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Search for Reality – Paul Celan

11-23 PCelan

Jewish poet Paul Celan was responsible for some of the most striking German-language writing about the Holocaust. His experiences as a survivor led him to compose such heart-wrenching works as “Todesfugue” (“Death Fugue”).

This quote brought to mind the idea that believing in miracles may require a break from “reality”. That we can only find miracles where we search for them, or that miracles can happen for those who can immerse themselves in the unknown, illogical, even chaos.

There is such grief and darkness in Celan’s writing that the journey towards the hope of victory seems infinite. And yet if reality can be won, can it be the reality that we yearn for?

Celan’s poem “Todesfugue” is available on-line in English here: https://www.celan-projekt.de/todesfuge-englisch.html

 

Book Reviews, Literature

The Soul of a Thief – Steven Hartov

The Soul of a Thief HartovSteven Hartov’s The Soul of a Thief offers readers an intentionally sparse and unsatisfying story of a young Jewish officer conscripted into the army of the Third Reich. Set in France in the winter of 1944, Stephan Brandt’s commander Colonel Erich Himmel has realized that the Germans are going to lose the war and enlists Shtefan’s help to carry out the plan that will allow him to escape the victor’s justice when the war ends.

Hartov moves the action along at a quick pace, deftly maneuvering between battle scenes, describing the mundane routine of army camp life, and unfolding the love triangle that threatens to undo his hero. Hartov relies on simple language, and it adds a necessary crispness to the narrative. While it may strike some readers as impersonal, in general it helps the reader to understand the objectivity with which Shtefan is trying to tell his story. Shtefan’s role in the army, indeed his whole character, requires that both he and the reader maintain an emotional distance from the events as they unfold. This tension between being willing to acknowledge the depth of feeling and hiding this truth even from yourself ultimately provides the backbone to Hartov’s novel.

While Shtefan’s abstraction keeps readers at arms length, his love interest, the Jewish French woman Gabrielle, grabs the limelight and emerges as the story’s true protagonist. The Soul of a Thief offers readers a portrait of gender and sexual politics that Holocaust and World War Two literature often glosses over. Gabrielle’s connection to her identity and her ability to act with clear intention provides a strong foil to Shtefan’s detachment. I can’t help but wish that Hartov will return to tell us the same story from Gabrielle’s perspective.

This book will most likely appeal more to those who enjoy a good spy thriller than richly detailed historical fiction. The people and their ruses, not lengthy descriptions of the French countryside under occupation, that drive Hartov’s book. Readers hoping for a thoughtful and suspenseful account of one person’s experience will most appreciate The Soul of a Thief.

 

BooksandBlintzes received an electronic copy of this title from NetGalley.com for the purpose of writing this review. The opinions presented belong only the post’s author.

 

Book Reviews, Literature

Sons and Soldiers – Bruce Henderson

sons and soldiers“I’m Jewish, sir, and I’m going to fight Hitler”.

These are the words of my great-uncle Col. Bernard J. Finestone z”l, who along with my grandfather Seymour Shuchat z”l, great-uncles Menassah Miller z”l, and Leonard Silver z”l, and many other extended family members fought in different branches of the Canadian Armed Forces during WWII. Some shared their experiences willingly, while others hesitated. Some passed away before they had the chance to tell their stories.

My thoughts continuously returned to their memories as I read Bruce Henderson’s Sons and Soldiers. He tells the stories of the “Ritchie Boys”, German-Jewish refugees who escaped to the United States during the 1930s then joined the American army when the U.S. entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Henderson follows them from the time their lives are first impacted by Hitler’s ascent to power until after they return from their tours of duty. Because he begins when his subjects are still teenagers in Europe, the book includes a rich description of the diversity of Jewish life in Germany before the war. The representations of Jewish families of different socio-economic backgrounds, in rural and suburban settings, and various religious observance are especially helpful in preventing the individual stories from melding into one another. One of the pitfalls of trying to follow multiple protagonists is keeping everyone straight, and Henderson’s detailed backgrounds sharpened each one’s narratives.

These differences become blurrier once the activity moves from the soldier’s training to their deployment. As the author turns his focus to their military activities, for he which necessarily relies on tactical and specific terminology, as well as increasing references to particular geographic locations, he challenges readers who are less familiar with the intricacies of American actions on Europe’s battlefields. Those who have a strong understanding of the historical context will certainly be moved by the way Henderson weaves the individual stories into the tapestry of the war. Those who don’t are far more likely to get lost in the details.

Henderson’s skills as a historian and writer move the action of Sons and Soldiers along at a quick pace. It’s possible to dip in and out to read select passages, which makes the book an ideal choice for high school and college curricula. Instructors could easily incorporate Henderson’s work into class readings, and it could serve as a focal point for increasing awareness of the Jewish community’s participation in the American military.  Perhaps most importantly, it will honor and nourish the memories of a generation whose courage and commitment deserves, at the very least, this masterfully crafted literary monument.

Books and Blintzes received a complimentary copy of this work in order to write this review. The opinions contained herein are exclusively those of the writer.

 

Book Reviews

The Afterlife of Stars – Joseph Kertes

A story a person tells about his life can never express the fullness of this experience. This seems to be the starting point for Joseph Kertes’ novel about a young Jewish boy’s flight from Hungary at the time of the Soviet invasion in 1956. Along with his family, the 9 year old protagonist Robert Beck, escapes from the only home he has known, becoming a refugee in Western Europe, and eventually arriving in France. As a result of this journey, he learns how his family survived the Holocaust, and the long and lasting shadows this trauma has cast over them all.

Kertes writes from Robert’s perspective, effectively capturing the child’s focus on his present. This point of view contributes both a sense of simplicity and immediacy to the novel, making it sharper and more intense. However, Kertes occasionally uses sophisticated language and turns towards ephemeral thinking, which are sometimes inconsistent with the mental and emotional maturity of his narrator. Robert’s main foil is his older brother Attila, who at 13 seems to be more honestly stuck between childhood and adulthood. As a reader with little direct experience with boys of these ages, it was difficult for me to evaluate if their interactions were realistic. My book club shared mixed reports. Our collective ability to be caught up in the book definitely hinged on our individual abilities to connect with the central relationship between the two brothers.

Kertes is not afraid to use vivid imagery and direct language to tell Robert’s story, and the historical context is as much a character in the book as the family members themselves. Younger readers who may be less familiar with the history of the Cold War may find themselves wishing for more information about the Soviet takeover of Hungary. However, the part of Kertes’ narrative that details the family’s escape from the Nazis with the help of Raoul Wallenberg and its impact on the family’s post-war life is breathtakingly effective in highlighting the historical continuity of Jewish life in Europe.

Kertes may be drawing significantly on his family’s own experiences, or at the very least, is personally steeped in the history that he is writing about. I almost wonder if some of the linguistic inconsistencies would be resolved if the book had actually been written in Hungarian. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the post-war history of European Jewry, well-written historical fiction, and what it’s like to be a 9 year old boy.