June 2, 2024
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‘Surviving the Survivor’: Joel Z. Waldman

Reviewing: “Surviving the Survivor: A Brutally Honest Conversation about Life (& Death) with My Mom: A Holocaust Survivor, Therapist & My Podcast Co-Host” by Joel Z. Waldman. Post Hill Press. 2024. Paperback. 320 pages. ISBN-13: 979-8888452387.

Joel Z. Waldman’s recently published book, “Surviving the Survivor,” is billed as “a brutally honest conversation about life (and death)” with his mother Karmela, a Holocaust survivor. In the process of writing the book, Waldman, born in Highland Park, not only learned more about his mother’s life experiences but also learned more about himself.

After a career in broadcast journalism, Waldman embarked on the next stage of his career by working on a weekly podcast with his 80-something-year-old mother. Evolving over time into a popular series with a dedicated and almost fanatical global following, the mother-son relationship became as much of a draw as the true crime topics.

Waldman had had a desire to write a book about his mother for decades. Her incredible personality, work as a psychotherapist and life history as a Holocaust survivor combined to make any story about her incredibly compelling. An encounter with filmmaker Michael Moore encouraged Waldman to document things because so much of history is lost once people are gone.

A confluence of events got the ball rolling on the project to write a book: a guest on one of the podcasts said his mom was “an endangered species,” his father suffering from an incurable illness, and the realization that time was passing for everyone. Contacts from his prior career led to a book deal with the caveat that it must be completed within six months.

Weekly interviews on current events and life issues offered more insight to his mother’s life and his own behavior than he ever could have imagined. He knew basic details that his mother survived the Holocaust separated from her family, but had no idea she had been hidden in a Catholic school for boys. Waldman compared his own young children to the age his mother was at the time and realized how hard it must have been for her. Karmela’s beloved father was killed for being a Jew when she was very young and she lost her firstborn child, Waldman’s older brother, to a fatal illness at a young age. Waldman had known about his brother, but did not know many specifics until the book interviews.

Like many Holocaust survivors, Karmela chose to look forward and not backward at her life details and only shared the broadest of details. Through the interviews, Waldman learned more about his life and family and gained a greater appreciation of his parents. Of all the hardships life has brought, Karmela acknowledged that the impending loss of her husband was the most difficult to bear.

For her part, Karmela noted that being part of the podcast and book has “kept her young and out of a nursing home.” The technology was a struggle to learn, but her personality made her a hit and likely the oldest living weekly podcaster. Waldman and his mother are embarking on a book tour and his mother is on hand to “sign books that she didn’t even write!”

Waldman noted that the antics and interplay between his mom and him may be dismissed as “shtick,” but he insists that their interactions are even wilder when the cameras are not rolling. Life experiences shape a person’s behavior, and Karmela’s chosen profession as a licensed therapist may stem from wishing to help people move forward in their lives. She doesn’t sugarcoat things but states the facts as they are. She berated her son for spending money on frivolities while otherwise expressing financial concerns. Waldman doesn’t explicitly acknowledge it, but through the course of the book he appeared to grow as well.

In an interview, Waldman said that his mother has “been through the worst of the worst, no matter how crazy or dark or seemingly impossible” the end is just over the next hurdle. “People are conditioned to survive, and that’s what mom did. She taught us to survive.” No matter the challenge: a loss of a job, illness, anxiety—just move forward and don’t give in.

The book provided a good deal to think about. First and foremost is the concept that “Life is beautiful with some ugly things in it.” Internalizing the thought can inspire all of us to look at our family histories by asking questions and documenting details before the knowledge and stories disappear. We should also know that it is never too late to embark on the next phase of our lives. If an octogenarian can learn to podcast, our life dreams can be brought to life too.

“Surviving the Survivor” relates to survival of all types. Overall compelling, thought-provoking, warm and entertaining, the book is better suited for adults as some of the language in the book may make some readers uncomfortable.


Deborah Melman is a staff writer at The Jewish Link.

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