Foreword Reviews

A Life Rebuilt

The Remarkable Transformation of a War Orphan

Clarion Rating: 4 out of 5

Emotionally satisfying without becoming sentimental, A Life Rebuilt is a memoir that works to come to terms with a complicated past.

In her emotional memoir A Life Rebuilt, Sylvia Gutmann forges a new future by reviving her lost memories.

Gutmann has no recollections from before 1946, when she was seven and she and her two sisters came to live with family in New York City.  In 1942, the girls were rescued from a French internment camp, saved from their mother’s fate in Auschwitz. Telling her story in letters, articles, and speaking engagements, Gutmann begins to regain the self she thought was lost to the past.

Gutmann simultaneously builds her story forward, starting with her earliest memories, and chronicles her search for and excavation of her missing years. Her earliest memories are shaped by Aunt Gerdy and Daddy Sam, the couple who takes her in. Sam dotes on her, but Gerdy treats her cruelly.

Gutmann grows up fearful of Gerdy. As a young adult, she searches for love and acceptance in a series of misbegotten love affairs, until one man, Milton, gives her support. But after Milton, her sister, and her brother die, she decides to reignite her search for the past. Speaking engagements give her the chance to talk about losing loved ones and finding hope, and to make sure her family didn’t die in vain. The past pervades the text; little credence is given to others’ perspectives.

The book introduces a delightful cast of helpmates, including Gutmann’s sister, Rita, to whom she dedicates the book, and who fills out the history that Gutmann can’t recall. Her lover, Milton, comes across as a charismatic and big-hearted man. It also includes nods to background figures, like the doctors who saved her life and the women who help her reach safety. Seen through Gutmann’s grateful eyes, these characters lighten the otherwise emotionally heavy text, moving the narrative along as their memories give Gutmann strength.

The memoir often steps forward only to then step farther back, focusing too much on mistakes made because of old emotional wounds. This sense of being stuck is easy to relate to, if not one of the more inspiring elements of the story.

Gutmann’s feelings are insightfully expressed, though chapters featuring her son seem more stunted, as if elements of their relationship have not been resolved. The book is about Gutmann remaking herself, but its inward approach sometimes hampers its relatability.

The book vividly re-creates scenes from the homes where Gutmann and her family lived in Germany and France. Writing is fluid as it moves between the past and present. Its flexible sense of time, coupled with a tendency toward short sentences, makes the memoir a quick read.

Emotionally satisfying without becoming sentimental, A Life Rebuilt is a memoir that works to come to terms with a complicated past.

Reviewed by Mari Carlson

Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review. The author of this book provided free copies of the book and paid a small fee to have their book reviewed by a professional reviewer. Foreword Reviews and Clarion Reviews make no guarantee that the author will receive a positive review. Foreword Magazine, Inc. is disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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