Unsettled refugees

Through a daughter’s search for her survivor mother’s story, Nancy Richler paints a vivid picture of the Jewish community in postwar Montreal

The Imposter Bride521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Imposter Bride521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘We can’t escape it… our need to know where we come from, to connect it to who we are, and where we’re going. That’s what makes us human, what sets us apart from all the other animals.”
In The Imposter Bride, two fragile yet strong women strive to understand who they are and what their connection is to each other. In insightful and flowing language, Nancy Richler, the Canadian Jewish author of Your Mouth is Lovely, has written a powerful story. It is the story of a young woman struggling between the weight of her losses and the strength of her need to create a new reality in a new land. It is the story of the woman who introduced herself as Lily Azerov, a name that was not really her own. At the same time, it is the story of her daughter, Ruthie, who searches for the truth about the mother who abandoned her as a small infant.
“Lily Azerov Kramer. She was not who she said she was.”
When Lily Azerov arrived in Montreal, she was alone. The world as she had known it had disappeared.
World War II was over and there was no one left in the world who had known her in her previous life. Lily had crossed two oceans to marry a man she had never met. When Sol Kramer, her intended husband, saw her at the train station, he changed his mind instantly. His brother, Nathan, felt so badly about Sol’s behavior that he decided to marry her himself. It was a decision based on pity that became an abiding love.
The Imposter Bride, set in postwar Montreal, is an intricate tapestry of family and identity, love and loss, secrets and searching. Alternating between Lily’s story and Ruthie’s story, the book reveals two lives that unfold independently yet remain connected by a fragile thread. Lily marries Nathan, a good, loving man, but finds the adjustment to her new life a daunting challenge. She trudges through her days, the loss of her family and all that was familiar to her a heavy burden. Even a baby daughter cannot make her feel that her new life is real. Although she tries to make this new life her own, she cannot balance the secret of her real identity with the Lily who married Nathan and is trying to be a wife and mother in Montreal.
She adopted the name Lily Azerov at the end of the war, taking a false identity as a way to get out of Europe.
Whether she actually needed a false identity is debatable, but it was not an uncommon practice during those confusing times. She never intended to keep the name, but as her past life was gone forever, she began to feel that acquiring a new identity was the right way to begin a new one. The name started to feel like hers, so she kept it.
Lily not only took the identity card of the young woman whom she had found dead in a small town near the border between Poland and the Soviet Union; she also took a pair of old socks, a diary and a rough, uncut diamond.
The motif of the uncut diamond appears and reappears throughout the story, a mystery much like Lily herself. Interspersed between the story of mother and daughter are excerpts of the diary that Lily had found, which expresses the anguish and dreams of the girl whose identity she had stolen. During the months of her marriage to Nathan, Lily read the diary over and over again, feeling that the story of the original Lily was really her own story.
One day, when Ruthie is three months old, Lily goes out, ostensibly for a quart of milk, and disappears.
Despite her absent mother, Ruthie grows up in a loving household, raised by her father, Nathan, and an extended family that loves and cares for her. As a small child, she does not miss the mother whom she does not remember.
When, at the age of six, she receives a beautiful stone from her mother in the mail, she suddenly wants to know more. She knows the story of how her mother disappeared when she was an infant, as her father never wanted to hide the truth from her. Until then, she accepted it as a matter of family lore. Now Ruthie begins to imagine her mother as a real person, wondering why she left and if she will ever come back. As she grows up, she feels different from her friends because she is a girl without a mother. During these years, Lily sends her other stones, always with an attached note describing where the rock was found but never anything more. She remains an elusive mystery that cannot be solved.
As Lily and Ruthie struggle with their respective losses and longings, so do many of the relatives who play an important role in Ruthie’s life as she grows up – her father; her grandmother, Bella; her aunt Elka; and Elka’s mother, Ida Pearl. Each one of these characters has a story, and the stories create a backdrop to the mystery of Lily Azerov Kramer.
In The Imposter Bride, the reader enters the world of Jewish Montreal in the years following the war. Richler paints a vivid picture of the Jewish community as more and more Jewish refugees arrive in the city.
Many of Ruthie’s friends’ parents are Holocaust survivors who were affected in noticeable ways by their experiences in the war. Her best friend’s mother calls their teacher, who is prone to crying in class, a “damaged person.” Ruthie, who is searching for clues as to the whereabouts of her mother, begins to wonder if her mother had left because she, too, was a damaged person.
The Imposter Bride is an intriguing book that draws the reader into a story that reflects a turbulent period in history.
The secrets of some European refugees remained hidden to their children for decades or forever. ■