From the Vine — Every Day Lasts a Year

This is one of those rare treasures of a book that hardly seems real at first. Primary documents are the foundation of history. For me this is especially true when the documents are not official political or military papers but are instead a reflection of the average person within a certain context or era.

And that is what these are. Every Day Lasts A Year: A Jewish Family’s Correspondence from Poland is a collection of letters from Poland to America, from a variety of family members to a young man who had emigrated not long before. These notes of various lengths and topics span from November 1939 to early December 1941. America entered the war. Joseph Hollander’s family went silent.

They were Jewish.

But this isn’t a book about the Holocaust or World War II or Polish history. This is a book about a family living in the midst of a crisis, trying to live as they could. It is a book about the contrasts between history on a grand scale and mundane details of daily life. In these all too often mundane details, however, the specter of Nazism is ever present, even if not mentioned.

Every Day Lasts a YearThe letters themselves take up about 180 pages of this 280 page book. They are well edited and formatted so as to make for easy reading, presented without commentary except for the occasional footnote clarifying a point of history or making note of a translation or transcription issue. These are not great literature, but that is the point. They are the kinds of letters sent by family members to one of their own far away. And they are amazing insights into life.

The first hundred pages is made up of three essays. The first by the son of the letters recipient. He tells the story of Joseph, his father. While the prose is not the best, the story is well told and quite interesting. We get to know the one who is so present and yet so silent through the later laters. It is an engaging story, not only because he was able to escape Poland but also because of the immense legal troubles he had when he got to the States. The US tried to deport Joseph back to Europe just when Europe was exploding into war.

The second two essays are much more academic in tone. The first details the Nazi rule in Cracow throughout the war. The second is broader in scope, giving a background to Jewish life in Poland before and during the war.

Overall this is an incredible book, amazing for anyone interested in World War II, Holocaust studies, social history, or Poland. My only critique, and it’s a picky one, is that I felt the book was a little unsure who to target as an audience. It is very accessible to a popular audience interested in the topic, but at times the essays feel a bit too rigid and stolid. It takes a while to get to the actual letters, and at that point it is a huge shift in reading style. I almost would have liked to have the letters at the beginning with the two academic essays at the end for reference.

Again, a picky complaint. Overall, Every Day Lasts a Year is an extraordinary book, mostly because those we meet in it were not extraordinary at all but just regular men and women caught up by hell on earth.

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