Book Review #5: The Conversations We Never Had by Jeffrey H. Konis A man's dream of a second chance, an author's tribute to a remarkable woman.

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I’ve Been Waiting For This Conversation…

The book’s synopsis on the back cover.

Of all the books I’ve reviewed, none initially interested me to the degree of The Conversations We Never Had. Written by Jeffrey H. Konis, this ‘quasi-memoir’ is a unique hybrid of both historical fiction and autobiographical non-fiction. The storyline is told from Konis’ perspective as his younger self, a first generation Jewish-American law student living in Manhattan with his elderly Grandma Ola back in the mid-1980s.

This book is a fictional account of how a young Jeffrey Konis would have learned the details of his incredible family backstory, if he had asked his beloved Grandma Ola to tell him about it before she passed away. A descendant of Eastern European Jews, Konis has a thirst for as much knowledge of his family’s history as possible. But by the mid-1980s, Grandma Ola is the only relative left for him to ask. Why? I knew that answer right away. Us Jews always know why other Jewish families are quite often smaller than most.

A Dark Time In History

In the mid-20th century, Konis’ relatives lived in and around the countries of Poland, Lithuania, and Germany. As most educated people know, those three particular countries were pretty much a trifecta of terror for Jews during that time. Similar to my own Eastern European relatives living in the area (I am pretty certain), during Hitler’s reign of terror, much of Konis’ family members were killed for one reason, and one reason only: they were Jewish.

Konis’ Grandma Ola was one of the fortunate ones who survived. This book chronicles what her incredible story might have sounded like.

Connections? Oh, Yes.

Yeah, I’d consider myself pretty lucky.

I hadn’t read a memoir set during the Holocaust since The Diary of Anne Frank back in high school. Reading about the Holocaust isn’t easy for me to personally handle, but it is extremely necessary to learn about, I believe-for everyone, regardless of background. Reading this book, I was reminded of how fortunate I am to live when and where I do, with freedom, and without fear.

In The Conversations We Never Had, Jeffrey H. Konis imagines his Grandma Ola chronicling her life story to him through heartfelt, raw, and at-times humorous conversations. There is no doubt that in reality, Jeffrey H. Konis regrets not having these discussions when Grandma Ola was still alive.

Although the conversations between Jeffinga and Ola never actually did occur IRL, I have to give a shout out to Konis’ musings. He is able to mix heavy conversation with the reality of what having a Jewish Grandmother is like, pretty much to perfection.

How would I know?

Well, I kind of had a Grandma Ola in my life as well, except her name was Ruth.

Jewish Grandmas Rule

My Grandma Ruth with my mother, Marcia, at my parents’ wedding in June, 1972. My mom was quite the looker (still is).

Last December, just shy of her 89th birthday, my Grandma Ruth passed away. Less than two months later, I was asked to read this book. I found that to be a pretty neat coincidence.

One major difference between Jeffrey Konis and myself, however, is that I actually did ask Grandma Ruth to chronicle her life before she passed. Kind of. Ok, it wasn’t exactly me who asked, it was my husband. My gentile AF, Czech-Italian, raised-Catholic husband. Mike suggested my grandmother tape record everything she knew about my family, after hearing snippets of her

In my quest to find my Grandma Ruth’s tapes, I came across a DVD of my paternal Grandpa Sam, who passed away in 1999. I’ve had this DVD for over a decade, yet I still can’t bring myself to watch it, to this day.

stories during a visit to her Florida home back in 2007. I thought having Ruth create these voice recordings was a brilliant idea at the time, yes, but now that she is gone, I am eternally grateful for my husband’s suggestion.

After numerous phone calls regarding technical issues with using a, uh, tape recorder, (#generationgap) Grandma Ruth filled up several cassettes with her stories and mailed them back to us. And apparently, I’ve been quite busy since 2007, as I haven’t yet listened to them.

To be honest, now that Ruth is gone, I’m not sure I can bring myself to listen to the tapes. I have the same issue regarding a DVD of my Grandpa Sam from the mid-nineties as well (he died in 1999). Even after 18 years, I still can’t watch it. Why? I don’t really know, TBH.

Another issue with Ruth’s recordings? Presently, I legit can’t find them. I am confident that they are somewhere in this house, most likely in a very safe place. So safe, in fact, that everyone who lives here is unable to locate them- including me. Sigh.

Grandma Ola: Strength Personified.

This can never, ever happen again.
“Holocaust Memorial” flickr photo by Dave Williss  shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Jeffrey Konis’ Grandma Ola was no joke. For years, her life consisted of moving to different concentration camps, hard labor, daily fear of death, and subhuman treatment. I can’t even imagine that horrors she observed at that time, though Konis does, and at times, in detail.

Spoiler alert 
Some of the details Konis includes regarding the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust are graphic, and can be extremely upsetting to most people. However, I believe that these horrific scenes are absolutely necessary to the story. Especially lately (cough, cough), I feel that people need reminders of the atrocities committed throughout history by people in power towards others seen as “different.”

So that we never, ever, repeat them again in the future.

No Rest For The Weary.

So Konis’ Grandma Ola defies the odds, and survives the worst mass extermination of humans in recorded history. Time to get some rest and learn what it feels like to be free again, amirite?

Not for Grandma Ola. Almost immediately following Ola’s liberation from concentration camp hell, she took in and began to raise her recently-orphaned nephew, who would eventually grow up to become Jeffrey H. Konis’ father.

Much respect for Ola doing the honorable thing here, especially considering she was well into her 40s by that time, as well as childfree.

Olga Konis’ story is fascinating, and honors the strength and character of a most remarkable woman with a most remarkable history during a unique as well as terrifying period of time.

Jeffinga and Me: Some Personal Connections

My dad with his mom, Sadie, who passed in 1982 when I was 5, and his dad, Sam at his 1972 wedding to my mom. My father still never smiles in photos. I can see who he inherited that from in this photo.

When I received the book in the mail, I noticed the return address was from a town here in the Hudson Valley, where I live. What a surprise to find out that the book I had agreed to review was written by a local author! I thought that was pretty neat.

Like Konis, my extended family originally lived in NYC. However, while Grandma Ola and Grandpa Bonya raised Konis’ dad in posh Manhattan, my mother and father both grew up in Brooklyn’s working-class Jewish projects. Differences in social class notwithstanding, Konis and I have similar roots, and have also both made comfortable lives for ourselves in the NYC ‘burbs, with our respective families of four.

The way Konis described his beloved Grandma Ola made me smile on numerous occasions when reading the book.

Four generations of my family in 2007, the year Mike asked Grandma Ruth to record her memories. L-R: Ruth, my mother Marcia, 9 month old now-S10, and me.

Olga Konis peppered her conversations with plenty of Yiddish words, which was also the norm during my own childhood. Words like kvetch and schmatta, among others, were used daily in my childhood home without a second thought. Today, I use those words in my house as well, and S10 doesn’t even bat an eye (but her non-Jewish friends probably do!). Even Mike gets in on the Yiddish action after being my partner for nearly two decades. It never gets old hearing my goyim husband telling me “that’s facacta.” Ha!

A Humorous Personal Connection

In Konis’ book, Grandma Ola would offer Konis a kookey every night, always presented on a tray. First off, Grandmas the world over seem to have an obsession with feeding their grandkids. And not just Jewish grandmas, I’ve come to learn (Hi Grandma Barbara!). However the image of Grandma Ola “shuffling” about her apartment in her slippers, carrying a tray of kookeys?

Yeah, THAT’S a Jewish grandma thing.

Around 2000, Mike and I were visiting my grandparents at their retirement community in NJ, before they moved to Florida. Mike and I had been together almost three years by that time, yet he still had much to learn about my familial quirks. Mike, Grandma Ruth, and myself were sitting in the TV room, watching one of my Grandma Ruth’s programs (she never just said ‘show.’) During a commercial, Ruth turns to us, and asks:

“You want some nosherie?”

“Sure,” I reply, without a second thought. Grandma then leaves the room. After a few seconds, I realize that my future husband is staring at me. I turn to him.

“What?”

His face is complete bewilderment. “Jill, WTF is nosherie?”

LOL. I smile and say, “Oh, you just wait.”

Some nosherie. “Snack Time” flickr photo by rprata shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Grandma Ruth shuffles back into the TV room, now carrying a tray. Piled on the tray is a literal smorgasbord of snacks. Ice cream. Chips. Fruit. Pretzels. Kookeys. My husband gives me a private grin, and then goes to town on the food. We still laugh about that moment to this day, and Mike still sometimes asks in a voice he thinks sounds like my grandma, “You want some nosherie?”

A Melting Pot of Themes

The Conversations We Never Had contains numerous interwoven themes including familial love, cultural loyalty, making difficult choices, acceptance, revering our elders, survival, perspective; the list goes on and on. Throughout the book, there also seemed to be a continuous undertone of regret and sadness as well, though I’m unsure if that was Jeffrey Konis’ actual intention.

S2, age 13 months, with her Great-Grandma Ruth, summer 2015. I am so happy they were able to meet, even though it was just that one time and S2 won’t remember it.

I learned a lot about Jewish people from this book, and since I am Jewish, that translated into also learning a lot about myself. Chapter 9, simply titled, “Jews,” is full of details that were very eye-opening for me. Not to sound like a book report, but if you want to know more, you should definitely read this book.

One takeaway worth sharing:
I’ve often caught flack when asked about my heritage and my reply is “Russian, Polish, and Jewish.” People be like, “Jewish is a religion, not a nationality.” WELL… not exactly.

The fact that I myself have traits very common to Jewish people, from physical (curly dark hair, light skin, Crohn’s Disease) to personality (outspoken, driven academically) is not just mere coincidence. Nor is it a product of my environment, as I was pretty much the only Jew for miles most of my life. It’s just who I am. Culturally. Grandma Ola summed it up best when she said “we are neither just a religion nor a race; we are a people.”

Damn straight. Thank you, Jeffrey H. Konis, because I’ve been seeking a mic-drop-esque comeback to the [incorrect] notion of Judiasm being “just a religion” for decades!

Final Thoughts

Anyone who has read this far should be able to tell that I absolutely adored this book. It was entertaining, enlightening, and it took me on a fun trip down memory lane. The Conversations We Never Had by Jeffrey H. Konis is just a fantastic read. I couldn’t recommend this book more highly, no matter what culture you call your own. It is truly a 5-star story; I invite you to see for yourself. You will not be disappointed, I guarantee it.

And now, back to looking for Grandma Ruth’s tapes. Wish me luck.

Thank you so much for reading. Until next time!

Disclosure: The book was provided to the reviewer. All thoughts belong to the reviewer and have not been influenced.

 

 

 

 

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