Reviewed by Caroline Vu
In her novel Don’t Ask, Gina Roitman raises many questions: Can love transcend one’s historical baggage? Can we forgive our enemies? Can we let go of the past? Should we let go of the past?
Like the author, her heroine Hannah is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Like Roitman, Hannah was born in a displaced persons camp in post-war Germany. Like Roitman, Hannah is a professional woman living in Quebec. Hannah’s story comes over as believable and authentic because it is, to a certain extent, Roitman’s story.
When Hannah proposes a business trip to Germany, Rokhl, her mother, strongly objects. "Over my dead body!" she threatens. Her mother's forceful tone surprises Hannah. Still, she continues to plan for the trip.
In Germany, Hannah meets Max, a real estate colleague, Casually she learns of his family background. Max's father was a SS officer during the war. Unlike Hannah, Max feels no guilt. Born after the war, and abandoned by his father at age two, he knows little of his father’s past. Like many Germans born after the war, he opts to look forward rather than back. While Hannah is consumed by her search for her family's past, Max would rather forget his. Despite their different backgrounds, an attraction develops between Hannah and Max.
Madly in love, Max gives himself wholly to Hannah. His love is pure and simple. Naively, he plans for their future; a dinner here, a side trip there, perhaps even a permanent relocation. Hannah holds back. Still chained to her parents’ past, she is not ready for a future with him.
Running parallel to Hannah’s story is her mother’s tale. From a shoebox full of letters, we learn of Rokhl’s tragic childhood in Poland. Rejected by her mother and forced to leave home during the war, Rokhl hides her Jewish identity to survive. Caught by the Germans, she is sent to Auschwitz as a Polish political prisoner. There, she quickly learns to fend for herself. Under her fake identity, Rokhl ends up working for an SS guard. To survive, she stays silent even as she witnesses the torture of her people day after day. Years later, silence remains her wall of self-defence. Shame and guilt keep her from telling her true story in Canada. 'I am not her' is all Rokhl will disclose of her Auschwitz past. While Roitman’s novel asks: Can we forgive the other, it also asks: Can we forgive ourselves?
Hannah's decision to go to Germany against her mother’s wishes tortures Rokhl. She throws herself under a bus one afternoon. Perplexed, Hannah asks: Why? Why a suicide 70 years later, and over a business trip? If Rokhl is ‘not her,’ then who is she? These questions keep us turning the pages. And once finished, we immediately want to re-read all of them. A Holocaust drama, a mother-daughter story, a modern day romance, an immigrant narrative—Kudos to Gina Roitman for seamlessly knitting all these tales into one touching fresco.
Don't Ask is published by Guernica Editions. ---
Caroline Vu is the author of two novels and various short stories. Her first novel, Palawan Story, won the Fred Kerner Prize in 2016 and was a finalist for the Concordia University First Book Prize.