Miriam Winter (Maria Orlowski)

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Trains, a Review

By Tobin Belzer***

Trains: A Memoir of a Hidden Childhood during and after World War II, is a collection of Miriam Winter's fragmented memories of hiding. Winter recorded her memories in short vignettes that are heavy with sorrow, misfortune and anger. Her reactions are well-founded: in a desperate attempt to save her life, without explanation, the eight-year-old was given to her cousin, who then passed her to a complete stranger on a train. In exchange for a place to hide, Miriam was treated like a slave until she was fifteen.

Though Winter mastered the skills needed to masquerade as a Catholic farm-hand, her dark hair and eyes marked her as an outsider. She attended church and prayed with dedication and sincerity, but was forced to leave each small village when she was identified as a Zydowa (Jew). As a young girl, she traveled by trains between countless Polish villages, moving so often that she kept a log to remember where she'd been.

The experience of hiding was so profound that eventually, Winter began to hide from herself. Marysia's previously burgeoning Jewish identity vanished during her hiding. At first, she consciously assimilated to protect herself, following her parents' instructions. Eventually, the author "goes native." Without the context of a loving family, Marysia developed little sense of self-worth. Her life progresses in a blur of depression which clears when she finds her first friend in a State Youth Village at age fifteen.

For decades after the war, the author continued to use her Christian name, "Marysia," never admitting to herself or others that she is a Jew. She also continued to embrace Catholicism, which she found spiritually sustaining during her hiding. Until she found her birth certificate in 1969, Miriam was not even sure if she remembered her parents' names. The author's fog of "unrememberance," began when she went into hiding at the age of six (in 1941) and does not lift for many years after the war.

Winter's experiences illustrate a crucial link between human connection and emotional development. Her account winds fluidly from past to present, punctuated by the author's strong narrative voice, which alternates between a thoughtful and insightful adult and a child who is bewildered and utterly alone. Her writing invokes a sense of loneliness which is so intense, it's palpable.

Winter is the only surviving member of her Chasidic, Polish family, who was murdered in the concentration camp, Treblinka. She wrote this memoir to acknowledge and honor her family's existence. This record of her own journey can be counted among the many important and powerful memoirs which bear witness to the horrors of the holocaust.

The most thought-provoking aspects of Winter's story are poignantly illustrated but not analyzed, perhaps because that the process of self-realization is continual. The small vignettes only allude to the complex connections between memory and depression, the malleability of identity, and spirituality as a tool for survival. Throughout the narrative, the author interrupts to ask herself: What happened to my brain? Where was my heart? Why didn't I stop and reflect? As an adult, Miriam questions the motives of her former self, offering her readers a sincere glimpse of the complexity of identity and reminding us that self-discovery is an on-going process.

Trains: A Memoir of a Hidden Childhood During and After World War II
By Miriam Winter

First person account of surviving under false identity during the Holocaust. Hiding after the war Jewish orphan alone in a Christian world. Faith and belonging. A journey to reclaim lost identity.
244-page trade paperback
ISBN 0-9660162-0-3
LCNN: 97-74923
Published by Kelton Press

To order this book, send $14.95 plus $3.00 shipping (per book) to:
Kelton Press, P.O. Box 4236, Jackson, MI 49204

*** Tobin Belzer is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Brandeis University and a Research Associate at the Hadassah Research Institute on Jewish Women. She is the co-editor of On The Fringes: An Anthology of Young Jewish Women's Voices, which is forthcoming from State University of New York Press.


Memory and the Holocaust
Presented at the Mt. David Summit on March 28th, 2006