When Jack Hersch discovered his father had a past that he did not fully understand, he also discovered that he had a past he had never known about, as well. There were parts of his life that David Hersch had kept from his son, like a trip back to the scene of the crime, Austria, so that he could revisit his Holocaust experiences. When Jack’s Israeli cousin called him to tell him that there was a picture of his dad, as a young man, on the Mauthausen Concentration Camp website, he was utterly shocked. Recently divorced, with children who were no longer living under his roof, he now had the time to look further into his father’s life and to seriously wonder about why he never thought to do it while his dad was alive and could have filled in the blanks.
Every year on Passover, his dad had told the story of his two escapes from Hitler’s death marches as the war was nearing an end. Every year, Jack failed to ask him for more complete details. As David told the story of the changes that had taken place in his home town before his imprisonment, and then the subsequent story of his life after he became a captive and was reduced to skin and bones, his father managed to see the bright side and ever be grateful to those who gave him his “second chances” to survive another day, to survive so he could tell his story, so he could survive, become successful, marry and have a family. He always had a gleam in his eye and a chuckle on his lips. Now that the time was available, his curiosity piqued, and Jack was finally inspired to discover more about his father.
As Jack Hersch begins his attempt to trace his father’s steps during the war and to learn more about his life then, he also begins to look within himself, as well. Why was he never more interested in his father’s story? Why did his father not tell him the complete story of his life? He had always said, “You should never know”, when he told of some of his experiences. Did he mean that he should never know about it literally or figuratively? Why didn’t his father ask him to accompany him back to Europe? How did his father manage to always keep a stiff upper lip and an optimistic outlook after all he had been through? He wondered if he would he have had the same courage to survive, the same will to live?
As I read, I felt that the book was more about Jack, the son, than David, the father. It seemed to me that Jack was searching for more than his father’s story. He was searching for his own inner strength, wondering if he could have survived the horrors that his father did and wondering if he would have had the same outlook and attitude after it was over. Would he have also felt gratitude rather than bitterness?
I did learn a great deal about the experiences of the victims, Jew and non-Jew, but it was repetitive. The book was told in three different voices. One was the history of the war and some battles during the time David was first taken captive. It then covers a good deal of supposition about his experiences as Jack traces his steps to find out more and intuits from what he discovers. Then it covers what little is truly known about David Hersch’s experiences from the information he had freely discussed during his lifetime and from Jack’s conversations with people who lived in the same places he had been in and who knew some of the same people he had known. There were no direct connections, however, so much was conjecture and was based on Jack’s intuition as he visited the places his father had and experienced what he believed his father had. He had to work through memories of the past, the thoughts of those few still alive and those still interested in the history in order to sift through and understand the information as it related to our present day world.
Because of the way it was written, from the point of view the father, the son and the history, it was repetitive. At times, I felt overwhelmed by Jack’s philosophy about his father’s behavior, and Jack’s search for redemption from his father for not having pursued the information about his life more carefully, for not having cared enough to find out in a more timely fashion. In the end, though, he kind of believes that his dad didn’t really want him to know more. I feel that Jack’s reticence was a failure to care enough, or else was his successful attempt to escape from being the child of a Holocaust victim, It is well known that they have their own kind of suffering and burdens to carry. Hopefully, the book will bring Jack peace.
In the Advanced Reader’s Copy that I received from Meryl Moss Media, there were no photos, illustrations or maps. I am pretty sure that they can only enhance the book. There is always more information out there about that heinous time, and no matter how much one reads, there is always something else to learn. There is always an example of courage in the face of the brutality, of kindness in the face of the selfishness, of strength of character in the face of the weakness of the enemy’s character and those that followed Hitler. It is my belief that it is only through this knowledge of the past that the future can be protected from a recurrence. I find it disappointing when some voice their belief that they know enough. It will never be enough until there is no hate.