The only colors I could see were the red armbands with white circles that had black, hooked crosses inside them. Some people watching the parade waved flags that looked like the armbands. I couldn’t understand why they were so excited about men in such ugly, drab uniforms.
But the beat of the music made me jump up and down as the band passed by. It was followed by rows and rows of men lifting their feet high in the air, pounding their heels onto the pavement as if they were hammers — their chests were puffed out — their chins held high. All our neighbors were smiling and cheering and waving their arms. The excitement made me hop like a rabbit — until Mama grabbed my arm and brought me to a standstill. Her face twisted into a knot. I’d never seen her like that before. I didn’t understand why she was so frightened.
(from Becoming Alice, page 4)
The Nazis parade into Vienna when Ilse Fell is just 6 years old. She doesn’t understand how the Nazis coming to power will turn her world upside down, but she soon realizes that her family is different from others and somehow in trouble because they are Jewish. Life changes dramatically in a blink of an eye. Her father, a doctor, is no longer allowed to practice medicine. The family’s bank account is frozen, and he is soon forced to flee to avoid being arrested by the Nazis. Eventually, Ilse, her mother, and her older brother are able to join her father, and after much waiting and worrying, the Fells make their way to the United States, settling in Portland, Oregon.
Becoming Alice is Alice Rene’s memoir about fleeing Europe in the early days of World War II and her family’s struggle to succeed in America. Things aren’t easy for the Fells when they arrive in Portland. Ilse — who later chooses the name Alice when she becomes a U.S. citizen — enters third grade without knowing any English or having ever set foot in a classroom. While her parents are learning how to run a grocery store — her father isn’t allowed to practice medicine right away — Alice is trying to find herself and make friends.
Rene’s memoir is a page-turner. Opening with the tension and the fear of the Nazi invasion and all the hoops her family must jump through to leave Europe, I didn’t want to put the book down. It’s almost as if Rene has stepped back in time, back into the shoes of little Ilse. Rene tells the story from her little-girl point of view, re-living the memories, rather than simply recounting them in hindsight. Once in America, the book becomes both an immigrant story and a coming-of-age story, and Rene does a wonderful job of showing how she and her parents overcame their initial struggles. I like that she doesn’t romanticize her story and portrays her parents as real people with flaws; she remembers her father’s temper, his need to feel as though he is better than everyone else and always right. I think that we can all relate to Alice on some level in butting heads with our parents when they want us to do one thing but we want to do another.
My only complaint is that the book ends too soon, and the epilogue doesn’t make mention of all the family and friends who play a big role in Alice’s story. I wonder what happened to them all. I’m really picky about memoirs, so for me to wish that it had been longer is saying a lot.
Disclosure: I received a copy of Becoming Alice from the author for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.
© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.