If not for a dream, Martin Lemelman may not have captured his mother’s story of Holocaust survival in a critically acclaimed book or reconnected with the family he never knew.
An educator, author, and graphic artist, Lemelman brought the story behind the creation of Mendel’s Daughter to Penn State Harrisburg as an installment in the year-long lecture series hosted by the college’s Center for Holocaust and Jewish Studies.
He began his recollections with a brief look at his childhood in Brooklyn, “a fairly bleak existence” living in back of his father’s candy store where his brother “was the only one with his own room – the kitchen” in the three-room quarters. Lemelman was aware his mother was a Holocaust survivor, but she rarely spoke of it, he said. She had only a few family photos and three needlepoints created by her mother.
He then jumped to 1989 and a pivotal event which paved the way for Mendel’s Daughter. His elderly mother, Gusta, came to live with him while recuperating from an injury. Lemelman decided it would be a good time to videotape her personal story and capture that history for future generations in his family.
“Gusta asked if the video camera would understand Yiddish,” he said, but she told her story in English anyway until she reached the Holocaust. Then she switched to Yiddish. Along with her story of survival in Poland and hiding in the forest with her siblings for two years, she “humanized my grandparents” who did not survive the Holocaust, he said.
Gusta died in 1996, and Lemelman remained satisfied with the taped recollections for many years. Then in 2003, at age 52, he said he had a dream in which his mother reminded him his grandfather was that age when he was murdered. He said she told him in the dream, “Sometimes your memories are not your own.”
That dream spurred him to create Mendel’s Daughter, a “graphic memoir” which he wrote and illustrated with pencil drawings, family photos, and handwritten text in Gusta’s own words. The book’s publication was followed by his journey to the small town in what is now Ukraine to learn more of his heritage.
There he visited his mother’s home and found people who remembered his family. There was even a friend of his mother’s who helped her survive her two years in the forest hiding from the Nazis. “My mother, her two brothers, and sister survived because of good Christian people,” he said.