Don’t Ask My Name is a different sort of Holocaust memoir. Her mother had the entire family convert to Catholicism to protect themselves from the increasing anti-Semitism in Hungary. While her parents were divorced, it was amicable even after both married other people. The Catholic outside the house, Jewish inside the home, facade did not protect them from discrimination or from being forced to wear yellow stars.
When the Germans invaded Hungary, her father arranged for false identities and a place for them to hide as Christians in a small village where a trusted employee lived. Times were hard and they had to pretend not to recognize cousins who also were hiding there. There was privation but relative safety until near the end of the war when the town moved back and forth between Russian and German occupation. After they were exposed as Jewish, they had to flee and spent harrowing times in hiding, scrounging for survival.
After the war, they continued to be outwardly Catholic as her mother feared new persecution. Erika was sent to Catholic school after Catholic school though she found freedom through her education. The great majority of the memoir focuses on the war, but we are brought up to date in a fast final chapter.
Don’t Ask My Name is an excellent memoir. Erika has no interest in making herself and her family look perfect. Her occasional pettiness and resentments are laid bare. Her mother’s erratic anger and occasional cruelty are painfully recalled. It becomes increasingly clear her mother is mentally ill, perhaps broken by the strains of the war. Despite her mother’s behavior, her daughters love and care for her and in time come to realize how much the dual identity has affected her and them.
This is a great memoir. Erika writes vividly, quickly sketching a scene with the kind of details that make it immediate and rich with atmosphere. There is this authenticity to her story, how it was sometimes banal and boring to be hiding, for example. The tedium of it as well as the anxiety gives it so much more realism. This memoir is as much about the family dynamics as it is about escaping the Nazis.
Don’t Ask My Name was released on June 15th. I received an ARC from the publisher through Shelf Awareness.