The Watchmaker’s Daughter by Sonia Taitz: Extraordinary, wise, heartbreaking and funny
Sonia Taitz’s The Watchmaker’s Daughter (McWitty Press, October) is an extraordinary memoir -- wise, heartbreaking and funny. I love this book, which reveals the unassimilated soul behind Marjorie Morningstar, the ethnic origins of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, and the ambitions that fueled Natalie Wood, another dark-haired immigrant’s daughter.
The Watchmaker’s Daughter is about black-haired Sonia, growing up the child of Holocaust survivors in the 60’s in New York neighborhoods rough and middling. You experience the clash between kids eager for a free American life and survivor parents, traumatized and working hard for a living. Young Sonia tries hard to reconcile her own desires with her parents’ insular world. She also wants to please and protect them and can’t imagine why Germans wanted to kill Jews. When her grandmother puts her in a harness in the playground and chases away other children, only later does Sonia understand that her motives aren’t cruelty but protection from the violence of irrational strangers.
Sonia’s refuge from the sadness of her family is TV. Watching “Lucy” or “Father Knows Best,” she escapes into madcap stories of families as foreign to her as the children allowed to run shoeless in the park. These children don’t hear horrific stories of parents’ near death experiences in concentration camps and murdered relatives. She quickly learns she and her brother, Manny, carry these martyred names. It is up to them to make right the wrongs done to them and the millions who perished in Europe’s dark history.
What could be a dark memoir of emotional deprivation is, however, a fond story of love. The author’s mother, Gita, a budding concert pianist before the Nazis, cheerfully nurtures her family and her husband’s business. She constantly cleans and polishes, makes endless streams of food, and arranges velveteen trays of watches. Sonia’s father, Simon, a master watchmaker, is dark, moody, and intense. In Dachau, he ran a repair shop for the Nazis, saving the lives of his fellow inmates. “Your father’s a great man,” Sonia learns in Israel. When her father is recognized on the street as a hero, the family is surrounded by admirers.
Simon is even prouder of his children’s achievements and his role in providing opportunities. Their very existence is a triumph over the Nazi death machine. He raises his daughter not to bang pans in domesticity but to be a success in the outer world. His son becomes a successful lawyer. He and Gita are glad to sacrifice for their kids, even as the children feel their futures weighted with obligation.
Sonia grows up curvy and dark-haired, a temptress like Veronica in Archie comics or Liz Taylor, certainly not the blonde Doris Day preferred by the culture of the time (or by her own mother). She wears colored fishnet stockings with white go-go boots. She is also is a top student at the prestigious Yeshiva to which her parents send her. Though she earns a spot at Yale College, she gives it up when her father requests she go to the closer Barnard. In her parents’ world, only doctors and lawyers justify their parents’ toil. So Sonia, the dutiful daughter, then goes to law school -- only to find that she’s taken a wrong turn with her life. When she’s offered a place at Oxford to study her real love – literature -- her father allows her to take time off, with the proviso she will not lose her faith nor betray it with foreigners.
Yet becoming herself means becoming someone other than her parents’ daughter. True to the DNA of her bold father, Sonia takes on the Old World. Here she can battle against the evil anti-Semitism of her childhood stories. At the same time, Oxford seduces her with ancient tradition and ecstatic literature. She also falls for a handsome student, whose mother rejects her as a “Jewess.” At the end of her stay, she’s personally devastated, even as she wins a graduate degree and a major literary award. But the writer’s life is too uncertain, so Sonia returns to finish her law degree, gets a well-paying job, and – to her parent’s great relief -- marries a Jewish lawyer with an Ivy league pedigree.
Again, Sonia finds the courage to make a life contrary to what’s been set for her. While never ceasing to honor her parents, she leaves her unhappy marriage and marries her British love. She also becomes the storyteller she was destined to be, after growing up deciphering her parents’ histories. Then oddly enough, her act of will -- or the mystery of a life force asserting itself -- works out to everyone’s benefit. Her husband converts and becomes close to her parents. With the birth of grandchildren, Simon and Gita come to enjoy the “lightness” of American life previously derided.
The conclusion of The Watchmaker’s Daughter is a touching tribute to her parents’ somehow unjust final days. Here is her father, who has beaten death so many times, fighting his own cancer. Here is her mother’s selfless sweetness when faced with the inevitable, and Sonia’s realization of how much she now values the comfort of her mother’s domesticity.
The Watchmaker’s Daughter is a touching book for any child of immigrants struggling to keep a sense of who they are and yet become who they want to be. More than anything, it is a profoundly transformative story; at once a common experience, very individual, and ultimately heroic. It’s inspiring to read how people, rising from traumatic events, can find the heart to forge a new life.