My Sack Full of Memories: a book review by Geoffrey Zygier

June 18, 2019 by Geoffrey Zygier
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People are motivated to bare their lives in public for different reasons. Some want to bear witness to matters significant to them or perhaps to erect memorials to the fallen. Others might have uncovered secrets to share, or perhaps they want to study or understand certain situations. There are those who seek immortality, while others hope to find insight or healing. All presumably believe they have a story worth recounting.

According to Zwi Lewin, collating his ‘collection of memories’ (which structurally falls in between an autobiography and a memoir) was due to his realisation how different his life, his childhood in particular, had been to that of his children and grandchildren. Originally they were the intended audience for My Sack Full of Memories. However, somewhere along the writing journey, Lewin’s modest ambitions grew.

My Sack Full of Memories is basically divided into three sections. It begins with scene-setting material about Lithuania and Lewin’s forebears (much of it only supposition because Lewin could not uncover all the facts), followed by his experiences during World War Two and concluding with his post-war life, largely in Australia.

Clearly, Lewin’s war experiences marked him forever. Most of these years were spent in the USSR, the majority in an orphanage. He suffered, primarily from hunger, fear and loneliness, and was unsurprisingly traumatised during these years. As he writes, “…memory is like a sack on my back and each memory is an individual stone I carry in that sack. For a young child…perhaps the sack was too small because the stones fell out and I now remember so little. Other heavier stones were added, stones that were painful with their jagged edges, stones that made me cry and stones that left little room in my sack for happy memories. Many of these stones are also missing, but they have left a sadness that has lingered.”

This is a very poignant description and the reader cannot help but feel deep compassion for this damaged little boy. However, readers about the lives of others usually want to be informed and/or transformed. Typically readers are drawn to and fascinated by stories that move quickly and have redemptive outcomes, but they quickly tire of what may be seen as self-pity. A cloistering gloom suffuses the pages of this book and any positive moments seem to be somewhat forced attempts to compensate for Lewin’s unresolved sadness.

While Lewin’s life in Australia has provided him with peace of a sort, regrettably I found its recounting lack-lustre in its uneventfulness. As a reader, I was hoping for more insight and less trivial detail. Perhaps this is the balm he wanted, but does the reader really need to know about Lewin’s anger at his sister who held their mother’s funeral too early for him to arrive on time; the details of the bonding trips he took with his five children; the location and prices of his various family homes; his colleagues rubbishing him when he married the boss’s daughter; and his troubled relationship with his mother and other family members? Perhaps a heavier editorial hand would have helped; for while these are personal and presumably significant memories for Lewin, this is not the stuff of engaging reading for the reader.

Frankly, I was dissatisfied with My Sack Full of Memories. Perhaps the hardest thing to tell the writer of a subject close to his heart is this: “Unfortunately your story sounds like those of so many others. It rightly means a lot to you, but it is not distinctive or especially well written.” While Zwi Lewin’s family and friends will surely be interested in his personal testament, regrettably I think it unlikely to attract a wider audience.

My Sack Full of Memories by Zwi Lewin as told to Joe Reich (Hybrid Publishers, 2019)

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