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An Unwed Woman of Valor

In My Mother’s Wars, Lillian Faderman recalls her single mother’s frustrated efforts to save her family from the Holocaust

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Mary, 1926. (Courtesy Lillian Faderman and Beacon Press)
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When Mereleh Luft arrived in New York as a teenager in 1914, she had big plans: to meet a man and start a Jewish family, and to earn enough money to bring the rest of her family over from Latvia. By the 1930s, however, she had little to show for her years in America; she’d been slaving away in garment factories, living in rented rooms, and clinging to a manipulative playboy who refused to marry her. Meanwhile, her family remained stuck in Latvia, even as Hitler’s armies marched east and made their escape a matter of life and death.

In a new biography, Luft’s daughter Lillian Faderman recounts her mother’s travails. Faderman is an award-winning historian best known for her books on lesbian history and for her first memoir, Naked in the Promised Land. In the new book, called My Mother’s Wars, Faderman draws on her skills as a historian and also as a remarkably empathic daughter, to piece together her mother’s life story and all she endured—the bad relationships, exploitative sweatshops, secret abortions, and the crushing guilt she felt for failing to save her family. Tablet Managing Editor Wayne Hoffman spoke with Faderman about her mother’s tragic yet heroic life story and how writing this biography helped her view her mother in a new light. [Running time: 15:30.] 

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So true, writing about our parents can make us truly understand them. In my experience the distance created by fictionalization, which is needed when imagining what we can’t know, helps. As Lillian Faderman said, she as well had to imagine —even if only the sexual details of her mother’s life. This interview has me in tears. “My Mother’s Wars” may be sold as a biography, I can’t help but think it’s still a memoir, and in that personal, and yet universal. Great interview, and helpful for writers who mix genres, trying to reconstruct the past. Thank you.

Faye Reitman MFT says:

I was so privileged to actually study english at Fresno State under Lillian Faderman who was a marvelous professor, spirit and warm human being. In all of the twists and turns my life has taken since then I have always treasured that time in my life.


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An Unwed Woman of Valor

In My Mother’s Wars, Lillian Faderman recalls her single mother’s frustrated efforts to save her family from the Holocaust

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