the pieces of their lives after everything they had endured?

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

As usual, Heather, you have built a compelling case for me to buy yet another book. Your review is haunting and I'm ready to get this one! Thanks for always putting such thoughtful books on my radar!

Trisha said...

The story sounds intense, but honestly all I can do right now is stare at that cover. I love it for some reason.

Jennifer | Mrs Q Book Addict said...

Oh, this sounds like one I would really love. An intense read, covering a different perspective. Adding this one to my wishlist.

ImageNations said...

I was struggling between fiction and non-fiction. All the same this sounds interesting. I agree that 'he who feels it knows it more.' Such individuals write with felt-emotions not assumed-emotions.

Geosi said...

That must be an incredibly interesting story, I think.

Amy said...

This sounds like a very emotional book, I'm glad that you enjoyed it. Great review.

Unknown said...

I only skimmed your review because I'm reading this book now. Much of what I read in your review I'm experiencing and feeling. I cannot get over the term "Displaced Persons' it says so much and really is a painful description for these poor people. Of course no one wants the war to still be on but I never gave a lot of thought to what life was like for these poor people once the war was over. Their lives were really destroyed and starting over again is difficult especially when they all have different feelings about what has happened, what is happening etc.
I'll be back to read your review more thoroughly when I finish reading!

Athira said...

This book sounds amazing! And I know what you mean - the survivors' stories are usually the most moving - after the war, they have changed so much that even they probably don't remember their lives before the war. Then there is the matter about all the people and things they lost and they would forever wish that things had been different. I need to check this one out.

Kaye said...

Beautiful review! Did you ever read Leeway Cottage by Beth Gutcheon? While that was so sad at times, it was also a wonderful story of families. Yesterday I finished The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman - exquisitely written first loves separated by the war. Probably end up on my top 5 reads of the year.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I had added this to my wish list when the hardcover was first released, and honestly I think yours is the only review I've read about it. So happy you shared with us. Sounds like a pretty sad story.

Lisa said...

Fabulous review! I'm always interested in books that look at a well-known subject from a unique p.o.v.

Jenners said...

It does sounds like it tells a WWII story that hasn't been written about too often.

And I wanted to tell you congrats for your BBAW nomination!! It is well deserved and you have my vote … if I could vote I will but I think it is judges now. You are a winner in my book!

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