This powerful memoir chronicles a lesser-known chapter of the Second World War through the story of two sisters: Sabina, author Isa Milman’s mother, who survived the war, and Basia, Sabina’s twin, who did not.
IN THE SMALL VILLAGE OF POHORELOWKA in Poland—now Poliske, Ukraine—two chestnut trees stand side by side, their crowns growing together, almost as one. In front of them, tired-looking parents sit amid a cluster of five young daughters. Beneath twin trees the group is bookended by twin sisters, Sabina and Basia Kramer—one with bows holding her dark braids, the other with a shorter bob. One survived the Second World War. The other did not.
It’s a single, simple family photograph from about 1927, whose prewar circumstances are a mystery and whose postwar existence is a miracle. It was discovered by chance in 2014 by writer Isa Milman while on a research trip for her new memoir Afterlight: In Search of Poetry, History, and Home (Heritage House).
Sabina, the twin who survived, is Milman’s mother, and the photo was the first time Milman had seen her as a child. The small black and white rectangle—the kind so many of us take for granted stuffed in shoeboxes or falling out of faded albums—holds much more than a flat image. “It was, finally, a real past that I had gathered,” Milman writes, “the past of my family, still intact, living in a complete world, with leafy trees, wooden chairs in the grass, a rail fence, fields in the distance….”
Writer Isa Milman
As a poet and visual artist, Milman has been exploring issues of identity, home, and family—the love and the loss—for two decades. Born in a displaced persons camp in US-occupied Germany before her family immigrated to Boston, Milman has long struggled with a sense of rootlessness and a childhood marked by absence. “My mother hardly spoke of my birth and the first weeks of my life,” she writes in Afterlight, and the Shoah’s devastation meant Milman grew up without the experience of grandparents or extended family. Writing about one of her trips to Poland, Milman describes being “back in my child-self, reliving the time I asked my mother what was a Bobie, and watching her face collapse.”
Amid that painful absence, Milman has brought forth a body of work that creates and celebrates connection. Her poetry collections Between the Doorposts (2004), Prairie Kaddish (2008), and Something Small to Carry Home (2012), each of which won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for Poetry, touch on the personal and historical as well as the ability of writing to reclaim stories, memories, and lives from erasure.
So when Milman’s 89-year-old mother woke up from her deathbed, surrounded by family, and began sharing a previously unknown story about her long-dead twin sister—about the teenage poet Basia’s writing plans, the family’s unusual friendship with a defrocked village priest, and his offer of mentorship—Milman scrambled to take notes. “Isa,” her mother said, “this should be your next book.”
“Originally, the book was going to be about Basia,” Milman tells me over a video chat from her home in Victoria. “She was a poet, and I’m a poet. There’s such a nice connection. But I knew virtually nothing about my aunt.” What Milman did know was that there must be more to the new story and that she needed to investigate. “It wasn’t part of the usual narrative,” she explains, the excitement of discovery still palpable in her retelling. “It was a big deal. You know, ‘the Poles and Ukrainians were horrible and killers and antisemites’ and all of that. But my mother described a very lovely relationship, a friendship between them, and that was news to me. It was the first time she had ever said anything like that; she never had good things to say about Poland. That’s what really stunned me. That’s the part that got me going.”
And we go with her. For while the book explores hidden stories of family history amid the backdrop of political history, a key term in Afterlight’s subtitle is “search.” This is not a linear memoir retracing lives from A to B. It is told in a deftly braided timeline that brings the reader back and forth between past and present, in which the travels and travails of her family are woven together with Milman’s own emotional and physical journeys—of commitment to and undertaking the daunting task; of uncoverings, revelations, and experiences with people and places she never expected. It's an immersive book, and central to its strength and success is Milman’s courage.
“My notion of Poland was born from a deliberate burial of this place by my parents, who dug a deep hole and interred their childhoods and young lives along with it,” Milman writes. And yet, the drive to recover their stories and the memory of their family members who didn’t survive impels her to do the previously unthinkable. “Here I was in Poland,” she recounts to the reader, “my strange, frightening, almost-home. A home carpeted with the bones of my closest family and my awesome, formidable tribe.”
Not only do we journey with Milman as she does the hard, courageous work of travelling to haunted ground—to search for documents, Basia’s poems, the sisters’ childhood home, the killing fields where her relatives’ remains lie unmarked, a place to mourn—but as a writer, she does the difficult heart work of travelling into her family’s daily reality in a way that brings them close, to Milman and to us. For instance, she takes us onto a crowded Warsaw tram on a day when her mother stood up to a group of men ranting about Jews and had her fingers slammed in the tram door: “I hear her yelping in pain, see her bringing her crumpled fingers to her lips, blowing on them as if she could revive them and cool them with her breath.” When her mother and father reunite after Sabina’s escape from Warsaw, Milman writes: “I can feel her mounting excitement as she drew nearer and nearer to home.”
Afterlight—a 2021 National Jewish Book Award Finalist—is a work rooted in fact, but it also relies on the intimacy of imagination. “I gathered as much information as I could,” Milman tells me, but “it became a huge challenge to figure out how to write it.” Despite the wealth of notes, papers, articles, and interviews, in the mode of creative non-fiction she sometimes had to create pivotal, personal, undocumented scenes—for instance, when her parents read the posted names on the walls of a postwar Breslau café in the unlikely (but ultimately successful) hope of reuniting with Sabina’s surviving sisters.
Milman learned about the method of finding lost loved ones from an academic whose work includes the topic of Jews who survived in the Soviet Union, as Milman’s parents had. With that bit of information, and after her own visit to the cafés near the historic White Stork synagogue in what is now Wrocław, Milman transports us to the moment when Sabina collapses into a chair, exhausted, while her husband, Olek, reads around the room methodically. “‘Sabina, come look,’” we hear him say. “Everything around her blurred; the walls looked like they were pulsating, but it was her heart beating too fast. She steadied herself by leaning against the table, took a deep breath, and then made her way toward my father. Putting one arm around her, he pointed to the yellow scrap of paper taped on the wall. ‘Pola, Manya, and Sonia Kramer,’ he read. ’20 Lochstrasse, apt. 44.’”
“I was deeply immersed,” Milman says, with an obvious combination of amazement, love, and sadness. “I had to completely empathize and imagine myself in my mother’s place, in my parents’ places, and even in my aunt Basia’s place. That was the hardest part. But to have that task was, in a sense, very liberating. It became like a writing challenge. Not all of it was difficult.”
What Milman tells me about going to Poland applies equally to the way she opens herself up, allows herself to be inhabited by her family’s experiences while writing: “confronting your fear, taking those steps to go where you’re afraid to go—what you discover there is really phenomenal.”
The courage of Milman’s search meant being open in another way as well—to being changed. “One of the deepest and most profound changes that I experienced” she explains, still with an air of wonder, perhaps even a bit of disbelief, “was my relationship to Poland, to the idea of Poland, to what Poland represented, including the part of Poland that is now Ukraine and Belarus, which is where my parents were from. I had started from a place where there was no redemption to meeting people there who I deeply love and developed a strong relationship with, to this day.”
Throughout Afterlight, we see a host of people helping Milman on her journey, from her husband, family, and friends in Canada to international academics, researchers, translators, charitable organizations, cultural institutions, and even the teacher and schoolchildren of Poliske. Milman’s burden was carried by so many who took up the search alongside her. The formerly impossible idea of setting foot in Poland leads to what she describes as a “living moment of tikkun, or repair.”
Taking its title from a word referring to both a retrospect and the light still visible in the sky after sunset, Afterlight explores the power of memory, imagination, and words to hold hands with those across the threshold, to let them continue to be seen, felt, heard.
“When you think that it was the worst—and in so many respects it was the worst that happened to Basia and to members of my family and the whole Jewish civilization of Europe—it didn’t end,” Milman tells me near the end of our talk. “There’s still light. There’s still life.” As readers, we become witnesses, not just to the family’s past but to the incredible act of courageous love and honouring that is this book. And we join the community of memory-keepers who, as a result, can say: Basia, we also will remember you.
Milman’s is a book that also reminds us of the dangers of hatred and the role we all still have to play in the ongoing work of memory and repair. Many of the issues she touches on are not old, done and fixed, and her strength can inspire ours. To search. To be open even when afraid. To be transformed. For despite the absences and the cut off roots, Milman shows us what resilience and becoming can look like and what they can achieve.
After a potent moment of return to the twin chestnuts of that precious family photograph, Milman raises a glass with new and unexpected friends, and going around the table, they toast: “to our families, to the kindling of new friendships, to education, to honouring our past, to freedom from persecution, to people getting to know one another and celebrating our common humanity…to the old mills and the rivers still flowing, to the people that we’d loved and lost, to the songs of the forest, to life, to life, l’Chaim….”
Having quit her job as an editor at the Legislative Assembly, writer Amy Reiswig is enjoying productive self-reinvention finally living full-time on Mayne Island.