Tonia Lechtman was a Jew, a loving mother and wife, a Polish patriot, a committed Communist, and a Holocaust survivor. Throughout her life these identities brought her to multiple countries—Poland, Palestine, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Israel—during some of the most pivotal and cataclysmic decades of the twentieth century. In most of those places, she lived on the margins of society while working to promote Communism and trying to create a safe space for her small children.
Born in Łódź in 1918, Lechtman became fascinated with Communism in her early youth. In 1935, to avoid the consequences of her political activism during an increasingly antisemitic and hostile political environment, the family moved to Palestine, where Tonia met her future husband, Sioma. In 1937, the couple traveled to Spain to participate in the Spanish Civil War. After discovering she was pregnant, Lechtman relocated to France while Sioma joined the International Brigades. She spent the Second World War in Europe, traveling with two small children between France, Germany, and Switzerland, at times only miraculously avoiding arrest and being transported east to Nazi camps. After the war, she returned to Poland, where she planned to (re)build Communist Poland. However, soon after her arrival she was imprisoned for six years. In 1971, under pressure from her children, Lechtman emigrated from Poland to Israel, where she died in 1996.
In writing Lechtman’s biography, Anna Müller has consulted a rich collection of primary source material, including archival documentation, private documents and photographs, interviews from different periods of Lechtman’s life, and personal correspondence. Despite this intimacy, Müller also acknowledges key historiographical questions arising from the lacunae of lost materials, the selective preservation of others, and her own interpretive work translating a life into a life story.
Anna Müller is the Frank and Mary Padzieski Endowed Professor in Polish/Polish American/Eastern European Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She is the author of If the Walls Could Speak: Inside a Women’s Prison in Communist Poland and is a former curator at the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, Poland.
“A thoroughly researched, nuanced, and deeply moving book, rich with intimate details that do not take away from the broader relevance of Tonia Lechtman’s seemingly ordinary life.”
— Natalia Aleksiun, Harry Rich Professor of Holocaust Studies, University of Florida
“An Ordinary Life? is an extraordinary story. As a historian, Anna Müller is both fearless and enormously sensitive. Her research is exhaustive; Tonia Lechtman’s story is both enthralling and wrenching. Müller’s biography discloses, with painful intimacy, the modern condition of homelessness. Tonia could be the iconic tragic heroine of the twentieth century, a century now revealed through a drama of motherhood.”
— Marci Shore, author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe
“In beautifully evocative prose, Anna Müller uncovers the remarkable biography of Tonia Lechtman, whose journeys through Poland, Palestine, France, and Switzerland reflect the challenges of her generation. It is a profoundly intimate portrait that explores Lechtman’s multiple identities … with delicacy, empathy, and historical perspective. Through the life story of one woman, Müller sheds new light on the universal predicament of the twentieth-century.”
— Jeffrey Veidlinger, Joseph Brodsky Collegiate Professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan and author of In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust
“In her biography of Tonia Lechtman, Anna Müller . . . ponders the limits of individual agency in times of social upheavals and catastrophes. What happened to this Jewish woman from Poland and what did she do? What is the price one pays for being overtaken by history? An absorbing book, a heartbreaking life story.”
— Irena Grudzińska Gross, author of Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets
“A fascinating study…. The book is a story of one person and it is a history of the twentieth century, with all its conflicts, hopes, experiments, and persecution. It is this world that Tonia Lechtman lived through, and it is a world that she also helped shape. Anna Müller succeeds in explaining the intersections of gender, class, and ethnicity, especially for Polish Jewish women’s lives. This book will engage you and make you want to know more about the last century and about how we understand the past and the present.”
— John C. Swanson, author of Tangible Belonging: Negotiating Germanness in Twentieth-Century Hungary
“A Jew, a Communist, a mother, a refugee, a political idealist, a victim of postwar Stalinism in Poland: the life of Tonia Lechman through conflicting identities and the horrors of the twentieth century, brilliantly told by an academic.”
— Ruth Fivaz-Silbermann, author of La fuite en Suisse: Les Juifs à la frontière franco-suisse durant les années de la "Solution finale"
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