Books: Fiction With More Than a Kernel of Reality
People of the Book: A Novel
by Geraldine Brooks.(Viking, 372 pp. $25.95)
Although People of the Book may call to mind Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (Hodder and Stoughton), which it resembles in its depiction of an ambiguous figure living under Nazi rule who risks his life to save Jews, it is its own strong work of fact-based fiction—impressively researched and as original as it is moving. Unlike Oskar Schindler, a man of oversize appetite and appearance, Dervis Korkut was a Muslim intellectual of quiet but extraordinary courage. He was chief librarian at the Bosnian National Museum when the Croatian Fascist Ustashe moved into Sarajevo in April 1941 with orders to cleanse the city of its Jews, Gypsies and Serbs.
But the fictional Serif Kamal, who is based on Korkut, is only one of several heroic figures in Brooks’s wide-ranging, compelling and beautifully written tale covering six centuries in the life of the Sarajevo Haggadah. The book’s major figure is a 30-year-old Australian specialist in rare books, Hanna Heath, whose personal life is marvelously intertwined with her pursuit of the Haggada’s mysteries.
The story opens in 1996 with Hanna’s first-person account of being asked by the United Nations to report on the condition of the carefully guarded Haggada. Lost during the Bosnian War of the 1990s, it was found by the museum’s young, taciturn librarian, Ozren Karaman.
With painstaking expertise and growing excitement, Hanna follows minute clues in the illuminated manuscript as she tries to identify its long journey and numerous displacements, starting in Seville in 1480. The trail includes an analysis of its parchment, wine and bloodstains, a white hair, an insect wing, a drop of salt and missing clasps.
The narrative shifts back and forth from present to past and different countries with suspenseful drive. It is augmented by glimpses into the lives of each possessor of the Haggada and thus bears witness to the frightening tenacity of anti-Semitism, but also to the heroism of many people, particularly women, many of them non-Jews.
Hanna widens her inquiry to discover how the codex survived 500 incredible years of persecution, torture, pogroms, dispersal. (She also wants to find out who might have been the young African girl who sits at the Seder table, matza in hand, dressed in the garb of a well-off family.) The more she uncovers, the more she and the reader marvel at the manuscript’s rich and complex history, which becomes, of course, the story of the survival of the Jewish people, the people of the book. The dates are revealing: 1896, 1609, 1492, 1480 and 2002, when Hanna’s quest ends, with a surprising bit of intrigue.
That Brooks sustains the tension of the hunt while also fashioning an absorbing personal drama of Hanna’s relationship with her brilliant neurosurgeon mother and her unacknowledged love for Ozren, is perhaps not surprising from the winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
All Whom I Have Loved
by Aharon Appelfeld. Translated from Hebrew by Aloma Halter.(Schocken, 256 pp. $23)
In Aharon Appelfeld’s haunting book, All Whom I Have Loved, the narrator is 9-year-old Paul Rosenfeld. The child of divorced parents, he first lives with his mother, Henia, an assimilated Jew. It is 1938 Czernowitz, the Ukraine (the author’s birthplace), and the catastrophes that befall the novel’s characters are set against the backdrop of a foreshadowed Holocaust.
Paul used to have his mother’s full attention: They would go to the country on holiday where they would swim and take long walks; she cooked his favorite dishes. But when the two move to Storozynetz, where Henia has accepted a teaching position in a primary school, she hires a young Russian woman, Halina, to care for him. Paul is unhappy with the arrangement and, to make matters worse, because of worsening asthma, he is excused from attending school.
Paul becomes curious about the observant Jews he meets for the first time. He enters a synagogue and is asked his Hebrew name, which he doesn’t know. He is given a skullcap and then watches what happens.
“They sat and sang with their eyes closed. Their singing was different from Mother’s or Halina’s. When they sang I felt that they were dredging up a viscous darkness from the bowels of the earth.”
After a time, Henia becomes enamored of the gentile André, making Paul wary. His innocence is further shattered when Halina, whom he has come to adore, is murdered by her boyfriend. When Henia converts to Christianity to marry André, Paul returns to Czernowitz to live with Arthur, his unstable, alcoholic father. Once a noted artist, he is now referred to as a “decadent Jew artist.”
At night, Paul’s dreams are beset by demons, and during the day he observes the demons that haunt his father’s paintings. Arthur, who spends too much time in pubs drinking, with Paul in tow, decides to move to Bucharest. His sad goodbye to a woman in a pub echoes Applefeld’s sentiments about his native homeland:
“Don’t worry, I won’t forget Czernowitz; this city is planted deep within my heart—and it will go with me wherever I go. A birthplace cannot be uprooted from the heart—even one that has been hard on you.”
Somewhere in Germany: An Autobiographical Novel
by Stefanie Zweig. Translated by Marlies Comjean. (Terrace Books, 261 pp. $24.95)
Stefanie Zweig’s latest novel, Somewhere in Germany, is as compelling and engrossing as her first, Nowhere in Africa, which was made into an Academy Award-winning movie.
If you have ever wondered how Jews could possibly return to Germany after the Shoah, this work provides a response based on the experiences of one family. The Redlichs fled Germany for Kenya in 1938 and remained there until 1947, when they decided to return to Frankfurt so the father might resume his career as a lawyer. The book traces their lives from the perspective of daughter Regina, who is 14 at the book’s opening and a budding journalist at its close.
One of the most moving passages in a book replete with powerful encounters occurs when Regina is taking her final oral examinations for high school graduation. She has chosen to discuss a German Jewish writer, Stefan Zweig; one of her topics is Zweig’s “inability to forget his mother tongue and roots and to develop new ones in exile.”
While she is speaking, she sees that “several of the teachers, and among them some she certainly never would have expected it from, were wiping their tears away when the topic of homelessness was mentioned.”
Afterward, Regina feels an awkward “suspicion that she had just been set up as an actor in a skillfully staged play in which her teachers had been able to demonstrate the kind of tolerance that she had not encountered over the years.”
This vignette is a good example of the dual attitudes the Redlichs face in their return to their German “homeland.” The mixture of sentimentality, guilt and denial displayed by fellow citizens is unflinchingly described. The descriptions of such experiences as the anti-Semitic taunting encountered by Regina’s younger brother at school and the father’s death make this book unforgettable.
Yet the family is also affected by its choices, enduring continual yearnings for Africa, one of the family’s many losses.
Even as Zweig convincingly discusses and helps us understand the conundrum of Jewish returnees to Germany, paradoxical and contradictory aspects of human nature are on display.
Beth Kissileff, Ph.D., is finishing her first novel, Questioning Return.
When the World Closed Its Doors
by Ida Piller-Greenspan with Susan M. Branting. (Paradigm Publishers, 174 pp. $21.95)
Ida Piller-Greenspan is an award-winning artist whose work has been exhibited in the United States and abroad. A Holocaust survivor, her series of black-and-white monotypes expresses the range of her experiences. Though she could not speak of the horrors of that time for 40 years, her haunting images told of the tragedy.
Her pictorial diary, cowritten with Susan M. Branting, was originally an exhibit of the same title, which is in the permanent collection of the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum in Israel.
The slim volume describes Piller-Greenspan’s life from the eve of her wedding to Maurice Piller on May 9, 1940, the night before they faced the German invasion of Belgium, until the couple’s arrival in America 13 months later.
Instead of bliss, the newlyweds endured uncertainty and fear, as the couple tried to evade the Nazis and obtain visas to any country that would take them.
Desperate, they signed up for passage to the Dominican Republic, where they would have had to devote five years to draining swamps. Amid hunger, doubt and insecurity, the Pillers remain devoted to each other, constantly giving each other words of encouragement.
Finally, while awaiting departure to Santa Domingo, their American visas came through.
The book concludes with the pair standing amid the bustle of New York, a stark contrast to the devastated ruins of their war-torn homeland. Maurice becomes Morris, “a new name for a new life.”
Much of the book is written as a dialogue, with Piller-Greenspan’s images adding to the work’s poignancy. And though the language and details are harrowing at times, the work is still appropriate for younger readers. It conveys the ambiguity and panic that ensued from the onset of the German invasion, but the terror is not explicit.—Tova Stulman
Tova Stulman is a freelance journalist and public relations assistant at the Orthodox Union.
10 British Prisoners-of-War Saved My Life: Sara/Hannah Rigler’s Gift of Life
by Hanita Blumfield. (Jay Street Publishers, 211 pp. $18)
One who has not experienced all-consuming hunger cannot imagine the desperation that drove 16-year-old Sara Matuson, on a death march, to leave her mother and sister in search of bread. She slipped out of the line of 300 exhausted Jewish women, evaded the guards and local police and hid in a trough in a barn. As she lay there, she agonized about her foolish choice: Her mother and sister still had no bread and she could no longer help them.
Hours later, Stan Wells, a British prisoner of war, discovered her. He and nine other British POWs risked their lives to hide and protect her. They brought her to the barn where they were housed and locked her in at night, tended her wounds and sheltered her for three weeks until they were moved out of the town.
Once on her own, Sara became Sonia, a Lithuanian refugee. She waited for the Russians, hoping for security and freedom. But the liberators did not believe she was Jewish; they saw her as a spoil of war. A difficult odyssey followed as she escaped encounters with predatory men and traveled toward her hometown. Along the way she learned the bitter news of her mother and sister’s deaths.
Matuson’s resourcefulness, intelligence and pluck helped her navigate the complicated process of leaving Europe for America and making a new life for herself. She trained as a nurse, raised two children and became active in politics and Jewish community affairs.
Her story is fascinating and suspenseful. However, in a unique corollary, the reader is treated to a remarkable set of primary sources that illuminate her experiences.
Nineteen years after Wells discovered Matuson, she located the POWs who saved her life. In 1968, she received the handwritten diary of Willy Fisher, one of the soldiers; a transcription of the diary and other correspondence is included in the memoir. These documents express the passion for justice and humanity of the men who risked their lives to save a Jewish soul. (The diary resides in the Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in New York.)
In 1989, Matuson succeeded in having the group designated as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction
by Martin Gilbert. (HarperCollins, 314 pp. $14.95, paper)
For those of us who believe we know all about Kristallnacht—the pogrom against German Jews on the night of November 9, 1938—Martin Gilbert shows us that we may not know as much as we thought.
“This was no spontaneous outburst of destruction,” writes Gilbert of the operation that destroyed more than 1,000 synagogues, “but a coordinated, comprehensive rampage.” He recounts the events leading up to Kristallnacht, yet allows the voices of those who were there to speak as well: Three chapters are devoted to eyewitness accounts.
The firsthand narratives, newspaper reports and letters included are legion, and they convey some of the scope of the event. Gilbert relates how Jews were forced to publicly read passages from Mein Kampf and how they resisted the burning of their synagogues. He also makes one point paramount: In Germany, the assault against the Jews was not a case of hatred for the alien. “For the 50 years before Hitler came to power,” he writes, “German Jews had integrated fully into German life and culture.”
One of the aftershocks was a renewed rush of Jews to leave Germany and Austria, but with a difference. There were now reports of unprecedented brutality against the Jews in concentration camps. In the winter of 1938-1939, more than 5,000 of the 30,000-plus Jews arrested on Kristallnacht were murdered in Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Dachau alone. The pogrom spurred an effort to save Jewish children in the famous Kindertransport. and accounts of the process leading to the relocation of about 10,000 children to England are included.
Finally, the last chapter shows how Kristallnacht was a “prelude to destruction.” The massive assault on the Jews taught “several overseas governments that the time had come to open their gates to the growing tide of refugees.” But it “taught the Nazi…planners that they must in the future act with silence and secrecy.” And it taught “that what begins as something finite in destruction and limited in time can quickly develop into a monster of mass murder.”
Gilbert leaves us with these lessons at a time when they are needed more than ever.
David Patterson holds the Bornblum Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Memphis. His latest book is Emil L. Fackenheim: A Jewish Philosopher’s Response to the Holocaust (Syracuse University Press).
Top Ten Jewish Best Sellers
1. People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. (Viking, $25.95)
2. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: A Novel, by Michael Chabon. (HarperCollins, $26.95)
3. Away: A Novel, by Amy Bloom. (Random House, $23.95)
4. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $11.99)
5. The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer . (Del Rey, $21.95)
1. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman. (W.W. Norton, $23.95)
2. The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs. (Simon & Schuster, $25)
3. Night, by Elie Wiesel. (Hill and Wang, $9, paper)
4. The Faith Club: A Muslim, a Christian, a Jew. Three Women Search for Understanding, by Ranya Idilby. (Free Press, $14)
5. The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America, by Beth Wenger. (Doubleday, $40)
Editor’s Note: Jewish readers purchase books for enjoyment and enlightenment, to reinforce their viewpoints or to see what the opposition is saying. The Top Ten Jewish Best Sellers list reflects only sales and does not imply approval by Hadassah Magazine—or the people buying the books.
Courtesy of www.MyJewishBooks.com; titles selected based on sales.
Books in Brief
Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936, by David Clay Large. (W.W. Norton, 401 pp. $27.95)
The author, a historian of modern Germany, has written a riveting account of the 1936 Berlin Olympics with emphasis on the Nazi regime’s anti-Semitism, its exclusion of Jewish athletes from the games and the failed efforts of American Jewish organizations to organize a boycott of the events, a move that was opposed by the United States Olympic Committee.
A Different View of World War II, by Miriam Samet Smith. (Vantage Press, 139 pp. $11.95)
The New Jersey-born author recalls details of life during the Depression and World War II. She was 7 when Pearl Harbor was attacked and remembers the giant searchlights in the sky, soldiers encamped nearby and the gold stars on windows signifying the home of a fallen soldier. She knew about the bombs the Japanese launched in 1944; they were carried over the Pacific Ocean by balloons and landed on the West Coast and in Alaska. Overall, her memories are of a time when there was hope and pride in the sacrifices citizens’ made during the war.