The Butcher’s Daughter: A Memoir, is an unflinching account of what it means to be the daughter of Holocaust survivors. In short chapters and with lyrical prose the reader is brought back into a post-war New York world, into a house sheltering secrets, and then further back into the Polish forests where partisans and families coexited, and where her parents survived.
When, as a child, Florence Grende’s Tateh tells her he was a guerrilla, all she can think about are the gorillas in picture books. What happened to his fur, she wondered. Did a witch cast a spell on him? “I knew something bad had happened in the woods to Tateh and Mameh. Something evil. Like witches maybe.”
THE BUTCHER’S DAUGHTER is the author’s attempt to understand that “something evil.” What made her mother force feed her as a child if she wouldn’t eat, and her father come into her room drunk and crying? The answer is Dee Melchomeh, World War II. But Grende doesn’t share her parents’ harrowing stories of survival and resistance in full until the middle of the book. Instead, Grende begins with the aftermath, showing in intimate detail how it felt to grow up in a house where Dee Melchomeh was “our resident, underground monster.”
This is an affecting choice. The direct horrors of Nazi persecution are well-documented in popular media. The lasting impact the memory of those horrors had on the survivors and their children is less discussed, but no less important. Grende writes with great empathy of her parents’ struggles to survive in Poland and then to forget it all in America, but she is also honest about how difficult it was to live in the shadow of traumas that were passed on in whispered hints or raised voices, but were never fully explained or discussed.
THE BUTCHER’S DAUGHTER is a necessary book, and, despite the pain of its subject matter, it also is an enjoyable one. Grende writes poetically, taking pleasure in small details. “Bubbe grasps the chicken by its yellow legs”; the rush-hour train smells of “sticky-sweet perfume, yesterday’s sweat, old newsprint.” The descriptions are so vivid that reading of Grende’s adolescence in 1960s New York has the feel of watching an episode of Mad Men.
It’s fitting that language be the most redemptive element of THE BUTCHER’S DAUGHTER, since the memoir is partly the story of Grende’s struggle to forge her own identity, while making sense of her parents’ past. The memoir is proof of her success. She is able to do what her parents could not—fully explore their wartime experience and its aftermath in words—and the words she uses are wonderfully her own. THE BUTCHER’S DAUGHTER is a testament to two kinds of persistence: Grende’s parents’, in the forest, and Grende’s, in becoming the woman who could face both their story and her own.
~Olivia Rosane for IndieReader