April 20, 2006
Some ‘New’ Shoah Books Not So New
If there's an overriding theme among the newest books related to the Holocaust, it's one of concealment and discovery, whether in the writer's own wartime experience or invented on the page. Sometimes it's a case of lost books being rediscovered.
Some of these "new" books were actually written decades ago and are newly translated, recently uncovered or -- as from the perspective on one author in her 90s -- finally ready for publication. Like all books on the Holocaust, these latest works -- whether novels (including works for young adults), memoirs or works of scholarship -- also have intriguing stories behind them.
"Stalemate," by Icchokas Meras (Other Press) and translated into English by Jonas Zdanys, is being given a second life. It was first published in Lithuanian in 1963, and the English edition came out in 1980 to strong reviews and awards but has long been out of print.
This remarkable short novel takes place in the Vilna Ghetto, where stories of life are set against a nightmarish chess match between a Nazi commandant and a young Jewish boy. The fate of the children -- whether they will be deported to a death camp -- relies on the contest ending in a stalemate.
Meras was born in Kelme, Lithuania, where he was confined to a ghetto and miraculously survived when he and his townspeople were thrown into a gravel pit and shot. After crawling out of the pit, he was hidden by a peasant family. When the war ended, Meras worked as a journalist in Kelme and began writing fiction. Now the most widely translated contemporary Lithuanian author, he lives in Holon, Israel.
"Suite Francaise," by Irene Nemirovsky and translated from French by Sandra Smith (Knopf), was written in 1941, before its author was arrested and taken to Auschwitz, where she was killed.
Nemirovsky was born to a prosperous Jewish banking family in Kiev that fled the Russian Revolution for France in 1918. In Paris, Nemirovsky became an acclaimed novelist, but when the Germans arrived, she was prevented from publishing, and her family fled to a small village.
This novel was meant to convey the trials of everyday life -- she lived to complete only two sections of her intended five-part saga. Her husband was also killed, and her orphaned daughters, who were hidden by Catholics in convents and cellars, were left with a suitcase of papers.
For years, the two sisters found it too painful to read their mother's notebook, but after one sister died in 1996, the surviving sister opened its pages and found the interrupted novel. When she decided to publish it in France in 2004, it garnered much acclaim and posthumous awards for the author.
The novel is compelling from the first page, as Parisian women, their eyes red from crying, dress their children by torchlight and rush to shelters, remaining calm through an air raid. Nemirovsky writes simply and beautifully, noticing how after a shell is fired close to the city, each poplar tree along the Seine holds clusters of little birds singing as loudly as they can.
"Emil and Karl," by Yankev Glatshteyn, translated from Yiddish by Jeffrey Shandler (Roaring Brook Press), was first published in 1940 and is now available in English for the first time. Shandler, a professor of Yiddish literature and Holocaust studies at Rutgers, describes the novel as the first Holocaust novel written for young readers in any language. It's an adventure and suspense story about two boys, one Jewish and one non-Jewish, who find themselves alone and homeless on the eve of World War II in Vienna.
When it was written, the author, a Yiddish poet who immigrated to the United States in 1914 and played a major role in New York's Yiddish literary world, didn't know the tragic fate awaiting millions of European Jews. As Shandler explains, Glatshteyn wrote the book to engage American children, to urge them to imagine what life was like for their peers under Nazi occupation. The novel remains timely and absorbing.
Two new works of contemporary fiction also take up Holocaust themes. "The Book Thief," by Markus Zusak (Knopf), is a young adult novel that will engage readers of all ages. The language is striking as is the tone in this story about the power of books: The narrator is the all-seeing, yet humble Death. During World War II, a German family takes in a young girl whose communist father is arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Once they teach her to read, she goes on to steal books wherever she can find them, whether from Nazi book burnings or libraries. The family also takes in and hides a young Jewish boy. The award-winning author is a 30-year-old Australian of German and Austrian descent.
The author of "Bitter Freedom: Memoirs of a Holocaust Survivor" (Hermitage Publishers) is in her mid-90s and living in a seniors residence in Brooklyn. Jafa Wallach wrote this memoir 47 years ago, almost 10 years after she and her husband and daughter arrived in New York as refugees. Then, her family didn't read her account because, as she explains, "we weren't ready to face our memories." Nor were others willing to listen.
Wallach, who comes from a small village near Lesko, Poland, and her husband escaped from a Polish camp and sought help from a mechanic they had known, Jozef Zwonarz. He sheltered them in a small hole beneath his cellar for 22 months, while another non-Jewish family cared for their 4-year-old daughter in a hut in the woods.
Wallach is now prepared for her story to be told and believes she has something to add to the record of history and Holocaust memory. She has a strong faith in the future and in the goodness of life, no matter now hard. During the darkest times, she held onto this belief.
In the last few years, the daughter, Rena Bernstein, now a painter in her 60s, did fact-checking and readied the manuscript for publication. Her own story is told in the afterword.
"1111 Days in My Life Plus Four," by Ephraim F. Sten, translated from Hebrew by Moshe Dor (Dryad Press), is a powerful and unusual memoir. Sten's teenage diary, written while hiding from the Nazis for more than three years, is highlighted with reflections added by the grown man and inspired by returning to the Polish village of his birth. He also visited the Ukrainian farmer who hid him, along with his mother and a few others. The book is a dialogue about memory and the possibilities of healing: The author didn't like the word, "survivor," and preferred "remnant" for those who lived through the Shoah, never to be whole again.
Sten studied theater in Warsaw after the war, moved to Israel in 1957 and worked for the Israeli Broadcasting Authority and then Israeli National Television. He has published many short stories and hadn't planned to publish this, but was convinced otherwise by his friend, Hebrew poet Dor, who did the translation. Sten died in 2004, before seeing the book in print.
"The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage," by Mark Klempner (Pilgrim Press), tells the stories of 10 Dutch people who risked their lives to save Jewish children; their efforts and those of other Dutch citizens resulted in saving more than 4,000 lives. The author is a folklorist and oral historian whose questions to the rescuers draw out spiritual, as well as pragmatic, explanations for their compassion and courage, as well as lessons for contemporary times.
"Witnesses of War: Children's Lives Under the Nazis," by Nicholas Stargardt (Knopf), reveals the unprecedented extent to which children were the victims of World War II. Historian Stargardt draws on primary materials, including juvenile diaries, school assignments, children's letters from evacuation camps and also to their fathers at the front lines, case files of children taken into care homes and accounts of juvenile games, to provide a picture of the experiences of children of all nationalities.
An Oxford fellow who teaches European history, Stargardt is the son of a German Jewish father and Australian mother.