Daughter of survivor fictionalizes the painful past

"My mother has had a really, really tough life, and she should have had a really good old age," says Esther Erman of Mountain View. "She isn't having that."

Erman's 82-year-old mother suffers from dementia and "is very fragile." She doesn't know that Erman has just published a book — her very first — about her mother's journey from Poland to the death camps and then to America after the war.

"Just One" is the fictionalized account of the author's growing-up years in New York and New Jersey. It is related through three characters that Erman does not try to disguise. There is the girl, Esther; the mother, Gittel; and the grandmother, Estera — after whom Esther is named. Estera is in heaven, looking down on the other two, but is lucky enough to visit secretly with her granddaughter, whom she never knew on earth.

Erman's grandmother died at Treblinka. It took nearly 50 years for Erman to learn enough about her grandmother to come to understand that she was heroic in her own right.

"She saved you, Momma. Your mother," Esther tells Gittel at the end of the book. "By not letting you go with her. She wasn't Queen Esther — she didn't save all the Jews. But she saved one — and so she saved the whole world."

Writing "Just One" has helped Erman, now in her 50s, deal with her mother's decline.

The book took years to compose and get published. Erman had not planned on showing it to her parents. To the contrary, "I was very determined not to show it to my parents, because I thought it would be very painful."

She did share the manuscript with a close friend of theirs, however. After reading it, he told her, "Show it to them. They'll love it."

Though her mother was once "a voracious reader, that's pretty much gone away," says Erman. "So I don't know how much she's registering."

But her father, she says, "was fine, very positive about it." A survivor as well, he is not one to keep things inside; he has been interviewed and videotaped for Steven Spielberg's Visual History Foundation, and he volunteers to go into schools to talk about his wartime experiences.

Her mother is far more reticent. Her revelations about the Holocaust, which took the lives of her mother and sisters, came in pieces that did not neatly fit together. Information about her family's past "took over 50 years to come out," says Erman. "My mother would speak in random ways, sometimes inappropriate. That's a big difference between the book and my life."

In "Just One," the mother is forthcoming.

In reality, Erman had a somewhat difficult relationship with her mother and needed to fill in many gaps about her family's past for the book. She did not learn until her parents' 50th wedding anniversary, for example, that her grandmother had gotten a get, a halachic divorce decree, so she could marry another man. Tragically, this husband preceded her in death.

Erman conducted some of her research for her book while pursuing her doctorate at Rutgers University in New Jersey. A French major, she later did her dissertation on the effects the Holocaust had on Yiddish. Interestingly, she found that "Jews tend to lose Yiddish a generation faster than others [foreign-speaking immigrants] in this country. There's the association of language and persecution," she explains.

In her own case, Erman, who was born in Germany shortly after World War II, stopped speaking Yiddish as a young child in New York. "I couldn't speak English when I started school. I was totally traumatized by it."

Her family lived on the Lower East Side before moving to the Bronx, where she started kindergarten. In her former neighborhood, everyone spoke Yiddish. When her parents wanted to speak secretively, she says, they conversed in Polish.

As a 5-year-old entering public school, Erman simply gave up her first language, though her parents continued to speak to her in Yiddish. "I'm what they call 'passive bilingual.' I understand it. I don't speak it." To this day, "I cannot bring myself to speak Yiddish." Her parents "kind of glide between" Yiddish and English when speaking to her.

At Rutgers, she earned a master's in French and a degree in language education. Currently, she teaches English as a Second Language to students at Mountain View-Los Altos Adult School.

When she's not teaching or writing, she's often traveling. Her son and new grandchild live in England, her daughter lives in New York and her parents live in Florida. She has two stepsons close by. She met their father, Lee Erman, in 1993 at a Jewish Renewal retreat in upstate New York. At the time, she was in the last year of her doctoral work, which she'd begun following a divorce.

She married Erman in 1997 and moved to his home in Mountain View. They are now members of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto.

Though she has no doubt that "Just One" will be characterized as a Holocaust book, Erman says she considers it a "women's book," about intergenerational relationships.

Always, she was fascinated by the grandmother she never knew. When Erman finally fit all of the missing pieces together, she wrote them down in her novel. Her grandmother "had a life before a death…She had six kids, two marriages, a great love story and scandal."

In the book, which ends when Esther is about to go off to college, "the young girl goes away with some closure and resolution as she looked at her grandmother's life and found that she was heroic," says Erman. "She found comfort in this."

As for closing the distance between herself and her mother, that's another story. In the book, Esther says: "I'd been looking for heroines since I was little, feeling there had been none in my family. I saw now that Bubbe was a heroine — and so was Momma. And I understood Momma a bit more, especially why she was so sad to see me leave for college. Just as Bubbe wanted, I would be kind to her."

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.