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Melancholy echo of the Holocaust: a first novel

Summer Long-a-coming, by Barbara Finkelstein. New York: Harper & Row. 308 pp. $16.95. This is a first novel of haunting sensitivity to the inner lives of children scarred by their parents' horrific memories which, somehow, they, too, are forced to confront. The principal protagonist - and storyteller - is Brantzche Szuster, a teen-age daughter of Holocaust survivors who are poultry farmers and slaughterers living in a town with the improbable name of Long-a-coming, N.J.

Book One: The time is 1968. It is summer. Brantzche's mother and father have been away from the death camps for 20 years, yet, as she explains, they remain afraid. ``Hiding in the Polish woods from the Nazis, from the Christians, and now hiding in America. A habit. All they know how to do is to hide, and now that is all I know how to do.''

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Brantzche is oppressed by her isolation and tormented by her ``difference'' from the others around her. She resents her parents and the burden they carry. Her misery and frustration are compounded, for Brantzche knows what they suffered, much of it gleaned indirectly, from taped interviews they have made with an oral historian for ``The World War II Survivors' Archives at Yad Vashem in Israel.''

These recollections, which are presented as typescripts in various parts of the text, offer Brantzche (and the reader) fragmentary accounts of the lives of Yankl Khaim and Rukhl Sussman Szuster, her father and mother, in prewar Poland.

Finkelstein's first part centers on the struggle of Brantzche to escape her parents' past and to find herself. It begins in tragedy and ends in tragedy: the death of her beloved sister, Perel, caused by the carelessness of her arrogant brother, Sheiye. Perel's death becomes the all-consuming focus of Brantzche's life - much as the deaths her parents witnessed were their collective albatross.

Book Two: 1983. Again it is summer. Brantzche, now often called Brenda, is a piano player living in New York. Still haunted by the child-Perel and by her own memories of alienation, she has grown to accept, even revel in her misery. ``... with the loss of my sister,'' she says, ``I had become like Mama and Papa, a bereaved and ignored witness of murder. [Yet], perversely, I even enjoyed this picture of myself. I came to think that my life should be a sad story.''

It was - and is.

Finkelstein's writing is tragilyrical. Dark, foreboding, exaggerated, and yet painfully personal, it ``sings'' of life in melancholy tones. Peter I. Rose teaches sociology at Smith College.

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