Mary, 1926.(Courtesy Lillian Faderman and Beacon Press)

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.]