Tiny Lights for Travellers starts with a zit, percolating brightly on the nose of our author while she takes the transatlantic flight that begins the book. In a strange, unlikely, funny, unabashed and endearing way, this first image in Naomi K. Lewis’s reluctant, almost anti-travel memoir encapsulates much of what her book is about. And considering the gravity of the book’s premise and the overall lightness of its treatment, and as Lewis herself contemplates throughout, the reader is left questioning what memoir—and this memoir, in particular—is and ought to be, to what extent digging into family history is in fact a search for oneself, and what happens when depth of meaning and feeling refuse to materialize.
Tiny Lights tracks the route of Lewis’s grandfather’s escape from German-occupied territory in July 1942, from the Netherlands to southern France, and is punctuated by excerpts from a brief journal he wrote about his escape once he was safely in Lyon—a journal he wrote so that “the memories of all of this will not have faded completely.”
Flash forward to 2015 and Lewis is following the trail of this newly discovered journal: Her Opa breathed not a word about its existence, and Lewis’s family exercised a strict silence, even denial, regarding anything related to her Opa’s escape, his mother’s death in the camps, the war, and their Jewishness. “We don’t talk about that,” her mother would seethe when Lewis had questions as a child.
Fresh off a divorce that leaves her questioning whether her marriage to an observant Jewish man was simply a way to reclaim her heritage, Lewis, now living in Calgary, decides to mimic her Opa’s—Josua’s—escape route through Europe on the very same dates in July, 73 years later.
What results is a parallel journey of a swiftness that leaves Lewis with little time to do more than hop trains and search out meals close to where she’s staying. She worries about bedbugs and underwear and how her B&B has been falsely advertised. She decides against going into Anne Frank House, because she’s been there before, or the Louvre, because of the long queue. She hovers along the edges, unsure of what she’s doing and with little opportunity to delve any deeper. She tries “to feel my feet touching the same ground that Opa touched,” but instead finds that “the notion of same place, different time, and vice versa, fails to stand up to scrutiny.”
Interestingly enough, Jos’s flight has, at times, a similar lightness to it: “Here I am leading the contented life of a tourist,” he writes in his journal, “and my most pressing concern is when and where to have my meals!” And because of the blond hair that allows Jos to pass unnoticed through Europe, and perhaps also because his flight takes place before he learns the fate of his mother and the full scope of the atrocities, a silence and detachment come to define his life, until he’s seen by Lewis as a contented man mowing his lawn in Barrie, Ontario. But she is left with uncertainties—ingrained, life-long uncertainties about who she is and whether she’s Jewish or not.
Perhaps because of that slipperiness, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Tiny Lights for Travellers is about in the end. Amid the reach for Jewish identity, one finds divorce, Alzheimer’s, the generational effects of the Holocaust, “perpetual adolescence,” anxiety, rhinoplasty, love and a disdain for travelling. The book is also about trying but failing to delve into history and identity first-hand: “Turns out I love stories,” writes Lewis, “but not necessarily living them.”
—Laurie D. Graham is the publisher of Brick magazine and the author of Settler Education (McClelland & Stewart, 2016).