On My Way to Someplace Else by Sandra Hurtes

January 15, 2013 by  
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On-My-Way-300-x-460On My Way to Someplace Else begins with liberation, on the day Russian soldiers entered Auschwitz and set Rifka and her fellow prisoners free. “A handsome soldier lifted my mother off her feet and although she was just skin and bones, he kissed her cheeks and told her she was beautiful,” writes Sandra Hurtes. It’s a rare and precious moment of joy, quickly followed by excruciating agony.

Beyond mere hunger, Rifka ran to the commissary, “only to find the food sealed in cans, except for mustard, which my mother loved. She cupped her hands and drank the mustard like soup. Her stomach became distended…She was rolling on the floor in pain. She believed she would die.” The irony is palpable. Yet Rifka survived and, Hurtes writes, “reclaimed herself.”

The author’s parents, beautiful and vivacious Rifka, and serious, hard-working Bela, were Holocaust survivors. And that made all the difference to their only daughter — one of two children — whom they called Simala.

Sandra Hurtes is a friend of mine. I’ve read bits and pieces of her stories over several years. So, her first book of essays, On My Way to Someplace Else, isn’t entirely new ground for me. Yet, when I purchased a copy (real friends don’t ask for freebies), I was instantly drawn into the world she once inhabited.

Hurtes’ father, too, had been a prisoner of the Nazis. For young Simala, the mere fact of her existence as their daughter was a lifelong responsibility, unlike that of any other “average American” I know. What I didn’t understand until reading her book was why. She writes,

[T]he legacy I carry as the child of survivors is a formidable one.

When I was growing up I desperately wanted to restore the happiness so bitterly stolen from my parents’ lives. I was a good daughter and almost never made waves…but as they placed all their hopes and dreams for the future in my hands, they created a horrible dilemma for me—how would I ever separate from them when separation to them felt like grave loss and abandonment?

What she feels in response to the loving stranglehold of parents so afraid of losing her to a life of her own is anger and resentment. Even with a therapist guiding her, her fervent love and loyalty for her parents render her unable to separate from them. This mixture of emotions and forceful personalities led the author to a state of all-consuming guilt.

On My Way to Someplace Else isn’t just a memoir about how the Holocaust shaped the author. It is also about fighting for her right to have a life of her own, unencumbered by the pain and fears that she absorbed from her parents.

Hurtes grew up conscious of “the foreboding knowledge that a life can be destroyed in a moment.” She writes, “When I was ten my parents took me to the Loew’s on Pitkin Avenue to see a documentary that had actual footage of the war. It was called Mein Kampf. The pictures then became indelibly engraved in my mind. I would never forget the sight of bodies, skinnier than nails, heaped one on top of the other, among them even children. I loyally mourned for them and for all the lives that were no more.

“I lay in my bed at night and thought about death and how it felt to walk into an oven big enough to hold people. I would hold my breath and wonder how it felt to be baked alive.”

In “Can a Jewish Girl Let Go of Suffering?” Hurtes writes about a 1990s study of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children of Holocaust survivors.

I decided to take a test the researchers were offering to determine if I had a deficiency of cortisol, a hormone that helps people deal with stress. However, halfway through the interview I bolted out the door, terrified that in telling personal details about my family, something awful would happen.

Soon after, this same fear stared me down when I published “A Daughter’s Legacy.” I was so certain a Nazi living in New York would seek me out to kill me, I almost pulled the article. For weeks after it was published, each time I walked into my apartment building I clenched my shoulders imagining a bullet flying toward me.

In “A Soaking Reign: For Some, Taking a Bath Is the Best,” first published in The Washington Post, Hurtes writes, “My mother could never erase the memory of the showers of Auschwitz. And so, she never adopted Americans’ love for showers.” She took baths, and instilled in her daughter a love of baths that goes beyond functional cleaning.

Hurtes’ mother was a local beauty, known for her laugh, her charm, her immaculate makeup and clothing, and a vivaciousness that belied the gaping wound in her soul. To the world, she was the perfect picture of the successful immigrant, yet she ached inside — profoundly.

The need to heal her mother and conform to parental expectations took a toll on Hurtes’ early marriage. It also left her feeling empty and confused as she looked ahead to the new life she might create. Would she remain unmarried and child free? Become a single mom? Marry again and bring her parents the grandchildren they ached for, in the traditional way they wanted?

On My Way to Someplace Else also explores Hurtes’ adulthood, which is filled with longing for closeness while she pushes away those who want to draw her in. In “Keeping Alive the Dreams of Love,” first published in the New York Times, she finally finds a man with whom she believes there will be a loving future. A twist of fate, and everything changes. As a reader, I rode the emotional roller coaster with her, and the story sticks with me like the memory of a long climb uphill and a headlong rush to the ground.

Other threads run through the book — knitting, work, and dating — each woven skillfully into the fabric of Hurtes’ story. This collection of memoirs is cohesive, yet varied. Twenty-one of the 26 stories previously appeared in such respected publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and a variety of Jewish publications, including The Jewish Press and The Los Angeles Jewish Journal. This is quality writing that offers us quality reading, exploring a world many of us do not know. When we lay the book down and resume our lives, we are richer for the shared experience.

Julia Wasson



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