"Shmuel's Bridge"| Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
Updated: Apr 18
Former Fontbonne University English Professor and poet Jason Sommer has penned a searing, yet illuminating memoir certain to stay with readers, both a coming-of-age story and a global tale about the human sacrifices made during the Holocaust and the heartbreaking, lasting cost to so many innocents.
“Shmuel’s Bridge” details the life-changing experience Sommer had when he accompanied his Jewish survivor father Jay back to his birthplace in Hungary in 2001 and then on to Auschwitz. At that time his father was 78—he’s now 98 and his once vivid memories are fading.
At the concentration camp, many members of Sommer’s family perished. Jay’s younger brother Shmuel was a victim, but he never reached Auschwitz. Shmuel perished escaping from a train car packed with others bound for Auschwitz when he pried the barbed wire from the train’s window and jumped from a bridge over a river. He was killed as he tried to flee from German guards.
Over the years, Jason had heard Shmuel’s name mentioned in family conversation and had begun to research bridges and rivers near Auschwitz, not realizing that his Aunt Lilly had been on the transport with Shmuel.
For 50 years, she had “…harbored this fact,” Jason writes. Eager to know more, Jason asked about details other than the approximate dates. His aunt replied in a “gentle” manner:
"No, there was shooting many times; many times the train would stop without reason. In our car, everyone, old people and children, were pressed together. We women held rags out of the window to catch rainwater to drink. The train had many cars. No one thing happened I could tell from where I was.”
Ten years after that revelation, Jason and his father, then 78, traveled to Eastern Europe, back to his father’s birthplace, to where he was raised, and to where his father was enslaved in a “forced-labor battalion”. “Luck” and his “skill at welding” saved his father from the fate of other Jewish men destined for Auschwitz. With great determination and heart, Jay and Jason eventually found the bridge they believed Shmuel had jumped from.
Jason Sommer’s book is mesmerizing and painful, a memoir about a son and father at various stages of life. The author skillfully juxtaposes the love of family against the horrors of the Holocaust. Readers will be touched and rewarded with a studied read of “Shmuel’s Bridge” an important, timely story as tragedy plays out in Eastern Europe and atrocities continue to occur with those of the Jewish faith in our country, and in the world.
Readers can meet Jason Sommer on Thurs., April 21st, at 6:00 p.m. at Neighborhood Reads Bookstore.
Reviewer’s Note: At Fontbonne University, my life changed in Professor Jason Sommer’s classroom. A gifted, published poet, Jason challenged students in English classes like modern poetry, to model their writing off articles in “The New Yorker Magazine” and complete a research paper on a small thing. An avid golfer at the time, I wrote about a golf ball and still have the now yellowed assignment with Jason’s notes.
It was Jason who urged me to take a course in newspaper/magazine writing, an idea I scoffed at, (“I’m never going to write for a newspaper.”) I took his advice and my interest in journalism began, one that led to me teaching the class at Washington High School and later writing a column for “The Missourian” for 20 plus years, where I also was the newspaper’s book editor.
I sort of lost track of Jason, but his name popped up recently in a starred review in “Publisher’s Weekly,” a well-respected trade magazine that reviews books for readers of all ages. The review was on “Shmuel’s Bridge” which PW described as a “…stunning tribute (not) to be missed.”