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Originally published Saturday, August 21, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Book review

'Displaced Persons': Holocaust survivors learn to live again in America

Ghita Schwarz's hypnotic debut novel, "Displaced Persons," follows a group of Holocaust survivors as they make their way through a relocation camp, to the New York borough of Queens and beyond.

The Associated Press

'Displaced Persons'

by Ghita Schwarz

Morrow, 352 pp., $25.99

In this powerful debut novel, author Ghita Schwarz, a child of Holocaust survivors, hypnotically spins the tale of a Polish Jew named Pavel who bravely rebuilds his shattered life in the aftermath of World War II.

It is May 1945. Pavel, who has been recently liberated from a concentration camp, makes his way to a British-run relocation center where he befriends a young widow named Fela and a wayward teenage boy named Chaim, who has temporarily landed in trouble for trading on the black markets. Pooling their meager resources, the three live together as a family and dream of emigrating to America.

Fast-forward 15 years, and that dream has become a reality. Pavel and Fela are married, scraping by on Pavel's earnings as a tailor in the New York City borough of Queens. Chaim, now married to an Israeli girl named Sima, lives nearby.

Narrating these events in crisp, clear prose, Schwarz, like her characters, focuses intently on the day-to-day practicalities of adapting to the big city, a process that ultimately proves easier for the younger couple than for the older one.

And yet, even though the hardships of the past are scrupulously suppressed, they cast lingering shadows, perceptible in bouts of depression, flashes of anger and recurring nightmares. In time, a series of chance occurrences brings forth an unbidden flood of memories both bitter and bittersweet.

"Displaced Persons" distills into a single, carefully wrought story line the experiences of an entire courageous generation of Jews who persevered to reclaim their humanity in the face of unspeakable horror. As if continuing the family drama of Holocaust tragedy portrayed so vividly by Julie Orringer in "The Invisible Bridge," Schwarz brilliantly gives us the long view of what postwar survival really meant.

Jonathan Lopez is author of "The Man Who Made Vermeers," a biography of Nazi-era forger Han van Meegeren.

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