When she was 12 years old, Channa Perschowski was fighting the Nazis in the woods of Poland. What she saw, what she and her brother did to survive --- she put all that behind her when she came to America in 1947. "There were thousands of people who were killed," she'd say, when asked about the Holocaust. "And if thousands were being killed, I could bear the loss of my family."
And when you're 18 and beautiful, even if you're an immigrant with an unimaginable past, New York is fun. Channa worked at Woolworth's, took English classes at night, went to the movies on weekends. And she kept at her real job: finding a husband. Channa had a good figure; in her two-piece bathing suit, she strolled the Coney Island boardwalk on weekend afternoons, hoping to meet a young, handsome man with a future.
Nathan Poltzer was that man. Three years older than Channa, he had survived Auschwitz and Dachau. When they met at a dance in Brooklyn, they both felt a strong attraction. His career wasn't what she might have hoped --- he was basically unemployed until they married, then he became a meat cutter --- but he was lean and muscular, with a neat moustache. They married in 1950 and began their life together in a third-floor flat. There was no honeymoon because they had no money.
By 1957, they had a family. And they had a dream --- a house with a yard, a life in the sun. They moved to Los Angeles, bought a Spanish-style house, enrolled their kids in schools within walking distance.
But there was no happy ending in their new beginning. You don't, it turns out, jettison the Holocaust --- or any searing childhood experience --- just by moving 3,000 miles. You carry it with you. And if you avoid facing it, dealing with it, accepting the damage it's done, you pass it on, in a new language, to the next generation.
Forty agents rejected "Broken Birds" [to buy the paperback from Amazon.com, click here; Kindle lovers, click here] because, the author told me, they thought it was a Holocaust book --- "and as soon as you say Holocaust, it's like they hold up the cross." I understand; every Jew who survived the concentration camps has a story, and many have written it. Here the World War II childhoods of Channa and Nathan are the book's first hundred pages. I doubt that many agents, if any, read the next 275 pages.
What they missed is the equally astonishing story of a second Holocaust: what a loving but damaged mother does to her husband and her five children, both while she's alive and after her death, thanks to a will that is so irrational and cruel it inspires four years of litigation. Jeannette Katzir --- Channa's second child and first daughter, born in 1954 --- may not be a professional writer, but she's a natural storyteller. Determined to work through her shock and pain, she wades through every betrayal and abuse without any concern for her siblings' reaction. [She has, however, changed everyone's name, hers included.] It's a jaw-dropping litany, a world of hurt.
Think your family is dysfunctional? Step aside. Jeannette makes a good marriage to Gol, a hard-working Israeli who is completely devoted to her. How long do you think it takes for her less capable and, she says, less ethical relatives to want to be Gol's business partner? He can't say no. And how long do you think it takes for those relatives to grab customers for themselves and forget to pay their debts to Gol?
But it's the matriarch, not her children, who is at the center of this drama. To disobey Channa was not just to do wrong, it was to threaten the survival of the relationship. She was so needy, so afraid of betrayal, that she spent all the decades of her marriage worrying that Nathan --- who adored her --- was leaving her for another woman. His protests went unheard. He was not of her blood, he was not family. And this wasn't just rhetoric:
Mom routinely sat with Shlomo [her third child], spewing out poison about Dad --- how he was never to be trusted, how he was a chameleon, willing to side with any stranger, how he was gifted with powers of clairvoyance, which in Dad's case was not a compliment. She was sure that he knew when he loaned the money to her brother Isaac for the property up in the Catskills that Isaac would never pay it back.
Rarely do we meet a mother as loving, unconscious and destructive as Channa. When Jeannette was 19, her mother gave her advice about dating: "If you want to catch a boy, you need to look trashier." When Jeannette married, Channa dispensed darker wisdom: "Don't invest yourself too much in your marriage. But don't you dare lose your husband, because after you have children and get fat, who will want you? No one. Always let him love you more, and never really trust him." Decades later, she confided that Jeanette and Gol's business successes didn't make her happy:
"I need you to need me."
I could not believe my ears. "But Mom, I will always need you."
"But I can't help you. Your problems are too big for me."
In memoirs about Christian families in America --- and in all the suburban novels I can think of --- dysfunction is smothered in a blanket of silence and denial. These Jews hold nothing back. Before he proposes to his girlfriend Brenda, Jeannette's brother Steven introduces her to his family. His sisters warn him: "She's not right for you. She'll crack your balls with her bare teeth."
Next up for Steven and Brenda: a dinner with both sets of parents. Brenda's parents wear tennis bracelets and Ralph Lauren, talk about their country club. "In Mom's world," Jeannette writes, "if a single color was good, then a flurry of brilliant reds, blues and yellows was always better. For this meeting, Mom chose a vibrant polyester button-down blouse with oversized flowers. Her pants sort of matched, and her sandals coordinated with her purse...sort of." Not exactly dressing for success.
At another pre-engagement dinner with another Poltzer sister, Brenda had too much to drink and unleashed opinions about her future mother-in law that were best left private: "I am so sick of hearing about the Holocaust." And then Channa topped them all with some marital advice for Brenda: "In order to stay married, you must be willing to take a little abuse." Physical abuse, that is. Which, she told Brenda, she and Jeannette and Shirley had all experienced --- a lie, and Channa knew it.
Other siblings, other problems. So their kids can attend better public schools, Jeanette and Gol ask her sister Shirley if they can use her address as their own --- an arrangement that works until Shirley rats them out to the School Board. Shirley's explanation: "If you want your kids in this school district so badly, why don't you just buy a house over here instead of using my address?" Livid, Jeannette rushed to tell her mother. But Channa had a mantra for her kids' conflicts: Family is all-important, turn the other cheek. So she told Jeannette, "It doesn't matter. It is better your children are sad than to lose your sister."
When Jeannette is 50, Channa dies. This is a family in which "love equals money" --- better believe that her children suddenly feel lost and are eager to lash out at one another. The final hundred pages of "Broken Birds" are thrust and parry, insult and body blow. It's nasty, nasty stuff, and yet I didn't turn away. And not because I'm a voyeur; in that game, I'm an amateur. But stories are life, distilled; as a collector of stories, I'm All Pro, and so, I'd bet, are most of you. And when the storyteller is gifted, our capacity to hear them expands.
A good book usually answers all my questions. Not this time --- I needed to talk with Jeannette Katzir. "I started writing soon after Mom died," she told me. "I was in so much pain, I had to write while everything was fresh. Then when things started to go sour, I wrote and wrote." When she was finished, she hired an editor, who pumped the manuscript up to 600 pages, and then another editor, who cut it. Last year, when no agent would represent her, she published the book herself; she found typos in it, pulped that edition, made corrections, and released it again. She's sent it to every Jewish book club she can find on the web and to a handful of reviewers.
Yes, but what about the ultimate reviewers: her family? "My father hasn't read it, and I'm not going to suggest that he does," she told me. "One brother and sister have read it, and they couldn't be prouder of me. I think Steven and Shirley know about the book, but they're waiting. If it's successful, I think they'll swoop in and want money --- they'll sue."
Six years have passed since Channa died, two since the issues of her will were resolved. Has the family healed? "These rifts --- it's not that they can't heal, they shouldn't," Jeannette told me. "I can't trust Steven. And Shirley is too dangerous. She's my cocaine --- when I'm near her, I shake."
Her conclusion: "The pull of family is so strong." That's a heartbreaking takeaway when a family is this dysfunctional. Yes, but the book left me more hopeful than despairing. First, it's a service to all those who suffer from sibling rivalry and unfair parents. It's proof that self-published books can be page-turners. And, most of all, this is a story of loss that becomes a story of triumph.
It's lonely for Jeannette without her toxic brother and sister, but having cut them out of the family, she's closer now to her other brother and sister. Her husband and children are a delight. She understands and misses her mother. And she sees more books ahead.
I can't help but think of the Lennon/McCartney song:
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.
The New York publishing world may not know she exists, but this is Jeannette Katzir's moment.
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