Elizabeth Rosner, a daughter of Holocaust survivors now living in Berkeley, explores the legacy of survivor guilt in her debut novel. Two adult siblings, Julian and Paula Perel, react to the sadness of their childhood home in seemingly different ways. Julian is a recluse who seldom leaves his apartment, fending off his anxieties with a strict adherence to his compulsive routines. His sister Paula is an extrovert, an aspiring opera singer single-mindedly focused on her career. Although their father told them almost nothing about the camps or his life before the war, his grief affects them deeply. “We were all black holes, dense with the nightmares we invent when the stories are kept hidden from us,” Julian confides.
As Paula departs for a series of auditions in Europe, she arranges for her housekeeper to stay at her apartment and keep an eye on Julian, who lives upstairs. Sola Ordonio, a Latin American immigrant, has ghosts that haunt her too. She is the only witness of a massacre that wiped out her village, perpetrated by government forces searching for rebel hideouts. “How can I be the only one left?” she asks herself at night.
Written in three alternating voices, the characters speak separately to the reader in interior monologues, until, slowly and deliberately, they break through each other’s shells. As Julian discovers in this novel about grief and healing, “When you tell other people, you make them witnesses too.”
(written by Bonny V. Fetterman, literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine)