Arts and Culture

Mother-daughter memoir plumbs Holocaust legacy

Many Holocaust memoirs cross our desks at the Arizona Jewish Post. “Waltzing With the Enemy: A Mother and Daughter Confront the Aftermath of the Holocaust” (Penina Press) has an evocative title and an Arizona connection (Phoenix, not Tucson), but what intrigued me most are the many dualities in this work by Rasia Kliot and her daughter, Helen Mitsios.

Born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Vilnius, Lithuania, blond-haired blue-eyed Rasia survives the Holocaust by posing as a Polish Catholic peasant. Toward the war’s end, she marries a Greek man and eventually they settle in Arizona. She becomes a regular at the Greek Orthodox church but enrolls her daughter in Catholic grade school, aware on some subconscious level that she is “providing her with a Christian identity if the need ever arose … I equated Christianity with survival.”

At age 8, Helen wears a white gown and veil to her confirmation; she collects holy cards depicting the saints and fervently recites the rosary. But on a visit to her mother’s surviving relatives in Montreal when she is 12, she’s drawn into a warm, mysterious world of Shabbat dinners and Passover Seders. Rasia confesses that she is actually Jewish, telling Helen she can choose whatever religion she wants, yet warning her that their Jewish background must remain a secret — not to be discussed outside the family, especially not at church.

There’s much more to “Waltzing with the Enemy”: Rasia’s escape from the ghetto and her many terrifying close calls (yes, she really does waltz with a German soldier); Rasia and Helen’s complicated mother-daughter relationship; Helen’s struggles to integrate her splintered identity. As narrators, Rasia and Helen provide unique perspectives, but they share a strength of spirit that makes this memoir unusually compelling.