Three years after her father's death, Annette Libeskind Berkovits could still barely surmount the grief. She kept avoiding the inevitable task of going through his clothes and belongings, instead keeping them out of sight, if never out of mind. When she finally decided to venture into his old room and navigate the depths of his closet, however, Berkovits found a relic that changed her life.
“Way in the back of the closet, I found this old shoebox. I thought it was an old pair of shoes," recalls Berkovits, calling from her New York home. "Lo and behold, it was a box of tapes. My father had narrated his story in English and in Yiddish.”
After pausing momentarily, the septuagenarian continues, “I was completely overcome. And the reason I was completely taken aback was that a good number of years before he died, when he was getting on in age, my husband said, ‘We should send your father a tape recorder so he can record his stories.’”
Nachman Libeskind was a Holocaust survivor whose unyielding optimism, congenial nature, and faith in humanity, endeared him to everyone he met. His story, detailed in In the Unlikeliest of Places: How Nachman Libeskind Survived the Nazis, Gulags, and Soviet Communism was originally published in 2014. The book, Berkovits' first after a 30+-year career with the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Bronx Zoo, is a remarkable and multi-faceted text that will see a paperback release on Monday.
Yet, both Berkovits and the origins of the book itself have ties to South Florida. The author sounds enthusiastic and lively—two qualities she similarly uses to describe the region. “My relationship with South Florida goes back to the very early ‘70s when my parents bought this tiny studio in Miami Beach. My mother had been ill at the time and she just fell in love with the beach, so my father really wanted to have a little place where he thought she would get better,” she recalls.
Yet, after her mother passed away, Berkovits and her father and her husband had all fallen so much in love with the area that they sold the beach home and bought a condo in Surfside, instead. Although her father mainly used the space for his late-life painting career, Berkovits and her husband visited at least once a year, sometimes for months at a time once they both retired.
“I just love the cultural life and the vitality of Florida,” says Berkovits. She recalls with a laugh that at first, they believed the stereotypical misconception that only retirees populate South Florida. But, she continues, “When we got to know it, it was actually a very young place with a lot of energy...It has a special place in our hearts.”
As for the In the Unlikeliest of Places, Berkovits always knew that she wanted to write about her relationship with her father, but the form In the Unlikeliest of Places of didn’t solidify until she found those tapes. She and her husband had given Libeskind a tape recorder to use when on his annual trips to Florida.
Both Berkovits and her husband doubted that Libeskind would actually use it, though. They remember him fumbling with the technology and arguing that he’d already shared all of his stories with them. And yet, those tapes contained hours of Eastern European history, personal triumphs and tragedies, and even Yiddish songs he sung in a rich baritone.
As a result, the book is part biography, yet part memoir, part social commentary and part advice. According to the author, “I had my attitudes from the past and his story from the past, and then what was happening in the present. So the book goes back and forth between the now and then and between my thoughts about certain event and his recounting of it.”
Like her father’s own successful second career in painting, Berkovits’ writing follows similar parallels. Since retiring, she has seen In the Unlikeliest of Places published in hardback and paperback and placed poems and stories in a range of journals. Plus, she’s already finished multiple other manuscripts for future books. So while Berkovits maintains that she would have written this book regardless of finding the tapes, she mostly wants to pass on her father’s message of faith in humanity, even in times of incomprehensible evil.
“What I really wanted readers to take away from it," she says, "and what my father wanted the viewers of his paintings to take away, is that optimism and hope and the belief in the goodness of people can take you far, even under the worst circumstances.”
In the Unlikeliest of Places: How Nachman Libeskind Survived the Nazis, Gulags, and Soviet Communism will be released in paperback by Wilfrid Laurier University Press today. An excerpt is available at www.annetteberkovits.com.