Book review: Shadows of the Holocaust loom over literary thriller Don’t Ask

Don’t Ask by Gina Roitman, 275 pages, MiroLand/Guernica

Hannah Baran lived a comfortable life growing up in Montreal in the 1950s and 1960s among other immigrants in Outremont and Côte des Neiges, but something set her family apart – her father, Barak, and mother Rokhl were World War II and Holocaust survivors.

Although the fictional Hannah, like the author Gina Roitman, was born in a displaced person setting in post-war Germany, there was one thing her mother makes clear in the first chapter of this engaging and multi-layered novel: Never, ever travel to Germany.

As it turns out, Hannah, a divorced, middle-aged executive in a real-estate firm, is being dispatched to visit an investor in Germany to discover why he wants to buy a plot of undeveloped land the firm owns northwest of Montreal and what he may be offering to pay for it.

The trip means that Hannah must set aside her mother’s wishes and when Rokhl learns the trip she is devastated.

The reader then begins to learn the harrowing history of how Rokhl managed to endure the death camp experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau and how the twisted challenge of remembering and forgetting and living with the pain of victimhood and survivor guilt affected her psyche. We also discover how Barak’s escape to join the Soviet Red Army and fighting to defeat The Beast affected his.

Rokhl’s trauma prevented her talking about it but voluminous notes that she left emerge in the novel’s narrative.

The trip to Germany is twinned with the contrasting threads of emerging conflict over the possible land deal and the unexpected blossoming of love that brightens Hannah’s life.

These threads link Hannah’s life to the past, yet history is ever present when it comes to her mission – no spoilers here –and the reader will learn about old and perceived debts and whether and how they are resolved.

The various layers provided by these elements interconnect in the beautifully written narrative. Much of Hannah’s thoughts are revealed in conversation that her best and loyal friend, Marilyn. And the narrative is laced with Yiddish words and phrases, so common among Jewish families with parents from central and eastern Europe. (A glossary is provided.)

This is a work of fiction, but the scenes from Hannah’s youth in Montreal evoke an intimacy that indicate autobiographical elements.  In Germany, Hannah visits the town of Passau where she was born. This happens to be where Roitman was born, the focus of her superb documentary My Mother, the Nazi midwife, and Me. The book is prefaced with the statement that names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

This novel is a today story, an engaging read that brings the past into contemporary focus. Roitman finds a way to link the lingering memory of genocidal crime and cruelty that was the Holocaust with rarely discussed acts of compassion and bravery, and the possibility of recovery and rebirth through intimacy and love, if not forgiveness. Still, the past cannot be erased, and as Rokhl says to her beloved daughter – “It is your story, too.”

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