This book has been getting a lot of attention online, so I was eager to read it. It is the story of a dysfunctional family, the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors. Although it purports to be the story of the matriarch, information about her is relatively sparse and leaves the reader with many questions.
The mother, Channa, and her brother, Isaac, grew up in a small town in Poland. When the German army took over, they suffered the depredations visited upon the resident Jews and soon wound up in a ghetto. When Channa was twelve, shortly after the death of their aunt and Isaac's wife and children in a pogrom, Isaac took Channa with him into the forest, where they joined the partisans, remaining with them until the end of the war. They snipped telephone and telegraph lines, blew up bridges, killed solitary German soldiers, lived off the land and off food they demanded from farmers. When the Red Army liberated Poland two years later, they returned to their hometown to find the rest of their family had perished and their home was occupied by strangers, who reluctantly let them move in and then relinquished the house.
That is the first ten percent of the book. The reader is then treated to a rather rushed narrative of Katzir's father, who grew up in a town in Czechoslovakia that later became part of Hungary. Only a few pages are devoted to the difficult years of 1939-1944; then he and his family were deported to Auschwitz. Nathan managed to survive the selections for the gas chambers, and wound up later on a hellish work detail cleaning up the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto (which she calls “only a shell of its former self”). As the Allies drew closer, he was deported to the German camp, Dachau. The reader encounters the tired phrases of concentration-camp existence: “packed like sardines,” “living skeletons,” etc. Then, astonishingly, only after he gets to Dachau, Nathan gets lice! Now, Dachau was a disgusting camp; they all were. But Auschwitz was the worst of the worst, with its gas chambers and crematoria going day and night (there is still controversy as to whether the gas chambers at Dachau were ever used to exterminate Jews, while there is no question about the ones at Auschwitz). I don't ever recall reading that Auschwitz had a lot of hand sanitizer stations. You couldn't spend more than five minutes there without getting lice.
Here is where the narrator misses rich opportunities to delve into the experiences of Channa and Nathan, and how their later behaviors were shaped. Channa was in the partisans for two years; why do we get so few pages? Is Nathan's memory of events skewed so that he remembers the lice at Dachau and forgets the lice at Auschwitz? Was Auschwitz too horrible to remember? Or is this just sloppy editing?
At one point, as Nathan was trying to outwit the Germans (always referred to as “Nazis” in this book, although many of the most brutal soldiers never joined the Nazi Party), he and some friends jumped into a ditch. The author takes great pains to point out that “The ditch still held water mixed with sludge and dead bugs, but they did not care.” Eww! Dead bugs! These were people who would often wake to find their bedmate a corpse, who were often forced to spend days in railroad cattle cars shitting on the floor!
Nathan and Channa eventually made their way to America separately, met, and married. Five children were born, and their story takes up most of the book. We really never understand fully how Channa's and Nathan's backgrounds molded their parenting style, and how (or if) it turned the kids into such quarrelsome, greedy bastards. There is one scene where Nathan dances too much, in Channa's estimation, with a niece at a party, and Katzir seems to see this as a seminal event in her mother's behavioral slide. Much more narrative energy is lavished upon all the times one sibling signed a contract with another and then reneged, or one sibling borrowed money and never returned it, than on the behavior of, say, the other partisans or the camp guards. We are treated to a long description of the author's love of horseback riding, and of how an unscrupulous dealer sold her her first horse, a bad match. She feels entitled to use a sister's address to allow her kids to go to school in a town they don't reside in, and goes ballistic when the sister abruptly puts a stop to it. The quarreling over the mother's will after her death is too much to take. All the siblings are scandalized by their father's quick remarriage, though one could hardly blame him, since his wife wrote him out of the will! There is really very little more about Channa until her death, just some quotes showing that she wasn't June Cleaver.
After the Holocaust, the victims (and the perpetrators who avoided arrest) mostly worked hard to establish some kind of normal life. The everyday problems of fighting siblings, financial strain, obnoxious neighbors, etc. don't go away because you were part of one of the most tragic and momentous events in history. Your way of dealing with those issues may be greatly affected, though, but we are not given much information about this in the story, most of which is devoted to the five children of Channa and Nathan (Channa called them “My five fingers”).
When do people whose parents went through hell stop blaming those parents for all the behaviors of their siblings? This is another interesting question that goes unaddressed. Perhaps their parents really DID screw them up; what difference does it make? When do you start taking responsibility for your own problems, since blaming does nothing to solve them?
Broken Birds is like a sandwich: a long list of familial acrimonies between two slices of narrative. With some editing of the filling, and enrichment of the bread, it would be a much more interesting read.