Saturday, January 24, 2009

I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson

Greetings, bloglings. I'm afraid I don't have much to report, the whole tainted chicken episode, while not lasting terribly long, did kind of knock my whole week for a loop. Thanks all, for your comments on the previous post, I am, indeed, feeling much better - in fact, I was better astonishingly quickly, which was great (and it was good getting to watch that inauguration).

I was happily reading about a book a week, which is a rate of reading I deem acceptable for myself given my turtle-like reading capabilities and many distractions like jobs and relationships with humans and televisions and blogs and things, but I've sadly fallen off the pace since I didn't much feel like doing any of the things I normally do through the week (speaking of, you should see my Google Reader! On second thought, maybe you shouldn' might make you scream or cry like it does me). Due to my failure to promptly review books that I've read, however, I do have a book to review! It's next weekend that's in jeopardy not least because I probably won't have a book to review (much less time to review it). *Sigh* But onto more depressing fare. Yes, that's right, it's time for my "annual" January Holocaust book, which thankfully, has not morphed into a January Holocaust-fest like last year.

I Have Lived a Thousand Years is Livia Bitton-Jackson's (born Elli Friedmann) memoir of growing up during the Holocaust. Her story begins as the Nazis invade Budapest. Shortly thereafter, Elli and her family are forced into a ghetto which then leads to their imprisonment and forced labor in a seemingly endless litany of concentration camps.

Aimed more at a young adult audience, I Have Lived a Thousand Years is written in a present-tense first person style that is reminiscent of a girl's diary. Though it may be aimed a younger audience, it doesn't gloss over the painful details of a childhood lived under the impossible cruelty of the Nazis, though it doesn't always give quite as many vivid details as others I've read. Somehow, though, it is not the most violent and tortuous situations that leave the biggest impression but the more understated moments, like the image of Elli running barefoot outside realizing she didn't get to say good-bye to her father, possibly for the last time, or the sound of the old men in the ghetto constantly chanting the Psalms in the days after the younger men are taken away.

The conundrum of reviewing the Holocaust memoir is that you can't. I can't very well sit and say "I enjoyed this or that," but Bitton-Jackson's memories are vivid and well-told. After the first few chapters, the writing flows easily and for a story of such painful events, it is surprisingly difficult to put down. Even though I've read my fair share of Holocaust memoirs, I was staggered by many of Elli's experiences not least the sheer amount of places she and her mother are taken by train to do forced labor over a relatively short period of time. The only minor quibble I could make with the writing is that the most dramatic language seems to arrive well before the most dramatic events. The narrative, well before the family is experiencing ghettos and concentration camps, is peppered with "Oh my Gods" and "Will I ever...?" that seem to indicate extensive foreknowledge which seems a bit overblown in a book that is written from a present tense perspective and an unnecessary effort to create drama. Soon, though, the events change to suit the language. While the writing continues in the same way, the drama and tragedy are totally real and well-suited to the language, and there is no longer a need for it to be manufactured by portentous language.


  1. That sounds like one of those books that is difficult to read and difficult to put down at the same time. Great review.

  2. I've heard a lot about this book. I recently finished a book on Hiroshima, so it will take me a while to gather the courage to pick up WW2 related books again, but when I do, I'll have to keep this in mind.

  3. I used to read this book all the time as a kid, which was odd to me even then because of just how sad it made me. I almost forgot about it until I saw your review and recognized that familiar cover. Thanks for reviewing a great book!

  4. I am glad you are feeling better, Magan. I am drawn to stories set around WWII, especially those dealing with the Holocaust. The stories can range from very sad to inspiring, all at the same time.

  5. bermuda - that it most definitely was.

    Nymeth - Yes, you definitely need to space these types of books out. I learned that the hard way last year. :/

    wereadtoknow - Odd how that is, isn't it? One book that I re-read a few times as a kid was The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, which is a Holocaust novel. I loved it (continue to love it), but what are we - gluttons for punishment?

    LF - Yes, there's just something about Holocaust stories that always draws me. They're hard to read, but then the survival against the odds and the unexpected moments of kindness in a world that pretty much stopped making sense keep me coming back every time.

  6. Sounds like a powerful book. I've created a post for your review here on War Through the Generations and added the link to the book reviews page.

    Glad to hear you're feeling better!

    Diary of an Eccentric

  7. I've heard of this book but haven't read it. It's good to know that there is more literature out there for younger people who develop an interest in the Holocaust after reading The Diary of Anne Frank in school.

    I agree that this type of book is quite difficult to review. However, your effort in doing so is appreciated.

  8. Anna - thanks! I was planning on e-mailing the link, but you found it first! =D

    Wanda - I think it's great that there are several high quality Holocaust memoirs and novels directed at a younger audience. I think it's pretty important even for kids to be learning about the Holocaust, and it was definitely something that captured my attention early. Glad you appreciated the review - I appreciate your appreciation! =D

  9. I read this book last year and now have her two other memoirs that follow this one on a challenge list this year.

  10. I read this book and it was very hard to read, yet you couldn't put it down. It was awful how bad they treated the Jews, and I can't see how anybody would want to kill or hurt someone.