Book Review: Art of a Jewish Woman by Henry N. Massie (Two Stars)

Book Review: Art of a Jewish Woman: The True Story of How a Penniless Holocaust Escapee Became an Influential Modern Art Connoisseur by Henry N. Massie

Two Stars out of Five

Fascinating, but disappointing book. A son’s hagiography to his spoiled Jewish atheist mother. All we know is what her son tells us and, perhaps unintentionally, he tells a lot. Her family sacrificed to give her an education few women enjoyed in the 1930, and she resented them for it. On her own for ten years, she complained because she didn’t know how to wash her own underwear.

“I was never a materialist or afraid,” she claimed as she sponged off others or brazenly took food and services for which she did not pay. (We have only her word that she paid “everyone” back.) “From the first she felt a sense of self and dignity.” And entitlement. “She was a little princess … and all the time she didn’t feel special inside.” She was, of course, a socialist. Every bit the parasite she accused the capitalists of being.

“I just thought about what I was going to do on a particular day.” She stumbled through the Holocaust, by the grace of others, immigrating to safety in Palestine, then leaving it because she was bored of so many suitors, only to return home to Poland (almost on a whim) just has the Nazi storm broke. An uncle in Connecticut rescues her again (leaving her mother and brother to die in the holocaust; she raised money to evacuate her sister), though she sniffed “America was a land of money lenders.” “I survived the holocaust in luxury.”

“Later by virtue of fortune, spirit, intelligence and psychological acuity [she] became a source of fullness to others.” The reader must endure much analysis and back patting by her psychiatrist son. He terms her life the “actualization of a primordial eternal myth of return.” Whatever that means.

“She believes poverty exists because of corrupt governments and corrupt religion.” Not because of bloodsuckers like herself. “She firmly believed in the economy of sharing even though she liked to live well herself.”

She saw herself as “an exotic, beautiful, educated damsel in distress” who collected (only) abstract impressionist art. “Beauty will save the world.” “I only felt I liked the painting and wanted to have it.” (Notice: “have,” not earn or even buy; she married an accomplished cardiac specialist.) “I never did anything for the money.” It was just there to spend.

She refused analysis herself because of the psychiatrists dressed poorly, but “she … gave [young women] intelligent advice distilled with psychoanalytically framed interpretations of their psychological problems.” Making them twice as unfit for life as herself. “She hated criticism.”

What can I say? If her son intended to do a hatchet job on his mother, he couldn’t have been more effective. He, of course, injects himself and his wisdom as much as possible into the chronicle, recognizable as the unreliable narrator. Her story is a case study on what is wrong with western culture. From beginning to end, it was all about her. She was the center of the universe; the world owed her a living. Despite getting breaks and sacrifices by others, she stumbled onward—her eyes fixed on a lavish painting of herself as a young beauty which she hung over her bed.

As I read it, I debated whether it merited one star or four. I settled on two because the exposé seems so unintentional. Also, a few factual errors suggest the presence of more than a little fiction in her son’s glowing tribute. I have read many factual holocaust books; this isn’t one of them.

“At her core, Felice was lonely.” So sad.