She Once Was is an incomparable book about an incomparable woman. Over the past ten years, Yael Neeman has been researching the story of an intriguing and mysterious woman who left behind no immediate family, no property, nothing of what she had created. Neeman spoke to her surviving relatives, her lovers, her neighbors, a doctor who treated her, the people she worked with, and her childhood friends -- many of whom were, like her, born to parents who were Polish Holocaust survivors. From what these people told her, she has woven the story of the woman’s life, and theirs.
Once upon a time, it transpires, there was a woman living among us who was blessed with talents, full of contradictions, brilliant and creative, a gifted translator who loved literature and writing, but who systematically destroyed everything that she ever committed to paper. With the help of those who participated in her life and who come together for the first time in the pages of this book, places and events to which this woman was connected to are vividly depicted, while at the same time the riddle of her life only broadens and deepens.
Why write about someone who wished to wipe herself out of the world is a question that is addressed in She Once Was and that echoes throughout the book: “A kind of network was formed (or perhaps it was I who formed it), of those who knew her, some without being aware at all about the others,” writes Neeman. “And then I also began interviewing people whom I did not know in order to ask them about her; and I am still interviewing, still trapped in her web without being able to give a satisfactory reply to the question that I am asked again and again: Why am I doing this?” In her one-of-a-kind style, lucid and trenchant, Yael Neeman paints a portrait of a remarkable woman, a portrait that is also a riveting document about the second generation, those who were born right after the war.
A book that is remarkable for its delivery and the way it traps the reader inside it.
Mosach Literary Magazine
Neeman’s writing skill produces a very intense and unadorned prose that creates a great intimacy with the reader. This intimacy has a great deal of power and it seems to me that what stands out in this book more than anything else is the emotional jolt that it gives the reader.
She Once Was an enjoyable book. It is easy to read although it deals with real downers like growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, depression and cancer; it grips without actually having a plot; it flows, although it is made up of discrete passages.