Afterlight: In search of poetry, history, and home
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Award-winning author pens debut memoir unearthing family’s Holocaust history
Afterlight: In Search of Poetry, History, and Home by Isa Milman (Heritage House Publishing, $24.95) is a haunting memoir of war, genocide, displacement, and a daughter’s search for the literary works of her mother’s murdered twin.
In 2013, still grieving the death of her mother, author Isa Milman embarked on a heart-wrenching journey to unravel a family mystery—the whereabouts of her aunt’s long-lost poems, published in Poland in the early 1930s—which evolved into a broader investigation of her family’s life before, during, and after the Holocaust.
Afterlight chronicles a lesser-known chapter of the Second World War through the story of two sisters: Sabina, Milman’s mother, who survived the war, and Basia, Sabina’s twin, who did not.
Photo Credit: Shea Lowry (2021)
“A big part of my decision to write my memoir was knowing that my family’s story did not fit the usual Holocaust narrative, and it was important to tell their story,” says Milman.
“It’s a less familiar story of Jews from the eastern parts of Poland, (now Ukraine and Belarus) who were murdered in what’s called ‘the Holocaust of Bullets’, and those, like my parents, who survived because of deportation by the Soviets to the Siberian gulag, and their questionable status as survivors postwar.”
Exploring themes of loss and displacement, regeneration and resilience, Milman discovered how her own story is woven into the immense yet intricate tapestry of the Jewish experience.
“As a refugee and immigrant myself, first to the United States [in 1950] and then to Canada [in 1975], the question of home and where and how you make it has assumed much greater importance to me. It’s not just personal history—millions of people around the globe live this currently, and it’s a defining issue of our times.”
As Milman delved into her family’s history, accompanied by her husband, a fourth-generation British Columbian, she travelled to contemporary Poland, Ukraine, and Germany, and tried to reconcile her shifting appreciation of people and place, in a world where antisemitism and other forms of extremism are on the rise once again.
“Writing Afterlight required enormous empathy, as I tried to put myself in my parents’ place as they were experiencing their war and its aftermath,” explains Milman.
“The most painful was writing the details of the murder of each member of my family—my grandparents, my aunt Basia, and her baby son Mordechai.”
Milman has previous published three books of poetry—each of which won a Canadian Jewish Book Award for Poetry. Afterlight is her debut memoir and first foray into creative nonfiction.
"Filled with historical, current, and personal details, Afterlight is an aching, lyrical memoir of Milman’s efforts to unpack a life of living with the aftermath of the Holocaust."
—National Jewish Book Award Judges' Remarks
“Written with powerful awareness and historical heft, the memoir Afterlight follows the daughter of Holocaust survivors as she travels to unpack her lifetime of living with the aftermath of a genocide.”
"What a remarkable, deeply moving act of homage Isa Milman has accomplished: a long quest to rescue stories of relatives enduring war-time atrocity from oblivion; a Kaddish performed through personal on-site practice and writing. With candour, humility, and courage, she travels in space and time through this "scarred landscape," calling upon imaginative thought experiments to supplement the spare horrifying facts. Afterlight is a telling reminder that atrocity thrives in the dark and must be unearthed, whatever the anguish, in order to be overcome."
—Don McKay, Governor General's Award-winning poet
“Isa Milman’s Afterlight is as close to a living history as one can come. There is a quality of lucid dreaming in this memoir. Told with a poet’s exquisite attention to detail, it is a work of exhumation—a bringing to light that which has always been with us.”
—Eve Joseph, author of In the Slender Margin
"Afterlight is a powerful journey. By going to Poland, where her Jewish family was torn apart by war, Isa Milman invests her story with potent force. We are taken into the frozen Siberian gulag; we escape Stalingrad just before the Germans arrive. Compelling and poignant, Afterlight is a truly luminous book."
—Anne Simpson, author of Speechless, winner of the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award
"In this beautifully written and evocative memoir, Isa Milman takes us with her on a trip back to her ancestral home in what is today Ukraine but was once Poland, as she searches for the writings of her aunt, her mother’s twin sister, who was one of the several million victims of the Holocaust. In chapters that alternate between past and present, Milman suggests how the afterlight of historical tragedies can both illuminate and complicate the present."
—Goldie Morgentaler, Professor of English at the University of Lethbridge and award-winning translator
from Yiddish to English of the work of Chava Rosenfarb
"Marrying dogged research with sharp emotional insight, and storytelling both intimate and poetic, Isa Milman reassembles her brutalized family tree. With palpable love, unflinching horror, and unexpected joy, she reclaims and reimagines the almost unutterable memories that her mother held in silence until just before her death. Meanwhile, Milman gives voice to so many children of the European Jewish diaspora, as she moves toward her own peace with the land that bore and then cast out and swallowed her ancestors."
—Naomi K. Lewis, award-winning author of Tiny Lights for Travellers
“In search of a family narrative shattered by war, displacement, and genocide, Isa Milman traverses the past and present in Poland and Ukraine, Israel, and Canada to weave a memoir of profound loss and great love. Time and again, Afterlight pierces through darkness and leads, at last, to acceptance, recovery, and hope.”
—Ruth Panofsky, poet and author of Radiant Shards: Hoda’s North End Poems
"Isa Milman’s Afterlight is an absolutely riveting memoir. From her parents’ survival in a Siberian gulag to her own investigation of the scarred landscape of eastern Europe, the author portrays a deeply moving journey across time and space as she searches for traces of history, including her aunt’s lost poetry, and explores the meaning of home in the aftermath of the Shoah."
—Helga Thorson, associate professor, University of Victoria, Germanic and Slavic studies
“Isa Milman brings an artist’s eye, a love of the music of language, and a ferocious tenacity to her quest for her family’s lost ones, for the survivors, for herself. As the still unfathomable atrocities of the Holocaust retreat from living memory, her story glows in the afterlight of history and memory, deeply personal and ultimately profound.”
—Diana Wichtel, award-winning author of Driving to Treblinka: A Long Search for a Lost Father
"In Afterlight, Isa Milman tells a timely personal narrative of travel and discovery, which is entangled in the twentieth-century calamity of the destruction of Jewish life in eastern Europe. Milman provides a fresh and thoughtful reconsideration of postwar Polish Jewish identity. 'Was I not free,' she wonders, as she seeks out her ancestral story, 'to adjust my own opinions without breaking the codes I’d been brought up with?'"
—Norman Ravvin, author of The Girl Who Stole Everything and
A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity, and Memory
“Isa Milman’s powerful book takes her readers on a voyage of self-discovery through the landscapes of Eastern Europe—and Jewish memory. A story of real people and events, Afterlight reads like a mystery novel that you cannot put down until the very last page. It will have a major impact.”
—Serhy Yekelchyk, professor of Slavic Studies and History at the University of Victoria
and the author of Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know
"Combining the threads of memory, history and imagination with a strong fabric of family stories and research embroidered with recovered maps and artifacts, Isa Milman recreates her Jewish family’s tragic fate during the horrific events of wartime Poland. Afterlight is a beautiful, haunting memoir that speaks of both devastating pain and abiding love."
—Lynne Van Luven, professor emerita, Department of Writing, University of Victoria