Herbert J. Cohen
Herbert J. Cohen

The Fortunate Ones by Ellen Umansky: a “Kosher Movies” book review

When I served in the rabbinate in Atlanta, I knew a number of people who had been on kindertransports, trainloads of children who were sent to other countries by their parents who remained in Germany and other places under Nazi control. Intellectually, I understood the trauma of parents and children separating, not knowing if they would ever see one another again; but my emotional understanding of those events increased when I read some of the heartbreaking scenes in Ellen Umansky’s debut novel The Fortunate Ones, which describes in powerful human terms the pain of separation leading to an unknown future.

There are two parallel stories in The Fortunate Ones. One concerns a 37-year-old New York attorney, Lizzie Goldstein, whose father has recently died in a car accident. This precipitates her traveling to Los Angeles for his funeral. In Los Angeles, she meets Rose Downes, the central figure in the second narrative in the novel. Rose is the original owner of a painting that was stolen from Lizzie’s home as a teenager during a party she hosted. Her father Joseph, a wealthy eye surgeon, had purchased the painting many years before from a New York gallery. Lizzie and Rose meet at Joseph’s memorial service.

The painting is The Bellhop, an extremely valuable art piece done by Chaim Soutine. Lizzie still feels guilty that it was during her teenage party when many strangers were in her home that the painting was stolen. Rose is interested in the painting because it brings back memories of her family’s home in Vienna before she was separated from her parents.

The novel travels back in time to 1936 in Vienna to describe the beginning of Rose’s childhood journey to England where she was sent with her brother Gerhard as members of a kindertransport. As Rose slowly comes to terms with her refugee status and the challenges of adjusting to a new country, we witness Lizzie’s contemporary story in 2008 in which Lizzie is dealing with the grief occasioned by her father’s sudden death.

Umansky describes life before the war in Vienna, life during the war in England, and life in America many years later. Slowly Rose’s residual guilt for having survived while her parents died during the Holocaust dissipates. Lizzie, on her own quest to understand the past, gradually discovers information about her father that compels her to reevaluate her relationship with him. Rose and Lizzie share stories and connect emotionally creating a bond that transcends the generations.

The insights at which they both arrive are similar. They recognize they have little control over outcomes; they can only do the best they can within their respective contextual realities. This, indeed, is the definition of fortunate in the title. We are indeed fortunate if we can come to terms with consequences even when they are painful and unclear. As the Sages in the Talmud say, the truly rich man is the one who is satisfied with what he has, not the one who always desires more and never can come to terms with the reality facing him. It is a truism that we cannot control results. This piece of wisdom is at the core of The Fortunate Ones, a Holocaust novel in one sense, but a book with practical life lessons as well.

A personal note. I usually write film reviews, but I wanted to write about The Fortunate Ones because it resonated with cinematic possibilities with its diverse time periods, varied locations, and richly imagined characters and themes. I thought of Steven Spielberg as the director, Richard Gere in the role of Joseph Goldstein, Scarlett Johansson in the role of Lizzie, and Meryl Streep in the role of Rose. Perhaps we will all be fortunate when The Fortunate Ones hits the silver screen.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at rabbihjco@msn.com.
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