Life & Culture

The Forbidden Daughter review: A fascinating look at the legacy of the Holocaust

I was enthralled by this Shoah tale for young adults


The Forbidden Daughter is a fictionalised Holocaust biography that isn’t really about the Holocaust. Instead, it’s about the legacy of tragedy; the way trauma passes down the generations and the fact that peace does not really mark the end of the fight.

Elida Friedman was one of many children handed over to non-Jewish families by desperate parents who were trapped in ghettos and headed for the concentration camps. Born illicitly in the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania, she was a newborn when she was taken in and never saw her parents again. Instead, in the postwar years, she oscillated between various homes and between various countries, reuniting with relatives and meeting other Jews who had survived against the odds, but never really finding a secure identity.

The Jewish baby became a Christian toddler, then a Russian- speaking child, a pre-teen in early-state Israel, before being transplanted to Texas to become an all-American teenager. Throughout, she was an orphan, unmoored by this constant reinvention, and hardened, one assumes, by an ongoing sense that her place in the world was at best transient. Tough for anyone and the Elida on the page comes across as resilient, yet lacking emotional intelligence or empathy.

Once in America, her intellect allowed her to thrive, but her story was never straightforward, although it’s hard to decipher whether this was ill-fortune or a direct product of her upbringing. Zipora Klein Jakob, a cousin of Elida’s, does justice to the complexity of the story and has clearly done exhaustive research. But there are few letters or diaries to draw on, nor even any interviews with Elida, and (likely out of respect) the author is not keen to probe. The result is that readers are left without insight into what drove Elida or how she processed her past.

This, combined with the unsophisticated, emotional prose, means the book has more in common with YA fiction than most Holocaust biographies. That’s not necessarily a strike against it: Elida’s story is fascinating, and she was, of course, one of so many whose childhoods were irreparably broken by what the Nazis did. Illuminating their experiences is important work. This is a book for a curious teen, interested to learn more about not just the Holocaust, but the way it has shaped Jewish lives ever since.

There is a breathtaking twist in the final pages: suffice to say Elida’s life was no fairy tale even after the Nazi threat subsided. But one happily ever after; children, grandchildren and an immense extended family around today to tell her story and that of her parents, who made a choice nobody should have to.

‘The Forbidden Daughter’ by Zipora Klein Jakob

HarperCollins, £9.99

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