Countless books have been written about the atrocities of the Nazi Holocaust, with grim details about extermination camps, medical experimentation and forced labor. The deaths of six million Jews, five million Soviet prisoners of war, and thousands of Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, LGBTQ+ people and anarchists, socialists, and communists are well known. Nonetheless, few accounts zero in on the psychological and physical trauma that complicated reentry for those who survived. Hungarian-born Edith Bruck, author of Italy’s 2021 Strega Youth Prize-winning fictionalized memoir, Lost Bread (originally Il pane perduto), tells that story.
Bruck, who calls herself Ditke in the book, was taken to the first of several concentration camps when she was 12. Before war’s end, she lost both parents and a brother and was subjected to horrific abuse including starvation and physical assault.
Ditke credits her survival to luck — and to her older sister Judit, with whom she’d been imprisoned. Both eventually make it to safety.
But who can they trust? Although they manage to track down Miriam and Sarah, their two older sisters, as well as their beloved brother David, tensions quickly arise, and it becomes immediately apparent that they cannot reconstitute their pre-war closeness. This is magnified by economic insecurity, since none of the three have the financial resources to feed, clothe and shelter their traumatized kin. What’s more, they do not know how best to deal with the psychological issues that the pair presented. This leaves Judit and Ditke feeling unwelcome, as if they are a burden to an already-stressed community.
Judit determines that the only secure place is the newly-formed state of Israel. “We will learn a trade, the language of our ancestors. We will be at home, the Promised Land, the land God promised to Moses,” Judit tells her sister. But Ditke is not convinced. Nonetheless, she is eventually worn down and joins her sister in “the promised land.”
Once there, Ditke finds the Jewish homeland over-reliant on militarism. She also hates the treatment of the Palestinian population, people who’d lived on the land for centuries. Later, when she is called up to join the Israeli Army in defense of the nation, she refuses. Instead, she instead joins a dance troupe, and in 1954 begins touring. Stints in Turkey, Switzerland and Italy follow.
Lost Bread not only chronicles Bruck’s career on stage, but zeroes in on her decision to make Italy her home. Still active at 92 years old, the author not only addresses World War II-era barbarism, but casts a spotlight on today’s ascendant fascist movements in Italy and throughout the world.
“I feel the toxic wind blowing in the air, polluted by new forms of fascism, racism, nationalism, antisemitism,” Bruck writes in the book’s final pages. “These are poisonous plants which have never been eradicated and are sprouting again with new branches, their bitter leaves feeding the people who listen to those screaming in their name, who are hungry for a strong identity, for a loud, pure, white, Italian-ness. How sad, how dangerous it is.”
Indeed, Bruck has spent her life promoting peace, Holocaust remembrance and the arts. “Wars bring wars,” she concludes. “I would disarm the whole world.”
By Edith Bruck; translated by Gabriella Romani and David Yanoff
Paul Dry Books; 142 pages; U.S. release 18 July 2023