Mosaic: A Chronicle of Five Generations
(1998), a historical memoir by Diane Armstrong, spans more than five generations and 100 years, telling the story of Armstrong’s family, and her determination to reclaim her lost heritage after tragic events such as the Holocaust. Critics praise the book for seamlessly blending multiple perspectives of Jewish life, capturing cross-generational cultural issues. A writer and award-winning investigative journalist, best known for her travel writing and personal experience pieces, Armstrong’s articles have featured in many publications, including Vogue
, The Sydney Morning Herald
, and The Australian
, Armstrong shows how neighbors, work colleagues, and friends treated Jewish people from the earliest days of WWII onwards. To write the book, Armstrong interviewed relatives and collated diary entries from older generations she couldn’t interview. She urges Jewish people to always remember what happened to their relatives, because only by remembering the past can they build a better future for everyone.Mosaic
is divided into three parts. Part I introduces readers to Armstrong’s various family members. Part II explores how the Holocaust affected these individuals, and how they each responded to the dire situation unfolding around them. In Part III, Armstrong considers the War’s aftermath and how it shaped future generations of her family.
The book begins in Krakow, Poland, in the fall of 1890. Armstrong’s grandfather, Daniel Baldinger, wanders through Krakow’s Jewish District, wondering how to tell his wife, Reizel, that he is leaving her. Although Daniel loves Reizel dearly, she can’t get pregnant, and he doesn’t want to die childless.
For Daniel, having children is about more than just building a family. It’s about preserving the Jewish way of life and ensuring the survival of his own ancestral line. If Daniel doesn’t have any children, especially sons, his own Jewish heritage dies with him. Despite the pain it causes both him and Reizel, Daniel leaves his wife and looks for another woman.
Finding a younger woman, Lieba, Daniel soon marries her. By 1913, they already have 11 children, including six sons, and Daniel couldn’t be happier. A highly respected member of the local Jewish community, he’s sure that at least one of his sons will go on to become a rabbi. He pins his hope on his eldest son, Avner, but Avner doesn’t want to be a rabbi. Daniel’s disappointment takes its toll on their relationship, and their father-son bond never truly heals.
As WWII draws near, Armstrong notes how life changes in the Jewish community. Everyone notices how they are treated differently from other Poles. For example, their Catholic neighbors call them Jewish rather than Polish, because they don’t consider them true Polish citizens. Jewish people are slowly and insidiously ostracized from society—so slowly that they don’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late.
Armstrong notes that, although Hitler and the Nazis introduced the main anti-Jewish propaganda, they weren’t the ones responsible for stoking religious and cultural hatred. After reading old diary entries, Armstrong learns that the real anti-Jewish hatred came from the people themselves. Widespread antisemitism eventually led to the atrocities of the Holocaust, and many non-Jews seemed indifferent, or at least ignorant, to what was going on and the role they played in it.
Only three years old when the Holocaust began, Armstrong remembers how her parents and her extended family all posed as Polish Catholics to avoid the concentration camps. She thanks a Catholic priest, Father Soszynski, and his parishioners for shielding their true identities and for helping them survive one of the darkest moments in Jewish history. She contrasts their compassion and charity against other Polish citizens who were not so helpful.
In 1948, after the War ended, Armstrong and her surviving family fled to Australia where they settled for many years. Antisemitism didn’t end in Europe, and it was a tense, terrifying journey for everyone. For example, they couldn’t pass through certain territories because the people regarded Jews as state enemies. Armstrong was too young to remember much of the journey, and so she relies on eyewitness accounts and oral testimonies from surviving family members.
’s final chapters, Armstrong considers where her family is now, and what the future holds for Judaism. She notes that most Holocaust survivors and their relatives live in Israel now, including her own family. Israel represented hope for Holocaust refugees looking for a new life; they’re proud of the country they helped shape.
Armstrong concludes by describing how she felt when she revisited Poland and saw Father Soszynski again. She doesn’t know how to thank him for the great risks he took for her family; thanks to people like him many Jews survived the War. She notes that we should never shy away from the horrors of conflict, because by remembering past mistakes, we can prevent such atrocities from happening again.