“I started thinking of my mother’s story plus a golem,” Shankman says, “my mother’s story plus a talking dog.” Janet Joyner Photography
In Helen Maryles Shankman’s village of Wlodawa, the all-too-real facts of life in occupied Poland mingle with the magical, where a dog tells a child where to hide, and a reluctant Messiah dressed in work clothes is ordered to dig ditches in the frozen earth.
As the linked stories progress in “In the Land of Armadillos” (Scribner), the reader comes to know Jews, Poles and the Germans occupying the town, as though walking and dreaming beside them. This is a book lover’s book, filled with beautiful language and textured scenes.
The title story, with its-story-within-a-story — a parable of the Jews of Europe, about an armadillo and a cockatoo — is about a brutish S.S. officer who tries to save the Jewish author of his son’s favorite book. In another story, a young man appears in a town near Wlodawa and he seems to be a golem — and it’s later learned that he is the son of a rabbi who was an authority on the Maharal of Prague, and had just seen his family stripped, machine gunned and buried in a mass grave. Shankman describes partisan fighters, the town’s chief rabbi, the saddle maker, the miller and monsters of all kinds; there are hints of trials and prison to come.
For Shankman, Wlodawa is a very real place. Both of her parents survived the Holocaust, and her mother’s family is from Wlodawa.
The author tells The Jewish Week that she is not in the stories — she is more the puppeteer — but that many of the events were inspired by events that happened to her family. “I started thinking about my mother’s story plus a golem, my mother’s story plus a talking dog. That set it on fire and words flew from my fingertips. The stories wanted to be told, and wanted to be told in that way.”
Throughout, Shankman writes about human encounters and emotional complexities as people cope with difficulties, when some Poles are hiding Jews and others are turning them in, and a German commandant named Reinhart is, like the title of another story, “A Decent Man.” In a story set later, “They Were Like Family To Me,” the commandant’s son, now a priest, visits Wlodawa while researching atrocities and seeking his own atonement.
After one shooting, the killer tries to light a cigarette, but accidentally drops his lighter: “For a moment it hung there, a small black exclamation point against the sky, before dropping out of sight.”
In these stories, life can change in a moment, in the extra space between paragraphs. A stolen kiss is described, and, then: “Two weeks later, they came for us.” For all the solemnity of the subject, she finds natural ways to add lightness, love and humor.
While Shankman was growing up in Chicago, her mother didn’t talk much about her experiences, but when they’d visit extended family in Canada, the adults would sit and tell stories, almost competing with each other, in Yiddish. As she later learned, these stories were full of heroes, gentile farmers and German officials who tried to protect them. Her late mother’s entire family survived, protected by a German. Her father hid in the woods with partisans, came to the U.S. and later served in the U.S. Army in Germany, where he met his wife-to-be in a DP camp.
“You don’t really choose what you write,” she says. “You have the material and it drives you. I was told not to write about the Holocaust, that everyone was sick of hearing about it. But every few years someone writes something that stands out. If you are going to write about it, there has to be a reason, something different. I couldn’t help it. This is what was driving me.”
The author of a novel, “The Color of Light,” she has two more stories that didn’t make it into this collection, and she doesn’t know if she is done yet with this subject. “The Holocaust was 70 years ago, and I’m still affected by it. My kids are affected by my being affected; it’s still reaching out its long arms.”
In order to write, she did research, including going through 58 pages of testimony in German about the war crimes trial of the German who helped to protect her family. “I have his story. I have no idea what the truth is.” She adds, “I have many questions for people who are no longer here to answer.”
We meet at the dining room table of the Teaneck home she shares with her husband and four children. Nearby are an old typewriter, an antique radio, a pet rabbit and furnishings with a sense of humor, like a row of clocks with signs below as if to indicate different time zones, but they are towns close by.
On the walls are some of her portraits. That Shankman is a trained painter is clear — her sense of imagery, color and shadow are heightened in her prose. She notices the polish and hue of Reinhart’s shoes and boots.
About the differences between writing and painting, she says, “In writing, you can make stuff up. You can build an entire world, go into it and walk around. You can try on all the different characters. It’s almost like acting. Or living in a movie. You’re the director.”
“I didn’t set out to write a book of atrocities. I wanted to write something that would be fun to read.” She notes that it was “tricky to balance the darkness of tragic events with the lightness of human interactions, injecting humor where I could.”
“Humor comes naturally,” she says. “I’m interested in the interactions between people. There was a lot of humor in our home. You have to have humor. It gets you through the moment, the day; it gets you through life.”
“I want readers to see the goodness and connections between people, how under the skin we are all the same,” she says.
The final story is set in present-day New York City, when the grandson of Reinhart, who is studying international law at Columbia, meets up with the granddaughter of Soroka the saddle maker. He tries his best, but she can’t get over her unease at his German accent, even as she understands that Reinhart saved her family several times. At a concert together at the 92nd Street Y, where the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is playing Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” it’s as though “the instruments wept for the dead of every nation, in every war, for all time,” bringing the young German to tears. The story ties together Soroka, Reinhart, Reinhart’s lover, a tallis bag, diary and the young girl’s hair, “long and wavy, with strokes of mahogany, ochre, copper, and caramel,” a painterly description that appears earlier in the book, in another context, and happens to characterize the author’s thick mane.
It’s snowing outside, as Reinhart’s grandson and Soroka’s granddaughter dip into a café together, “the snow grew steadier, filling in the traces of their footsteps with a light dusting of white.”
There’s no forgiveness in these stories, but explorations of human nature. With bold originality, Shankman has created her own literary blend of history, folklore, fantasy, myth, spirituality and truth.