The Lightness of Air by Angela Miller-Rothbart

Angela Miller-Rothbart

Review by Beryl Eichenberger, book reviewer, interviewer and broadcaster, member of the JLF organising committee since 2016

Retirement is a time that some of us dread, while others grab and pursue passions that have had to take a back seat during our working years. 

So it was with Angela Miller-Rothbart whose passion for writing was the kickstart to joining a writing group with the idea of writing a blog. Alongside that, a passion for people led her to join the Cape Town Jewish Seniors Association. There she met a Holocaust survivor, some years her senior, but whose vitality matched Angela’s and they became firm friends. We are natural storytellers and, as with all friendships, it is part of the process to share our personal stories at some stage, and Angela’s friend started opening up to her. 

Her story captured Angela’s imagi-nation and, “it started living with me, it hung around me all the time.” Still intent on writing a blog, she was pushed by her writing facilitator to write this story, and what started as a short story began to morph into a novella and then a full-length novel. Angela hastens to add “It is not my friend’s story, but so much of what she told me created the platform for the novel, which is a tapestry of many stories. The characters moved in with me, becoming part of my family, to the extent that I could not sleep at night. It was as though they were telling me what to write, almost as if I was a channel for them. Even now they haven’t gone home — I can still go to them and disappear into their lives.” 

The Lightness of Air took three years to write, and after much consultation with writers and friends, publishing was the next goal — a daunting task for any writer but for someone in their 70s, perhaps even more terrifying. But the redoubtable Angela was not about to give up. 

The result is evocative and authentic — a novel that will grasp you and not let you go until the last page as you journey with a Bergen-Belsen survivor. The writing will sweep you along in the waves of loss, survival and happiness — a reminder that happiness is of one’s own making.

There are many Holocaust novels, some better than others, but each a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit and the will to live. Each has its place in keeping memory alive and passing on a legacy to future generations, as the last of the survivors pass on. At the Jewish Literary Festival in 2018, author, editor and publisher Jane Raphaely gave a session on books as a legacy for our children to better understand their Jewish identity. I would include this book on that list. Lest we forget…

It is a writer’s skill to hook us on the first page and so it was when I started The Lightness of Air. As the book opens we meet Holocaust survivor Helena Jablonski in 1990. It is afternoon and Helena is at her desk, contemplating what has arrived that day… ‘It has been there all day. The long white envelope is weathered with age, the familiar script on the front faded but still legible. That and the foreign stamp, indicate to her what it is certain to contain.’ 

And so we are enticed into this story of love and courage… ‘She is aware that the contents could alter her life, and she knows how swiftly the world can tumble and change.’ As she muses: ‘This is my connection with past and present, but will it deepen old wounds?’ 

Helena, from a privileged Polish Jewish family, is incarcerated in Bergen–Belsen. As liberation dawns she is reunited with her closest friend Sofia. The two struggle to the American Zone in their attempt to get to Palestine. Both their futures will be shaped by the kindness of those trying to help the displaced, hollow survivors. Helena is billeted with the motherly Rachel who becomes her lifelong friend. Max Harris, the young American volunteer plays a pivotal role, and we meet new characters who influence and enrich. We travel from Poland to Paris, New York and the Middle East, and Paarl, where Angela herself was brought up. Each stop brings richness and new lessons into Helena’s shattered life. It is a testament to resilience, to grabbing opportunity, to opening one’s arms to friends who become family. 

The empathy and tenderness in this story will resonate with families across the world. Many survivors were unable to speak of their experiences, and so it is with gratitude that we are able to journey with this courageous young woman. Navigating a life post-camp, post-war and across continents to find some peace from her horrific losses, the winding path through the decades is rich and engaging and heart-rending. How survivors of the worst horrors faced a future is hard to assimilate. Angela articulates the basic tenets of loss, love and happiness with a rhythmic prose that is mesmerising. 

She has adeptly created the back-stories of the main characters. Many of us are descendants of immigrants who escaped pogroms, poverty and war to make a better life for future generations. We were brought up with the stories, we understand the importance of the treasures passed from generation to generation, we learned about persecution. 

Shifting effortlessly from present to past, Angela has created these immigrant families, their hardships, their precious heirlooms, the continuation of their Jewish lives, their successes and sorrows in an ineffable atmosphere that brings the reader into their homes. Above all the novel is a story of hope and forgiveness while never sidestepping the horrors of the war and the painful blocks on which a survivor rebuilds their shattered life. 

Asked if there is another novel in the making Angela says, ‘I do feel there is an empty space and I am missing my happy place… but I am waiting for the characters to leave me, let go and then I can pick up the pieces.’

Steve Linde, Editor-in-Chief of the Jerusalem Report notes, “This is a poignant, quintessentially Jewish story which is beautifully written…” I could not agree more.

The Lightness of Air by Angela Miller-Rothbart is published by Texture. It will be available in all good book stores in June. The Jacob Gitlin Library has copies for borrowing.

Fine Music Radio 101.3 will be broadcasting a review of this book on 6 June in Book Choice from 12 to 1pm. The programme will be podcast later on

Published in the PDF edition of the May 2022 issue – Click here to read it.

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