Susan Rubin Suleiman remembers running, her mother’s hand in hers, as the sun rose.
She was 5, and her mother had woken her in the middle of the night and hurried her out of their Budapest apartment house. Earlier her mother had ripped the yellow star off her jacket. The two of them walked past the soldiers and the concierge whose job it was to prevent Jews from leaving. Nobody stopped them.
It was only as an adult that Suleiman, C. Douglas Dillon Professor Emerita of the Civilization of France and professor emerita of comparative literature, would learn through research that their building had been designated one of 2,000 yellow-star houses in the Budapest ghetto, where Jewish residents were forced to live starting in June 1944. The night they fled was in October 1944 when the houses had been sealed off, and Jewish residents were not permitted to come or go.
Suleiman recounted the vivid memory early in her new memoir, “Daughter of History: Traces of an Immigrant Girlhood,” which tells the story of her journey from Holocaust refugee to American teenager.
“What does a 5-year-old understand?” Suleiman said in an interview in May. “It’s interesting writing memoirs, the way you can go back and forth in time. Sometimes you’re the adult who knows, and other times you’re back in the mind of the child who doesn’t know.”
Suleiman, who taught in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences for more than 30 years, retired from full-time teaching in 2015 and now lives in Maryland, though she returns to Cambridge regularly. The memoir was a pandemic project, born of long hours spent at home journaling.
“For those of us who write, when you are stuck at home the only thing you can possibly turn to for solace is to start looking inward,” Suleiman said.
Suleiman insists the memoir is “not a Holocaust book,” although she does delve into that history. Rather, it’s about family, identity, and growing up.