Books: The Devil Without a Name

Arts & Books

Books: The Devil Without a Name

Life Goes On: A Novel by Hans Keilson. Translated by Damion Searls. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pp. $15 paper)
The Death of the Adversary: A Novel by Hans Keilson. Translated by Ivo Jarosy. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp. $14 paper)
Comedy in a Minor Key: A Novel by Hans Keilson. Translated by Damion Searls. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 135 pp. $22 cloth, $13 paper)

Written in penetrating and understated prose, three works by Hans Keilson provide subtle but ironic testimony to the effects of virulent anti-Semitism as the Holocaust took shape. In the recently issued English translation of Life Goes On, first published in Germany in 1933 when the author was 24 and a budding physician, there is no mention of Hitler, Nazis, Communists or Jews. Yet Keilson, in this long overdue translation of the autobiographical tale, evokes the atmosphere of Germany between the world wars and the harrowing experience of his parents that accompanied the collapse of the Weimar Republic.

Keilson’s own unembellished story is as intriguing as his novels. He was living with his family in a small town in Germany when their world began to fall apart. “Get out of here,” said his publisher, the distinguished Samuel Fischer, as the Nazis banned his book. “I fear the worst.” Keilson heeded his warning. In 1936, when the Nazis prohibited Jews from practicing medicine, Keilson fled to the Netherlands with his future wife, a Roman Catholic.

After the Germans overran the Netherlands, Keilson put aside the manuscript of his second novel, The Death of the Adversary, and went into hiding. Eventually, he joined the Dutch underground. His experience provided the material for his third published work, the novella Comedy in a Minor Key, about a Dutch couple who shelter a Jew who later dies of natural causes. When they try to bury the body in a public park, all sorts of moral issues arise and they must go into hiding.

Life Goes On tells the story of Herr Seldersen, a store owner modeled on Keilson’s father, a textile merchant and decorated World War I veteran, and the troubles his family encounters as the German economy shatters, hyperinflation rules the land and National Socialism begins its stranglehold.

Comedy, published in 1947, combines humor and pathos in the decisions of ordinary people responding to horrific circumstances. Adversary, which Keilson resumed writing after the war, came out in Germany in 1959, and an English translation appeared in 1962. Time magazine called it one of the 10 best books of that year.

However, literary accolades were mostly not forthcoming, until writer and critic Francine Prose in 2010 called the books masterpieces and labeled the author a genius in an article in The New York Times. Keilson was then almost 101 (he died in 2011).

Comedy, freshly presented by the literary translator Damion Searls, tries to deal with the endurance of life in a universe of death. Even during the occupation, the mail is delivered and the cleaning lady makes the bed and washes the floor. In Life Goes On, the unfathomable hangs like a menacing cloud. In Adversary, Keilson again does not mention Germany or Nazis and can’t bear to call Hitler by name, referring to him by the abbreviation “B.” In a moving scene, the narrator watches his father packing an old rucksack. He fills a sturdier suitcase for the son, implying that the son should leave quickly before it is too late. Keilson’s father, a decorated veteran of World War I, did not want to leave Germany, but did. He and his wife were deported in the Netherlands and died in Auschwitz.

Keilson did not consider his literary efforts his greatest achievements. In the resistance, he traveled the country, counseling Jewish children and teenagers separated from their parents. This work motivated him to get his medical license back and train as a psychoanalyst. He helped found L’Ezrat Ha-Yeled (Children’s Aid) to care for and treat Jewish orphans who survived the Holocaust.

Still, Keilson’s books will long resonate. Psychologically compelling and intricately plotted, they explore their heroes’ desperate attempts to discover logic where none exist. In a sense, the books are fables, wry and haunting. —Stewart Kampel

Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah edited by Roger Bennett. (Workman Publishing, 384 pp. $18)

Even as American Jews struggle with the results of the Pew Research Center’s survey—particularly the great number of Jews who are disengaged from Judaism—Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah, a Reboot project, has engaged writers, artists, filmmakers and architects to interpret the weekly Torah text. The thoughtful, edgy, creative and occasionally transgressive takes are impressive, sometimes compelling, often humorous.

Each chapter starts with a Hebrew verse followed by a synopsis of the biblical section. Josh Radnor, a lead actor on television’s How I Met Your Mother, wrote a prayer in which he seeks to “install” a new vision of God (different from the retributive God of his youth). Damon Lindelof, writer-producer of Lost, composed a transcript from a psychiatric intake session as Abraham is being evaluated after he almost sacrificed Isaac. Author Sloane Crosley created Pharaoh’s hilarious search of for various plagues. Then there is Rebecca Odes and Sam Lipsyte’s graphic comic on the Ten Commandments, and architect Marc Kushner’s tweaking of the Tabernacle’s building plans to make it fit into New York, the “world’s biggest Jewish city” (hint: think vertically). Other commentaries are by A.J. Jacobs, Rich Cohen, Ben Greenman and Joel Stein.

All, however, provide a window on what technologically hip, out-of-the box Jewish thinkers can come up with. —Zelda Shluker

Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust by Jan Tomasz Gross with Irena Grudzinska Gross. (Oxford University Press, 135 pp. $16.95)

Golden Harvest is a work of scholarship tinged with outrage. The bland title belies a sardonic fury. The harvest refers not to grains of wheat but to the golden teeth of dead Jews looted from mass graves.

Even readers familiar with Holocaust literature will be riveted and appalled by this slim volume. It probes less well-known secondary and tertiary evil—the enthusiastic cooperation by local occupied populations in the extermination and robbery of European Jewry. The authors estimate that of the six million Jewish dead, a million or more were killed by locals.

The book’s cover and frontispiece display a curious photograph taken outside Treblinka immediately after the war. About 25 country folk and police pose happily on open ground; many hold shovels. Before them lie a row of what appear to be cabbages. On closer inspection, the cabbages turn out to be human skulls with human bones propped beside them. The peasants, digging up bodies from mass graves, are in the midst of a trophy hunt to unearth Jewish “treasures”—rings, coins, gold fillings and the like. Far from an isolated instance, the photograph documents common postwar behavior: For decades, thousands routinely rummaged in the dirt around concentration camps for valuables.

Golden Harvest also explores the larger phenomenon of the Aryanization of Jewish assets, profiting from hiding Jews, blackmailing and otherwise exploiting them. It concludes that “plunder as well as murder was a collective enterprise. Local people partook in it openly.…”

For example, auxiliary police allowed villagers to approach cattle cars on the Treblinka tracks and sell water at 100 zlotys a cup to deportees dying of thirst—the same people who would be gassed later that day.

The Polish underground reported that after Jews were rounded up by the Nazis, “people couldn’t wait till the execution and proceeded to undress Jews condemned to death while pulling from each other’s hand pieces of clothing.” Cases were reported of “golden crowns being pulled out of the mouths of Jews waiting in line for execution.”

Jan Tomasz Gross, Princeton University professor and lead author of this husband-and-wife writing team, is a Polish-born historian and author of Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Penguin), which documents the massacre of Jews by their Polish neighbors when the Jews returned after the war. Golden Harvest’s wider scope is “the collusion of the Polish population in the pillaging and killings of Jews at the periphery of the Holocaust.”

The book’s revelations are so unsettling it may be difficult to read many pages at one sitting, but one is soon drawn back to this trenchant work. An indictment of the evil of small people, the photograph of the gold harvesters terrifies because, write the authors, “we cannot know for sure that it will not one day be pulled from our own family album.” —Helen Schary Motro

No Joke: Making Jewish Humor by Ruth R. Wisse. (Princeton University Press, 296 pp. $24.95)

In No Joke: Making Jewish Humor , Ruth R. Wisse, the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University, takes us on an excursion into the roots of Jewish humor. Her running commentary on 200 years is presented in a flurry of jokes and witty observations about Jewish humor as a core element of the Jewish intellectual and moral traditions.

American Jews’ identification with humor, says Wisse, is too often seen as a result of their historical experience of persecution. This has led to the schmaltzy, inaccurate definition of Jewish humor as “laughter through tears.” But if one examines the genre’s wider corpus over the last millennia, it is more accurate that Jewish humor is a vehicle for social criticism and protest as well as a vibrant method for intracommunal self-criticism and correction.

Exploring this aspect, Wisse introduces us to Heinrich Heine, “the fountainhead and genius of German Jewish humor” (1797-1856). That Heine was one of the most significant German poets as well as a journalist, essayist, critic and political commentator makes his contribution to Jewish humor even more piquant. He converted to Christianity but was a keen observer of Jewish behaviors in the process of assimilating into German society. Heine and other converted Jews “produced some of the most aggressive comedy in Europe,” Wisse says. They held up to ridicule both Jewish and gentile hypocrisy.

Heine’s influence was central to the Yiddish writers who came after him. The stalwarts of modern Yiddish humor—Mendele Mokher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem and the less funny I.L. Peretz—all critiqued the Jewish life they saw around them but, unlike Heine, they wrote as insiders. Their mockery of the kleynmenschlikhkayt, the narrowness of Jewish (shtetl) life, derived from their zeal for modernity and, in the case of Peretz, romanticism about the Jewish past. They were also heirs to the East European Yiddish humor that was transported to the United States and other Yiddish-speaking centers after 1881.

These sources were medieval badkhonim (jesters), purimshpilers, hasidic mayse zogers (storytellers) and maskilic (Westernized) parodies of hasidic teachings. They became the bedrock of Jewish humor that continues today, direct antecedents to our contemporary stand-up comedians and sitcom and comic writers.

Wisse’s jaunty look at the American, Soviet and Israeli genres broadens our perspective. Seeing Jewish humor not only as a vehicle of self-defense but as a platform for the creation of Jewish solidarity shows its real power in its many forms. The author’s protean knowledge of the most popular, current manifestations in the States and Israel helps shatter the insularity of American Jews.

Wisse expresses anxiety about the future efficacy of Jewish humor, that our adversaries do not mirror our capacity to make fun of their own foibles. However, there are, indeed, glimmers of such mechanisms as the Arab revolution unfolds. In any case, whether the power of humor to prevent fanaticism will ever emerge among our enemies, one thing is certain: We have to ensure that this potency doesn’t fade in our own community as it, too, faces the challenges of extremism on both ends of the political spectrum.

A greater concern is that Jewish humor will no longer have an impact in a Jewish community unaware of its own culture and traditions. To ensure its future viability, we will have to work harder to instill a deeper knowledge of Jewish culture and history in the Jewish community. And that’s no joke. —Moshe Waldoks

Moshe Waldoks is coauthor of The Big Book of Jewish Humor (William Morrow Paperbacks).


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