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Gabrielle Gouch. 2013. Once, Only the Swallows Were Free.

Gabrielle Gouch. 2013. Once, Only the Swallows Were Free. Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 280 pages. ISBN: 9781921665998. (Paperback). $AU29.95.

The Jewish world experienced four major historical developments in the twentieth century which significantly remodelled that world. These were the rise of Nazism and the destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust; the emergence of the modern state of Israel; the flight of Jews from the Arab-Muslim world; and the difficulties for Jews under Communism, with the resultant attempts to escape the tyrannical system through reunion with family in their historic homeland, Israel.

For over a millennium, Europe was the centre of Jewish life, but as a result of these twentieth century developments, European Jewry was depleted, while the ancient Jewish communities of the Middle East have largely been eradicated. Consequently, the Jewish world has experienced a dramatic demographic shift, with the United States and Israel emerging as the two largest population centres for world Jewry. Much has been written about the Holocaust, both in terms of academic literature and personal memoirs, and the same applies to the history of Israel, particularly in regard to the ongoing Arab/Palestinian conflict with Israel. There has been much less attention given to either Jews under Communism or Jews from Arab lands, yet these are important areas that need to be researched and analysed as part of the modern Jewish experience.

Gabrielle Gouch provides a personal account of life for Jews under Communism in Romania and the challenges experienced by those who decided to apply to migrate to Israel under the family reunion program, as well as their experiences in readjusting to life in Israel. As with other personal memoirs, this account provides an insight into a period of Jewish history through the individual story of one family.

Gouch begins her story with her mother waiting for the mail, and hopefully a passport for Israel, when Gouch is a schoolgirl living in Petrosani in the region of the South Carpathian Mountains in Romania, close to the Transylvanian border. She does not present the story in chronological order but weaves back and forth between more recent events and the past, so that the details of the family story, especially in regard to her half-brother, Tom, emerge gradually. This style of writing allows for a certain dramatic tension, enticing the reader to continue in order to fully understand the whole picture. At this level, the memoir takes on the quality of a personal narrative, dealing with family tensions as a result of Gouch's father's second marriage to her mother.

At the same time, the book does provide an insight into the historical context for the Jews living under Communism in the Eastern bloc and their migration to Israel. The early sections of the book highlight the tyrannical nature of the regime, and the constant fear of being betrayed. When she completes her schooling, the author is accepted into a mineral processing engineering course, but she faces ongoing concerns of dismissal because her family has applied to migrate to Israel so that her mother could join her siblings there.

Gouch is befriended by one of her young lecturers, and believes that he is attracted to her. To her horror, however, she finds out that he is a member of the Securitate so that she is faced with betrayal. She lives in constant fear that she will be expelled, and eventually this does occur. She describes the humiliating experience of being called to a meeting with a full hall of party faithful, "sitting among five hundred stone statues in black uniforms, barely breathing." Then her turn came:
   "Comrades, don't forget that the real danger is the enemy within.
   They are where we least expect them." He kept talking, spreading
   bile and mistrust of the world. And this was only the
   introduction ... The enemy within was finally identified. No longer
   a Comrade, but a traitor to the country, to the people of Romania.
   And then his vitriol moved onto my father. (33-34).


She had become an outcast but remained committed to trying to leave her country of birth with her parents, even though this meant she had no chance of completing her university studies. Such enormous pressures of living in fear under Communism are highlighted by the book's title: Once, Only the Swallows Were Free.

This book also illustrates the challenges of migration and the separation of families. Gouch's older half-brother, Tom, who becomes estranged from his family, decides that he does not wish to emigrate and he remains under Communist rule. After the fall of Communism, Gouch decides to visit him, and much of the book explores their relationship and the unfolding of Tom's story. He was born with a physical disability from the forceps delivery when his birth mother died, creating great challenges in his life. He tells her about her father's experiences after the family applied to migrate--the loss of his engineering position, being forced to move from place to place due to the fears of persecution, so that the family ended up in a tiny, mice-infested apartment in Timisoara and then was forced to move again to the mining town of Petrosani. Her mother tries to make the best of the difficult situations that the family face.

Eventually, their Israeli passports arrive in 1965 and they leave for Israel. Here they face many difficulties in an absorption town, Yoseftal, situated in the centre of Israel near the narrowest section of the pre-1967 borders. Her father is able to work in his profession as an engineer, and is involved in building bus stations in Jerusalem. However, he is faced with long hours of travel by bus to and from work, and the constant fatigue from the demands of his job. Her mother adjusts to the challenges, although she never manages to really master the Hebrew language.

Gouch and her younger brother, Yossi, fare better. They are able to complete their studies. Yossi is younger and still at school, so he is able to learn Hebrew quickly and adjust to their new life. Gabrielle moves to a kibbutz to study Hebrew and is then accepted into university studies. When the opportunity arises to visit family in Australia in 1972, she decides to travel and creates a new life in Sydney. Yossi becomes a very successful surgeon in Israel, but he is not the focus of this book, and we learn very little about his journey.

Gouch also highlights the dilemma of having a Jewish identity imposed on one under Communism, while at the same time having no opportunity to learn about one's Jewish heritage. Her father came from a very secular family and his first wife, Hella, was not Jewish. Gouch's mother Roza came from a deeply orthodox family, but when her parents and other family members perished in the Holocaust, she no longer kept the traditions, although she still lit candles on Friday nights. The first time Gouch was exposed to orthodox Judaism was when her immediate family stayed with her mother's brother in Timisoara. Her Uncle Jacob was still strictly orthodox and for the first time she saw a Jewish man praying. She described her uncle putting on tefillin in the morning as having "some strange habits (122)."

Later in the book, when she visits Tom in 2002, she goes with him to the Cluj Jewish Community, which is serviced by the American Joint Distribution Committee (the Joint). This chapter provides a personal insight into the significant welfare efforts undertaken by the Joint to assist the Jews of Eastern Europe, providing them with food, clothing and above all a sense of community. As she noted: "Tom was grateful to the Community. What would I do without them,' he said to me a number of times during that visit (243)."

At the end of the book, Gouch provides a moving description of her visit to her mother's little village, Jidovitza in Transylvania, highlighting another dilemma for survivors of the Holocaust--the reluctance of many to visit their hometowns because of the pain of the memories. Gouch learns that her mother's village was very close to Cluj and decides to visit it with Tom and their driver. Finding where her mother had lived before the war was an emotional experience, intensified through meeting an elderly woman who personally knew her grandparents, the Pollaks, and told her about her family. Reflecting after the visit, she wrote: "My happiness was now mixed with a faint pain, the pain familiar to all Jews who once lived in Eastern Europe and cannot escape the memory of the past (264)."

There has been significant academic debate about the role of memoirs in understanding history. This particularly applies to the Holocaust, where recently a significant number of Holocaust memoirs have been published, including from Australia. Both the Sydney Jewish Museum and the Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne have offered programs to assist survivors to write their memoirs. As with oral testimonies, the advantage of such memoirs is that victim-stories can fill significant gaps in the written records, which are largely produced by the perpetrators. They also shed light and colour about individual experiences, creating a rich texture of social history in relation to the ghettoes, camps, experiences in hiding, with the partisans, or on the forced death marches.

On the other hand, historians point to the many errors present in survivor memoirs and testimonies. Often dates and events are confused, or reconstructed with the passage of time. Where there are interviews with the same person that took place in the immediate aftermath of the Shoah and then later in the 1980s or 1990s, there have been significant discrepancies, which challenge the veracity of their stories.

These difficulties clearly also apply to memoirs relating to the experiences of Jews under Communism in Eastern Europe, including Gabrielle Gouch's memoir. In terms of the history of this period, it would have been good to have been provided with more historical detail. Whilst there is a brief reference to the death of the Romanian leader, Gheorghui Dej and to his successor, Nicolae Ceausescu, there is little discussion of why and how Ceausescu permitted most of Romania's Jews to migrate to Israel after his succession to power. There is a brief reference to Ion Pacepa's book, Red Horizon, which deals with the topic and the fact that this emigration was "a commercial transaction (164)."

However, no more light is shed on this important episode in Romanian Jewish history, and readers will need to look elsewhere for this story. In addition, there is no index that would assist those interested in the history of the period to locate key information. These are obvious drawbacks from an academic perspective, although Gouch herself takes a sceptical, post-modern approach to contemporary history, claiming that "history never strives for the truth: it supports the rulers, the politics of the time (269)."

The power of the personal story helps to create a vivid picture of what life was like under Communism, the difficulties experienced in migrating to Israel in the 1960s, and issues relating to Jewish identity, as discussed in this review. Consequently, these memoirs are important in providing an insight into personal experiences at the time, thereby adding to our understanding of this period of Jewish history. Once, Only the Swallows Were Free certainly achieves this aim. Gouch has provided a highly readable, personal account of her family's story so that this book is a valuable addition to our understanding of the challenges Jews faced living under Communism in the Eastern Bloc, as well as the issues of migration to Israel.
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Author:Rutland, Suzanne D.
Publication:The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
Words:1928
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