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A Family Journey: Accepting the Unacceptable : MEMOIR : THE NET OF DREAMS: A Family's Search for a Rightful Place, By Julie Salamon (Random House: $25; 336 pp.)

June 23, 1996|Susan Heymann | Susan Heymann, a freelance writer, recently traveled to Germany with her mother, who had been forced to flee her homeland due to Nazi persecution

If we cannot come to terms with the crucial episodes in our parents' lives, how can we ever hope to know them, understand them and understand ourselves?

In "The Net of Dreams," author Julie Salamon, an American-born daughter of two concentration camp survivors, sets out on an ambitious and often compelling journey to learn about her family's history and "lay some claim to the tragedy" she herself never experienced. She unearths fascinating stories of her parents' past, of relatives who died or disappeared in the war, and of the reinvented life her family made in the United States. While she provides revelations about what the emotional process of uncovering this history was like,and has a journalist's eye for detail and for getting the "'story," the result, while courageous, feels disjointed.

Salamon begins her search with frequent trips from New York, where she lives, to Seaman, Ohio, where she grew up as part of the only Jewish family in an Appalachian outpost of southern Ohio. But the truths to be unearthed were elsewhere--in Eastern Europe where Lilly (or "Szimi" as she was known in her native Hungary) and her husband, Sanyi, grew up and, after were released from Nazi camps, met and married.

Salamon is astounded that her mother--perky and opinionated as ever in her mid-70s--announces that she will accompany Salamon to Auschwitz, where, "dropped into madness" as an athletic, forward-looking 20-year-old, "she adjusted to madness."

"Hollywood," however, is the first stop. Salamon receives an invitation from Steven Spielberg, whom she knew from her years as a film critic with the Wall Street Journal, to visit the set of "Schindler's List" in Poland. The movie set, with its gaunt actresses in frayed dresses and yellow Stars of David, turns out to be a distracting initial setting for "The Net of Dreams." Salamon, who had already written a behind-the scenes movie book ("The Devil's Candy: 'The Bonfire of the Vanities' Goes to Hollywood") spends too much time playing insider on the set.

The story gets back on track after Salamon continues with Lilly on to the real Auschwitz and to Huszt, the eastern European town where her mother grew up.

On the trip, Lilly's recollections are poignant, told from the perspective of a woman who in spite of everything, considered herself lucky. She arrived at Auschwitz 50 years before in a crowded cattle car with her parents. She never saw them again. But she says she was lucky in the concentration camp because her barracks did not leak; because her girlfriend dished up the soup and would save bits of potatoes for her, and because she never doubted she would get out.

Salamon evokes a vibrant picture of her mother's youth in Huszt, through to her relocation to Prague after the war. It is touching and amazing to see the swift transformation of Lilly and other survivors in Prague: "No one could tell by looking at them that all of them had 'made it through.' Photographs show well-dressed, good-looking young adults only slightly serious, like people who hadn't been photographed much, just like most people in those days. They would remember the Prague period as a lark, peppered with the manageable risks and thrills of a happy adventure."

In Prague, Lilly meets her future husband, Sanyi Salamon, a doctor who had been sent to Dachau for treating an injured partisan. The couple moves to New York where Sanyi's many attempts to get established in a practice end in failure, in part because he refuses to charge any Jewish refugee from the Carpathian region. The Salamons start anew in Seaman (population 714), which welcomed them with open arms.

Seaman becomes a peaceful haven for the family, a chance to feel how freeing certainty and predictability can be. Sanyi is adored by his patients and his family. But he was also prone to dark moods and bouts of silent fury. Salamon grows up conscious of the many "pieces of family knowledge that seem to float in the air--never mentioned but always known."

While her mother dealt with her war-time memories by treating them "as something that happened to somebody else a long time ago," her father never talked to Julie or her sister about them. It was a young cousin, in fact, who told Julie at about age 10 that her father had had a first wife and daughter who perished in a concentration camp. Her father never told her when he was dying of cancer, either.

After returning from the trip with Lilly to Europe, Salamon realizes who it was she had been looking for: her father, who died two days after her 18th birthday, and whom she loved "but did not know." For as long as she could remember, she was aware of the great weight her father carried. Now she understood it was part of a burden she carried as well.

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