Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory
By Janet Malcolm
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 176 pp.
Immigrant Baggage: Morticians, Purloined Diaries, and Other Theatrics of Exile
By Maxim D. Shrayer
Cherry Orchard Books, 146 pp.
Daughter of History: Traces of an Immigrant Girlhood
By Susan Rubin Suleiman
Stanford University Press, 256 pp.
A tradition at my friend’s Passover seder is for guests to go around the table and say what they would carry with them when leaving Egypt. Guests mention everything from a boxed set of Mozart music to bug spray. In three recently published memoirs by 20th-century Jewish refugees to America, the authors, all of whom later became distinguished figures in American arts and letters, likewise tell the reader what was and remains in their suitcases. All included photographs.
Photographs are the explicit theme in Still Pictures, in which an almost-five-year-old Czech Jewish child, Jana Wienerová, is brought to America by her parents in 1939. She grows up to be Janet Malcolm, described by The Guardian as “America’s finest nonfiction writer,” a journalist for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and author of 13 previous books, among them elegant, controversially sharp pieces about psychoanalysis, criticism of journalism, crime, famous couples and photography.
Malcolm’s copious writings before her death in 2021 made little mention of her immigrant background, and by her own account she was reluctant to write an autobiography. Still Pictures, published posthumously, can best be described as a compilation of short anecdotes from her life, each triggered by a photograph. This structure ensured that she did not have to thoroughly analyze herself or situations. She just riffs on the photographs.
One such photo is of Malcolm with her mother and father looking out of the window of a train leaving what was then Czechoslovakia. Malcolm makes no reference to any discussions with her parents about why the family is leaving for America. The reader is not told that Germany invaded Prague on March 14, 1939; that Malcolm’s father, a Jewish doctor, was banned from practicing in public institutions; that her mother, a lawyer, could no longer work—nor even that they were Jews at all.
Many chapters later, writing about a comic strip that features a character lost and in danger, Malcolm acknowledges, “We were a Jewish refugee family.” She goes on to ask, “Didn’t I know something about why we had come and what we had escaped?” But she chooses not to respond to her own question.
In America, Malcolm is discontented with her family being “the poor cousins” and “ordinary middle-class.” They lived in a “small apartment in a building on tenement-filled far east Seventy-Second Street” in Manhattan. But they “fancied [themselves] in the world of literature and art.” Their status was lower than in Prague, and in order to compensate, her father had “preposterous ambitions for his daughters,” she writes. He wanted them to publish “best sellers.” An old photo of Malcolm’s father, where, she says, he does not look his usual serene self, prompted a chapter on the daddy whom she adored. She realizes how much she does not know about him. As for her mother, Malcolm makes no secret of the fact that she despises her.
Malcolm seems to blame her parents for herself becoming, in her own words, a “self-hating Jew.” She writes that later on in her life she embraced her Jewishness in more positive ways, but she does not elaborate. Although several of her books are about psychoanalysis, including an excellent one called Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, in this volume Malcolm appears to resist being more introspective about herself.
Unlike Malcolm, Soviet émigré Maxim D. Shrayer knows who he is, and he is proud of it right from the start. In Immigrant Baggage: Morticians, Purloined Diaries, and Other Theatrics of Exile, Shrayer, the award-winning author of more than 20 books and a professor at Boston College, lets the reader know that he is rooted in three cultures—Russian, Jewish and American. Shrayer writes that he experienced the community of “Anglophone writers from the former USSR” as “something of a Russian family business and also something of a Jewish community affair.” As communities go, it’s a large one: Shrayer is one of a million Russian Americans.
Shrayer’s parents became refuseniks—Soviet citizens who had applied for permission to emigrate and been denied—when he was 12. The family ultimately emigrated after suffering under that status for eight and a half years. They arrived in the United States in 1987 carrying “three or four tattered family photo albums and two manual typewriters, and some Russian books.” From his father, a well-known writer, and his mother, a translator, he writes, he learned “not to give up hope.” Poring over the books by eminent fellow Russian-American émigré Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, Pnin and other acclaimed works, propelled his inner drive to succeed.
In Immigrant Baggage, written mostly during the COVID pandemic, six interconnected ordinary anecdotes of Shrayer’s travels narrate “adventures and misadventures” from previous years and are given surprise endings. Each tale is a gem, filled with the author’s political, ideological and literary sensibility. Shrayer, who traveled to Russia every year until COVID, has more recently had to create an emotional demarcation line, he writes, between the Russia of old and the new Russia of Vladimir Putin, especially since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the home of three of Shrayer’s grandparents. One story is about the “separation from Russia’s present and future while remaining culturally Russian.”
The volume begins with a story about a ski trip he took in Italy with his wife and two daughters—adorned with a photograph of the four of them—titled “Ribs of Eden.” At the heart of the story is Shrayer’s awareness that however successful one’s emigration, “it takes much longer to dispose of the immaterial baggage of exile.” When another skier on the slopes loses control and flies right into Shrayer, he feels his ribs break. The skier shrugs it off and says, “I see you’re okay if you can get up by yourself.” He turns out to be a neurosurgeon from Wannsee, Germany. Shrayer says to himself: “I’ve seen him somewhere…doctor-death flashed through my mind.” When another German man tries to assist Shrayer, he visualizes him as an “SS man.”
Suleiman and Shrayer each make a strong argument for revisiting one’s embattled past so as to live as an integrated rather than a fragmented self.
Shrayer’s ribs are in fact broken, and the recuperation is long. Shrayer is able to identify the man and sues him for medical expenses, pursuing the case for many years even after his own insurance company has reimbursed him. When his wife asks why he continues to press charges, Shrayer tells her he wants “justice.” Not an uncommon desire of victims.
The response to early hardship can surface in many different forms. At the age of nine, in 1949, Susan Rubin Suleiman’s emigration from Communist Hungary to America was a nightmare. Prior to fleeing Hungary with her family, she was a hidden child during the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. Despite that trauma, she adapted to America and became a professor of French literature at Harvard, where she taught for more than 30 years. She is a literary theorist, a feminist critic and a specialist in memoirs of World War II and the Holocaust. Daughter of History: Traces of an Immigrant Girlhood is an absorbing sequential narrative of her life. It too uses photographs, which serve as catalysts to trigger memories from childhood.
Similar to the way Shrayer examines objects in the suitcases he and his parents carried into exile, Suleiman recalls the “emotional charge” of, among other objects, the silver pin her father bought her mother before they escaped from Hungary; a recording of Heifetz playing the Beethoven violin concerto; and a miniature chess set on which she and her father played through multiple countries, a ritual that eased the trauma of the escape and provided a sense of continuity and normalcy. She is most intrigued with a few photographs taken in a Budapest studio a month before the family fled over the border.
When the Nazis invaded Budapest in 1944, her father procured non-Jewish identification papers for the family, ripped off their obligatory Jewish stars and found Susan refuge with Christian farmers. After some weeks of separation, her parents fetched her and they hid together on an estate where they got lodging and employment while posing as non-Jews. After liberation, though, they were able to return to their home, where some time later a photographer came to the house to take pictures of her in a new dress.
In adulthood, Suleiman was not dissimilar from many other hidden Holocaust child survivors who were silent about their traumatic childhood. She wanted to become an “American working woman,” and she succeeded. Not until she took her sons to Budapest in 1984 did the floodgates of memory open up, countering the influence of her mother, who had said, “That’s behind us, forget about that.” This transforming moment changed not only Suleiman’s sense of her personal identity as a hidden child (according to some estimates, only one out of nine Jewish children in Hungary survived the Holocaust) but also the subsequent evolution of her career as a “scholar of war and memory,” particularly of how children remember.
In the memoir, she analyzes her own psychological vulnerabilities as a consequence of surviving massive historical trauma. The wartime separation from her mother and father, she thinks, left a residue: She is “always abandoning so as not to be abandoned.” Being displaced ultimately spurred a larger sense of Jewish belonging, although for a brief period, she felt confused about whether to follow the faith of the devout Christians she encountered or to be loyal to her father, a rabbi, whom she adored.
Echoing Malcolm, Suleiman doesn’t gloss over the dislike she once felt for her mother. But after the latter’s death she begins to empathize with the challenging life her mother survived, and wonders, “Is it possible to mend a broken relationship with a person who is no longer there to participate in the process?”
Shrayer and Suleiman seem to have experienced more direct trauma for more extended periods in childhood than Malcolm. Writing about their persecution as Jews is therapeutic in itself.
Malcolm, on the other hand, has no recollection of Germany’s invasion of Prague and her voyage to the United States. Denial is a coping mechanism for trauma. Perhaps choosing to write about psychoanalysis was a sublimation of Malcolm’s own repressed memories. Malcolm, Shrayer and Suleiman all found paths to writing as a creative outlet for trauma, though the differences are a reminder that successful immigrants show a wide range of coping strategies. Malcolm doesn’t discuss her choice to become a writer except in terms of her father’s ambition for his daughters to write bestsellers; Shrayer grew up with parents who wrote; Suleiman was planning to be a scientist before she switched to French literature. Suleiman and Shrayer are not wont to despair about their roots. They each make a strong argument for revisiting one’s embattled past so as to live as an integrated rather than a fragmented self.
In an era when many are searching to understand how to overcome historical trauma, these stories argue for growing up with a loving and supportive parent or parents and choosing to connect with one’s roots, to follow one’s passion, to belong to a community and to discover a meaningful channel to integrate the past and present.
Eva Fogelman is a psychologist, filmmaker and author of Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust. She is the writer and coproducer of the PBS documentary Breaking the Silence: The Generation After the Holocaust.