Imagine living in a shell within yourself and never feeling that you will ever break free on your own and become someone that others will accept and love. A young child at the age of 3 whose parents are killed in the concentration camp and has few if any memories of her mother as she is left behind while her mother was pushed into a cattle car in Vichy France. While she and her older sisters were sent to America in 1946 to live within the confines of those that were supposed to love, nurture and care for her and her older sister Rita. The description of the boat, the unsanitary conditions, the prayers they said silently hoping that when they arrived in America and met their new guardians they would find love and warmth but what Ruth/Sylvia? finds will haunt her for years as she attempts to assimilate into some type of rhythm or life. Instead like the foundation of a house when it is created with defected material, her life falls apart and she slowly realizes that the only way she can survive is by keeping silent and her voice unheard. Uncle Sam is loving and kind while his wife Aunt Gerdy is abusive, unkind and vicious. From the moment she meets Sylvia for some reason she dislikes her and this child becomes her doormat, maid, servant and no matter how hard she tries to be compliant and adhere to her aunt’s wishes she fails. Gerdy and Sam have two boys of their own. One of whom becomes famous in shows and is the main person Sylvia aspires to be like. But life hands her many hardships before all is said and done. How do you live when you constantly have to apologize for your existence? How do you try and please someone that cannot be pleased?
Throughout the book we learn that Sylvia made many wrong choices, falling for men that would try and did bring her down. But she eventually gives birth to her son David who to this day is her whole life.
At one point she spends time in Bellevue and finds herself under the care of several mental health specialists. It’s not until she meets Milton, her Milton that she feels whole, loved and needed. But, Milton is much older than her and quite wealthy and married. Their courtship was original and storybook like at times but when they could finally wed, tragedy strikes. Even though he left her enough money for her son’s education since David was diagnosed as learning disabled in reading, his family denied her the benefits he left her and it took time before she would contact the UJA to help her get some relief and help. Rita, her older sister was her rock, her mentor and kept her centered and able to deal with each step of her life from the men that mistreated her, to the jobs she attempted and the difficulties dealing with David and his schooling.
Within this novel we hear the words of someone that finally honed in on the real reasons for her feeling invisible, unloved and unwanted. Dr. Milton Weinberg explains what happens when you don’t get to mourn the death of your mother, the reality of losing your sister and your entire family. From the age of 3 Sylvia never had the chance to say goodbye to her parents. Her mother leaving her felt like she was being deserted even though she was being hauled off to a work camp. You can’t spend you life apologizing because you are alive and survived!
Her sister Rita was her rock and mainstay until she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and then with another deadly disease that started her on the downward slide. Rita’s two sons later died from the same illness. The sad part is that Rita’s husband seemed anxious to turn off her life support so many times and this hit home.
Reliving her youth when she visits someone close to her mother in New York named Madeline and at the end, reading her father, Nathan’s words will help readers understand why her parents left her with those people in New York.
Later in her life Sylvia decides to move forward and became a speaker for the United Jewish Federation and her life is restarted.
Although she seems centered this does not stop her from finding a romantic partner many years her junior named Janeek who becomes an important part of her life and with him she learns more about her past, Germany, and becomes a German citizen and shares more of her story with many that survived and one young girl who spent her young life like Sylvia always thinking she did something bad.
The story is retold many times and her hopes of finding some links to her parents and their final repose come to light when the final pieces of her life come together. The Holocaust and its aftermath cannot be fully understood unless you lived it or hear it from someone who went through it and endured it. Seeing 100 students in front of her and speaking with them she shared her story in this weeklong leadership program that she attended. She talked about Treblinka, she talked about the camps, the incoming trains and the horrors she saw and being separated from her mother. She described the crematoriums, the Polish towns and the screams heard that were deafening. Dr. Wainberg gave her self-respect but Sylvia never really felt even when she reaches her senior years loved, respected, wanted or visible. The past lives within her and her story is her present as she retells it to so many students, groups and people that she meets but one story will impact her when she learns the truth about why a special nurse was in her life and how this person saved her life and why.
Chapter 43 is compelling as she tells about talking to German students, telling her story but then they shared theirs about people close to them that were part of the Nazi regime and the parts they played. One young girl felt angry, and sad and expressed that she felt she was at fault. You have to read what Sophie said and the heartfelt words she expresses. The students tell her they will never forget her. “We will remember your family. We will make a difference. We will put more love in the world.”
Children today in America and around the world need to hear her story and understand what she went through and how losing her sister Rita changed her life and made it hard for her to move on and ahead. At times we hear her wishing that Rita could share so many memorable events with her even now. I’m sure Rita hears Sylvia from above and wants her to stay strong. Sealed in stone is an important chapter as the owner of the house where she lived places a special plaque honoring the memory of Malcha and Nathan Gutmann on the pavement of the house where her family once lived.
Sylvia sees the distance she traveled for love was not only 4000 miles with Jannek, but sixty years into the past. She found a generous circle of loving German friends. Looking for her parents planted her roots firmly in the ground. But, not until she lived in Berlin did she finally see herself without all the “trappings of self-pity, and rage.” But, within the final chapters she realizes that she is still in the grips of , and hostage to this compulsive, insatiable hunger making her want to be loved and needed.
Things later get tense living with her son and he tells her to leave. Hopefully someday she will reconnect with him. She then goes back to America and moves in with a friend until she finds her own way.
Finding the nurse that tells her the truth about why her mother left her and how she saved her children, finally gives her a true perspective on the love her mother had for her children. The pictures at the end tell the story and allows readers to meet Gerdy, Sam, Sophie, and Rita, her parents, Milton and so many others.
How do you live your life when you cannot deal with your past? Like the foundation of a newly built house that you hope is strong enough to hold a family without it falling apart. Will Sylvia realize that her foundation began with her parents love, a foundation that faltered at times, and felt like it crumbled into small pieces of cement from the home that was once hers?
Without realizing it by sharing your story, meeting so many people and having an impact with your words throughout the world: Sylvia you have now: A LIFE REBUILT and it’s a tribute to living in the present and remembering the past. Told with compassion, honesty and strength Sylvia’s story needs to be told over and over again so that everyone remembers and mourns the 6 million people that were wrongly executed at the hands of others. It’s time to break out of your inner shell and be FREE!
Fran Lewis: Just reviews/MJ Network, MJ magazine