Inspirational life paths

Breathtaking stories of how Holocaust survivors rebuilt their lives.

Binem Wrzonski (photo credit: FRANÇOISE OUZAN)
Binem Wrzonski
(photo credit: FRANÇOISE OUZAN)
“How Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt Their Lives, France, The United States, and Israel“ by Françoise Ouzan brilliantly demonstrates the transformation of individuals from victims to social actors in three distinct countries. But it’s so much more. It raises a number of questions that are meaningful to us. How do people learn through the journey of life stories and rise above their own personal traumas, regardless of the nature of the trauma?  How do people transform emotional wounds into personal and social achievements?
From the moment I started reading the book, I was taken in from the first page and simply couldn’t put it down.
Ouzan, who received her PhD in history from the Sorbonne is a Senior Research Associate at the Goldstein-Goren Research Center of Tel Aviv University. She has published numerous essays on postwar Jewish refugees, and a historical novel.
Ouzan’s latest book is written in the form of approximately 40 individual first-person stories, gathered via investigative interviewing that took place over the course of more than 2 decades.  Each story is more breathtaking than the next. A rocket scientist, surgeon, worldwide published author, assistant to a US president, and many more.... are just a few examples of the many interviews and testimonies.  As I read this book I came to realize that if those who went through the darkest of times could survive, thrive and succeed in the grandest sense, then their courage could inspire a universe of people regardless of where they are from. 
At first blush, the book may initially appear to be written for scholars, academics, Holocaust survivors and remaining generations.  That’s certainly true, and that population of people will benefit from these stories of survival and growth.  However, I write this review as a “layperson” who has turned to the studies of the Holocaust to understand about the strength and endurance that was and is required, and to continue to educate and apply those learnings to myself.
Each and every tale tells the story of extraordinary resilience and courage.  Their stories are catalysts that caused me to stop and reflect on lessons learned from my own arc of personal history that curve towards the inspiration gained from these rare interviews.  “When you look at art, you also see yourself.”
In Ouzan’s book, the way emotions can be turned to constructive purposes rather than succumbing to grief is well documented. For instance, the gripping story of former hidden child Serge Klarsfeld who became a French historian and a lawyer exemplifies how emotional wounds can be transformed into a mission of a whole life: being both a Nazi hunter and transmitting the memory of the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Still in France, the life trajectory of former hidden child and philosopher André Glucksmann shows the reader that once dominated and channeled the anger of a whole life can be turned into a professional achievement. In that perspective, the life story of French neuro-psychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik ‘s throws light on the role of shame in his professional achievement and his desire to turn his past humiliation into something useful for his patients and society as a whole.
This intimate and inspiring book provides details on how the characters of the survivors’ host countries made a difference for them. It is fascinating to read how some women survivors managed to upset traditional social patterns.  Auschwitz survivor Simone Veil fought for women’s rights. As a French Health Minister, she legalized abortion and enjoyed a transnational social influence.  In the United States, psychologist Ruth Westheimer was integrated into American society to the point that she became famous as Dr Ruth. Millions of listeners and viewers have benefitted from her advice on sexuality. In Israel, examples include Auschwitz survivor and Israeli dancer Yehudit Arnon. 
Ouzan points out that both men and women survivors claimed that their real achievement was their reconfigured family enriched by grandchildren.  They also proved the strength of a major Jewish commandment – choosing life, making the most out of it by fulfilling a self-imposed mission.
The last sentence of the book sums up the universality of these 40 stories to soul searchers. “May their inspirational life paths benefit anyone coping with trauma and light the torch of the uprooted searching for concrete goals as an anchor in a tormented world.”
Françoise Ouzan’s brilliant writing, the stories of survival of the people she writes about, and the arc their lives took over time will stay with me forever. These portraits will impact readers and soul searchers today.  Her writing shines light to the world through the individual stories of people who came through darkness and showed us the way. It will certainly remain a book of courage, strength and inspiration.