It’s not unusual for strangers to tell Helen Epstein that she changed their lives. They’re referring to her 1979 book, “Children of the Holocaust,” which identified and described an experience that many sons and daughters of survivors shared but few discussed in public. After 18 years, that book — her first — remains in print, still selling.
Epstein’s fifth and latest book, Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History (Little, Brown) is an absorbing memoir that rebuilds her family’s destroyed and nearly forgotten past. Reaching back beyond the Holocaust era, she portrays the lives of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother — based on interviews and actual documents she uncovered — and, in doing so, presents a view of Central European Jewish history. Although much has been written about prewar life in Poland and Eastern Europe, little has been written about Czechoslovakia, her family’s home, and the surrounding lands.
Epstein’s mother Frances left a 12-page chronicle of her family history, which the author read for the first time after her death in 1989. “It read like the libretto of a romantic opera,” she writes. The account began with the story of Frances’ grandmother Therese, born in Moravia. The daughter of the town innkeeper, Therese fell in love with a young Christian, and her family arranged for her to marry a poor Jewish man “more a poet than a peddler.” She and her new husband moved to the Bohemian city of Kolin and then to Vienna, and they had four children. Soon after her oldest and favorite son died suddenly, Therese killed herself.
Her only daughter, Josephine — known as Pepi — went to live with an aunt, and then moved to Prague where she established a successful dressmaking salon, traveling frequently to Paris; her chosen path was assimilation. Pepi — the author’s grandmother — comes to life in full color in the narrative as a bold, sophisticated and independent woman, who married her long-time lover at the age of 37 and then continued working, which was highly unusual for her time. Frances, who began working in her mother’s business as a teenager and was even then an accomplished dressmaker, was the only child of what turned out to be an unhappy marriage.
Through research and a series of serendipitous connections, Epstein, formerly a professor of journalism at New York University and now an affiliate at Harvard’s Center for European Studies, was able to track down the details of her foremothers’ lives and lifestyles, filling in the blanks in her mother’s account. Traveling in the Czech Republic, she was both journalist and detective. “This was my Nancy Drew period,” Epstein laughs, in an interview while visiting New York City last week from her home in Cambridge, Mass.
The author becomes teary as she speaks of the grandmother she never met. “While I was living with her story, she became a real person for me. That was a great gift. I created a grandmother for myself who’s still with me.” She adds that she feels she inherited a lot of her grandmother’s traits. “Having written this, I miss her even more.”
Later, Epstein — now a mother of two sons — reflects that her grandmother’s struggles in 1920 with issues of work and family are timely in 1997. She writes of lecturing at her mother’s B’nai B’rith chapter, whose members were all Czech. When she asked for help in research about the First Czechoslovak Republic, wondering if it was “really as much of a Camelot” as her parents described, the elderly people were much more interested in discussing Pepi’s life story than Czech politics.
Epstein also details her mother’s life in Prague before the war, and then the time she spent in concentration camps; Frances was the only member of her family to survive. Stories portray her as willful, resourceful and intuitive, and a recent encounter at a lecture and book signing in Atlanta confirmed her strength. A woman in the audience recognized Epstein’s description of her mother — although she hadn’t previously made the connection because of their different names — and told her that they were in the camps together. Epstein learned that her mother made the other women sing while they walked and worked, in order to show the Germans that their morale was high.
After being liberated, Frances moved back to Prague where she married Kurt Epstein, a former Olympic swimmer. In 1948, when their daughter Helen was 8 months old, they moved to the United States. Within a month, Frances had rented an apartment on Riverside Drive, borrowed money for a sewing machine and restarted her business.
As a child, Epstein relished the moments in her mother’s workroom, where Frances and her “girls” designed and created dresses for wealthy clients. Collecting scraps of fabric, Epstein would listen to her mother’s fragments of stories. “I was never much interested in the construction of clothes but was always drawn to the construction of stories, to what was said and what was withheld,” she writes, adding that after her mother died, she found herself enjoying tasks like replacing buttons and mending seams, and came to sense that “making and repairing clothes was a form of narrative.”
Although she has plenty of clothing custom made by her mother, Epstein is dressed for a lecture about her book in stylish hand-me-downs from a friend who shares her 6-foot height; she says her mother’s creations were more well-constructed than comfortable.
Fluent in Hebrew, French and German as well as English and Czech, Epstein says that Czech, the language of her childhood, is the one in which she feels most herself. She describes it as a simple, unpretentious language. Now, she speaks it only in Prague, but says that she often muses about her childhood in Czech, cooks in Czech style. She reads mainly in English, and writes beautiful English prose that seems effortless. Her previous books include a biography of Joseph Papp.
Like many Holocaust survivors, Epstein’s parents spoke little about their pasts. But ancestral memory is essential to every culture, she asserts. “It’s not enough to have a family tree. You have to have stories.”
Helen Epstein will speak about “Where She Came From” at a lecture sponsored by the Leo Baeck Institute on Tuesday, Jan. 13 at Congregation Habonim, 44 W. 66th St. in Manhattan at 7:30 p.m. (Call 212 744-6400 for information.)