Mosaic by Diane Armstrong

mosiac_USYesterday, 27th January, marks Holocaust Memorial Day.  It’s not a day that’s marked officially in Australia being overtaken by Australia Day or as Australia’s Indigenous people refer to it, Survival Day on 26th January.

Despite the lack of official recognition here it’s likely there are many people who remember this day with great sadness. Last week my blog post on The Voyage of Their Life talked about how some of the refugees and displaced people made their way to Australia in the aftermath of World War II. Among them were many Jewish people who had experienced the horrors and privation of the war.

I tend to read every book by authors I like, so this week I downloaded the e-book of another of Diane Armstrong’s books, one called Mosaic. Then yesterday Armstrong was featured in this weekend’s Weekend Australian magazine. Strange how these things run in cycles.

Synopsis: Mosaic is the story of Diane Armstrong’s Polish Jewish family back to the late 19th century and her great-grandparents and up to her life in Australia. It is essentially a family history of five generations told against the backdrop of war and terror. As a child Diane was called Denusia Baldinger but as the dogs of war came closer with their snapping teeth, her father moved them further east in Poland preferring to take his chances with the Russians than the Germany SS. In a wild throw of the dice he changed their names to the more Polish-sounding name of Boguslawski and their small nuclear family pretended to be Catholic. Although the villagers were suspicious, the family were saved from being denounced to the Gestapo by the support of the local Catholic parish priest who had “known” they were Jewish but continued to support them. Diane tells ultimately how over 60 of their immediate family were shot or gassed during the war.

 My thoughts:  Those of us who live in the safety and sometimes tolerant society of Australia, can not have the slightest real idea of what anyone experienced during the war, let alone what the persecuted Jewish people suffered. It’s one thing to know the facts, read about it and see vision on TV or movies or photographs. It’s quite another to get one’s head around how anyone could do any of these things to other human beings. Nor are these actions the sole preserve of the military but rather also ordinary people, sometimes former neighbours and friends. Mind boggling! We are a horribly flawed species who seem to find it reasonable to persecute those who we perceive as different for religious or economic reasons.

The author talks honestly (as far as I can tell) about her various family members, warts and all, including her own parents. If you believe it’s inappropriate to speak ill of the dead then you may not like this book but what she reveals of her family are people who have their own human frailties and quirks. It’s quite obvious she doesn’t have a lot of time for one of her more selfish aunts who did survive the holocaust yet seems to have learnt little from it. Armstrong also reflects in a very insightful way on the impact of these horrors on family dynamics: the secrets never mentioned, the non-verbal fears of living in hiding for years, the conflict between family members. These psychological scars continue to the present day and generations.

awwbadge_2013I think this is an excellent book which transforms the wartime horrors for the Jewish people from a scale that most of us can barely imagine, to a personalised family story which enable us to see at a micro level how these events impacted families and individuals. Some survived because of foresight, courage, or just plain luck, depending on where they lived and worked. Others died because they were geographically trapped or sold out, often from sheer greed and envy.

Don’t read this book if you’re looking for a chilled-out evening curled up on your lounge. Do read it if you want to learn more about the lives of one set of Australian Jewish immigrants and what they and their families experienced prior to arriving on our shores.

I give it 4 ½ stars for magic carpet factor.

This is review 3 in my Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge.