Join me in welcoming Tema Merback to Highlighted Author.
Tema was born to a Holocaust survivor, Dina Frydman from Radom, Poland and Leo Balbien who was rescued by the Kindertransport from Vienna, Austria. She was raised in a loving home by two people whose lives had been shattered by the Holocaust, though in entirely different ways. She attended Granada Hills High School, worked countless jobs, and became a Kathryn McBride Scholar at Bryn Mawr College, following her passion for literature and art history. As she married and had children, her desire to write was deferred by the demands of a family.
Through the years, several writers have approached her mother with hopes of telling her miraculous tale of survival. Unbeknownst to Tema, her mother had long ago determined that only she could bring this book to fruition, that only she would write it with an intimacy and compassion that no one else could. In the Face of Evil is the result of a collaboration of two forever bound souls, a mother and a daughter.
Ranking #12 on Book Movement, In the Face of Evil has received outstanding recognition, including Silver Finalist in the category of Young Adult Literature for the National Jewish Book Awards for 2011 and being an eBook of note on the prestigious International Raoul Wallenberg Website whose members include Nobel Laureates and International world leaders.
You can find more at The Jewish Journal, April 26, 2011, by Ryan Torok: A daughter tells her mother’s story of the Holocaust, The Jewish Journal, May3, 2011, by Ryan Toro: Holocaust Book Reading Brings on Reunion and More, and MalibuPatch, April 29, 2011, by Jonathan Friedman: A Novel Idea to Tell a Survivor’s Story.
Welcome, Tema. Please tell us about yourself and how you came to write In the Face of Evil.
When I was a child I knew my mother was different. I didn’t really hear her accent but all of my friends did and would ask, “Where is your mother from? Is she from Hungary? She looks like Zsa Zsa Gabor.”
“Poland, she’s from Poland,” I would answer. To my friends my mother’s foreignness was other worldly. She might as well have been an alien from another planet. She was an enigma even to me as I tried to fathom the differences between her and my friend’s parents. It wasn’t such a stretch of the imagination for me to conclude that I didn’t really know my mother. From time to time I wondered why my mother had no father, mother or siblings. What had happened to my grandparents? I wondered why she had a tattoo on her forearm and why during the summer she wore a Band-aid to cover it up. Later when I asked her why she wore the Band-aid? She would shrug and say she didn’t want to be stared at or endure the inevitable questions that the indelibly blue A-14569 would elicit from strangers.
In the 50’s and 60’s no one spoke of the Holocaust or World War II for that matter. I don’t remember ever learning about it in school, at least in terms of the Holocaust. I was about nine when I finally began to persistently question her as to the mysteries that surrounded her. You see, I didn’t just love my mother I was in love with my mother. She was so startlingly beautiful that all of my friends would constantly comment on her beauty. It was like an aura that shone so brightly that even children were taken with her. Forget about the countless men that were drawn to her. Even with four children in tow between the ages of three and nine they would come up to her and hit on her, using any excuse just to bask in her glow. She enjoyed being beautiful but was never comfortable or secure with it. In other words, she never really owned it. It was just some fluke of nature, something she hadn’t earned. I, however, only wanted to look like her and be like her.
She was hesitant to share her past but I must have been relentless because little-by-little she began to share her stories. At first, she spoke mostly about her family, reminiscences of incidents and events, family history and the city she came from. Her eyes would light up in reverence as she spoke of her father, mother, sister and brother, her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Then as suddenly, her eyes would cloud up and fill with tears as I continued to badger her for an answer as to what had happened to them. Eventually, she shared it all with me and I became part daughter, part psychologist, and part family historian. It became a routine that on Sunday morning I would climb into bed with her and having saved up a hundred questions during the week I would interrogate her. I was insatiable for answers and this hour usually ended with the two of us sobbing. I would wrap my arms around her feeling guilt that I had provoked such sorrow, wanting to comfort the pain that could not be comforted. I felt like the parent, the protector of this soul that had known such horror and lost so much. It seemed inconceivable to me that anyone could survive what she had. In my efforts to reassure her I would promise to never leave her and profess my love of her for all of time. “Mommy, when you die I don’t want to live another day.” She would laugh and say, “Of course you want to live. Life is the most precious thing we possess. Believe me, even with all of the evil in the world there is nothing sweeter than life.” So would another session end with her hugging me, “Besides, I am not leaving so fast I will be with you a long time.”
My mother has kept that promise to her child of being with her for a long time. The days and years have flown by as they tend to do and I feel that the circle that is life gets ever smaller. She is older now and not a day goes by that I don’t worry about her fragility. Yes, she is still beautiful but not in that effervescent lusciousness of youth. Her beauty is more haunting and like a mirror her face reflects the years of deprivation and loss that were her teens. Yet, her spirit is as pure and incandescent as it ever was. It is a mystery to me how anyone who has witnessed what she has could hold such an enduring belief in the goodness of mankind. Today, she often reminds me of an ancient philosopher of Greece. Ever the pragmatic idealist, she has long resigned herself to the inexplicability of life.
It is important to remember during these rapturous days that are summer that even with all of the imperfections and disappointments that come with the daily task of living, there are miracles to be sure. My mother lives by example and she is an example to us all. Be sure to appreciate all that you have been given and all those that you love.
I always knew that one day I would write and publish a novel, the question was never if, but rather what and when. Subject matter presented itself wherever I looked, however, for some reason I was not prepared to tackle the one story that was personal, the one that threatened perilously near my heart. Creating the story of my mother’s survival of the Holocaust seemed a journey through Hell and one that might prove to be too painful to revisit. Then it struck me, what if the memoir became a novel written in the present, in the voice of my mother as it occurred. The journey would become one of hope, a passage from ashes to redemption. A novel of an adolescent transformed into womanhood set against the background of world conflagration. “In the Face of Evil” was born.
I am currently writing my second novel.
About Dina Frydman Balbien
Dina Frydman was born in 1929 in Radom, Poland. Radom is situated about forty-five minutes by car from the capital city of Warsaw. Her parents Joel and Temcia Frydman were hard working people that owned and worked at their Kosher and non-Kosher butcher shop. Dina had an older sister Nadja who was six years her senior and a younger brother Abek that was three years her junior. They were an educated middle-class family, religious yet modern. They saw the future as a bright beacon of possibility, a place where Jews would find through education and hard work equality and success.
In September of 1939 when Dina was 10 years old all of the Frydman family’s dreams and aspirations were ended when the Nazis conquered Poland. From that moment forward until sixteen year old Dina’s liberation at Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp life become a deadly game of survival. From work camps to death camps Dina did, through countless miracles, survive. Sadly, none of her family would share that fate. Her mother, father, sister and brother were murdered at Treblinka and Auschwitz. Only two of her cousins from her extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents survived.
After Dina’s liberation she spent time at DP facilities in Germany and a school for orphans at Aglasterhausen, Germany before immigrating to the United States in May 1946. She lived in foster care with a family in Philadelphia and attended Overbrook High School for two years. In 1949 she moved to Los Angeles, CA to live with a cousin that offered her a permanent home. She graduated from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights and through necessity went to work. OnApril 5, 1952 she married Leo Balbien, a Kinder Transport immigrant from Vienna Austria who served in the US Army.
Dina was a full-time mother to her four children: Tema Nadine (named for her mother and sister), Joel Abraham (named for her father and brother), Joshua Nathan (named for both of her grandfathers), and Sarah Gail (named for both of her grandmothers).
In the last twenty-five years Dina has spoken to schools and synagogues in California about the Holocaust. In 2008 her daughter Tema Merback began a novel based on her amazing story that was published in January 2011. In the Face of Evil: Based on the Life of Dina Frydman Balbien has received critical acclaim from readers throughout the world and now has been honored by the National Jewish Book Council as a Finalist – National Jewish Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation has also recognized In the Face of Evil as an e-book of note by recommending it on their prestigious website www.raoulwallenberg.net .
The novel, like The Diary of Anne Frank, spellbinds the reader with its ability to recreate the world in which Dina lived prior, during and after the war. Written in Dina’s voice we experience her transformation from child to teenager to woman while surviving occupation, destruction and imprisonment. Through it all Dina’s strength, perseverance and positivity all factored into her survival. She retained and exemplified the only possession left her by her loving family: Morality, ethics, love and forgiveness.
Her life is an inspiration to friends, family and all who read her story. Dina lives in Thousand Oaks, CA with her husband Leo. They have seven grandchildren.
What they’re are saying:
“This book is the outcome of three miracles. First, the mother Dina Frydman, lived through the Holocaust, surviving an unbelievable, all too true set of tragic experiences that wiped out her entire family: occupation, ghetto, work camp, slave labor, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen (in its final stage of total collapse and chaos). Miraculously, she came through with her goodness, honor and affirmation of life intact. This book reflects those qualities.
Second miracle: for decades, in an incredible feat of memory, Dina relived and told her stories, recounting them with pitch perfect recollection, including a vivid gallery of portraits of friends, family, victims, persecutors, and with vital scenes of the kindness and cruelty of strangers, the love and incapacity of family, the support and saving help of friends.
Third miracles: Dina’s daughter, Tema Merback, absorbed these stories and reproduced them in this authentic, gripping, moving account. What the mother could not do – put her testimony in a book – the daughter has done and without losing any of the fire, or the suffering, or the heartbreak or the moments of relief and of despair. In the end this book communicates an irrepressible, overflowing life force and decency and hope in the face of the most inhuman crimes ever.
As authentic, as compelling, as devastating as a survivor’s account written at first hand, this book snatches memory and life from the jaws of oblivion and gives them as a gift to its readers.
This book was a mitzvah to write and a mitzvah to read.”—Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, Founding President, Jewish Life Network; Founding President, CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; Chairman, United States Holocaust Memorial Council, 2000-2002.
Tema Merback, October 16th guest speaker at Santa Monica College for their Literary Lecture Series.
In the Face of Evil
Seventy years have elapsed since the end of my childhood and the beginning of World War II. The destruction of community and family that followed the German invasion and conquering of Poland precipitated and forced me into an unnatural adulthood. The odd windfall of this calamitous event is a searing imprint of memory. Faces and voices have followed me my entire life offering up their advice and counsel, whether desired or not, shadowing each step as I steered my course through the seas of life. At times they have proven to be more real to me than yesterday’s events. Often, these friendly ghosts have capriciously danced through the corridors of my dreams as real and alive as the last day that I saw them. Like the story of “Brigadoon,” the mythical community of book and song that reappeared every hundred years and for one shiny bright inexplicable moment sparkled through the mists of Scotland, so has the vanished world of Radom, Poland returned to me in dreams and at times in waking just as it was long ago. The joyous community with its various degrees of religiosity, the marketplaces and shops, the places of learning, the observance of holidays, the intellectual liveliness, and of course the devotion and celebration of the Sabbath are all safely locked inside the reels of memory that play like a film in my mind, alive again.
Although I have tried at times to put the war behind me for both mine and my children’s sanity, like the tattoo that I bear, it is burned into me and has colored every moment of my life. With the passage of time there have been endless books with their endless revelations as to why or how such a nightmare could have occurred, but in the end the only lesson learned is that it happened. The Holocaust happened and millions perished through systematic slaughter. A world of people with their joys and sorrows disappeared and with them went a way of life. The apocalypse has long passed and the years have flown by like the clouds in a windblown sky. Soon there will be no survivors left and the keepers of the memory will be just that, a memory. So it has come to me, the bearer of the torch, the last to remember their sweet sojourn among friends and enemies before I, too, leave this world of bitter sweetness. The tale has now been written of those who lived, that they may endure and that you might know them.
Dina Frydman Balbien
Radom, Poland Summer of 1939
An Ordinary Family
From the window of our apartment, I look down on the bustling streets. The morning sun shines on my street, Koszarowa Ulica, a busy thoroughfare in Radom’s Jewish quarter. Placing my hand on the window, I feel the warmth radiate through the glass. The bright August morning pours into my bedroom, casting away the shadows of a doubt-filled night. The ordinary ebb and flow of life seems to continue in a reassuring cycle of sunrises and sunsets.
Across the street, the shopkeepers are opening their stores. Michal the baker comes out and looks at the sky. A smile spreads across his plump face as he brushes some flour from his prominent nose. Mrs. Rabinowicz greets him, and with a last wistful glance at the sky, he follows her into his bakery. The birds’ songs crescendo in the tall chestnut trees lining the street, adding to the symphony of daily life. People hurry through the busy streets in pursuit of their daily callings. Bicyclists weave among the horse-drawn carriages, or dorozkas1, the principle form of transportation throughout Poland’s cities. Life seemed normal enough on this warm summer day in 1939. I rub my eyes in an effort to dispel the dream that still plagues me, trying to make sense of the visions of the night. It has been two years since my beloved zaida2 passed away. Last night in my sleep, he came to me. Reaching across the barriers that separate the living from the dead, he touched me in an urgent gesture to communicate. Standing at the foot of my bed, silently beckoning me to acknowledge his presence, he hovered; his large immaterial body shimmered before me. His eyes, the color of blue ice, bore into me through the veil of death. He conveyed a warning I could not fathom. The ghostly apparition had disturbed my peaceful slumber and I had brusquely shooed my grandfather away, reminding him that he belonged in the afterworld of the dead.
I awoke with a horrible feeling of guilt and remorse. Why had I not reached out to him full of the love we once felt for one another? I had not asked him why he was there. Instead, in the imaginary landscape of my dream, I had told him to leave and not to return. How could I have sent my beloved grandfather away? I tried to brush the vision from my mind and replace it with the happy memory of my grandfather as he was in life, Jekiel starke, meaning Jekiel the strong in Yiddish. Rhythmically swaying in his rocking chair, he impatiently waited for our cherished daily routine—when I climbed on his lap and kissed him. Together we would rock as he told me stories of his youth, the security of his arms enfolding me, his white beard tickling until I was reduced to giggles. The fond memories of a favorite grandchild encircled me in a blissful cloak of warmth and safety, shielding me from the terrors of the dream.
Find more about Tema here: