In the year 1899, in New York City, a golem and a jinni chance upon one another. A golem is a a mythical Jewish monster made of clay; a jin is a magical desert genie with fantastic powers. In this account, both golem and jin are bound to masters, only Chava, the golem, is female, inquisitive, thoughtful, helpful (to a fault), cautious, and actually quite lovable in spite of her terrific strength. Ahmed, the Jin is handsome, spontaneous, creative, chivalric, and impetuous. So, rather than being mythical and distant, in many ways, Ahmed and Chava, are too human. They struggle to understand the limits of free will while the constrained by friends, family, and magic potions. They chafe at being immigrants in a new city. They are conflicted by their responsibility to others when they also need to take care of themselves. The book is slowly paced, but Wecker’s characters and themes are provocative.
In 1908 a Jewish immigrant named Lazarus Averbuch knocked on the door of Chicago’s police chief. After handing the Chief Shippy a letter (we never learn what it says), a frightened police force shoots Lazarus several times until he is quite dead. Aleksander Hemon writes one fictional account of Lazarus’s murder, a second of the author’s parallel immigration from Bosnia to the United States, a third about his investigation into Lazarus’s origins in Eastern Europe and life in Chicago’s tenements, and a fourth as a travelogue back to Bosnia taken by the author and a fantastical story-telling companion named Rora. Lazarus dies because deeply anti-Semitic law and order fears anarchists are destroying America and anyone with dark skin, big ears or a nose that might be Jewish is suspect. Immigration to a new country is awful, except it is not as bad as the pogroms that drive you to flee. Getting an author’s grant to take adventures through post-war Sarajevo and rural slavic countries provides good product for a novel, but ambitious, and award-winning as the novel is, the multiple story lines all remain too independent to cohere into a compelling whole.
Sarah Waldman’s grandfather escaped the Nazi Aunchshloss in Austria by the skin of his teeth. He settled in America, opened a successful medical practice, and lived a life of joy and optimism. In his closet, discovered only after his death, are the letters of his true love, Valy, left behind in Vienna and Berlin. As the jaws of the Nazi vice slowly draw closer together around Valy’s diminishing life her letters to America become increasingly desperate, personal, and ultimately heartbreaking. By searching for Valy’s story, the history of one woman whose trail leads into the maw of the Shoah, Waldman answers one of the most difficult questions asked of Jews. Why did Jews let the Nazis do this to them? Here we see how it happened to Valy who stayed behind to be with her mother when even in 1938 things seemed like they could not get so bad that abandoning a country, a livelihood and the only family you still had was the only means of saving any member of your family. Because we read this book knowing the outcome and that those Jews still in Europe could never know what was yet to come we are even more chilled as Nazi restrictions build one upon another. And then the really unanswerable question comes to the fore. How could Nazis week after week conceive of new methods of torture: forbidding Jews to shop, ride a bus, congregate, appear in public, live in their own homes, work, live?
Modan is part of the first generation of Israeli graphic novelists. In The Property, an elderly Israeli grandmother returns to Poland with her granddaughter to search for a building confiscated from her family at the start of World War II. The grandmother is making her first trip back to Poland reluctantly. The granddaughter, age early twenties, accompanies grandma to provide moral support, out of curiosity, and to learn history. Once in Poland the granddaughter meets a handsome Polish tour guide to bygone Jewish Warsaw. While the farce of modern day Polish infatuation with all things Jewish after three million Polish Jews were slaughtered in the Shoa is piercingly and humorously rendered in Modan’s drawings, a potential romance blossoms between the young Israeli and Pole. While granddaughter is traveling Warsaw on the back of a tour guide’s motorcycle, the grandmother meets the man who took over her family’s apartment and numerous secrets are revealed as the two old people speak, none of which can be described without spoiling the book.
I learned a lot about the plight of European Jews in the years 1944 to 1947. American Jews knew of the death camps, but widespread American anti-Semitism prevented Roosevelt from even mentioning the word, Jews, in his fight against the Nazis. He could not or did not direct strikes against concentration camps or the trains that fed them and the U.S. refused admission to Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis. Before this book, I knew the Pope was at least silent on the issue of the Holocaust while it was happening, but Carroll’s opinion is that the Vatican was complicit, rather than just mum. The Vatican actively aided and abetted Nazis. When the war ended, and Part II of Warburg in Rome begins, the church and the U.S. government were so focused on the upcoming cold war with Stalin’s Soviet Union that they conspired to ferret Nazi war criminals out of Europe to Argentina in ways that might help their anti-communist campaign. But the fact that I can’t quite explain what the Americans got out of saving Nazis in their fight against communism is one of many flaws with this novel. The characters – a non-practicing, Yale educated Jew, a beguiling Italian spy whose breasts always seemed worth mentioning, an Irish American priest from New York city — are all two dimensional at best. The plot and dialogue are simultaneously confusing and as predictable as a black and white movie from the 1940s. To his credit, Carroll, a former priest himself, is incredibly even-handed and sympathetic to the Jews and nothing short of distraught at the actions of his church. He made me want to read more about the role of the Church in WW II, but I’m not sure I want to recommend this book to anyone else.
Eight short stories about young and old Jews in America and in Israel and every character elicits your sympathy. Antopol starts her stories in the middle of a discussion you might have just dropped in upon and within moments you are riveted by people so real, angst so visceral, and tension so necessary to resolve it is at once remarkable it is only a story that you are reading and even more exceptional that it is a short story at that. In one, a pair of brothers living in Israel must come to terms with the fact that the younger, less talented, and less capable has saved the life of the older, more handsome, and more successful-in-every-way brother. In another, a B-grade actor is released from a year in jail after getting caught up with communist actors and directors during the McCarthy era. A young Israeli, in a third story, is, forced home to live with her parents when her overseas career as a journalist burns out but falls in lust with a slightly older widower who has a troubled teenage daughter. How would you balance an unexpected love affair, fizzled career hopes, your parents, and a teenager living her despairing father and without her mother? Neither the plotlines, nor the list of protagonists does justice to this series of stories that all seem to revolve about a single aphorism. “Be careful what you wish for.” A must read of a young author’s first book — Antopol is in her early 30s.
Even the title of the book isn’t really translatable, encompassing as it does more than a language. Yiddishkeit is a people, it’s culture, and an era of history, all but obliterated by the Nazis. So all the more interesting to take on a language, a sound, and the essence of Ashkenazi Judaism in a graphic novel, that is with pictures. Yiddishkeit, the book and the culture, are a sprawling amalgam of history and storytelling, plays and text, cartoons, and serious literary analysis, and above all, opinionated. Pekar, Buhle, and their coauthors have assembled a textbook with a surprising format, but they capture the spirit and for those of us that love Yiddishkeit, we are glad that they have.
Contemporary research on Nazi war crimes suggests most Nazis were Ordinary Men. Neither crazed nor fanatical killers, Christopher Browning’s landmark book in 1992 discovered that most German soldiers were pretty much like any other soldiers. They worked desk jobs, drove trucks, dug latrines, peeled potatoes, cleaned their rifles everyday for inspection, and occasionally used their guns to slaughter innocent Jews. Until Wendy Lower’s book, Hitler’s Furies, no one had ever examined what the women in Nazi Germany were up to during the Second World War. Not surprisingly, German women were just like German men. Half a million of them headed east with their troops to work as secretaries, nurses, Nazi teachers in occupied schools, assistants, and officer’s wives. Like the men they accompanied they were driven by youthful ambition, desires to escape restrictive families, adventure, and patriotism. And just like everyone else bathed in an upbringing of pervasive anti-Semitism, women were just as capable killers as their male counterparts. Many typed the orders for Aktions, filed photos of mass graves, accepted or selected looted jewelry, and occasionally pulled triggers or administered lethal doses of poisons. Though this book is written more for an academic audience and without a lot of effort to make it fluid reading, the ideas it promotes should not be overlooked. Yes, half of Germany’s population, the female portion, has been largely ignored, but upon closer examination, Lower suggests they were no less culpable.
Robert Harris makes his living fictionalizing famous historical events (see Pompeii). In this case, it is the end of the nineteenth century, and the French have unjustly stripped Albert Dreyfus of his rank in the French Army and disposed of him to die locked in a tin shed beneath the blazing tropical sun of Devil’s Island. It is a moment of overt anti-Semitism in France that results in a horrible miscarriage of justice that stains France ever after, and, I have to admit, an event about which I knew precious few details. Well, this book has the details, but the first half is just that, a drudge of notecards Harris must have used to construct his text. Harris presents the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Col. Georges Picquart, an officer who at first, following orders, assists in Dreyfus’s conviction. In the subsequent five years, however, Picquart is given the credit, in this account, for becoming a man of conscience who recognizes that Dreyfus has been framed and the Army is involved in a massive cover-up. The book does not come alive until its second half when at last it becomes a courtroom procedural. By the end, when Dreyfus is finally recalled to France, and Picquart has become France’s leading General, you are still left wondering about the larger picture. Why was France so anti-Semitic? On what evidence did Zola, Clemenceau, and their fellow Dreyfusards base their case against the government? And why do all of the main characters in Harris’ account speak with such identical, lifeless voices?
Ghosh recounts the life of a Medieval Jewish trader, Ben Yiyu, who transported goods by ship from India to Egypt. Evidence of his trader emerge on scraps of paper from the famed Egyptian geniza, a millennial trove of sacred papers in Cairo’s synagogue. In order to fill in the gaps in Ben Yiyu’s life, Ghosh moves to a small village in Egypt, and then a second nearby village, to live among the Felaheen, farmers on the Nile’s banks. It is the early 1990s and rural Egyptians are being pulled from the timeless habits of sowing seeds and tending cows to the trappings of refrigeration, TVs, and urban colleges for able youth. So with the aid of the eyes and ears of a trained anthropologist, we find ourselves immersed in the daily rhythms of growing children, greedy landlords, temperamental imams, ambitious businessmen, and village elders serving endless rounds of mint tea. It is not lost on anyone that frequently we are observing a Hindu researcher explaining to his Muslim hosts his search for information about a Jewish trader. Because men and women in traditional Islamic culture lead such separate lives, you will need to read Guests of the Sheik, if you want to get an insider’s view of female lives.