Inaptly titled book shows, once again, the long reach of the Holocaust

This book’s title is a turn-off, as is the picture on the cover, which shows a child wailing and pulling her hair. You would be tempted to pass it by in a bookstore.

At first glance, “My Parents Went Through the Holocaust and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt” seems to make light of one of the world’s greatest evils with the wordplay common on vacation T-shirts. As it turns out, this work is the quintessential example of the cliché, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

S. Hanala Stadner — the “S” stands for Suzan — joins a growing list of authors writing about their parents’ experiences as Holocaust survivors. Stadner’s contribution is a memoir with the Holocaust in the background.

Memoirs are like autobiographies, except that they are based on recollections of a distant past rather than culled from published sources or interviews. The writer’s intent is not so much to document the particulars of a life, but to make points about parents, relatives, friends or some historical event in the writer’s life.

In this book, Stadner makes her points with a vengeance. Stadner recounts that she was born to a dysfunctional “Ma” and “Daddy” who rarely stopped yelling at each other during her upbringing in Montreal.

But can they be blamed? During World War II, they were forest partisans in Poland, always on the run from the Nazis and unsympathetic Poles.

In any case, they seem incapable of good parenting. Their sense of priorities was warped beyond recognition based on today’s standards of childrearing. Stadner’s everyday problems pale in importance when compared to their Holocaust memories. Early in the book, a teacher writes an evaluation of Stadner in kindergarten, remarking that she “can’t keep fingers away from face.”

This was humiliating for Stadner, but her mother said: “Dat’s a problem? A Nazi chasing you, dat’s a problem.”

Stadner describes the angst and pain she experienced as a result of her singing voice and poor guitar playing at a camp, but she didn’t tell Ma because it couldn’t compare to Ma’s “camp.” According to Stadner, “don’t be stupid” was Ma’s stock answer to all Stadner’s questions and concerns about life. Daddy was no better; he was abusive and needed anger management for his bipolar disorder.

Stadner’s first way of dealing with her parents was to isolate herself in a basement room with a TV, where she constantly compared her life to the ideals and idols she saw there. Hardly a page goes by without mentioning some show or actor fighting for good over evil or growing up with well-adjusted parents — anything to escape from Ma and Daddy.

As she grew to adulthood, Stadner escaped from Montreal to Los Angeles after discovering she had a talent for show business, as well as for drugs, alcohol and bad relationships with people who were in no better shape (physically and mentally) than she was.

The reader wonders why she didn’t deal directly with the Holocaust and her parental issues, as other artists have done. Art Spiegelman, after all, was able to talk with his father in “Maus” (although he still needed a therapist). Perhaps Stadner’s case was one of bad daughtering compounding the bad parenting.

But Stadner eventually learns to cope with her history through Alcoholics Anonymous and a sympathetic therapist. Once clean, she gets odd jobs as an aerobics instructor and on TV game shows, then lands her own show on Los Angeles public access cable TV. After 30 years and 300 pages, she finally confronts her mother, who doesn’t get it.

If you get manage to get past the title and read this book, you will chuckle at Stadner’s cynical wit, wince at her pain and cry at her failures. You will squirm in discomfort and want to put the book down. You will be aggravated and frustrated that you can’t step into a time machine and tell her parents to get their act together and notice their daughter. At the same time, you will to want to scream at Stadner that drugs and alcohol are no way to cope with adversity. There will be many times when you want to throw the book in the trash.

But for all this, you will pick it up again to see how things turn out.

“My Parents Went Through the Holocaust and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt”

by S. Hanala Stadner (391 pages, Matter Inc./Seven Locks Press, $24.95 hard cover)