Reviewing: “Unearthed: A Lost Actress, a Forbidden Book, and a Search for Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust” by Meryl Frank. Hachette Books. 2023. English. Hardcover. 256 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0306828362.
Meryl Frank’s “Unearthed” is a distinctive and unique book in the field of Holocaust literature. Not a direct autobiography of a survivor, rather an autobiography of one woman’s journey to trace the final days of several of her ancestors. At times a mystery story, or an autobiographical journey, or a love story or historical background, the book grabs the reader’s attention from the beginning and doesn’t let go.
Frank notes that in each generation many families have a “human memorial candle” who becomes a self-appointed historian and designated repository of stories and memories of the ancestral family tree. Growing up with family stories of relatives who had not survived the Holocaust, Frank was motivated to find out more about them. Of particular interest was a cousin, Franya Winter, reported to have been an actress of some renown in the area of Vilna. Snippets of information about Franya were intriguing, such as a passport description of her having “beer colored eyes.” Frank assumed that stories about Franya’s success and fame had been exaggerated within the family. Finding theater programs and firsthand interviews with people who saw her on stage gave credence to the fact that Franya had truly been famous and on the verge of international stardom when the Nazis cut short her career.
“Unearthed” began as an anticipated two-year sabbatical effort that ended up taking seven years to write and required multiple visits to Lithuania, France, Yad Vashem, Holocaust museums in the United States, France, and other countries, the Ghetto Fighters Museum, YIVO and other locations. Frank’s only regret is that she “didn’t start the book sooner. Every year we lose more people with firsthand connections and memories of what happened.” Had she started the book just three years earlier, there would have been more personal contact with people who would have known Franya.
Frank wanted to know how much of the family legends were true. Most of the stories were on target, others had material left out—omissions that Frank felt were in the interest of protecting her. Key clues to Franya’s life were in a book telling the histories of those affiliated with the Yiddish theater that Frank inherited from her Aunt Mollie, who forbade Frank from reading it. When and how Frank learned about the book’s contents is captivating and extremely powerful.
On one visit to Vilna, the author stayed at her ancestral family home, which is on Airbnb and reputed to be haunted. “If there were ghosts, it would be OK because they would love me,” she noted as she described how meaningful it was to walk on the same floorboards and touch the banisters as her grandparents and other relatives had done.
As Frank grew closer to Franya from her research, she hoped that the story would be heroic in some way. Franya did use the limited resources she had and did not mildly succumb.
So many fortunate events that could not merely be attributed to luck occurred that allowed Franya’s story to come to fruition. Not only was there a discovery of a treasure trove of photos in an abandoned house in France, but the finder of the photos did not discard them when he didn’t know who the people were. After the pictures’ captions were translated, a final caption done years later turned out to be the key to the story. So many more events that go beyond coincidence or luck show that the story of Frank’s relatives was meant to be told.
Frank, former mayor of Highland Park, New Jersey, is the president/CEO of the consulting firm Makeda Global Network. She was appointed by President Obama as Ambassador to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women and was appointed by President Biden to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. She is a member of the board of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Growing up comfortably middle-class in suburban New Jersey, Frank still felt the “communal trauma” of the Holocaust. “The Holocaust wasn’t really that long ago. People in Germany and Poland also led comfortable lives and we see what happened.” In her role with the U.N., Frank had spoken with victims of genocide who had walked from Kenya to freedom. “The difference is that Jews were literate and made sure they recorded what was happening.” Many of the documents made their way to YIVO and other museums after being smuggled out of Europe or buried underground. “The history had to be understood and documented.” Despite being a large segment of the European population, the Jews were still subjected to annihilation, and Frank believes it could happen again. “Every holiday we talk about it and remember our communal history. There is Amalek in every generation ready to disrupt our comfortable lives.”
Despite being relatively wealthy, Frank’s family was not able to leave Vilna. Unable to believe that anything bad would actually happen, the community prohibitions that were enacted happened with lightning speed that prohibited escape. Frank notes, “So much was taken away from these people. So much dignity and humanity that it is important that we be able to give that back” by writing their stories in the book.
Frank hopes readers will see that her ancestral relatives were real people with full lives. “It is important that we tell our children that the world sometimes isn’t a great place and everything can be taken away at any time.” She added that to avoid problems escalating we should be encouraged to take action when we see others not being treated properly.
At times touching, sad, amusing, thrilling, joyful, and always amazing, “Unearthed” is not merely a distinctive or unique book—it is a definite “must read”.
By Deborah Melman