This review was first published in the January 14, 2013 of The Jerusalem Report.
The burden of being the child of Holocaust survivors is a heavy one to bear. Many have written about it, but few have done so as artfully as Sonia Taitz.
With her new memoir, “The Watchmaker’s Daughter,” she takes us on a post-World War II American coming-of-age journey that differs from most. This is obviously because of the genocidal shadow cast over it, but it is also thanks to Taitz’s extraordinary ability to turn a phrase and draw us in to the intense world of a daughter who knows too well that in crucial ways, her life is not completely her own.
It is possible to split the second generation into two groups: those who were told nothing and those who were told too much. Thane Rosenbaum, one of the preeminent literary voices of the second generation, once told me, “My parents never said a word to me, not one word… I knew we were Jewish, but I didn’t know a thing. Nothing. Less than nothing. I found out everything after they died.” He is clearly part of the first contingent. Taitz, a New York-based essayist, playwright and author, most definitely belongs to the latter.
We are pulled into Taitz’s personal narrative from the first sentences of the prologue: “You could say that my father was a watchmaker by trade, but that would be like saying that Najinsky liked to dance. Fixing watches was not only his livelihood but his life. This skill had saved him when he had been imprisoned at the death camp of Dachau, during the Second World War, and he continued to fix watches until the day he died. Simon Taitz was nothing less than a restorer of time. And I was his daughter, born to continue in his life work – restoration and repair.”
Throughout most of the memoir, which reads as a collection of vignettes presented in chronological order, Taitz understands and relates to her father better than she does her mother. Simon, the watchmaker, is a mercurial, intense and dominating figure who has managed to emerge from the horrors of the Holocaust with his faith in God and Jewish tradition intact.
Taitz’s mother Gita, on the other hand, is a more simple and straightforward person who takes pleasure in pretty things, keeping a tidy home and helping her husband in his watch repair and jewelry shop. For years, her greatest wish has been for her daughter to take after her and want to spend hours in the kitchen learning the finer points of being a balabusta. As might be expected from a girl born in New York in the 1950’s and growing up during the 1960’s counterculture revolution, Taitz did not fail to disappoint her (or so it seemed to the author at the time).
The daughter tries to sort out her allegiances and her own identity as her parents meanwhile spare no detail in recounting to her the horrors they experienced at the hands of the Cossacks and later the Nazis. Simon, in particular, makes sure his daughter knows that the future of the Jewish people rests on her slight shoulders.
With keen insight, humor and obvious love, Taitz takes us from her parents’ early immigrant years in a tiny, dark Washington lived with the family until she died), to their move to a slightly nicer apartment further north in Manhattan on Fort Tryon Park, and finally to Gita’s move southward to the Upper West Side, to be closer to Taitz and her family after Simon dies.
Along the way, Taitz goes to Jewish day school, Barnard College, Yale Law School, and spends a year at the University of Oxford. She dates and breaks the heart of a nice Jewish boy, and marries a different Jewish man. Then she leaves him to marry the love of her life, a non-Jewish man named Paul she meets at Oxford who converts to Judaism.
There are visits to other survivor friends who have moved to the outer boroughs and suburbs, summers at a Revisionist Zionist day camp, trips to Israel, Taitz’s older brother Manny’s move out to California, and time spent helping out at Simon’s watch repair shop (which he reconstituted as a booth in the Diamond District after the store was razed to make way for the construction of Lincoln Center in the 1960’s).
Later, there is the birth of Taitz and her husband’s three children and the daily challenges of being a mother. And eventually there is Simon’s death, and then Gita’s.
It is her parents who perceive more clearly and quickly than Taitz that she is no longer the ungrateful, rebellious daughter she once was, or considered herself to be. They send her off with tears of hope in their eyes as she returns to England to reunite with Paul. Once the young couple returns to settle in New York, Simon and Gita fully embrace their new and newly converted son-in-law. “…They shower him with hugs and plant money in his pockets… My father cannot get enough of this man, who listens, in return, to all his stories.”
Now able to look at her parents through a mature lens, Taitz is overwhelmed by their unconditional love for her. Ashamed to think back on times when she was arrogant and insensitive toward her mother, she is amazed to hear a near-death Gital tell her, “Sonialeh: Du hast nicht keine shlechte bein…” (You do not have one mean bone…).
All this adds up to a life. But this is a memoir that not many of us could write.
© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.