Monday, October 25, 2010

Broken Birds: The Story of My Momila

Whenever I read a book or watch a movie about the Holocaust, it's always a very sobering and heartbreaking experience for me. The Holocaust (1933 - 1945) was a horrific period in world history, a time of brutality and mass murder, a stark reminder of man's inhumanity to man on a large scale. Approximately six million Jewish people died in the concentration camps and gas chambers of the Holocaust, which ended in 1945 at the conclusion of World War II.

I suspected that this book would affect me on a deep, emotional level.

"This is the story of my parents, my four siblings, and me. Although this group has rarely gotten along for any length of time, these people made me who I am."
~Introduction to Broken Birds: The Story of My Momila, by Jeannette Katzir

Broken Birds: The Story of My Momila is a highly personal, honest account by Jeannette Katzir of her mother's life as well as her own, one that's been shaped and affected profoundly by the experiences of her parents, Holocaust survivors, especially her mother or Momila, Channa Perschowski. Published in 2009, the book is an attempt by Jeannette Katzir to show how the war and specifically the Holocaust affected future generations, in this case herself and her four siblings (and their families). Broken Birds is also, simply, an attempt by a loving daughter to understand her mother better.

The book starts with a tense meeting in a courtroom, then goes back in time to Channa's family and childhood in what was then Poland. Channa's idyllic childhood ended with the cruel persecution and extermination of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Like many others, Channa lost her family at a very young age, except for her older brother, Isaac, to the horrors of the Holocaust, and her mantra becomes, "If so many people have died, then I can bear losing my family, too". Still a child, Channa learns from her brother how to evade the Nazis, how to survive on mere scraps of food, how to live in the forest and sleep in the snow, and she even becomes a resistance fighter. This terrifying time shapes her future, and as an adult she finds it nearly impossible to trust strangers.

Fortunately, Channa and Isaac manage to escape to the U.S.. Young, spirited, and beautiful, Channa falls in love with and marries Nathan Poltzer (who's tall, dark, and handsome), and seems to adjust easily to her new life. She has five children, including the narrator of the story, Jaclyn (the author has changed her name and those of family members in the book), and we discover quickly how the events of the Holocaust have affected and scarred her. Channa is married but very insecure, and worries that her attractive husband may leave her for another woman. Operating on a lack of trust, she surreptitiously hides money throughout the house and in safety deposit boxes at various banks, and instructs her children not to trust anyone but family. Channa emphasizes the idea that family always comes first. Although Channa loves her children (they are her "five fingers"), she's also at times very critical of their choices, although she's generous at other times, and holds the family together. When Channa dies, the Poltzer family falls to pieces, and Channa's will causes the rest of the family great conflict and distress.

Broken Birds is emotionally gripping, and I found myself thinking about my own sibling relationships (which are also puzzling to me at times). In the book, Jaclyn does not want to betray her mother's wishes to put family first, but after years of trying she's frustrated and disheartened by the often cold, resentful behavior directed toward her. Although she wants to love and care for her family, to be close to each of her siblings (and their spouses), this becomes quite challenging as the years pass, and she has numerous difficulties with her sister, Shirley, in particular. Apart from the intense struggles between Jaclyn and Shirley (and other family members), another aspect of the story that broke my heart was the denial of the existence of the Holocaust during their visit to Germany. Many people acted as if it had never happened, and the concentration camps were cleaned up and altered, giving a false impression to visitors. Although the truth is painful to behold, we cannot and should not deny or minimize the existence of the Holocaust.

A powerful story about struggle and survival on many levels, what makes it even more potent is that it's true, and the author has spent years researching the impact of World War II on survivors and their families.
Jeannette Katzir is a natural storyteller, and the story flows well. The book is painfully honest at times, and although some family issues remain puzzling and unresolved, I do think this book is an important, personal look at the lasting and damaging effects of the Holocaust on families.

Special thanks to Jeannette Katzir for sending me this book. For more reviews of Broken Birds please visit the bookworm and Diary of an Eccentric.


  1. Our family visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC a few years ago, I found it very depressing, I had to have my Granddaughter guide me out of it, and I waited in the lobby until the rest of the family toured it. Therefore, I know I would never be able to read this book, even if I tried. Your review of the book was nice, and told me all I needed to know about the book.

  2. My parents lived through the Depression and that affected me and my sister - not too badly mind you. I can just imagine how living through something like the Holocaust would affect your family for all time. It would be devastating. Wonderful review.

  3. I have a copy of this one too just haven't found time to get to it. The Holocaust is something that even though it's painful to read must not be forgotten. It's amazing how all these years later the ripple effect it still has on people's lives.

  4. I will have to keep this book in mind. It sounds very compelling. Thanks.

  5. Like you, I am so troubled by the Holocaust that I have a hard time gearing up to read my own sent copy of this novel. We can't deny the facts, but it's still hard to face them. I'll never forget visiting the Anne Frank museum/house in Amsterdam when I was 8, it caused me to be sympathetic to others for the rest of my life. My husband and brother visited Dachau when we lived in Germany, but I couldn't bring myself to go.

    I'm intrigued by the family relationships you point out in this novel. Those, in themselves, can be difficult enough in the best of situations!

  6. Great review. I thought this was an excellent book.

  7. Great review, as always, Suko. Holocaust stories, as you say, are reminders of how savagely we can treat another human and what we are capable of, on a destructive level.

    I am sure I will want to read this one.

  8. On the one hand I find myself disliking all these true life stories that are around - stories of battered woman and abused children - but on the other, find myself fascinated by memoirs like this. Why that is, I don't know.

    Thanks for an honest review of what sounds like a heart wrenching story.

  9. I want to thank you Suko's NOtebook for taking the time to read my book AND for writing such a lovely review. For those of you who are concerned that this book is ALL holocaust, please be rest assured that the I felt that in order for you to understand my mother's actions you had to know her background. The book itself is about my family and about families where loyalties are strained, broken and remade . . . sometimes. I feel that while it might not resonate with all families, there are many many that will understand our oddities. Thank you again Suko!

  10. Though I am a little burnt out on WWII lit, this one sounds very different, and like something that I would really like to read. It's interesting to me that this book deals with the next generation and that it focuses so tightly on the mother's struggles to return to some semblance of normalcy after the horrific childhood she had during the war. I would be really, really interested in reading this one, and am going to have to add it to my reading list. Thank you, Suko for an incredibly penetrating and thoughtful review!

  11. Thank you all for taking the time to read my review and post your comments. Jeannette, I look forward to reading more of your work in the future.

    Additional comments welcomed. :)

  12. Great review Suko. I enjoyed this one as well.
    I thought that was awful and unbelieveable how they tried to clean up the concentration camps to make it seem like it never really happened. Thanks for the mention :)

  13. This sounds like a powerful gripping read and you really gave it a beautiful review. Well done Suko.

  14. This sounds like a very powerful book-sadly one could now graduate from college world wide and have never heard of the holocaust

  15. Naida, you're quite welcome. Your review of Broken Birds is excellent.

    Vivienne, thank you!

    Mel, this is a powerful and important book. Thanks for stopping by.

  16. I was offered this book for review but I dodged it. I know the holocaust is absolutely horrible, but I feel I have watched and read so much about it that I kinda avoid anything that touches the subject lately. Good that you liked this book Suko!

  17. The book sounds very interesting. I try to read any book on the Holocaust that I can lay my hands on, even though as you say, they are sometimes painfully honest. You should try Witnesses of War by Nicholas Stargardt; a brutal read but one that taught me a lot.

  18. Mee, this book is not just about the Holocaust, as the author says, but the Holocaust is a central part of it. Thanks for stopping by.

    Vaishnavi, I will keep an eye out for Witnesses of War. Thanks for your suggestion.

  19. I can tell how much this book affected you, and you summed it up brilliantly. Thanks for linking to my review, and I will add your review to War Through the Generations.

  20. Thank you, Anna! It's because of your review of this book that the author contacted me. :)

  21. Excellent review, Suko! I, too, have great trouble with books about the Holocaust (so this one sits,patiently, by my chair & on the blog's sidebar) though its effect on later generations is what sets this book apart. As you so rightly say we cannot and should not deny or minimize the existence of the Holocaust. That there are people who do so is beyond my comprehension.
    This is a brave book; you have served it well.
    Thank you.


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