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Lester Blum
Author
The Spirit of Ruchel Leah
Lester Blum, author
Imbued with hope, courage, and resiliency, The Spirit of Ruchel Leah recounts the story of one woman’s determination for more than mere survival in the face of unimaginable obstacles. The book is based on letters written by Ruchel Leah from Poland to her family in New York from 1938-1941 further enhanced by commentary on her correspondence and the correspondence of extended family members after the war. The commentary encompasses all aspects of the Holocaust placing the letters into historical, social, and religious context. Stymied by the bureaucracy of the United States immigration policies, Ruchel Leah pursued obtaining the proper documentation so her daughter, Elka could immigrate to “The Golden Land”. As the murderous wings of the Nazi hordes enveloped Poland, the family fled east into Soviet Russia. Until her final letter, Ruchel Leah continued to express her resolution to save at least one child from the Holocaust. Then, silence. Ruchel Leah, her husband, Anschel Taus, daughters, Elka and Surcha, and her brother, Moshe Blum were lost in the milieu of the Holocaust. In writing The Spirit of Ruchel Leah, parallel yet divergent sagas of survival emerged, each unique and with different conclusions. Consistent throughout was the unimaginable determination, courage, and persistence for survival exhibited to protect and save their families, particularly their children. The Spirit of Ruchel Leah is a wide ranging Holocaust book which takes the reader on a complete educational journey. The book is international in scope bringing the reader from Poland and New York to Belarus, Soviet Russia, Cuba, Cyprus, Israel, Brazil, and Paris. A powerful story of hope and resiliency, The Spirit of Ruchel Leah is a skillfully written memoir weaving the individual stories together into the context of history. Tension and despair mounts with the presentation and commentary of each letter. Our legacy is The Spirit of Ruchel Leah. “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Eli Wiesel, Holocaust survivor We will never forget!
Plot/Idea: 9 out of 10
Originality: 8 out of 10
Prose: 8 out of 10
Character/Execution: 8 out of 10
Overall: 8.25 out of 10

Assessment:

Plot/Idea: Part history book and part personal memoir, this narrative triumphs when it shares the personal stories of Blum's ancestors. The historical sections, particularly the beginning, do slow the pace a bit, but readers will be unable to stop reading Ruchel's letters, particularly knowing how her story ends.

Prose: The jumps between the personal letters and more scholarly prose (particularly the long discussion of U.S. immigration history) can be jarring at times and lend a bit of unevenness to the whole story. Yet, the letters are engrossing--the emotion and fear that Ruchel evokes is powerful and heartbreaking.

Originality: Blum has crafted a compelling memoir by framing the content of his relative's letters within the history of U.S. immigration policy and the rise of the Nazis in Poland. The translations of the correspondence remind readers of the human part of this horrific history.

Character/Execution: This memoir has a lot of characters; most are just names or mentioned in relation to the Leah family. Yet the center of the piece is--as it should be--Ruchel. Her voice is complex, engrossing and fully human, with its pleas, fears, anger, and hope fully "felt" through the translated letters.

Date Submitted: October 05, 2022

Reviews
Kirkus Reviews

An epistolary book relates the desperate efforts of a Jewish woman to send her daughter from a Poland on the precipice of war to the United States.

When Ruchel Leah began planning the immigration of her young daughter, Elke, to America from Poland in 1938, her parents and most of her siblings had already relocated there. She was left behind in Goworowo, crushed by the “pressures of daily existence”: Her husband, Anschel, was terribly ill but forced to work nonetheless, otherwise unable to provide for the family’s basic needs. In addition, she was the only caregiver for her brother, Moshe, who “appeared to have… autism.” And as the threat of war loomed, she fretfully hatched a plan to procure a visa for Elke, a formidable task given the xenophobia prevalent in the U.S. at the time and the increasingly prohibitive immigration laws, all described with lucidity by Blum. The author relates Ruchel’s heartbreaking plight through the letters she sent her family in the late ’30s and early ’40s, pleas for help that became both desperate and angry as well as scared: “It is very hard to describe how bad the situation is here now. We find ourselves in a deep cave surrounded by snakes. All because we are Jews.” Blum paints three startling portraits—of the degradation of Poland at the hands of its invaders, of the terrible suffering of the country’s Jews, and finally of the inhumane immigration laws in the U.S. that left so many in Europe to die. The commentary that the author offers is historically rigorous and astute, but the letters themselves form the emotional spine of the volume and are utterly devastating. Of course, there is no shortage of books of this kind, but Blum’s contribution is particularly illuminating regarding the complex issue of immigration and its cultural context.

An edifying account of American immigration policy before and during World War II.

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