Book Club‎ > ‎

September 2018: From Krakow to Berkeley (Rabkin)

posted Oct 12, 2018, 3:58 PM by East Bay Smith Club

Our book for September was Anna Rabkin’s fascinating memoir:  From Kraków to Berkeley: Coming Out of Hiding, An immigrants search for identity and belonging.  If Rabkin’s name sounds familiar, it might be because she was Berkeley’s City Auditor from 1979 to 1994.  She is also quite active in an East Bay organization for retired women called Free Agents at Berkeley (F.A.B.).  Our Nancy Spaeth is a F.A.B. member too and, thanks to her invitation, Rabkin came to our meeting to talk about her book and to answer our questions.  Perhaps in anticipation of her visit, we had a pretty good turnout, with 12 of us in attendance plus our speaker.  

In the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech in As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote that “one man in his time plays many parts.”  I thought of this passage often as I read Rabkin’s book, as her life seemed divided into such distinct acts.  She was born in Poland in 1935, and the first few years of her life were spent in upper class comfort in Kraków.  After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, her family fled east to the city of Lwów, where they were forced into a Jewish ghetto and eventually into hiding.   Of the 200,000 Jews living in the city, only 1,000 survived the war.  Rabkin and her brother were among them.  

Rabkin’s understanding of what was happening during these dark years was limited by her young age and the narrow confines of her life in hiding.  However, what she remembers, she describes in vivid, and often harrowing, detail.   As disturbing as this description is, most of us found ourselves tearing through these early chapters, caught up in the story and eager to discover the fates of Rabkin’s family members. 

There is enough in these early pages to fill a whole book.  However, Rabkin’s early life in Poland takes up only the first of the book’s four parts and only five of its forty chapters.  The other parts describe her adolescence in boarding schools in England, her young adulthood in New York, and her marriage, family and career in Berkeley.    Some of us were surprised to note that our enthusiasm for the book continued unabated as we read about Rabkin’s life after the war.  I guess we have read numerous descriptions of the horrors of World War II, but we haven’t as often seen how these traumas shaped the years that followed and how survivors coped with their losses and reconstructed their lives and their senses of identity.   

It was a privilege to share in this remarkable woman’s story and to learn of her setbacks and regrets as well as her successes and triumphs.  It was a reminder of the power of the human spirit and of the value of a single human life.  Thus, Rabkin’s book helps us both to remember the Holocaust and to realize just how much was lost when so many millions of lives were cut short.

We really enjoyed the chance to talk with Rabkin at our meeting.  She told us a lot about her writing process and how much she relied on her working relationships with the other women in her writing group.   She talked about how she did her research for the book, and how family members responded to her writing.  She also stressed her motives for publishing the book.  In particular, she is horrified by the anti-immigrant rhetoric that surfacing in our society and shaping our country’s policies.  Her story is a story of immigration, and in many ways, it is a quintessentially American story.    It is also a stark reminder of what can happen when people let xenophobia and racism drive their politics.   We mustn’t forget our history.  We mustn’t turn our back on refugees and people in need.