It has taken me a long time to piece all this together. Memories come not like heavy rain but the drops falling from leaves after it. There were elements missing. At last I knew I would not be whole until I found them.
June Cohen was born on Human Street in 1929. Her street ran through the centre of Krugersdorp, a mining town near Johannesburg where June’s father, Laurie, a doctor, and his wife of Lithuanian Jewish heritage, had decided to establish themselves thirty years on from the family’s crossing to South Africa. June was named after the month she was born in.
In the wake of his mother’s death, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen embarks on a compassionate and sensitive portrait of the journeys made by both his maternal and paternal family, exploring the stories that have filtered through to him since childhood.
Told through personal letters and collective memories, Cohen follows his family from Lithuania to South Africa, England, the United States and Israel. He illuminates the uneasy resonance of the racism his relatives witnessed living in apartheid-era South Africa and explores the pervasive sense of ‘otherness’ that originated from his Jewish heritage of persecution and from the repeated loss that accompanied his forebears’ multiple migrations. And through this, he begins to understand better the manic depression that has permeated his family and that plagued his mother until her last moments.
A sweeping family story spanning continents, families and great swathes of history, Roger Cohen’s deeply personal examination of Jewish identity is a tale of displacement and remembrance, an account of suicide and resilience, a meditation on identity and belonging, a classic for our times.
I was very moved by the stories in this book. Even though some of the accounts are truly devastating and horrific, I found myself fascinated about how a Jewish family survived throughout the holocaust. Roger Cohen puts a truly hauntingly perspective on them, that sometimes I did have to come away and think about other things. There is quite a bit of jumping around in this book but it didn’t faze me. This is a kind of book that will stay with you for a lifetime.