Kristine Brancolini's Reviews > Displaced Persons

Displaced Persons by Ghita Schwarz
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Apr 22, 12

Read from April 06 to 11, 2012

I just finished reading Displaced Persons for my Jewish Book and Discussion Group. It was selected by the director of the Jewish Studies program at the university where I work. She is also an English professor, so I had high expectations for this book and I was not disappointed. Ghita Schwartz has beautifully captured the lives of a small group of Polish Holocaust survivors at three points in their lives: immediatley after World War II in Germany; 1960-1973 in New York; and 1989 to 2000 in New York. The three protagonists, Pavel, Fela, Chaim, and Sima are bound by common experiences, but of course, each is also an individual, with different background and responses to the war. Each grows and changes. Once they arrive in New York, life resumes a normal rhythm. But each bears scars -- some internal and some external.

I found the three time periods to be fascinating. The first section, 1945-1950, reveals various ways in which people cope with traumatic events. When I read books about war, I am always struck by the element of chance. No matter how smart or tough, there always seems to be an element of luck. One of the book's characters survives because at age 16 she ran away from home with her boyfriend. He ends up in the Russian army and disappears. She has a baby who dies. Her only other relative to survive the war left home as a young woman for Palestine. These are all coincidences that led to their survival. We also meet a survivor who is pure evil. He is a thief, who almost murders one of the protagonists. With the passage of time, these experiences are never forgotten but they begin recede as daily life resumes. However, they live in a close-knit community and the past has a way of resurfacing.

Schawartz slowly and subtly reveals the characters' stories. How did they spend the war? How did that affect them? How have they dealt with feelings of guilt, anger, and hatred in the aftermath? How did their experiences during and immediately after the way affect the rest of their lives? No one is a saint. People did not survive because they were better than everyone else. Jews sometimes victimize Jews. One of the protagonists is victimized by a relative. Two of the characters emigrate to Israel after the war but then come to New York later. They felt unwelcome and uncomfortable in Israel.

Toward the end of the book, the character who has suffered the most gives a small gift to another survivor. At an event for survivors he meets the brother of the person who robbed and almost killed him in Germany. He learns what happened to the man, but doesn't reveal how he was hurt by him. It showed me that despite all he had suffered, his generosity of spirit survived.
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Reading Progress

04/06/2012 page 70
21.0% "This is a beautifully written, compelling novel. The author wrote this book to fill the gap in literature about Holocaust survivors, especially immediately after WWII. Schwarz skillfully moves among many character to tell many different stories."
04/07/2012 page 135
40.0% "Just finished part 1:Identity Papers, covering 1945-1950. Some people have complained that Schwartz's lack of quotation marks makes it difficult to determine who is speaking. I don't find that to be the case. In fact, it makes me read more closely, more carefully. I've learned a lot about the politics of the post-War refugee camp."
04/08/2012 page 196
58.0% "Par 2, New Dictonary, covering 1960-1973, tells the story of our protagonists as immigrants now living in New York. I'm struck by the similiarity to other stories of "displaced persons," such as Enemies:A Love Story and ."
04/10/2012 page 247
73.0% "Just finished part 2 and about to begin the final section, Stones, 1989-2000. I still love this book. Schwartz skillfully tells the story of the immigrants, but also the story of their children. The survivors are bound by the past and their common experiences, but they also grow and change. I'm anxious to discuss this book with others."

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