Larry Orbach’s and Vivien Orbach-Smith’s “Young Lothar”: Reviewed by Gloria Garfunkel

My friend since middle-school, Vivien and I have much in common. We are both writers. We are both funny. We both have a strong moral compass and psychological insight. And we are both daughters of Holocaust survivors, terrified it could happen again.

We both have young adult children, though Vivien’s are somewhat older and she is already a grandmother while I am not. About twenty years ago, when her children were little, her German Jewish father, Larry Orbach, asked her to collaborate with him on a memoir of his years as a late adolescent fugitive avoiding capture in Nazi Berlin. The book was published in 1996 under the title “Soaring Underground”.

At the time, I was in a very different place regarding my parents’ histories. I was having nightmares of losing my children in snowstorms. I was too terrified another Holocaust would swallow them up to even think about it. And I couldn’t read books about the Holocaust, even though I had read about it widely before they were born. I both admired and envied Vivien’s courage and strength in being able to accomplish this feat for her father. I bought the book but couldn’t do more than skim it.  I felt too guilty that I couldn’t do the same for my parents.

It is twenty years later and a new edition of her book has come out under the title of “Young Lothar”. With a knot in my stomach, I was finally ready to read it.

Vivien’s book is for the most part about her father’s both terrifying and absurd adventures avoiding capture. Only in the last two brief chapters does she describe the hell of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I am finally working on a book about my parents’ experiences, but mine is very different. Most of it is about the concentration camps and about myself as a child trying to make sense of the stories about concentration camps that my parents were telling me amidst an otherwise idyllic Orthodox Jewish childhood on a poultry farm. My book is about my own traumatic responses since I was very young to the stories of my parents’ traumas. As a child, no doctors could help me with my “secondary PTSD.” They didn’t recognize the disorder, or even have a name for the Holocaust back then. It is still very hard for me to write about this and I take very long breaks, wondering if I will ever finish and ever get it published.

Vivien has written a new preface to her book that expresses everything I feel about our families’ Holocaust histories. She says it best.

These twenty-first century realities have made Lothar’s timeless story a timely one, a cautionary tale of how baseless hatred, scapegoating and authoritarianism can topple a civilized society’s democratic structures and guiding principles.

The drumbeats also signal a resurgence of worldwide anti-Semitism in old tropes and new. Chillingly, Jew-hatred serves as the sole ideological point of agreement among extremists on vastly different points of the political spectrum. The State of Israel remains unrecognized by its neighbors, and often demonized by its detractors, despite ample proof of Jews’ indigenousness to the land since antiquity. One would think that this, in tandem with the oppression, exile and/or cleansing of Jews from countries around the globe over the last century, would place Jewish self-determination in a secure homeland among the numerous humanitarian imperatives of the region. Yet that is, increasingly, not the case. What exists now is a terrible military and moral quagmire that is untenable for two peoples.

All this triggers my worst nightmare: that the world of my children and grandchildren – in the wake of an immediate-post-Holocaust era of “sympathy” for Jews that’s characterized my own lifetime – might become more like the world of my parents and grandparents.

…Lothar’s story reminds us that there is no force in the world more powerful – or more elusive –- than moral courage.

Thank you, Vivien, for your own moral courage in writing this book for future generations.

About Gloria Garfunkel

Gloria Garfunkel has a Ph.D. in Psychology and Social Relations from Harvard University and was a psychotherapist for 35 years, listening to others' stories. She is now a writer of flash fiction and memoir, telling her own tales.
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