web analytics
August 28, 2015 / 13 Elul, 5775
At a Glance
Sponsored Post

Home » InDepth

From The Snare Of Death To A Full Life: Re-Reading The Memoirs Of Livia Bitton-Jackson

   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.


   And yet.


   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.


   “It was a very interesting, unusual experience,” Bitton-Jackson says. That statement, I think, describes her life.

About the Author: Shoshana Batya Greenwald recently received a master's degree in decorative arts, material culture and design history from Bard Graduate Center. She is the collections manager at Kleinman Family Holocaust Educational Center (KFHEC) and a freelance writer.

If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “From The Snare Of Death To A Full Life: Re-Reading The Memoirs Of Livia Bitton-Jackson”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton.
Sen. Cotton to Visit Israel for More Ammunition against Iran Deal
Latest Indepth Stories
Ben Cohen

Corbyn leading the Britain’s Labour Party polls, describes Hamas & Hizbullah as England’s “friends.”

PA Chairman Abbas proudly celebrating with released terrorists.

The convicted murderer was released from Israeli prison with more than two dozen other sociopaths

New Israel Fund

JCF is a donor/supporter of The New Israel Fund which supports BDS & wants IDF soldiers prosecuted

Moshe Feiglin

The ‘Peace Industry’ promotes its adherents; weak leaders, both military & political, is the result

The conundrum for US Labor Zionists: Lobbying for Iran deal while Israel’s Left lobby’s against it.

What does the Torah want from our small nation described as “they who struggle with God & with men”?

Mr. Nadler’s support for the deal is a naked political gift to a president who has defied logic in his quest to reinvent international affairs according to his ideological inclinations.

In practical terms, the proclamation surely makes a compelling argument:

BDS activists are not shy about discriminating against Israelis simply because they are Israelis –

A Federal Ct Judge ordered the PA to post JUST $10 million due to interfering letter from State Dept

Osakwe, like many other students at the CAMERA conference, described an extremely hostile campus environment when it comes to the issue of Israel.

Many people view a letter or manuscript by a chassidic rebbe or the Chofetz Chaim as intrinsically holy.

Key Iran Lobby figures had been major donors to both Biden and Kerry when they were in the Senate,

Abbas’ resignation has now sparked speculation about who will fill his place if and ‎when he leaves

More Articles from Shoshana Batya Greenwald
A still from film "Memory After Belsen"

The most uplifting aspect of the film was the footage from the displaced persons camps.

Undated photo of Rabbi Avigdor, courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford.

People often ask me why do we need another Holocaust center? The story of Isaac Avigdor is the answer.

This time of year, there is little pleasure greater than cozying up with a good book. The problem is, of course, that there is a lot to do.

As professions go, an international children’s rights advocate is probably not listed anywhere as a low stress job. Fighting on behalf of children in places as far off as Sudan, Yvette Garfield took their plight to heart and came up with – a cookbook. Handstand Kids, Garfield’s company, was established in 2007 to connect children in a global community. In her words, “I had done a lot of traveling and wanted to introduce kids to the world and food seemed the best way to do it.”

On my third visit to the annual New York Botanical Garden Orchid Show, I did not take any pictures.

Work-life balance has been in the media a lot lately. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor who served as the first female Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department, wrote a groundbreaking article in The Atlantic entitled “Women Can’t Have It All.” Slaughter writes about her struggle with balance—parenting and working, and the importance of being present, as well as the importance of absolute boundaries between work and parenting. As evidence—both of the compartmentalizing men are capable of and as an example of the type of behavior women should engage in more, Slaughter writes about Orthodox men she has worked with: “Come Friday at sundown, they were unavailable because of the Jewish Shabbat.”

Now, only months after the artist’s death, is no time to be coy. Moshe Givati’s work is a revelation: dynamic, throbbing with life, pulsating with meaning. The exhibition “Equus Ambiguity – The Emergence of Maturity,” is up for only a few more days but I urge you to hurry to the Jadite Gallery and familiarize yourself with this under-recognized artist.

It’s time for the next chapter in the re-education of kosher cooks. First came correctly pronouncing quinoa, incorporating edamame into salads and soups, and who can forget the strawberry mango salad? Now, there is a mass of new recipes available with the introduction of Kolatin, a parve bovine-based, kosher gelatin. Espresso panna cotta, here we come.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/from-the-snare-of-death-to-a-full-life-re-reading-the-memoirs-of-livia-bitton-jackson/2009/08/12/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: