What’s past is present

'Daughter of History’ is Susan Rubin Suleiman’s tracing of her immigrant childhood.


Memory is a tricky thing. It can be fluid … remembering is not an objective, static act. Noted author, literary scholar, and seasonal Islander Rubin Suleiman’s “Daughter of History: Traces of an Immigrant Girlhood” expertly conveys the sense of shifting reality when we recall the past. Throughout her thoughtful memoir, Suleiman will admit that something might have occurred because of this or because of something else — or that it occurred one way or possibly another. “History often proves to be more complicated, and more difficult to fit into a single coherent narrative, than memory makes it out to be,” Suleiman writes early on. This transparency about the fallibility of memory is part of what makes “Daughter of History” so intimate. Equally as important, though, is Suleiman’s frequent self-revelation about the reasons for her actions as an adult being caused perhaps by the trauma of her childhood.

Suleiman uses objects such as her mother’s silver pin, her father’s miniature traveling chess set, and black-and-white photographs of herself and her close family as a jumping-off point for telling her life story. The journey begins in Hungary, where 5-year-old Susan lived with her parents during World War II after the Nazis marched in. She had to learn to call herself by the Christian name she bore in the family’s false papers, while all her cousins, uncles, and aunts in the provinces were among the 450,000 Hungarian Jews deported to Auschwitz.

About the latter, Suleiman revealingly writes, “I learned about this many years later, after I began to un-forget Hungary — that is how I thought of the awakening that came upon me around the time my mother entered her last illness … Until then, the 10 years I had spent in Budapest, the first 10 years of my life, were a distant memory to which I felt almost no connection. Of course I knew what had happened to me in my childhood, but I never talked about it, never told stories about that time to my husband or my sons. I barely even thought about it myself, too busy with my career, with motherhood, with all the obligations of a working American woman’s life.”

Suleiman also frequently recounts a memory in the present tense, which further creates a sense of intimacy, as though we are right there with her: “In the middle of the night, my mother wakes me up and dresses me. She and my father and grandmother speak in whispers, hurrying. After I’m dressed, still half asleep, my mother takes me by the hand and runs down the stairs with me. Or maybe she picks me up and runs, carrying me. She has torn the yellow star off her jacket. At the bottom of the stairs, we slow down. There are gendarmes on both sides of the street door, the concierge standing next to them … Her job is to identify the Jewish tenants so that none leave the building on their own. She sees us but says nothing.”

Suleiman’s immediate family survives — and even thrives — briefly after the war, until the Communist Party crackdown in Hungary in 1948. What follows is a circuitous emigration to America that originates in being arrested at the border on their way to Vienna, and then their journey to Paris, Haiti, New York, and eventually Chicago.

While the sense of danger is past, we follow Suleiman from her teens striving to become as “American” as possible, through her Barnard College years, major relationships, post-college launch into her impressive teaching and writing career, motherhood as well as the evolution of how she began to look back at both the personal and the impact of the larger history during her earlier life.

Suleiman likewise shares about her parents and her growing insights into them, especially her mother, thereby creating a robust sense of their role in her life. In the prologue, she speaks about the metaphoric place of both the small personal items brought from Hungary and her memories being relics: “I cannot expect my relics to help me achieve wholeness, but I can aspire to reconciliation. In accounting, reconciliation is the process of ensuring that two sets of records are in agreement; in human relations, reconciliation is the process of mending a broken relationship … Is it possible to mend a broken relationship with a person who is no longer there to participate in the process? Can one mend a broken relationship to time and space, to home?”

And in the epilogue, Suleiman writes about why her memoir doesn’t delve deeply into her impressive career as a literary theorist, feminist critic, and specialist in memory of World War II and the Holocaust: “That would be a whole other book. In this one, I have wanted to explore how I became the woman I am … I once wrote that we are not only the children of our parents, that history too nourishes us or deprives us of nourishment; James Baldwin expressed a similar idea when he asserted that ‘history is literally present in all that we do.’”

Written with insight and vivid detail, Suleiman’s memoir encourages us all to consider how the relationship between our personal past and the times and events in which we live helps shape us into who we are now.

“Daughter of History: Traces of an Immigrant Girlhood,” by Susan Rubin Suleiman, will be available at Edgartown Books in May.