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Michelle Fred

Online Book Club

Letters to My Father: Excavating a Jewish Identity in Poland and Belarus is a memoir by Kathleen A. Balgley. It's a story of one woman's journey to "rescue hope" in a hopeless place.


Kathleen had always felt a sense of otherness in her identity since childhood, and she couldn't tell why. Her father had always been tight-lipped about his cultural identity. Even her question to her mother about if her father was Jewish was met with "shhh." Then, during a visit to her grandparents' home, she had an epiphany. Her desire to learn more about her family's Jewish history saw her accept a Fulbright to teach in a remote town in communist Poland, her father's birth country. Guided by bashert (destiny), her search for answers brings her healing, not just for herself but for her father and extended relatives.


Kathleen excels at description. Her words give life to things and places, a talent that enriched her story. The narration of her time in communist Poland was particularly poignant. The way she described the indelible stench of diesel in the air, the bureaucracy required to get the simplest things done, and the people's constant suspicion of everyone and everything were remarkable. The pictures and documents she included in her writing made the narration more personable and drove her point home.


However, the highlight of the book is the feeling it invokes in the reader. Beyond the joy of reconnecting with long-lost relatives, Kathleen's memoir is a beacon for anyone who feels like they don't belong. Her quest to rescue hope and feel a sense of belonging, and her will to trudge on even when told she would always be lost, is an encouragement to anyone going through a similar situation to soldier on. Perhaps you may never truly belong, but you may come to embrace the beauty of the Tense Middle and its fluidity just like she did.


I love how descriptive the book is; however, the details can sometimes get overwhelming and slow down the book's pace. Again, I also found it odd that the author expended so much detail rationalizing the behavior of strangers and acquaintances. A case in point is how she tried to explain the likely cause of the change in Ivan's behavior and the attitude of the lady she and Julija met at the records office in Brest.


The author's writing has depth and a somber seriousness that provokes thought. I learned a lot about Poland and Jewish history from her story. Although the editing has some flaws, the flaws don't make the book any less deserving of 5 out of 5 stars.


Readers with an affinity for memoirs and history enthusiasts, especially fans of Jewish history, will appreciate the book. Also, reading Kathleen's story might help those who feel like they don't belong feel less alone.


Online Book Club


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