January 19, 2011
Facing the terror inside us
I first encountered the work of Erika Dreifus at her literary blog, “My Machberet,” which I quickly bookmarked as a must-read site (erikadreifus.com), and I was so impressed by her acuity, discernment and style that I invited her to contribute book reviews to The Jewish Journal. Now I have the opportunity to call attention to her debut work of fiction, “Quiet Americans” (Last Light Studio, $13.95), a deeply affecting collection of short stories that displays all of the qualities that I admire in her literary journalism.
Dreifus, who lives and works in New York City, is the grandchild of German Jews who managed to reach the United States in the late 1930s, and the long shadow of the Holocaust that fell across her own life can be plainly seen in her stories, too. “Which writer today is not a writer of the Holocaust?” is the quotation from the Nobel lecture of Imre Kertész that she has chosen as an epigraph, and she is donating portions of the proceeds from sales of “Quiet Americans” to The Blue Card, an organization that supports survivors of Nazi persecution and their families in the United States.
Thus, for example, the opening story in the collection, “For Services Rendered,” focuses on a shocking variant of what we might call “survivor guilt.” A Jewish doctor in Nazi Germany finds himself caring for the child of Hermann Göering — “the sybaritic king of Karinhall” and Hitler’s second-in-command — at precisely the moment when the Nazi regime is escalating its war against the Jews. Remarkably, Göering extends an offer of mercy, and the doctor and his immediate family are permitted to leave for America. But the doctor experiences an acute crisis of conscience when the war ends and his savior ends up in the dock at Nuremberg. “Papa,” his daughter asks him, “what are crimes against humanity?” The answer, as Dreifus shows us, can be elusive, and when we find the answer, it can be excruciating.
Dreifus is both compassionate and demanding when it comes to the characters she has created and the stories she tells in “Quiet Americans.” She works in a lapidary prose, every word considered and chosen with care, and yet the writing is always clear and compelling. Indeed, at certain moments, she addresses us as if we are sitting across her work table: “I can anticipate your comment, dear reader …” What I admire most in her work is the bright light that she shines on the innermost fears and desires that simmer beneath the surface of the human experience.
The title story, for example, is an intense account of a young American woman’s trip to postwar Germany. “You will go, after years and years of refusing to go,” she writes, perhaps of herself, “just as you refused to learn German until circumstances (that is to say, graduate school requirements) forced you to.” But the narrator is full of anxiety and suspicion, and she focuses them on a German guide named Greta, who is far less concerned with German war guilt than with the damage inflicted by Allied bombers. “But you stay quiet,” Dreifus writes. “You shred a tissue and drop pieces into your bag.” The tension that builds inside the narrator, a quiet American, is ultimately resolved only when a British tourist refuses to remain silent.
“This British man evidently remembers,” writes Dreifus. “He remembers a lot of things.”
So Dreifus does not confine herself to the kind of character studies and slice-of-life sketches that are the stock-in-trade of so many short-story writers. Rather, she cares deeply about history — her own family history and the larger history that we all inhabit — and that’s what makes her stories both engaging and consequential. At the end of a story titled “Matrilineal Descent,” which reveals the potent emotional chemistry in the troubled relationship between two sisters, all of the family tragedies are abruptly reframed by a kind of epitaph.
“What happened to Emma?” she writes about the heroine of her story. Then she quotes an entry in the public archive: “für tot erklärt seit 30 Oktober 1940.” Then she adds: “And if you don’t read German, I’ll translate. ‘Believed dead’ — since the day she was deported.”
History, as James Joyce once wrote, is a nightmare from which we struggle to awaken. But Dreifus is courageous enough to confront the terrors from deep within that nightmare. To be sure, she has mastered the historical facts, “[b]ut this story, dear reader,” as she writes in one of her tales, “is about what they do not tell.”