On this 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht (Nov. 9), some people have taken on the tradition of lighting candles in their windows to remember and spread the light.
Another tradition is to read books about the Shoah. As in previous seasons, there are many important new works of Holocaust history, first-person narratives, second-generation memoirs, academic works, novels and love stories, too. These are works that highlight dark shadows, as well as courage and resiliency.
In Sharon Hart-Green’s debut novel, Come Back For Me (New Jewish Press), two stories unfold in alternate chapters across a landscape of loss, and later intersect in Toronto and Israel. One is the story of a Hungarian-born survivor, who spends decades searching for his younger sister. When they were 12 and 14, they had escaped from the Germans on their own, with the encouragement of their parents. The siblings survived many trying episodes together but were ultimately separated; her last words to him: “Come back for me.” He never stops trying. His searching brings him as an orphan to Israel in 1946, and he settles on a kibbutz. His life is a mix of hard work, glimpses of happiness and more grief, but returning to the kibbutz after some time abroad, sees that “there is some joy left in the world.”
Hart-Green, who has a doctorate in Judaic studies, writes well and with empathy, drawing connections between the survivor’s tale, and the story of a young woman coming of age in Toronto, mourning the loss of her uncle.
While the author is not the child of survivors, she grew up in a Toronto neighborhood where she was surrounded by survivors and their stories. None of the characters are based on actual people, but, as someone who loves to observe human behavior, she admits that she may have picked up some of their traits from people she knows. She says there’s one anecdote that’s completely true — when a man gets on a bus in Israel with a noisy bird in a cage.
She tells The Jewish Week that, intentionally, she writes little about the war itself as she is not “sure if I have a ‘right’ to do so. My novel concentrates on the post-war period and the lingering effects of the war on those who survived. I am most intrigued by the fact that many survivors have gone on to live productive lives and have not been crushed by their experiences. It was this unfathomable fact that I wanted to somehow capture in my book.”
Set over three days in Ukraine in November 1941, just after the German invasion, Rachel Seiffert’s fourth novel, A Boy in Winter (Pantheon), follows several overlapping stories of individuals whose lives have been upended by the SS. In compelling, spare prose, she details issues moral and practical about war and survival, recreated from actual accounts. The British author, who is the granddaughter of Germans who supported Hitler, has explored the roles of bystanders, victims and perpetrators through her fiction.
Hungarian film director Peter Gardos fictionalized his own parents’ story of meeting after the Shoah in Fever at Dawn (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). When his Hungarian father was stuck in a Swedish hospital in 1945 and told he was dying — after surviving a concentration camp — he got the names of more than a hundred Hungarian women also recovering in Sweden. With a strong determination to live and the hope of finding a wife, he sent off letters to each of them. The author’s mother decided to write back, and eventually they met. The author didn’t know of this story in full, or know that the beautifully written letters had been saved, until his father died in 1998.
A debut novel by journalist and translator Emanuel Bergmann (Atria Books), The Trick isn’t so much a novel about the Shoah itself, but about how the Shoah shaped the prime character’s life. “The Great Zabbatini,” once a celebrated magician in Berlin in the 1930s, is now known again as Moshe Goldenhirsch, and is a bitter elderly man living at the King David Home for the Elderly in Los Angeles, when a young man rediscovers him, seeking his help. It turns out that “The Great Zabbatini,” even with fake Aryan papers, couldn’t save himself, but his talents as a musician saved him from murder at Auschwitz. The novel has humor and magic.
“This is what happened to me. This is what I saw. There was not one Holocaust. There were six million Holocausts. I am witness,” Andrew Burian writes at the outset of his memoir, A Boy from Bustina: A Son. A Survivor. A Witness. (Yad Vashem). Burian’s children encouraged him to tell his story — after 51 years of silence — and then write it. In an unembellished style, powerful in its details, Burian remembers the time when he wasn’t a witness, but, for a short time, a boy with an idyllic childhood, surrounded by a loving, well-established family. His town of Bustina is in the Carpathian Mountains in Czechoslovakia (now part of Ukraine); the family had been in the area for almost three centuries before it was deported. He describes deportation as well as his time in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Mauthausen, including death marches, and then his liberation and reunion with his father and brother. Burian arrived in America in 1948, and is now a great-grandfather, with a large extended family. In his experience, he saw firsthand that man can be a terrible being, and also saw positive lessons about humanity. He believes firmly in the sanctity of life and the unbreakable bonds of family.
Ilse Weber, a Czech radio personality, musician, author and poet, was interned in Theresienstadt from 1942 to 1944. Secretly, she wrote letters, poetry and songs that were later hidden there by her husband and retrieved after the war. Her story is reconstructed through her writings in Dancing on a Power Keg, translated from the German and with a foreword by Michal Schwartz (Yad Vashem).
The title is drawn from a letter she wrote to her sister-in-law in 1939, comparing life at Theresienstadt to “dancing on a powder keg.” The cache of her writing was rediscovered in a London attic in 1976 and forwarded to her older son (he had been sent to England with a Kindertransport in 1939), a Swedish television correspondent.
At Theresienstadt, Ilse Weber was known to sing to children in the infirmary, where she worked, and she risked her life writing poetry. She found comfort in language, and her poems, in which she mixed word play with tragic content, were memorized by many in Theresienstadt. In 1944, she volunteered to accompany the sick children to Auschwitz and sang to them as they were led to the gas chambers; she and her younger son were also murdered there. Her husband survived. Her lullaby “Wiegala” was recently featured in the Broadway show “Indecent.”
The book marks the first time her letters and poems are published in English, and provides readers an opportunity to glimpse the life of this heroic woman.
Survivor Transitional Narratives of Nazi-Era Destruction: The Second Liberation by Dennis B. Klein (Bloomsbury) is a close and thought-provoking look at the circumstances and contexts that prompted three survivors of the Shoah — Jean Amery, Vladimir Jankelevitch and Simon Wiesenthal — to share their private narratives with the public. In the 1960s, these three were among the first survivors to emerge on the historical stage, influencing the course of public memory. The author is a professor ofhistory at Kean University and director of the university’s Jewish studies program.