The horrors of life in Europe during the Holocaust may seem remote indeed from 21st century life within the Blue Line. This courageous memoir, by retired biochemist and locally renowned Master Gardener Dana Fast, who has lived and worked here for more than 30 years, reminds us that we are all linked to that time and place by virtue of our shared humanity.
"My 9 Lives" is not the only Holocaust story to be told recently in the Adirondacks, but it is the most brutally compelling.
Shunning sentiment and self-pity, Fast, born Lilka Miron in Warsaw, Poland in 1931, tells her story with powerful simplicity from the eyes of a child. Her memories were the source of 50 years of nightmares as she tried to bury the past. They are so sharp and immediate in the telling, they nearly become our own.
Fast's gripping account of resilience, adaptation and survival takes place in Nazi-occupied Poland between 1939 and 1945. Unlike the vast majority of Jews in Poland in the 1930s, Fast was Polish first and Jewish scarcely at all. Once the war began, she knew that everything hinged on her Jewish identity and the need to conceal it. Before the war, she says, "I hadn't known that I was Jewish, or even what that meant." Her family's prior assimilation into upper- middle-class Polish culture contributed to their survival in the notorious Warsaw Ghetto, where at least half a million people were confined within a 50-block area and forced to live on starvation rations. Connections beyond the Ghetto walls enabled the family to fend off rampant disease and starvation, and eventually to get Lilka, then 11, and her brother Jurek, 6, out to relative safety. The children's courageous escape from the Ghetto is one of the most moving episodes of the book.
After a few months in a Catholic household deep in the countryside of southern Poland, the children were separated. Jurek would spend the next three years hidden in a safe house closet, where he passed the time reading books. Lilka, now called Alicia, and later Danuka, assumed the identity of a Catholic girl and was discreetly moved from one home to another until the end of the war.
How did she do it? "Although adults made major decisions for me, survival was my responsibility alone," she recalls. By age 11, "I understood the ever-present danger. I knew if I got caught, I would be killed. But deep down, I felt invincible. Convinced that I was going to survive, I was never afraid; therefore my behavior was ordinary. I didn't have the look of a hunted animal-and I did not attract the hunters."
There are no traitors or betrayers among the Polish citizens in this story, only selfless protectors-including a whole convent of nuns-who risked their lives for months and years to shelter their Jewish neighbors. Nonetheless, the horrors Fast reports in this short book are almost more than mind and heart can grasp.
Bibi Wein is the author of "The Way Home: A Wilderness Odyssey" (Tupelo Press). She divides her time between Olmstedville and Manhattan.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.