• Tania Pryputniewicz
  • AROHO Reading Diary #1: The Seamstress, A Memoir of Survival by Sara Tuvel Bernstein
AROHO Reading Diary #1: The Seamstress, A Memoir of Survival by Sara Tuvel Bernstein

I’m looking forward to attending A Room of Her Own Foundation’s August Women’s Writing Retreat (still accepting applications here ). The organization (AROHO) offers hands on networking support to women writers--from serious grant support (check out their Gift of Freedom Award)—to sponsoring a number of writing contests and retreat offerings throughout the year.


This is my first time participating in an AROHO event, so I am new to the group and its workings, but I’ve experienced so far a streamlined countdown to retreat week—these women are professionals! I can’t wait to step off the plane—all the nitty gritty details carefully tended, what celestial joy to hit the ground, ready for pure “in the moment” hours, followed by raw writing time.


In addition to rubbing elbows with a diverse score of writers, I will be presenting some photo poem montage work (the most recent montage currently up at Prairie Wolf Press) and facilitating a small writing group titled, “The Exquisite Now with Feral Mom, Feral Writer” during which we’ll generate writing based on daily photographs, keeping not only my blog (Feral Mom) on track (no doubt posting on the oddity of the week’s extreme quiet as I shift from our three child, one puppy, four feral cat, chainsaw wielding husband household to a room and bed of my own) as well as encouraging others to use that window to do the same for their blogs.


I’ve challenged myself (August bearing down) to read as many books as possible by fellow retreat attendees. Out of a list of 49 authors, I located library books by 7 of the 49 authors on my growing list. The first: The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, by Sara Tuvel Bernstein with an afterward by her daughter, Marlene Bernstein Samuels.


A holocaust memoir, The Seamstress unfolds in a straightforward, unapologetic manner and illustrates how Bernstein maintains her sanity by disciplining herself to be responsible for her family members. I will never forget the image of “Stalin candles” falling over Budapest or the image of Sara’s pregnant sister, ordered to step forward ten paces before she was shot by a guard, her long dark hair and blood mingling in the snow.


Another powerful scene comes near the end of the book, when at last, emaciated beyond recognition, Sara finds herself in the arms of an American soldier carrying her out of the last camp in the rain. What she mistook for raindrops turn out to be his tears. While waiting for permission to live in Canada, Sarah suffers the extra humiliation of living with a loathing and fearful German family (for they can hardly bear to face or accept their culpability regarding her condition).


In the afterword, daughter Marlene reflects on her mother’s holocaust shaped views. Sara questions the importance of strict religious adherence to prove her essential goodness as a Jew, questioning what kind of God would allow such an atrocity. Sara muses, “If it turns out there really is a hell, it will not be so bad compared to what I have lived through, so I can’t worry about it.” Despite being respectfully participatory in her religious observances, Sara’s gained a larger perspective of the possible irrelevance of fear of hell as a motivator given what she’s survived.


Ruminating late at night after putting the book down, the thought comes to me that God would not condone such an atrocity--people condoned it (enough to allow it to happen). And I’m not the first to grapple with the truth: when we don’t stop long enough to look at what we are capable of allowing…we end up with historical repeats of the darkest portions of human nature.


I’m also thinking of Carolyn Forche’s quote on the back of this May’s Poetry magazine (2011):  “One cannot transcend trauma. Trauma is trapped and clings to that which happened. We live not after trauma but in its aftermath” (from her essay in the Comment section titled, Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art). 


As we move daily through these active fields of memory, replete with the alarm, unresolved terror of survivors reverberating in our collective unconsciousness, accounts such as The Seamstress bring the trauma closer to the surface, where it can be, if nothing else, acknowledged. I am grateful for Bernstein’s story (and to her daughter for helping shepherd the story into print) and for the opportunity to live so vividly beside Bernstein through her hours as one more witness adding a layer of scrutiny, grief, and love to her unthinkable circumstantial trials. I add my prayers to those of others for healing--for then, for now.


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  • Tania-looking forward to it! Don't know if I mentioned that when I was at U of Chicago, I woked at NORC (National Opinion Research Center) creating and field testing surveys and questionnaires. So as you might expect, anything that has the potential for "interviews", "surveys" and "questionnaires" definitely gets my full attention! So, has school started yet?

  • Tania Pryputniewicz

    Marlene, I just heard from Barbara too, so the movement's afoot to start up the interview project. Will send you a line ASAP on the potential plan. I'm looking forward to it...all those open kindergarten mornings looming before me (delicious!).

  • I'll vote for that one! And do let me know when you're ready to pursue the AROHO participants interview project we discussed just before departing. As I'd mentioned, count me in! All this in the event you should find yourself at a loss for things to do.


  • Tania Pryputniewicz

    Marlene, what a joy, that shuttle synchronicity! What a fabulous way to head to the retreat. With the gift of that conversation about The Seamstress, I realize I should've used a much stronger verb than "shepherd" to describe your work and involvement getting the manuscript published. The book remains profoundly important to me, and now I have the added pleasure of connecting it to your vibrant self, as well as the inspirations of our rich conversations. Here's to the conversations to come.

  • Tania-I'm honored and moved by your review of my mother's story. Thank you so much for sharing your poinant and well thought out views. And, the amazing power of serendipity: sitting next to you unknowingly on the shuttle from the airport to Ghost Ranch really makes this complete.

    Marlene (Bernstein) Samuels