3 out of 4 stars
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All of us have family stories — the fairy tale of how our parents met, an anecdote about the day we were born, memories of trips we’d taken, and accounts of all other milestones in our lives. In My Sister’s Eyes, Joan Arnay Halperin employs a combination of short narratives, family photographs, letters, and other documents to chronicle her family's story — a moving tale of escape, survival, and loss that took place against the bleak backdrop of World War II.
Joan’s parents, Ignas Krakowiak and Hala Kaplan, met in Lodz, Poland on a blind date and got married in 1935. Amidst the threat of an invasion from Nazi Germany, the couple started their life together, relocating to Brussels, Belgium where they welcomed the birth of a daughter. When war finally struck, the fledgling family escaped through France, Spain, and Portugal, getting stranded in an evacuee camp in Jamaica before eventually securing passage to Brooklyn, New York. Their safety, however, came at a huge price, with the family suffering a tragic blow before reaching their journey’s end. More than a decade later, a fortuitous encounter with a fellow Polish immigrant revealed a family secret that inspired Joan to write this book.
As a narrative nonfiction written for young adults, My Sister’s Eyes vividly depicts the horror that beset the persecuted peoples in Europe during World War II. So much of the past has been lost to today’s youth, with events reduced to mere chapters in a history book and recalled only when needed for a test in school. Photographs and letters have a way of bringing the past to life, and the book’s use of combined textual and visual elements made for a very visceral and immersive read. One picture, in particular, stood out in my mind — a road sign that read, “Jews Unwanted.” It’s a potent reminder of the vilest facets of human nature, but through this “momentary triumph of evil,” we find tremendous inspiration in the goodness shown by others. A noteworthy example recounted in the book is the defiance of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul General who (against orders from his own president) issued visas to anyone fleeing the war. Sousa Mendes’ bravery shows us that it’s never easy to do the right thing, but doing so might just save thousands of lives.
As a family memoir, My Sister’s Eyes highlights the human bonds and relationships forged through collective suffering. Joan notes, “After the Holocaust good friends rose to the status of aunt and uncle, since so many of the real ones were gone.” The narrative puts a human face on the plight of refugees and immigrant families, particularly the long and difficult road it took for them to find a new home. Apart from demonstrating to young readers the concepts of conscience and moral courage, the book also invites discussion on the value of diversity and the importance of our shared humanity.
I wanted to give My Sister’s Eyes the full score. However, two points compelled me to reduce the rating to 3 out of 4 stars. First, the story’s structure diminished the emotional impact of the family secret. As it can be inferred already from the start, I wish Joan had started with the revelation itself before proceeding to bring the pieces together. Second, there were several missing punctuation marks and other typographical errors throughout the text that detracted from the flow of reading. A round of editing should easily clear this up.
My Sister’s Eyes is perfect for anyone who wants to revisit the past from a refugee family’s perspective. Young readers, in particular, will gain a greater appreciation of history from this memoir. Apart from lending insight into a dark period in humanity’s past, Joan has also shared a vital piece of her family’s history. I feel very privileged to have read their story.
My Sister's Eyes
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