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Fearful legacy?: 'Bending Toward the Sun'

December 10, 2009 |  7:02 am


The memoir "Bending Toward the Sun” describes Rita Lurie's tragic circumstances as a 5-year-old Polish Jew who was forced -- recalling the experience of Anne Frank, whom Francine Prose has most recently written about -- to hide out in a farmhouse attic with 15 members of her tight-knit family from 1942-44. They existed on scraps of food and very little sunlight; in the attic, she witnessed the deaths of her baby brother and, soon after, her mother.

After the war, she traveled around Europe with her father and older sister, picking up a stepmother along the way. They eventually immigrated to the U.S., where Rita settled in Los Angeles and raised a family of her own; her eldest daughter and co-author, Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, is a TV executive and philanthropist. In "Bending," they examine not only the aftermath of the war but also how a parent's fears of loss, doubts and uncertainties can be transmitted to future generations. Not only did Gilbert-Lurie grow up afraid of venturing far from home, she has also struggled with her own daughter’s separation anxieties.

Liesl Bradner talked to the authors as they prepared for events next month at Hillel at UCLA and Vroman's Bookstore.

Jacket Copy: What were your hopes in writing this memoir?

Leslie Gilbert-Lurie: It started with wanting to help my mom.  Ten years ago she heard the comments of a lot of Holocaust deniers, and this upset her. This memoir was her answer to them. She also wanted to show how people could go through the worst experience imaginable, survive and survive well. Working with her on it was a great experience for me; it was definitely a bonding experience for both of us.

JC:  Rita, in the book you describe Shabbos (Shabbat) and how your family attempted to continue practicing Jewish traditions even in a cold, cramped attic. Because of the horrors you went through, though, were there ever any moments when you doubted the existence of God?

Rita Lurie: Absolutely. But I never lost my faith. I certainly questioned it. I’ve come to an understanding that there is something greater than myself, a spirit, a power. I choose to believe that life is worth living, even if it’s very difficult, a struggle -- that we're aways bending toward the sun.

JC: Leslie, you write how you didn’t participate in your senior trip out of town because the “anxiety of going away, of being unable to get back home if I wanted to, overshadowed everything else.” Do you think your mother’s own fears held you back? Or was this something you put on yourself?

LGL: It was both -- but I'd say it also came mainly from me. I had a sense that mothers could just disappear. My mom didn’t say to me, “Oh, don’t worry, it will be just fine,” either. Writing the memoir made me hope that I will be able to raise my children to be appropriately cautious and not to let their own fears hold them back.

JC: On the other hand, Rita, you feel that you did transfer your feelings of fear to your children, is that right?

RL: That’s the reason why I didn’t talk about my past too much when they were young. But as they got older, and as I had intense feelings of depression, they sensed these feelings anyway. I couldn’t shield it from them any longer. I would give them little tidbits about my past. I thought it was healthier to tell them so that maybe they could begin to understand my depression.

More on "Bending Toward the Sun" after the jump

JC: What advice can many overprotective mothers -- feeling similar fears of death or abandonment -- draw from reading "Bending Toward the Sun"?

RL: Try to be informed and do the best thing for your child. One has to be selfless in raising kids. Try to  distance your own pain, but you might also talk about it. Remember that their lives are separate from your own and, most important of all, try to understand their own fears.

JC: Rita, you write how, during your last bout of deep depression, you told Leslie that you just needed to be held and cuddled, like a child. Do you feel that a part of you has remained that 5-year-old little girl, hiding and wanting to be taken care of?

RL: Oh, yes, especially when I wake up in the morning. I feel a deep, deep longing and a void. There is a yearning for a kind of closeness that I don't think most people would understand.

-- Liesl Bradner

Bradner is a regular contributor to The Times.

Photo credits: Book cover by Amy Gordon; Rita Lurie (left) and her sister, Sara, in Italy in 1946, courtesy of the authors.