One Book, One Hadassah: ‘Unearthed’ Discussion Guide
“Over the years, I’ve tried to determine which came first, my obsession with the past or my Aunt Mollie’s unspoken decision to designate me as my generation’s keeper of the family memory. This role is known as ‘the memorial candle,’ or yahrzeit, according to Israeli psychologist Dina Wardi. Certainly, Mollie’s influence contributed to a sense of responsibility and fascination that drove me to want to learn more.” —from Unearthed: A Lost Actress, a Forbidden Book, and a Search for Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust
In her unflinching memoir, women’s rights activist and author Meryl Frank unravels a World War II-era family mystery—the enigma surrounding her cousin Franya Winter, famed Yiddish theater actress in 1920s and 1930s Vilna. Through meticulous exploration of genealogical records and travels to Europe and Canada, Frank not only narrates her search but also delves into broader themes such as the significance of preserving family history and the enduring relevance of the Holocaust for Jews today.
One Book, One Hadassah live with Unearthed author Meryl Frank
Join us on Thursday, December 21 at 7 PM ET for a live virtual discussion with women’s rights activist and author Meryl Frank about her unflinching memoir about unraveling a World War II-era family mystery, Unearthed: A Lost Actress, a Forbidden Book, and a Search for Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust. Topics also include the importance of Holocaust memory in addressing antisemitism today. A recording of the event will be available for those who register. Free and open to all.
Local book groups are a vital part of Hadassah for many members. If your chapter doesn’t already have one, now’s the time to start! We encourage groups to have their own discussions about Unearthed before or after watching the virtual interview with the author. To facilitate those discussions, we present the following discussion guide.
- Unearthed revolves around Meryl Frank’s quest to uncover her family’s history. Did you relate to her connection to her family’s past, particularly through the stories shared by Aunt Mollie and the family photo albums?
- Frank speaks of growing up being consumed by the Holocaust, of it being “everything and nothing” in her family. Does this idea of an “ancestral burden,” as described in the book, resonate with you? Discuss how the shadow of the Holocaust affected those growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States. How has the impact of that shadow changed with subsequent generations?
- From a young age, Frank assumes the role of keeper of her family’s stories and, at times, even of Jewish history. What do you think about her family’s choice in placing Frank in that position at such an early age? Discuss teaching the Holocaust to children. What age, in your opinion, is suitable for introducing youngsters to the Holocaust and the long history of Jewish tragedy and trauma?
- Frank promised Aunt Mollie to be the “memorial candle” for the family. How did this sense of responsibility impact Frank’s approach to uncovering the fate of her family members? In what ways does it highlight the importance of preserving family stories as part of cultural heritage? Do you think her journey serves as a model for others seeking to uncover their family history?
- While Unearthed was published earlier in 2023, you might have read the book in the months after Hamas’s brutal terror attacks in Israel on October 7 and the subsequent unleashing of antisemitism throughout the world. Did the events in Israel and around the world impact your reaction to the book?
- The memoir opens with an excerpt from the poem “I Wasn’t One of the Six Million” by Israeli poet and writer Yehudah Amichai. What do you believe motivated the author to select this particular poem? In what ways does this excerpt forge a connection for readers between the events of both World War II and the establishment of Israel?
- Aunt Mollie entrusted Meryl with the responsibility of being the keeper of a mysterious and forbidden book, Twenty-One and One. Did you find yourself speculating on the contents of the book throughout the story? Putting yourself in the author’s place, would you have put off reading the book?
- In Unearthed, Frank notes that the history of Vilna and the Vilna Ghetto often takes a backseat to more widely recognized Holocaust tales like those of the Warsaw Ghetto. Where you aware of the Jewish history of Vilna before reading the book? Did Unearthed inspire you to explore additional details about less prominent facets of the Holocaust?
- One of the highlights of the book is Frank’s discussion of the Paper Brigade of Vilna. Discuss the different acts of rebellion against Nazi rule mentioned in the book. Why was it so important to members of YIVO, founded in 1925 by scholars in Berlin and Vilna, to smuggle out books and other ephemera from the Vilna Ghetto?
- What captivated Frank about Franya Winter’s story, both in her childhood and as an adult? Were there any surprises in Franya’s narrative for you? In your opinion, what is the most crucial element of Franya’s life to communicate to future generations?
- Discuss how and why the author chooses to disclose the story of the end of Franya’s life. Do you relate to Frank’s choice to read Franya’s story in public?