When Naomi Lewis was a child, no one in her family talked about the fact that her grandfather had escaped the Nazi-occupied Europe, largely by foot and through the kindness of strangers. In fact, no one spoke much about that part of their family history, at all.
When Lewis tried to ask questions, her mother dissuaded her.
“Don’t bring it up,” she told her. “He doesn’t like to talk about it.”
When Lewis asked why, her mother answered, “Because when he went back, after the war, his mother was gone. The Germans had killed her.”
After her grandfather’s death, when her parents were moving her grandmother into an assisted living facility, they found a yellowed, type-written document: 30 foolscap pages in Dutch, and 30 pages translated into English. It recounted her grandfather’s escaped from German-occupied Europe and into southern France.
She asked her mother what they should do with it, but Lewis explains, “All her life, Mum had know, this was the box you didn’t open,”
Lewis’s grandmother was still living, and said she remembered the journal well, had even translated it herself. “But who knows,” Lewis’s mother said. Her grandmother was in the stages of dementia in which “she rearranged every story around herself as the centre.”
“She could not have borne the version in which this document sat at the bottom of a box through her entire marriage, without her knowledge,” said Lewis.
Lewis, an award-winning short story writer and novelist now living in Kelowna, transcribed her grandfather’s journal and, as she did, his voice returned to her, along with hints of his humour. Later, she traced her grandfather’s route, traveling along from Amsterdam to Lyon, discovering family secrets along the way.
The resulting memoir, Tiny Lights for Travellers, asks tough questions about identity as a secular Jew, the accuracy of family stories, and the impact of the Holocaust on subsequent generations.
Lewis will read from her memoir and speak about her experiences retracing her grandfather’s steps at the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives Thursday, Nov. 14 from, 7-8:30 p.m. As well, the museum will feature a reading from the letters of former mayor of Vernon, Stewart Fleming, written when he was a pilot and eventual prisoner of war in WW2.
If you have any of your own family’s wartime correspondence, please bring to share. Open to the public, all ages, admission is free. For more information call 250-550-3140.