The Corset Maker

Written by Annette Libeskind Berkovits
Review by Peter Clenott

The world is a hard place, violent and dangerous. Annette Berkovits’s corset maker, Rifka Berg, has reason to ponder this question for all of us: Why, when we would rather create beauty, raise our children, and live in peace, are we forced to take up arms and kill for our very survival?

Rifka is a young Jewish woman growing up in Poland in the 1930s when the world unleashes hell. Raised in a strict Orthodox household whose rules regarding the life of a young woman run afoul of her nature, Rifka and her best friend, Bronka, go into business designing corsets and women’s undergarments. She has no time for romance. She has a mind for business and an eye for what makes the most unattractive woman feel desirable. But little does the world care for her or Bronka’s happiness. Her oldest sister Golda has emigrated to Palestine. After a night of violent anti-Semitic rage that nearly destroys their shop, Rifka follows, leaving Bronka behind.

In Paris, she finds and abandons love for the first time. In Palestine, she reunites with Golda as the conflict between Jews and Arabs lights its own tragic match. Then she arrives in Spain in time for the civil war where, against her strongest pacifist impulses, she learns how to kill—a necessary skill after her flight to conquered France and her life-risking missions for the French underground.

The Corset Maker is a powerful 20th-century saga filled with great courage and persistence in the face of unimaginable human horror. As author Berkovits says, love and hate are the compelling forces of our lives. One has only to look at the state of the world today, divided by intolerance, suspicion and vengeance, to realize that Rifka Berg’s journey hasn’t ended. It is we who have taken it up.