Books: Hitler’s War Against the Jews
The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945
by Saul Friedländer. (Harper- Collins, 870 pp. $39.95)
Readers should not be put off by the length of Saul Friedländer’s epic history, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. Using mostly primary sources, Friedländer has written a riveting account of the decision made by Adolf Hitler to annihilate the Jews of Europe as well as the reactions of his victims as they described, in their diaries and letters, the events that would lead to their demise. The volume is a continuation of his earlier work, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939. Together they are the definitive work on the Holocaust.
Holocaust historians have disagreed as to whether the annihilation of European Jewry was the intention of the Nazis from the moment they seized power in 1933 or whether the extermination was a functional response to the exigencies of war. Friedländer writes from the perspective of the functionalists, who contend that there was no decision to embark on a Final Solution until July 1941. Until then, the Nazis were determined to remove the Jews from Europe, first by deporting them to the Lublin region, located on the border between Soviet-occupied Poland and the Western part of Poland controlled by the Germans. After the fall of France in 1940, the plan was to ship the Jews to Madagascar and, following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, to the northern part of a conquered Russia. Friedländer provides a convincing argument that the Holocaust initially was a byproduct of the war against the Soviets, only becoming a priority after Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941.
Unlike other Holocaust historians, however, Friedländer labels Hitler as the architect of the Final Solution. He argues that Hitler was obsessed with the Jews, and on the eve of World War II had prophesied that, should war break out, it would result in the extermination of the Jews. This prophecy was not hyperbole, but a sincere conviction. In his last statement, Hitler blamed the Jews for the war. He insisted the conflict was less one between Germany and the Allies than, in the words of the late Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz, “a war against the Jews.”
Friedländer brands Hitler’s anti-Jewish hatred “redemptive anti-Semitism,” which the author defines as the Fuhrer’s belief that “beyond the immediate ideological confrontation with liberalism and Communism, which he claimed was invented by Jews and for Jewish interests, he perceived his mission as a kind of crusade to redeem the world by eliminating the Jews.” Friedländer points out that Hitler saw the Jews as the principle evil in Western history and believed that without a victorious redeeming struggle, the Jews would ultimately dominate the world.
It is clear that Hitler’s ideas were influenced by the notorious forgery Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In one of his wartime speeches, Hitler reminded his audience that it was the Jews who played an evil role in World War I and pushed America into the conflict, and who “brought Bolshevism to the heart of Europe.” He insisted the aim of Communism was not to create a dictatorship of the proletariat, but a dictatorship of the Jews. Echoing Protocols, Hitler saw the Jewish blueprint for world conquest in two stages: to promote capitalism and turn the masses into helpless proletariat, and to incite the working class to destroy capitalism and create a Communist society ruled by the Jews. By using Hitler’s own words to make his argument, Friedländer makes his thesis convincing. —Jack Fischel
Jack Fischel, emeritus professor of history at Millersville University, is author of The Holocaust (Greenwood Press).
by Jonathan Wilson. (Nextbook/ Schocken, 256 pp. $19.95)
It would seem difficult to write an ordinary biography about Marc Chagall. After all, even if he hadn’t become one of the most celebrated painters of the 20th century, the sheer ebbs and flows of his life—his upbringing in a rundown neighborhood of Vitebsk; his imprisonment in St. Petersburg for being a Jew without a permit; his involvement in the Russian Revolution; his narrow escape from Vichy France; and his penchant for painting crucifixions and nudes of his 15-year-old daughter—would seem sufficiently colorful material to enliven even the dullest of pens. Yet, despite its many merits, Jonathan Wilson’s Marc Chagall has a certain ordinariness at odds with its extraordinary subject.
To be fair, the facts of Chagall’s life in general, and his ambivalent Jewishness in particular, are by now well known. Consequently, Wilson’s central argument—that Chagall’s story “as told through his paintings, drawings, lithographs, book illustrations, stage sets, ceramics, tapestries, sculptures, windows and the acts of his life, repeats both the twists and turns and the pulls and tugs of so much Jewish life in the 20th century”—doesn’t feel altogether new. Chagall lived to be 97 years old, and any attempt to fully portray his life in some 200 pages is bound to be, at times, superficial. And it certainly doesn’t help matters that the book neglects to include any color reprints of Chagall’s artwork.
But even beyond these qualifications, Wilson’s book lacks a certain personality one has come to expect from Nextbook’s Jewish Encounter Series, which promises to be not only “wonderfully illuminating” but also “idiosyncratic.” Though Wilson briefly recalls his first brush with Chagall as a naïve college student who “knew nothing of the social context of any Chagall painting, and almost nothing of his personal history,” and poignantly re-creates his meetings with his “impecunious” Uncle Leslie, who saw in Chagall’s paintings a satisfactory convergence of “the lost [Yiddish] world and the high modern world,” Wilson’s deeper connection to Chagall’s work remains unclear. Consequently, the book lacks the personal journey that drives earlier biographies in the series, such as Douglas Century’s Barney Ross and Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza.
What Wilson does offer is a strong background in literature, which he brings to bear in both interesting and insightful ways, as he does, for instance, when comparing Chagall’s relationship to Vitebsk to “that of James Joyce to Dublin or Philip Roth to Newark.” And this, together with his lively prose and smart interpretations of Chagall’s paintings, helps make this an accessible introduction to a man who may indeed be the “emblematic Jewish artist” of the 20th century. —Andrew D. Cohen
The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million
by Daniel Mendelsohn. (HarperCollins, 512 pp. $27.95)
When he was a child, Daniel Mendelsohn’s Polish-born relatives would inexplicably begin to weep when they looked at him. It was his grandfather who told him that the source of their sorrow was Mendelsohn’s close resemblance to his great-uncle Shmiel Jäger who, along with his wife, Ester, and their four daughters, was a victim of the Nazi genocide. That small family is the “lost” for whom Mendelsohn titled his book and whose stories he has chronicled in an extensive, far-reaching—perhaps overreaching—narrative.
For all the tragedy of his destiny, Shmiel Jäger was not a sympathetic personality. He came to America from the village of Bolechow, where his family had lived for generations, but, disappointed with life in the new world, he returned to his birthplace. He prospered in the wholesale meat business and did not hesitate to boast of his success in letters to his American relations. The tenor of those letters soon changed; as the threat to the Jewish population of Poland intensified, the boasts became desperate pleas for help.
It was the author’s discovery of those letters that launched him on an odyssey. He was determined to trace the destinies of those six members of his family, whose histories made such an impact on his own.
A classicist by training, Mendelsohn was neither animated by affection for the Jewish people nor by anger at their murderers but rather by an intellectual detachment that sustained him as he journeyed from New York to Miami and San Francisco, and then to Israel, Australia, South Africa, Sweden, Denmark, Ukraine and Poland.
It was only during his second visit to Bolechow, when he had despaired of ever learning the fate of those elusive lost, that his family’s story was revealed to him. He was led to the house where Shmiel and his daughter Frydka were hidden by a Ukrainian. When he stood in the garden, beneath the ancient double-trunked apple tree where father, daughter and rescuer had been killed, his search was over. Those unknown relatives had become for him “specific people with specific deaths.” It is revelatory that at that very moment of discovery, Mendelsohn submits to an almost visceral impulse. He places a large stone in the crook of the tree “since this is the tradition of the strange tribe to which…I know I belong, because my grandfather once belonged to it….” His Judaism, then, is based on an accident of birth rather than an embrace of a religious and historic tradition.
Grappling with the Holocaust necessitates a confrontation with the polarities of good and evil, and Mendelsohn confronts those polarities recognizing that the good in history reflects the efforts of good people rather than the impact of impersonal forces. He pays tribute to that goodness with respect and admiration. However, he considers evil imponderable, primordial, and that designation is both facile and vested with intellectual cowardice.
The Lost is a memoir, and Mendelsohn takes liberties with this genre. He adapts the style of an interior monologue, thus inviting the reader to approach the complexities of iniquity and wickedness through the highways and byways of his own sensibilities.
The photographs by Matt Mendelsohn, who accompanied his brother on much of his journey, augment an understanding of the vanished Jägers, whose compelling story wounds the heart and haunts the mind. —Sheldon Horowitz
by Jennifer Gilmore. (Scribner, 315 pp. $25)
Dozens of novels have charted the history of Jewish immigrants in America, from Grandfather Isaac’s arrival at Ellis Island and his family’s movement from the congested streets of the Lower East Side, a generation’s respite in Brooklyn, and then to the upscale suburbs of Long Island. In most cases, traditional Judaism, with its tight network of restrictions, is no match for the freedom and possibility of America. Small wonder, then, that the steady movement toward assimilation trumps the Old World hands down. Small wonder, then, that one is tempted to dismiss such predictable, cardboard novels with a yawn: Been there, done that.
But Golden Country, Jennifer Gilmore’s impressive first novel, is an exception to the rule, partly because she takes the scaffolding of the immigrant novel and gives it delightful twists and a debunking that is as savvy as it is refreshing. Gilmore follows three intertwined families—the Blooms, the Verdonicks and the Brodskys—on their different paths from their old Brooklyn neighborhood. One becomes a mobster-turned-Broadway producer, another invents Essoil (read: Lestoil, a cleaning solvent), while the third pioneers television technology.
Gilmore writes on an expansive canvas, focusing on the mid-1920s to early 1960s. The period is rich with cultural change, and American Jews are in the thick of it—and real-life figures have walk-on parts: Irving Berlin, Arnold Rothstein and a host of others.
Golden dreams fuel the characters’ ambitions, but Gilmore herself is always just behind the wings, prodding at the underbelly of the immigrant saga and weighing the benefits of assimilation against the liabilities.
One of the risks with such a book is that it will turn preachy. Gilmore avoids this with a combination of gentle chiding and good humor. Take, for example, the all too familiar spectacle of young Jewish women getting nose jobs. Gilmore (largely) plays a mother’s obsession about her daughter’s oversized nose for laughs. When the daughter was young, mommy stretched elastic strips over the nose before her daughter went to bed to keep it from growing larger during sleep; when she was older, mommy deposited her with a plastic surgeon and, voila, the problem was snipped in the bridge.
Other “problems,” however, are not so easily solved—from matriarch Rose Verdonick’s awareness of the “horrible space that yawned between the parents who came over and their kids who had no idea from where their parents came” to Joseph Brodsky’s insistence that his daughter not marry David Bloom, the son of a man with possible mob ties.
Golden Country works because Gilmore is as smart about narrative rhythm as she is savvy about the human heart. —Sanford Pinsker
by Naomi Alderman. (Touchstone Books, 226 pp. $24)
Ronit Krushka, the New York-based estranged daughter of a revered Orthodox rabbi in the self-ghettoized London community of Hendon, returns to the world she rejected when she learns of her father’s death. Her journey is ostensibly motivated by a yearning to reclaim her mother’s Shabbat candlesticks, but Ronit reclaims more than that. She reasserts her presence in the life of her cousin Dovid, her father’s protégé and heir apparent to his congregation, and demonstrates her sensual power over her girlhood friend, Esti, now Dovid’s wife.
Alderman—whose disturbing, well-written if less than credible novel won England’s prestigious Orange Award for New Writers—offers a vivid description of life within the confines of an insular community where every action, reaction and interaction is defined by religious observance.
Acerbically narrated by Ronit, community hypocrisies are revealed even as the beauty of true belief is celebrated. Chapters begin with quotations from appropriate Jewish texts and the complexities of observance and knowledgeable intellectual insights deepen the compelling and often amusing narrative.
It is the book’s conclusion, however, that exposes its essential weakness. Alderman would have her readers believe that a halakhically committed community can accept the resolution she offers to her protagonists’ dilemma. Her happy ending offers an unlikely reconciliation between the religious and the secular, marital fidelity and forbidden yearnings. Thus, Disobedience becomes a disappointment, failing the ultimate test of good fiction: a suspension of disbelief. —Gloria Goldreich
A Mystical Link
Connecting Our Lives With Nature
The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons
by Jill Hammer. (Jewish Publication Society, 440 pp. $30)
Jewish tradition is clearly attentive to the natural world, our place in it as recipients of its goodness and guardians. But chances are, if we live outside of Israel, Jewish holidays rooted in the seasons are out of sync with our own experiences of nature. In North America, for instance, even our early-blooming dogwoods are still sound asleep on Tu Bishvat, and come Shavuot, the seed packets stuck onto popsicle sticks in our gardens are but signs of the first fruits that will appear in summer.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, an eloquent writer and learned Judaic scholar, is an advocate of spirituality that is attuned to our experiences of holiness in nature and our need to care for the earth and environment. She is well aware that many of us feel a disconnect between our Jewish experiences and the life-changing moments we have in nature. This book is meant to make available Judaism’s many rich (but less well known) insights into nature. Hammer draws on the Sefer Yetzira, which explores the mystical secrets of the months, and demonstrates how themes concerning physical space, the flow of time and the human soul can be linked to nature, the seasons of the year and the seasons of our lives.
This work, whose overarching metaphor is the tree, is presented as a daybook. For each day, Hammer provides selections from the Bible, Talmud, midrash, mystical texts and modern Jewish writers. —Vanessa L. Ochs
Books in Brief
Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Fall Holidays
by Paul Steinberg. (Jewish Publication Society, 220 pp. $22)
The first in a three-book series, this volume will tell you everything you need to know to understand the whys and wherefores of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot—from biblical sources to rituals to contemporary writings. It is an enriching addition to any library. —Susan Adler
by Katharine Weber. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 242 pp. $23)
This novel is inspired by the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the catastrophe of 9/11. When the last survivor of the earlier tragedy, Esther Gottesfeld, dies, her granddaughter, Rebecca, seeks to discover the full truth behind Esther’s harrowing and haunting story. —Lori Brauner Silberman
Top Ten Jewish Best Sellers
1. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: A Novel, by Michael Chabon.(HarperCollins, $26.95)
2. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16.95)
3. The Gravedigger’s Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates. (Ecco, $26.95)
4. The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander. (Knopf, $25)
5. Call Me by Your Name: A Novel, by André Aciman. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23)
1. Night, by Elie Wiesel. (Hill and Wang, $19.95, cloth; $9, paper)
2. Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson. (Simon & Schuster, $32)
3. Rickles’ Book: A Memoir, by Don Rickles with David Ritz. (Simon & Schuster, $24)
4. The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945, by Saul Friedländer. (HarperCollins, $39.95)
5. 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East, by Tom Segev. (Metropolitan Books, $35.)
Courtesy of www.MyJewishBooks.com; titles selected based on sales.
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