REVIEW: The Forbidden Daughter by Zipora Klein Jakob

Reviewed by Jackelin Orellana

The Forbidden Daughter by Zipora Klein Jakob is the biographical account of Elida Friedman, a woman who defied all odds to survive the Holocaust. Elida’s life itself began as a protest when her mother, Tzila, bravely defied a Nazi decree forbidding Jews from giving birth in Lithuania’s Kovno Ghetto. Tzila hoped to become a mother, despite living in a time of war, and made her choice knowing full well that she might not survive. How the choice affected Elida is a question Jakob explores as she walks us through the events of Elida’s life. From a twenty-first century lens, it is fair to say that though wars eventually end, the suffering of those who endure and survive them impacts families for generations to come.

Tzila and her husband Jonah perish in the Kovno Ghetto, murdered by Nazis in a hospital fire that claims many lives. Before Elida’s surviving family can arrive in Lithuania, she is adopted by a Jewish couple, Joel and Yoheved Ruhin, who are trying to rebuild their lives after losing their families in the war. Joel and Yoheved deny Elida’s biological family’s requests to return the child, instead changing her name to Gita and cutting off all communication with Elida’s relatives. Despite the initial good intentions behind the adoption, Joel and Yoheved are physically and emotionally abusive toward their adoptive daughter. And yet Jakob takes a compassionate approach with Elida’s new family, choosing to depict their trauma and torment. Joel is plagued by nightmares in which he relives losing his son, only to wake to his new wife trying to replace his memories of fatherhood with a new child. Yoheved, using Elida as a second chance at motherhood, spends her days worrying that Elida will find out about her adoption and reject her as a mother. Though it in no way justifies the abuse, this background is a perfect example of how cycles of intergenerational trauma take hold.

Jakob’s clear-eyed and compassionate portrayal conveys the importance of mental health, emotional healing, and the consequences untreated trauma can have on children. This becomes particularly clear after Elida reconnects with her biological family, frees herself from the Ruhins, and moves to America to live with her Uncle Lazar. Despite her newfound freedom, Elida remains conflicted by feelings of guilt and anger toward both her adoptive parents and her biological family. These unresolved feelings stop her from creating meaningful connections with her family, instead driving a wedge between them. Despite Lazar’s efforts to connect with Elida, she rejects his kindness.

Elida’s behavior could easily be perceived as the capricious rebellion of an ungrateful child, but Jakob reminds readers that Elida is a child in need of emotional healing at a cultural moment when the only wounds receiving attention and treatment were the visible ones. Elida looks for peace by pretending her past didn’t happen. She avoids talking about her experiences during the war. When she finds solace in spending time with another family—one that allows her the freedom to leave out her past—Jakob sympathetically writes, “How much she wanted to belong to a family like this one, free of painful history!” But what looks like peace is actually a sign of avoidant behavior. We see that Elida pushes away her family not because she doesn’t love them, but because they represent a painful past.

As Elida reaches adulthood in America, she grapples with deep emotional wounds while also wrestling with the constraints of societal and religious expectations for women. Despite the fact the Elida is incredibly intelligent, her decisions and judgments are constantly challenged by her family. When Elida expresses her desire to renounce her Jewish faith, Lazar forbids her from doing so because, as he tells her, “It’s important to me that you remember who you are.” But while Lazar might have a strong grasp on his Jewish identity, Jakob reveals that Elida has never had the opportunity to create a healthy connection to her religious community. She sees her Jewishness as the primary reason she’s had such an incredibly difficult life. Most of her happy experiences took place at the private Catholic schools she attended, so it feels natural that she would want to move away from her religious identity.

Jakob does an excellent job of showing how Elida tries to advocate for herself by voicing her desire to change her life. She also provides a glimpse at the obstacles in Elida’s way—the ultimatums given to her when she makes her wishes clear. In one encounter, after disclosing her desire to convert to Christianity, a family friend whom she is visiting in Paris responds in rage, “If you do that, you will not stay in my house one day. You cannot change who you are.” Every authority figure in Elida’s life denies her the agency to define herself. Left with few options, she conforms to the expectations of her family, abandoning her aspirations of a career in literature to become a wife and mother. Elida’s inability to address the wounds of her past likely contributes to her entering a co-dependent relationship—but this was also a common plight for many women at a time when it was difficult to survive unless under the watchful eye of a man. Without Elida’s personal account, the reader is left to speculate and theorize as to why she chose to enter a relationship that was not fulfilling.

In the years since Elida’s lifetime, ensuing generations have increasingly come to accept that unless addressed, family trauma often severely impacts the ability to achieve happiness. Elida was a child born under a decree that forbade her existence and grew into a woman who was forbidden to live the life she deserved. By including the perspective and experiences of the people around Elida, Jakob provides a more expansive view of her life. Had Elida been encouraged to address and heal her wounds, she may have had the strength to put her needs before the needs of others. Decades later, we are left to wonder who she could have been, had she been allowed to follow the path she wanted and not the one her family chose for her.

Jackelin Orellana is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at UC Riverside Palm Desert. She currently serves as the nonfiction editor for The Coachella Review. Her work has been previously published in the Los Angeles Times.