As a memoir, Sidonia's Thread is a tapestry woven from stories of the Holocaust, coming-of-age, mothers and daughters, unclear identity, and secrets—the key threads of many woven around the basic imagery of Sidonia as a seamstress. As a child, author Hanna Perlstein Marcus knew only that she was born in 1947 in the displaced persons camp at Bergen Belsen, near the concentration camp of that name, and that her single mother brought her to Springfield, Massachusetts in 1949. She knew nothing of her father, and while her stoic mother wove together stories of her childhood in Hungary and visions of what Hanna's life would be, Sidonia Perlstein kept many secrets.
Sidonia (Szidonia in Hungarian) made all of her daughter's clothes and worked in a factory as a supervisor. Eventually she sewed from her home, delighting clients with creations of her own design. Sidonia had, according to Hanna, a real eye for fashion. Hanna always had prettier clothes than other children. This continued well into her adult life. But Hanna had as many questions as Sidonia had secrets, and growing up she resented the distance between herself and the mother she didn't understand. She writes, "By withholding salient details about her past that would have helped me to make sense of her in the present, she tried to protect us both." Not understanding, Hanna wanted her mother to be less solitary and more "like everyone else." Their lives together seemed untouched by joy. Though Hanna had friends and was apparently popular enough, the two had no family, no community with which to celebrate Jewish holy days. A Seder for two was drab at best.
Hanna did know of her mother's Holocaust experiences, or what her mother could bear to share of them, since childhood. Hanna was the only person her mother could or would talk to and as she girl grew older, and the stories grew more terrifying.
Sidonia's entire family was taken from their comfortable home in a small town, where they were part of a caring community, and sent to Auschwitz. She then went to Dachau and Bergen Belsen, the only survivor from her immediate family. But apparently Hanna was unable to reconcile these stories with the angry, depressed person her mother had become, her life brightened only by the daughter she lived for and by her sewing. Only later did Hanna realize that Sidonia carried the disgrace of being an unwed mother, festering inside of her and revealed only by occasional disparaging remarks about men in general and an anonymous one in particular. Mores learned in childhood are not discarded, even during terrible events, and Sidonia was afraid of disdain for her transgression.
In the early 1980s, her mother now seventy and herself in her thirties, married and with two children, Hanna suggested a trip to Hungary to her mother's hometown. They were cordially welcomed, which puzzled Hanna. Had not one of these townspeople driven her family to the cattle cars in a wagon? Nonetheless Sidonia was glad to be among these people, although resentful that a distant relative seized her home, which was now empty.
This trip marked the beginning of a dramatic change in the mother-daughter relationship as Hanna began to understand her mother. Resentment turned to respect and the evolved to a different kind of love for her mother than she had ever known.
Hanna called her father in 1993 upon learning his identity and that he lived in Israel. He was neither cordial nor receptive, having never told anyone of her existence. At about the same time, Hanna discovered a stash of old letters, envelopes, and pictures in one of her mother's drawers. Without telling her mother, she began to examine her find but she understood little Hungarian, Yiddish, and German—the language of the yellowing letters. Hanna and the reader begin to understand as the secrets Sidonia never shared are revealed.
Memoir is a difficult form, relying as it must on memory. In Sidonia's Thread Hanna shares that she began to piece her mother's narratives together so that she could understand her life before she was born. And that is how Sidonia's Thread is told—in pieces that the reader must weave together. In a sense, Hanna withholds salient points just as her mother had and thereby makes the mother-daughter relationship difficult to comprehend. But there is redemption at the end—some peace for Sidonia and growth in Hanna. Sidonia's Thread is a rich tapestry, if not colorful.
Hanna Perlstein Marcus is a licensed clinical social worker and human services administrator for local governments. She is the author of several articles, and this is her first full-length book. She has two children and two grandchildren and lives in Connecticut. Visit her website.
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