Sarah Engelhard’s memoir Sarah & Abraham: The Search for Miracles and The Stuttering Poet (Guernica Editions) is a reminder of the Holocaust’s psychological toll on multiple generations. Not all who survived and immigrated here lived serenely ever after.
Certainly not those who were children during World War II, like Engelhard, who was born in Alsace, France in 1932.
At 84, Engelhard has published her first book, in which she lays bare a life marred, on top of her trauma, by parents who – she quotes her mother as saying – were made “crazy” by the war.
“No one talked about post-traumatic stress then,” said Engelhard.
The Engelhard family, which also included Sarah’s brother Jack, eight years younger, fled in fear through France and across the Pyrenees mountains into Spain. There they lived in mounting despair for almost three years trying to find refuge from Europe.
Deception was a means of survival, and Sarah was schooled in it early on.
Finally, the Engelhards found passage on the legendary Serpa Pinto to the United States and arrived in Montreal – definitely not her father’s choice – in 1944.
Her parents were from Poland, Yiddish-speaking and poor. Her father, an ordained rabbi, eked out a living making handbags.
Sarah & Abraham, however, is not a typical Holocaust survivor’s recounting.
It may equally be read as a cautionary tale about obsessive love that ends in self-destruction.
When 13-year-old Sarah first laid eyes on her classmate at Baron Byng High School, Abie Boxer, she was hooked. He was handsome and seemed worldly beyond his years. The fact that he stuttered only made him more irresistible.
To this day, Engelhard thinks of him as her bashert.
Thus, began a toxic lifetime relationship in which they both agree they “royally f—ed up.” Worse than the tumult between them is that their late-in-life illegitimate son became the pawn in a rancorous custody battle.
Avi Boxer (1932-1987), as he became known, was a noted poet who emerged from Montreal’s fertile literary scene in the 1950s – a romantic figure, indeed, to Sarah who tried to overcome the stigma she felt as a refugee with a dysfunctional home life.
Engelhard tells of how, as a teen, she was emotionally abused and exploited by her parents. According to her description, both used her to vent their mental turmoil – and to advance economically.
They made her get a job at 13, forced her to drop out before she graduated to help her father in his business because she had the language skills and the looks to attract customers.
Photos show that Sarah did resemble Elizabeth Taylor, and her mother had ambitions to match her with a wealthy man.
In the conservative mores of her community and the times, Sarah was judged a “bad girl” because she had sex with Abie and left home. She landed in juvenile court.
At 18, Sarah and Abie became engaged but the adults broke it up.
She was sent to the United States and married off to a man 20 years her senior. They were plainly incompatible, but Sarah did settle down and came into her own.
She raised three children in a New Jersey suburb, then happened upon a career in television enjoying surprising success as host of a women’s show. Then she got into the psychic movement that was a fad in the 1970s and found a new vocation.
Things unraveled when her son took his life. Soon after, she reconnected with Boxer, had a fling and, at 41, gave birth to another son.
Boxer was already involved with another woman.
From Asa’s birth until he was in his teens, the boy was caught in a tug-of-war between his mother and father, who wanted to adopt him with his common-law wife.
Estranged from her husband, Sarah returned to Montreal, abandoning her career in the United States. She took odd jobs to survive and sometimes was on welfare.
She finds succour with the Lubavitch community, with which she stayed for about a decade, along with one of her daughters.
The memoir culminates with the court battle between Sarah and Avi over their son, a very bitter fight in which she was portrayed as mentally ill and of poor character – in other words, an unfit mother. Most wounding was having her wartime experience minimized.
Most difficult for her to accept, even to this day, is that Jewish Family Services was on the side of Avi.
Engelhard left Lubavitch amicably (she and Asa lived in Israel for nine years after that) and continues to find solace in its spirituality and belief that nothing happens without a reason.
The book’s title reflects her identification with the trials and tribulations of their biblical namesakes. Miracles really do happen, Engelhard has come to believe.
It is hard to believe in meeting Engelhard today that she went through what she did. Gracious and quiet-spoken, she ponders before answering questions.
“At my age now, I can understand – if not to forgive, for who am I to forgive? – what happened to me…Out of all that, so many blessings came.”