“It was a very interesting, unusual experience,” Bitton-Jackson says. That statement, I think, describes her life.
Memo to the New York Public Library: I’m sorry that I still haven’t returned several books by Livia Bitton-Jackson. They are a series of vibrant, touching memoirs of a young girl navigating her way through the world, both literally and on an emotional plane; the stories of a Holocaust survivor with wanderlust in a world that doesn’t want to hear it are not easy to part with.
Livia Bitton-Jackson has done so much in her life and her rich experiences and thirst for life imbues her voice, both in real life and in her books. Her books do what so few memoirs can do. They transport you, not in your imagination, but in your soul. That is a feat for any author but with Holocaust memoirs, it is met with particular resistance, at least by me, to relate to anything so horrific.
This is Bitton-Jackson’s genius. We see how unbelievable the progression of events was in her eyes. Bitton-Jackson hardly believes what is happening to her. Arriving in Auschwitz, when she sees the other prisoners, she believes the concentration camp must be an insane asylum. Otherwise, who are all these people with shaved heads and gray dresses?
Bitton-Jackson’s humanity remains intact. Her first concern is not surviving but taking care of her mother. In an exceptional move, Joseph Mengele, the doctor responsible for selecting who will live and who will die, puts Bitton-Jackson and her mother in the same line although Bitton-Jackson is only 13 and officially a child. Her mother, not realizing that her life is being spared for the moment, fights it. She wants to go with her sister, Serena.
Bitton-Jackson, after surviving several camps and tremendous terrors with her mother, makes her way from a war-torn Europe to the United States. The trip itself takes six years and much ingenuity. In the absence of money, Bitton-Jackson has ambition and drive. It is the topic of one of her young adult books, My Bridges of Hope.
At the beginning of her story, Bitton-Jackson, like all children, is unsure of herself, and compares herself to her revered older brother, Bubi, this way, “Bubi has ability, and I only have ambition.” The consolation she receives from her father proves prescient, “You can sometimes accomplish more with ambition than ability.”
After making her way to New York City without so much as graduating from elementary school, Bitton-Jackson manages to finish school, including college and a Ph.D., while teaching and raising a family. Along the way, of course, there are also Bitton-Jackson’s six extraordinary memoirs. They are exhausting but utterly charming at the hands of a born poet and embracer of life.
As if that is not enough, Bitton-Jackson has written another memoir about yet another incredible journey. “When my mother was 90,” she explains, “she got the news that they were building a dam on the Danube and she thought the Jewish cemetery would be flooded and her parents were buried there. Her mother said, “The rest of my family went up like smoke in Auschwitz and now my parents will be swept away by the waters of the Danube. I want to save their remains and bring them to Yerushalayim. If you could accomplish that, it will be the greatest thing in my life.”
Bitton-Jackson and her husband did just that. From 1978-1980 they worked on getting the papers and traveled there themselves. The couple had gravediggers but there was no Chevra Kadisha so they did it themselves. The book is also infused with the story of the Shoah in flashbacks. “We brought the remains to Har HaMenuchot and my mother is buried next to her mother,” Bitton-Jackson concludes.
Bitton-Jackson is a poet. From early childhood she wrote poetry and includes a poignant story in I Have Lived a Thousand Years, where she painstakingly copies her poems into a special notebook while living in the Jewish ghetto. Soon, along with the other ghetto inhabitants, she is ordered to give up all her books and Bitton-Jackson is loathe to give up the notebook. In a book of dozens of braveries, big and small, Bitton-Jackson confides in one of the Hungarian officers and hands him the notebook to be returned after the war.
I imagine the inner life of a poet to be close and internally focused. Bitton-Jackson herself is open. She is open to life and open to others as I imagine a memoirist ought to be. Her books share her secrets and ambitions, her dreams and her hopes. It is an incredible journey.
Sometimes, while reading of a life specially lived, I get the feeling that there is an emptiness in that life, something that the one who lives it [liver] is searching for frantically. I don’t get that feeling with Bitton-Jackson.
At the core of her life, at the center, is the Holocaust – what greater emptiness can there be than that? Bitton-Jackson’s optimism is palpable yet real. She is not trying to erase the past. Indeed, writing about it would be an odd way to accomplish that.
I also don’t get the feeling that she lives her life in rebuke to the Nazis. While I imagine that the experience of the death camps is one that always remains present, it seems less a bitter trace in her life than a tragic reality that must be continuously faced.
It helps to have purpose. During the war, her driving impulse was to keep her mother close and alive. Having achieved what so few had, in part thanks to the evil Mengele, Bitton-Jackson is determined not to be separated from her mother and later, her brother.
Another driving force is Bitton-Jackson’s palpable love of Israel. Indeed her dream is revealed soon after she returns to her hometown in the post-war period. Bitton-Jackson only wants to go to [what is then] Palestine to live among her people. It is a testament to her that she will not separate from her mother and brother and puts that dream on hold. She travels to America and acts as an interpreter on the journey. This reveals her other devotion – her family.
If Bitton-Jackson’s purposes are her family and the State of Israel, her life-blood is learning and education. Even as a child, Bitton-Jackson thirsts to learn more and studies hard at school. Every new nugget of information is eagerly digested. One of the most exciting parts of Hello, America is at Bitton-Jackson’s cousin Judy’s house. Judy holds a weekly debate society on Friday nights and Bitton-Jackson is both excited and nervous. Will she keep up with the educated and thinking young adults? She does and is happily accepted. “The debate grows livelier as the hours slip by,” she writes, continuing, “Secretly, I resolve to emulate these young Americans so I can become part of their world.”
Clearly, I am not the only one to be inspired. Besides the numerous awards won for her books, a group of students from Omaha, Neb., read one of her young adult books, I Have Lived A Thousand Years, and raised approximately $10,000 to fly her in. “The kids went out and raised the money and when I told them that I eat only kosher, they got in touch with Chabad and they got involved,” Bitton-Jackson tells me. Bitton-Jackson spoke in the Durham museum to a packed audience, as well as a medical school.