Books

Naomi K. Lewis retraces her grandfather's escape from Nazi-occupied Holland in her memoir

Tiny Lights for Travellers is a finalist for the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction.

Tiny Lights for Travellers is a finalist for the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction

Tiny Lights for Travellers is a memoir by Naomi K. Lewis. (University of Alberta Press, @naomiklewisauthor/Facebook)

Facing the dissolution of her marriage, Naomi Lewis uncovered a family treasure: her Opa's diary, which details his escape from Nazi-occupied Netherlands in 1942. Lewis travels to Amsterdam on a solo trip to retrace his steps, contemplating her own Jewish identity and pondering the impact of the Holocaust on present and future generations. She chronicles this journey in Tiny Lights for Travellers.

The Calgary author's memoir is a finalist for the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction.

She spoke with CBC's Daybreak Alberta on Aug. 10, 2019.

The spectrum of Judaism

"I have been surrounded by people telling me different stories about whether I'm Jewish or not and how Jewish I am. My father is Jewish and my mother is half-Jewish on her father's side, which means that I'm not technically Jewish because my mother's mother isn't, even though my other three grandparents are. But then according to reform Judaism, I am Jewish. But according to my mom's family, we weren't because we were post-religious and too smart to believe in any of that.

It's always this debate within Judaism. Is Judaism an ethnicity, a religion, a culture?- Naomi K. Lewis

"It's this debate within Judaism. Is Judaism an ethnicity, a religion, a culture? What is it? Nobody really has the answer to that or people have different answers to it. Part of being Jewish and from Europe is that my family has this residual trauma of what every Jewish family went through in Europe during the Second World War, which is why we're not in that part of the world anymore. There was this horrible genocide and the fact that we're alive is this anomalous miracle. It's something some families talk about a lot and some families don't talk about at all. My family didn't talk about it very much."

Few would claim that a divorce was a stress-free experience and writer, Naomi K. Lewis, certainly wouldn't. While her marriage came apart, she came across a diary from her grandfather which traced his family's journey from Nazi Germany in 1942 through to Canada. However, as a secular Jew, it prompted for Naomi a lot of questions for herself, about where she's been, who she is, and what's next and so wrapped it all up in her new memoir, "Tiny Lights For Travellers." 15:11

Her grandfather's journal

"My parents found the journal that my grandfather had written during the Second World War, when he escaped from the Netherlands to an unoccupied part of France. At that time it was July 1942. All the Jews were being deported and people were going into hiding or leaving if they could. His brother went into hiding, but my grandfather didn't have a family — a wife or children — so he decided he was going to leave the country.

There was this horrible genocide and the fact that we're alive is this anomalous miracle.- Naomi K. Lewis

"It was risky. He had to travel for two weeks through occupied Europe on a fake passport, crossing borders on a bicycle or by foot. It was this treacherous journey. What he didn't know when he wrote it is what would happen after, which is that he'd go to England and end up in the military. By the end of the war, he had met and married my grandmother. My mother was born the week the war ended. He went home to the Netherlands and found out that his mother had been taken away to a concentration camp and killed. He had left her by herself assuming it wouldn't be that bad. Why would anyone bother an old lady who wasn't religious?

"The fact that his family was Jewish ethnically, but not observant, was always this narrative in my family. They felt it should be a choice and it was something we chose not to identify with. It was asking for trouble to identify as part of a minority, I guess, if you didn't have to. It's an odd way of looking at it, but it's how my mother's family looked at it."

Bad traveller

"I'm not a good traveller at all. I've never really liked travelling and I'm very stressed out when I travel. I'm always afraid of getting lost and I get lost easily. That's the root of the stress — feeling disoriented. It takes a while to feel comfortable and to know where things are. I don't like the feeling of having no idea where I am.

"I have an acutely terrible sense of direction. I do have this anxiety that I'll never find my way back to where I started. Now that there's GPS, you can never be lost forever and the anxiety is far less."

Naomi K. Lewis's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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