Starting in Krakow, Poland in 1890, and spanning more than one hundred years, five generations, and four continents, Mosaic is Diane Armstrong's moving account of her remarkable, resilient family. This story begins when Daniel Baldinger divorces the wife he loves because she cannot bear children. Believing that "a man must have sons to say Kaddish for him when he dies," he marries a much younger woman, and by 1913, Daniel and his second wife Lieba have eleven children, including six sons. In this richly textured portrait, Armstrong follows the Baldinger children's lives over decades, through the terrifying years of the Holocaust, to the present. Based on oral histories and the diaries of more than a dozen men and women, Mosaic is an extraordinary story of a family and one woman's journey to reclaim her heritage.
Although it has the epic sweep and emotional depth of a 19th-century novel, Diane Armstrong's absorbing family memoir centers around the 20th-century Holocaust that consumed the lives of six million European Jews. She begins with the dramatic moment in 1890 when grandfather Daniel Baldinger divorced his childless first wife because, the devout orthodox Jew explained, "if I can't doven in shule beside my sons, I won't have fulfilled my duty to God." Those sons and daughters (Daniel's second wife bore 11 children) came to maturity as the Nazis were exterminating Jews, often with the enthusiastic assistance of the Baldingers' Polish neighbors. Armstrong's father changed his name to Henryk Boguslawski, and her parents spent the war with baby Diane (born in 1939) pretending to be Catholics; their siblings employed other desperate tactics to escape the anti-Semites' grasp.
Armstrong seamlessly weaves a narrative history of those terrible years with the first-person recollections of her elderly parents, aunts, and uncles. This mosaic is further enriched by the meditations of Diane and her cousins, who scattered after the war with their surviving parents to Canada, the United States, Israel, and Australia (where Armstrong still lives). Giving their children a Jewish identity poses a challenge for Diane and her equally secular husband, and the book closes movingly with their son's fiance telling them she wishes to convert: "Your religion has continued for thousands of years, and so many Jews have died because of it," Susan tells her in-laws. "I don't want to be the one to break the continuity." Armstrong's memoir vividly conveys that continuity, even as it is threatened by political events and personal conflicts. Her skillful blending of vibrant individual voices across the generations makes this memoir a touching tribute to the healing powers of storytelling as well as to the unquenchable human spirit. --Wendy Smith