For those who grew up with parents and/or other family members who were Holocaust survivors, they have lived their entire lives accompanied by the Holocaust as if it were an additional living, breathing family member; a shadow cousin perhaps, always lurking in the background, ready to pounce at any given moment. Ask me, I know all about it. I’m a 2nd generation survivor, or as we’re now called … a ‘Descendant’.
Incidentally, I found the title interesting, linked to the notion of escape, being a Descendant and the fact that one canot escape one’s past or one’s roots. You see, I have a phobia about whales! I kid you not! It’s a real thing. Look it up, it’s called Cetaphobia. I know that here the whale is a figurative one, and when you read the book, you’ll understand where the connection comes in. But still, I found the title immensely fascinating.
For me, this was an intense and emotional read. The main character Marcia, is a school guidance counselor, having evolved from previously being a teacher. She seems to spend the majority of her time dealing with pregnant teens. She doesn’t call her Mom as often as she should, has pretty typical run-ins with her sister over the boyfriend that nobody likes, and continues her relationship with her own long-term boyfriend Jason, who everyone adores (although people do tend to wonder why they aren’t living together).
But what Marcia is hiding from everyone is that she is actually, slowly and quietly, but quite definitely, losing her grip on any sort of emotional stability she once had. She is beginning to lack the ability to cope with any of the shocking news that she is hearing and seeing in the world around her – rather difficult when the Iran hostage crisis is a daily reminder of the harsh realities of life. It’s front and centre of every news bulletin and it’s all everyone can talk about. Add to that the constant background nagging of her upbringing and her mother’s incessant stories about what she’d been through, it’s no wonder that Marcia is craving some sort of escape from her own head!
This is an in-depth study of spiralling mental illness and the lengths that an individual will go to, to hide it from others. The numerous studies done into the lives and upbringings experienced by descendants of survivors discuss trauma, or secondary trauma extensively: a form of post traumatic stress. This is surely what Marcia is experiencing. Her specific need to protect her mother from what she is feeling is indicative of so many second generation survivors who desperately feel that they cannot let their parents down or disappoint them in any way. So Marcia constantly tries to do the right thing, hold down her acceptable job, stay with her lovely boyfriend … all the while, screaming for a different life for herself … a life that is less safe, and vastly ‘other’ than what everyone expects from her.
Roskowitz perfectly depicts so many of the complex issues experienced by 2nd generation survivors, and she portrays them so well that I found it uncannily chilling. Those who have absolutely none of their own knowledge or experience of the subject will gain a vivid picture of what life is like for those who have grown up in a post-Holocaust home, together with survivors.
This a 5-star read that should be added to the list of vital reading for those with an interest in Holocaust literature. It is made even more interesting by it’s highly original plot and in its distinctively different storyline.
Many thanks to Random Things Tours for inviting me on this highly unique blog tour. Take a look at what other book bloggers had to say about Escaping the Whale …
Ruth Rotkowitz is a second-generation child – the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Austria. This has informed much of her research and writing. She has published fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in a variety of anthologies and literary journals, and was a staff writer and member of the editorial board of the (now-defunct) Woman’s Newspaper of Princeton, winning awards for many of her feature articles. She holds a B.A. and M.A. in English and has taught English on both the college and high school levels. She currently leads book talks in the Phoenix, Arizona area, where she lives with her husband.