‘Survival is sweet revenge.’ The odyssey of Anna Rabkin, a Holocaust survivor

Anna Rabkin talks about her new memoir recently at University Press Books. Photo: Nancy Rubin

From Kraków to Berkeley: Coming Out of Hiding by Anna Rabkin (2018) 309 pages

5 out of 5

She was born Haneczka Rose in 1935 in Kraków, the youngest of three children of a well-to-do Polish-Jewish family. She became Anna Rozak at the age of six when her parents sent her into hiding with a Catholic family to evade capture by the Gestapo. In England at the end of the Second World War, she took on the name Anna Rose. At the age of 18, she was adopted by an Austrian-American family in New York and became Anna Wellman. Finally, upon her marriage to New York businessman Marty Rabkin, when she was 24, Anna took on the name that appears on the cover of her magnificent new memoir, From Kraków to Berkeley: Coming Out of Hiding. This is the odyssey of a Holocaust survivor whose experience parallels in some ways what so many refugees today are facing.

The odyssey of a Holocaust survivor

“I have lived in Berkeley, California, for many decades,” Anna writes in her preface, “but my life story spans continents. While it is common to describe life as a journey, mine has been a literal one: from my family’s frantic flight across Poland; my escape from the ghetto and then from Lwów; to being shipped off to England; to my quota-defying immigration to New York and subsequent migration to California. I have traveled across oceans and through waves of cultural and political change. Each place on my journey and each period left its mark on me.”


Anna describes that journey with consummate skill, bringing up from her prodigious memory for sensory detail the remarkable story of her evolution from a shy young Polish girl who didn’t start school until the age of ten to the supremely accomplished woman who holds master’s degrees in city & regional planning and history, served for 15 years as Berkeley’s elected City Auditor, and spearheaded the Berkeley Public Library’s first, $4 million fundraising campaign.

A troubled search for identity

Unsurprisingly, the most moving stories in the book concern Anna’s childhood in Kraków, Lwów (now Lviv in Ukraine), and England. Her desperate longing for her parents, who had simply disappeared, and her troubled search for identity (after her Polish guardian had her baptized in a Catholic church) are especially poignant. As she reflected much later, “Jewish, Catholic, Polish, British, American — who was I?” Anna’s experience as a refugee shuttled from one country to another is similar to that of the unwilling migrants who are flooding across national borders in the 21st century.

Life in an ideally diverse community

Anna was 27 when she and Marty arrived in Berkeley. At this remove, it seems she might not have found a more welcoming community anywhere. “My block,” she writes about the street where she has been living since 1964, “was unusually active and diverse. It was home to several immigrant families, five of whom were Holocaust survivors.” While that block is by no means typical of the city, its diversity certainly is.

Following her election as Berkeley City Auditor in 1979, Anna reflected, “survival is sweet revenge. I had not only survived the war, created a family and developed relationships with people of all backgrounds, but during the campaign, I had overcome the fears and feelings of worthlessness that a hateful ideology had instilled in me. I had proved to myself that neither my gender, religious or immigrant background were insurmountable obstacles. I could participate in public life and even be elected to office. My community’s acceptance would transform my life.” It’s difficult to imagine a more inspiring and life-affirming statement than that.

A foreshortened timescale

From Kraków to Berkeley is structured around a foreshortened timescale. The 27-year period encompassed in parts one, two, and three (covering Poland, England, and New York in succession) occupies two-thirds of the book. Part four deals with Anna’s time in California since 1962. The final 40 years are compressed into about forty pages. Having tried myself on several occasions to write a memoir, I understand. I found it damnably difficult to write with complete candor about people who are alive with whom I may have had complicated relationships.

Full disclosure

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m proud to state that Anna and I have been friends for many years. In addition to our connections through Berkeley politics since the 1970s, we have met almost monthly for more than 30 years in a dinner group she mentions in her book, and her late husband, Marty, was a member of my company’s board of directors for 25 years. However, I must make it clear that this review of Anna’s memoir is not one whit more positive than it fully deserves. Our friendship aside, I found the book endlessly fascinating.

Until July 21, 2018, you can obtain a 20% discount on this excellent memoir at VM books. Just use the code RABKIN18.