Off the bat, I have to confess that I have a definite penchant for Holocaust literature. I like to think that this emanates from a sense of awe and inspiration for the resilience of the human spirit. And so there was no heaviness in my heart when I was asked to review Angela Miller-Rothbart’s debut novel, The Lightness of Air.
A serendipitous author, Miller-Rothbart – a newly retired businesswoman with time to fill – simultaneously joined a writing group and a Jewish Seniors Association in her hometown in South Africa, and found through indulging her longing to write with her desire to meet new people, a muse named Henia Bryer. She admits that this “journey and a half” was both therapeutic and cathartic, and I can only imagine how powerful and releasing it was for Henia too.
A Holocaust survivor still living in Cape Town, Henia was born in 1925, is an extremely private person, and many of her stories had hitherto been untold. Angela was completely captivated by the stories Henia told her, and describes how she felt exposed to living history: she could almost taste the food prepared in Henia’s home, visualize the clothes her mother brought back from Venice, and smell the leather of her father’s factory. So vivid was the storytelling that the characters moved into her head, her heart and ultimately onto the written page.
A fictitious tale built on a real Holocaust survivor's stories
Using the trajectory of Henia’s life, but weaving a fictitious tale based on a character named Helena Jablonski, Angela creates a multi-textural and completely absorbing tapestry that spans several decades, transporting the reader from 1945 and war-ravaged Poland to vibrant Paris and magical New York to Israel, the Jewish homeland, and the new democratic South Africa emerging out of apartheid.
Angela explains that this is actually a post-Holocaust book, as she could never retell the horrors of the Nazi death camps, and deliberately chose to write from the moment of liberation onward, with only occasional poignant references to the camps.
Helena quickly insinuated herself into my heart, and I wholeheartedly joined her on her journey back in time, drawn into her compelling story of loss, survival and ultimately, happiness.
Along the way, she reunites with Sofia, her childhood friend, and meets Rachel, a fellow survivor, and Max, a young American volunteer. We follow her on her travels through space and time, and experience the highs and lows of her tumultuous life.
This is quintessentially a heartwarming tale of friendship, love and courage both on the pages and off, a wonderful testimony to both Henia and Angela in their belief to immortalize the “Never again/Lest we forget” mantras that we cannot afford to be allowed to be erased with the diminishing number of Holocaust survivors.
“As Helena struggled through the smog of illness, memories surfaced unbidden, wrapping themselves around her,” Miller-Rothbart writes. “The longing for her family and the security of her world on Polna Street drew her into an abyss of melancholy.
“And yet her desire to live was charged by the belief that she was destined to chronicle to the world the atrocities that had been inflicted on an innocent and helpless people. She would live to tell the world. A world that stood silently by, watching – complicit.”
“Her desire to live was charged by the belief that she was destined to chronicle to the world the atrocities that had been inflicted on an innocent and helpless people. She would live to tell the world. A world that stood silently by, watching – complicit.”Angela Miller-Rothbart
It is difficult to read these words and remain unemotional, particularly at the thought of the Ukrainian-Russian war and travesty of justice taking place there today. There is a heartbreaking documentary of Henia Bryer’s life entitled Prisoner Number A26188, which is definitely worth watching after reading this book. As the book promises, her extraordinary journey lingers in your memory long after you turn the last page. ■
The Lightness of AirAngela Miller-RothbartNewly Media, 2022230 pages; $24 dollars