Category Archives: Jewish Themes

The surprisingly influential Jewish community at the southernmost corner of the United States

The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823-1969), by Arlo Haskell. Sand Paper Press. 208 pages. Deluxe Trade Paperback $24.00.

In seven well-shaped chapters, Haskell packs an enjoyable and frequently astonishing history of Key West’s Jewish community. Hearing of the topic, some people will assume that this is a slender thread to spin into a book. However, they would be wrong. Haskell’s research has turned up a considerable amount of information that brings to life 144 years of Jewish involvement in this most idiosyncratic town.

Young Men’s Hebrew Association

The chapters bite off chronological slices of history, each focusing on the economic and cultural aspects of Jewish life. Thus, the journey begins with a discussion of sailors and merchants in an era of military events,stressing the importance of Key West as a port town, a multilingual place that had an international flair. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Jewish community was tiny, hardly a real community. Early Jewish settlers included Mordecai White and Samuel Cline, who were tailors and clothes merchants. The naval presence brought them customers.

During a twenty-year span that followed the initial attraction of Jews to Key West, opportunities in a growth industry took hold and swelled the population, including the Cuban and the Jewish population. Samuel Seidenberg “was the first manufacturer to capitalize on the fact that a cigar as good as the Cuban ones could be made in Key West at significantly lower cost.” He constructed a huge factory. His Jewish rivals included M. Myerson, Max Marx, the Pohalski brothers, and Julius Ellinger. Haskell’s narrative of the Key West tobacco boom shows how it promoted the town’s economy, attracting investment with its hundreds of employees. The Pohalski brothers built a company corner of town with homes for their workers. Their section of Key West gave rise to dry good and grocery stores, as well as a drug store and a saloon. These leaders were primarily secular Jews.

Arlo Haskell photo Nick Doll

As he traces the growth of the Jewish presence in Key West, Haskell keeps us in touch with larger issues of the time, including the Civil War and the Ten Years’ War fought to liberate Cuba from the Spanish Empire. He points out parallels in the age-old Jewish and nineteen century Cuban struggles for autonomy and independence. Haskell points out the need for Key West’s Jews to form alliances with exiled Cubans who, under the leadership of José Martí, had made Key West their command center.

The latter decades of the nineteenth century mark the beginning of a true Jewish community. New Jewish settlers in Key West often continued their European enterprises as peddlers and shopkeepers. Though Key West was ravaged by a fire in 1886, the rebuilding of the town brought new opportunities. Abram Wolkowsky and other Eastern European Jews shared religious customs, the experience of exile, and the Yiddish language. Slowly, Jewish institutions begin to take hold. Congregation B’nai Zion, still functioning, gives 1887 as its date of origin.

The Jewish Alliance’s Key West chapter emerged in 1891. Its primary concern was to establish a Jewish cemetery, and it did so. As the century wound down, “Jews had become an important and highly visible component of Key West business life.” One of the community leaders, Louis Fine, was not only a successful business man, but also served as lay leader for religious matters until Key West had its first rabbi.

Fine’s grocery store had a lower level used “to store weapons for the [Cuban] rebel army.” Haskell devotes a chapter to exploring the phenomenon of “Jewish Revolutionaries” in the 1890s.

The first two decades of the twentieth century witness a strong, thriving Key West Jewish community. The Jewish congregation held services and other activities on the second floor of the Fine family’s hardware store. When Fine was not available, itinerant Rabbi Herman Horowitz handled the community’s religious needs. All kinds of Jewish businesses were set up along and near Duval Street.

Marks, Rosenthal & Wall Family

Jewish shoe merchants

On top of the Honest Profit House, a clothing store run by the Wolkowsky family, sat the office of the U. S Immigration Inspector, and through that office many hundreds of Jews took their first steps toward citizenship.

Key West rode the wave of nationwide improvements in communication and other technologies. The growing Jewish population was serviced by efforts of the Jewish Alliance to find jobs for Jewish immigrants. This initiative included relocating immigrants from overcrowded New York to various other places around the country, Key West included. By 1905, the Jewish community reported having 158 members. Its members joined efforts to reunite Jewish families that had been separated. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 4, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 5 Naples and  Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Key West’s Jews 1  and Florida Weekly – Key West’s Jews 2

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“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” by Yossi Klein Halevi

HarperCollins. 224 pages. Hardcover  $24.99.

Yossi Klein Halevi yearns for a meaningful conversation with a Palestinian counterpart who is willing to read, listen respectfully, and respond. He hopes to determine whether two peoples can share a land while maintaining their separate contiguous states. Halevi understands that his overture must be rooted in his own willingness to listen. With some admitted reluctance, he has accepted the two-state solution as the only way to move forward.

Halevi

Halevi makes this overture with the utmost sincerity and a fully nuanced understanding of modern Israel’s evolution and challenges. He seeks a Palestinian partner whose desire for peace is equally fervent, a person whose vision of the past includes the understanding that neither party can afford to be stuck in that past. The voice in the letters is filled with empathy, hope, and a bit of despair. It has an inviting, embracing, and winsome lyricism, as well as dignity and resolvethe perfect pitch for its colossal purpose.

Halevi has crafted a sequence of ten letters, imagined for a reader whose dwelling is nearby but who he hasn’t yet encountered. The letters have overlapping concerns, with undulating shifts in emphasis. These concerns include the functions of Holocaust memory, the need to pursue justice, and the many profound parallels in Jewish and Islamic holy texts and religious practices. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here: Palestinian Neighbor

See also this Interview with Yossi Klein Halevi

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Highly original novel explores the damage that false spiritual gurus can inflict

The Kabbalah Master, by Perle Besserman. Monkfish. 202 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

Besserman has penned a fascinating portrait of an insecure Jewish woman, Sharon Berg, who in her mid-thirties becomes infatuated with a somewhat charismatic spiritual leader. Rabbi Albert Joachim is the head of The Center for Mystical Judaism; Sharon studies there and becomes a slave to her “Kabbalah Master.” She works long hours for little pay and scant attention. 

Sharon’s life had run aground. Divorced, with two children, and with few prospects, she is easy prey to her own imagination. Her needs are projected on an imagined version of a caring Rabbi Joachim who seems to be simply using her. Sharon fantasizes that he will return her love. Perhaps divorce his wife and marry her.

Unable to properly parent her children, she had invited her mother to move in and help out. This situation has an upside and a downside.

Set in Brooklyn’s Coney Island and other sections of New York, The Kabbalah Master offers a rich ethnic taste. Its temporal setting is 1972, a time of social change and continuing experimentation initiated in the 1960s. Perle Bessemer knows the territory and handles it with authority.

Sharon, a somewhat time-worn nice Jewish girl, is desperate for validation. Enter Junior Cantana. Junior is seven years younger than Sharon and gives the first impression of being much younger than that. Their meeting is fortuitous. To Sharon’s eyes, he has movie star looks. He is polite, caring, and alternates between seeming vulnerable and sure of himself. There is a genuine attraction between this couple.

However, they have backgrounds that put pressure on a possible relationship. What is Sharon doing, she imagines others saying, flirting with this younger man. She wonders herself. The image of Rabbi Joachim flits through her mind, his gravitas, learning, and remarkable allure so much in contrast to Junior’s aura. Lots of little things define him. “He smelled pleasantly of trees in the rain.” Sharon has always believed her destiny is to marry a Jewish man, to raise Jewish children, and to deepen her Jewish knowledge and identity.  She had already attempted that life, and though the Jewish children are still there, the husband is gone.

Can she really flourish in a relationship with this Italian-American Vietnam War veteran? Is her attraction to him a counterbalance to her adoration of Rabbi Joachim? Won’t she always seem an old lady in his circle of friends?

Besserman

Rabbi Joachim is not present for a substantial part of the novel. He is off visiting his wife and children in Israel. Jewish mysticism, however, continues to be represented by a neighborhood occult book store owned and run by Seymour Priceman. He is also Rabbi Joachim’s publisher. An astute businessman, he admits to having absolutely no personal interest in the concerns of the books he sells and publishes.

Ms. Bessemer, through Priceman’s stance, suggests that most who dabble in mysticism, Jewish or otherwise, are charlatans. Clearly enough, in the author’s view, many are. And in that group, perhaps, is Rabbi Joachim, whose writings on the curative powers of herbs are under attack. The “clover cure” has caught the attention of the FDA.

And yet Priceman, who is as publisher is likely to be sued, is willing to believe that Rabbi Joachim is sincere, although misguided in his enthusiasms.

There is a lot to like about this book. Many chapters read like detachable vignettes of New York life, the main characters peripheral to others who populate these scenes. These sections are not at all distracting; rather they set Sharon into a larger, richer, and more complex cultural environment.

Moreover, though the story’s main thrust aligns with serious current concerns about false, manipulating gurus taking advantage of women, readers will find a smile on the author’s face. The book is rich with a wise and unexpected humor.

Will Sharon be able to build a new life for herself? Read the book and make your own decision.

About the Author:

Recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem, Pushcart Prize-nominee Perle Besserman was praised by Isaac Bashevis Singer for the “clarity and feeling for mystic lore” of her writing and by Publisher’s Weekly for its “wisdom [that] points to a universal practice of the heart.” Houghton Mifflin published her autobiographical novel Pilgrimage, and her short fiction has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, AGNI, Transatlantic Review, Nebraska Review, Southerly, North American Review, and Bamboo Ridge, among others. Her books have been recorded and released in both audio and e-book versions and translated into over ten languages. Her most recent books of creative non-fiction are A New Zen for Women (Palgrave Macmillan) and Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers, coauthored with Manfred Steger (Wisdom Books). Two novels, Kabuki Boy, and Widow Zion, and Yeshiva Girl, a story collection, are available from Aqueous Books, Pinyon Publishing, and Homebound Publishing, respectively.

A Q&A with Perle Besserman, author of The Kabbalah Master: A Novel

When did you start writing?

I published my first story when I was 9.

What inspired you?

I was trained as an actor, singer, and dancer from an early age, so my life as a performer influenced my vision of life as a narrative filled with multiple characters and situations calling for expression.

Where do those characters and stories come from?

They are enacted on the stage of my imagination, my dreams, and my memories, similarly to what William Butler Yeats described as a sort of mediumistic trance.

What was your childhood like?

My parents were both storytellers.  Books, movies, and the arts in general were the basis for the life drama enacted at home—a perfect maelstrom of love and conflict between creativity and Jewish orthodoxy.

Why write about Kabbalah? 

It was part of my spiritual search; I also made trips around the world and wrote books about “Oriental Mysticism”, and women’s spirituality (The Way of Witches). I sat with Tibetan and Sufi teachers and found my home, finally, in Zen.

How do you feel about writing in the digital age?

I start out with a problem, so I can’t answer that question objectively.  Years ago, when first working on a computer, I discovered that my electromagnetic field was antithetical to computers and most digital devices. Things got so crazy, when I was teaching at Illinois State University, that my department chair had to bring in the IT staff to see why I was killing the list serve, and why my syllabi couldn’t get downloaded. Anyway, the IT people tested me (a couple of Bell Labs physicists had studied the problem years before) and found that I was among 4 % of the population with that electromagnetic field problem.  So, all I can say, is that, my creative urge, the characters and situations demanding to be written, are still alive and well–despite my fraught relationship with the digital age.

 Who are among your favorite authors? 

James Joyce; Flaubert; Dickens; the Brontes; Alice Munro; W.B. Yeats; Homer . . . In spite of his solipsism and sexism, I kind of like Karl Ove Knausgaard; and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to name a few.

 Where do you get your material?

The stage of my imagination is filled with characters and stories needing to be told.  I tune in and listen.  Sometimes that stage is bare, so I have to stay quiet and respectfully wait for the characters and their stories to enter.

This review, along with the biographical information and interview, appear in the June 2018 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

 

 

 

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“Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August,” by Oliver Hilmes; Jefferson Chase, trans.

Other Press. 296 pages. Hardcover $24.95.  

Oliver Hilmes provides magnificent storytelling in his vivid rendering of the Nazi-hosted Olympics. Through a shrewdly handled present tense narration, he puts readers into the scene of a phenomenal display that was meant to dazzle the world and blind it to Germany’s march toward the Holocaust. His narrative tone conveys intimacy and distance at the same time.

The sixteen days fill sixteen short chapters, each one replete with the predicted weather, tidbits of the day’s news, Nazi leaders and their devotees, high-living celebrity Berliners, restauranteurs, and musicians being showcased at posh venues. Then of course there are the visitors: spellbound American and European tourists thrilled to be part of the immense crowds at a once in a lifetime opportunity.

It’s a portrait of a glorious city at the pinnacle of its glory, However, the glory comes at an enormous expense. Who knew in 1936 how the monstrous machine that Hitler was building would invite destruction upon the German people and this splendid city?

Portrait Dr. Oliver Hilmes in Berlin
© Max Lautenschlaeger, Berlin

Hilmes implants plenty of clues about how the nation that was already a nightmare for many Jews would meet an unexpected destiny. He profiles many Jewish individuals whose livelihood is threatened, and we receive news about many others who live under already under Nazi subjugation.

Key personalities move in and out of the chapters as the days go by. Among them is the sensational young American author, Thomas Wolfe, a frequent visitor to Berlin, who is not expecting to discover the hidden corruption beneath the glitter and glamour of the city he has adored. When he pens his impressions about the Nazi betrayal of Germany’s better self, he finds his books no longer available in the Reich’s bookstores. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here:  Berlin 1936

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“Thou Shalt Innovate: How Israeli Ingenuity Repairs the World,” by Avi Jorisch

Gefen Publishing House. 284 pages. Hardcover  $27.00

Innovation, suggests author Avi Jorisch, is the sacred calling of modern Israel. But while many have written about Israel’s grand success in developing problem-solving technologies, this is the first study to focus primarily on Israeli innovations that extend, improve, and save lives. Presenting uplifting profiles of fifteen innovations, all framed as contributing to Israel’s success at being “a light unto the nations,” Jorisch argues that the Israeli commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world, is a characteristic written in Judaism’s spiritual DNA. 

The innovations Jorisch describes are modern miracles—miracles resulting from the genius and dogged determination of exceptional, and frequently colorful individuals. The biographical profiles of these individuals are half the fun of the book. The creation of their inventions, often in the face of enormous obstacles, is the other half.

Avi Jorisch

 

 

 

Many of the innovators, Jorisch recounts, received nothing but scorn for their unconventional ideas. Others endured multiple failures before their world-changing concepts were transformed into successful businesses that solved monumental problems—not just for Israel, but for all who would learn how to take advantage of their breakthroughs.

Jorisch details the story of the Hatzalah ambucycle organization that sharply reduced the time between accidents and the arrival of first responders. This is a wonderful story of the interaction between informed, trained volunteerism and established professional expertise. It is also a story of cooperation between Arabs, Jews, and Christians. The influence of United Hatzalah on other nations has been enormous. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Thou Shalt Innovate

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Melting pot Boston in mid-twentieth century explored from Jewish perspective

Review by Philip K. Jason

My Mother’s Son, by David Hirshberg. Fig Tree Books. 368 pages. Hardcover  $23.95.

This is one beautiful book. It portrays a pivotal period in U. S. history flavored by the scrambling lives of European immigrants, their acculturated children, and their more fully Americanized grandchildren. Its action springs from family and historical events of 1952-1953, though it manages to cover decades both before and after. The narrator, not yet thirteen as the story begins, is looking back from near the twentieth century’s end. His name is Joel. At one point he is told that he wasn’t named for anyone in particular, but for the Jews as a whole.

The shadow of the Holocaust haunts Joel’s family, and for very good reasons that are made clear in the stretches of family history and family memory that run through the book. The Korean War is threatening to become the next world war.  The polio epidemic is on everyone’s mind. On the local level, Boston’s beloved Braves, a baseball team with which so many identify, may be preparing to relocate to Milwaukee. The seeds are being planted in Boston for the future presidency of a still very young and inexperienced Massachusetts politician – a man whose Catholic identity inspires the immigrant population and points to the character of the city.  

There are signs that the keyholders of political and other kinds of power may be changing. Representing this change is Joel’s powerful grandfather – a man whose business, ostensibly furniture, interfaces with various criminal activities. Even Joel and his brother Steven are involved.

Aside from marvelously recreating the time and place action, Hirshberg does a fine job of balancing the understanding and sensibilities of the young Joel against the much older and wiser version of himself that is telling the story. The story itself grows out of the bits and pieces of the past – and the application of the past to current events – that have been the bread and butter of the radio show that has been Joel’s occupation and occupational therapy for almost fifty years, drawing a large audience.

Devices that deepen the novel with additional key perspectives include most notably entries in his Aunt Rose’s diary. Rose is the most enigmatic character in the novel. Her attempts to come to terms with the Holocaust, with her years of travel as a circus performer, her transit to the United States, and her relationship to her husband Jacob– whose long preparation for death is a chilling strand of this complex, vividly detailed, yet  richly satisfying novel.

Conversations between family kingpin “Papa” Mischal (Rose’s father) and his lieutenants Murph Feldman and Moses O’Neil (whose names are symbols of the immigrant melting pot) explore the motives behind the shady dealings out of which Boston’s family, community, and political lives are constructed. It’s payback time for repressed or humiliated minorities.

Hirshberg

And these underhanded enterprises are presented in colorful prose vignettes that suggest a kind of innocence to the era while admitting to its harsh edges.

Although the early 1950s period is the core of the book and the fulcrum of Joel’s meticulously painted coming-of-age self-portrait, Hirshberg understands the need for readers to discover the steps that lead to the grandfatherly Joel whose voice has dazzled his listeners for so many decades. He allows us summary glances at Joel’s high school and college years, his military service, and his lifelong situation of needing to wrestle with important and transformational secrets about identity and the many faces of love.

It may seem curious that Hirshberg, after concluding his narrative, adds a glossary of foreign language terms – the list reinforcing the polyglot nature of Boston at the middle of the twentieth century. This spray of German, Hebrew, Irish, Italian, and Yiddish – plus a dash of Latin – suggests how the various ethnic groups interacted with one another, and in an unexpected manner, it enriches the cultural broth.

The glossary is also a reminder, if one is needed, that this is a very Jewish book – Jewish in the American way of successive generations being influenced by and reshaping a vanishing but not quite extinguished past. It is a world of Hebrew School lessons, Yiddish phrases being maintained and even penetrating the dominant non-Jewish community, and ethnic foods and – of course – memories. There are stories hidden until they must be revealed. There are other stories repeated and reshaped, perhaps with no expiration date.

I have not addressed the title of the book because to do so carries the likelihood of giving away something important too soon. I say this, dear reader, to entice you to this beautifully prepared feast of wisdom and discovery.

This essay appears in the May 2018 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

 

 

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“The Stakes of History,” by David N. Myers

The Stakes of History: On the Use and Abuse of Jewish History for Life, by David N. Myers. Yale University Press. 192 pages. Hardcover $27.99

While this densely-packed volume is aimed primarily at scholars of history and historiography, Professor Myers has kept the non-expert reader in mind by offering just the right amount of thematic repetition and exemplification. Is the author striving to demolish the ostensible conflict between history and memory? Well, the answer depends upon the prejudices and background of the reader. History that moves in the direction of pure fact, he suggests, misses opportunities to generate larger meanings and applications. History in the service of memory is likely to offer suspect compromises, to be overly and pointedly selective, perhaps to be, ultimately, not much more than propaganda.

David N. Myers, photo by Scarlett Freund

The author’s introduction, “History, Memory, and What Lies in Between,” defines the intellectual playing field. Three numbered chapters identity and explore three significant functions of history with scintillating articulation. These are “History as Liberation, “History as Consolation,” and “History as Witness.” Myers microscopically explores just how each function operates, its memorializing potentialities, and – by implication at least, its limitations.

The stream of references within the discussion, the positioning of vivid or at least conveniently enlightening oppositions among scholars of history, sharpens and textures the issues. . . .

To see the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here: The Stakes of History

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Sadness Is a White Bird: A Novel

  • By Moriel Rothman-Zecher. Atria Books. 288 pp. Hardcover $26.00.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes to life in this devastating tale of friendship and tragedy.

Searing in its beauty, devastating in its emotional power, and dazzling in its insights, Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s debut novel, Sadness Is a White Bird, is, I promise you, like nothing you’ve ever read.

If I’m wrong, you’ve been luckier than I have. His particular vision of today’s Israel, told through a coming-of-age story, will break your heart.

Has this author named himself, or has he grown into his name? After the hyphen, the name translates (from Hebrew) into “memory”; the first name into something like “God is my teacher.” There is something in a name.

The book’s protagonist and narrator, Jonathan, has returned to Israel in his late teens. He looks forward to joining the Israel Defense Force, in part to honor his freedom-fighter grandfather. His life undergoes a radical change after he meets and becomes intimate with Laith and Nimreen — dynamic Arab-Israeli brother-and-sister twins with whom he shares his deepest thoughts.

The three are inseparable. Their closeness offers a hint of hope for the remaking of Jewish-Arab relations. Indeed, for the remaking of Israel, almost by osmosis, as a peaceful, co-national state.

Can you love and admire people so deeply that the barriers between you are conquered? Will the real world even allow it?

The closer Jonathan comes to his military induction date, the more his various strands of identity are stressed. How can he become a soldier who will be at war with his dear friends’ people? How can he become an agent of their disgrace and humiliation?

For all of their ease with the Israeli brand of Western culture, Laith and Nimreen are, at a deep level, strangers. This is true even though they are the children of Jonathan’s mother’s friend.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher

The story, told by Jonathan, is presented as if he is addressing Laith. Sometimes, it seems as if he is rehearsing or imagining the conversation; at other times, it’s as if it’s really happening. Occasionally, it’s as though he’s addressing a dead person.

There is almost nothing of Laith responding, yet there are other scenes in which these friends are engaged in three-way conversations that are amazingly revealing.

Jonathan wavers somewhat before fully committing to his required military duty. And he wavers again when pressed into putting down a potentially dangerous demonstration. In the aftermath of the skirmish, Jonathan is imprisoned by his superiors.

The novel sings out in the distinctive voices of Rothman-Zecher’s characters, in their almost palpable presence, and in their hopes and hesitations. The authenticity of the voices is especially strong in the scenes populated by Jonathan’s friends, all serving in or inevitably bound for the IDF.

Rothman-Zecher shows great skill in portraying different neighborhoods, not only in terms of physical characteristics, but also through capturing the cultural and atmospheric dimensions. As an author/narrator, he seems to be on familiar ground. One wonders to what degree the novel is rooted in direct, if transformed, experience. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Sadness is a White Bird. 

This review was reprinted, by permission, in the July-August 2018 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), and the July 2018 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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A young, partly Jewish German soldier serves as a member of elite SS unit

The Soul of a Thief, by Steven Hartov. Hanover Square Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $24.99.

“Mischling” is a German term employed in the period of Nazi rule for those with mixed ancestry; that is, less than fully Aryan parentage. Most often it connotes individuals of mixed Aryan and Jewish blood. The narrator of this admirable historical novel, Shtefan Brandt, is one such person.  

Somehow, Shtefan – like approximately 150,000 people of similar ethnic/racial status – came to serve in Germany’s military during WWII. In this case, because the SS leader found something attractive about him, Shtefan became an adjutant to Colonel Erich Himmel and thus attached to the Waffen SS command.

It is not clear if Himmel knew that his young functionary was of tainted blood. What is clear is that Shtefan’s status made him especially vulnerable. His true identity, if known, could lead to all kinds deprivations. It could even lead to his death (as if the risk of death in battle was not enough). If Himmel was aware of the mischling, he would take opportunities to exploit Shtefan’s marginality. For reasons beyond the ladder of command, Shtefan could not question any command, let alone say “no.”

Shtefan, as memoirist-narrator, draws a complex portrait of Himmel. The man is skillful, charismatic, and gregarious. However, he also exhibits cruelty, extreme egocentricity, and unquenchable lust. For the most part, he effectively rallies those in his command. Yet he is frequently unpredictable. He certainly takes every opportunity to abuse women, and he does so monstrously and without remorse.

In a way, Himmel is Shtefan’s benefactor. He insists that his fighting men are real men. No virgins will do. And when Shtefan reveals his sexual innocence, this leader makes the appropriate arrangements. The young man is terrified, though finally successful, oddly appreciative, and indebted.

Hartov

Shtefan adores the colonel and despises him at the same time.

Nazi-occupied Europe during 1943 and 1944 is the novel’s overall setting. Many scenes are set on the Russian front, and many others in occupied France. Hartov’s portraits of the places and the battle actions are magnificent. Through the lens of Shtefan’s processing of Himmel’s decisions and leadership strength, readers witness appalling combat scenes. Sensory detail is abundant: uniforms in repair and disrepair, weapons of all kinds, and the effects of those weapons on combatants, buildings, and vegetation.

And then there is Gabrielle Belmont. This gorgeous young woman lives in the town of Le Pontet, now occupied by Nazi forces. Himmel has discovered her and sends Shtefan to bring her to the colonel’s bed. She resists these second-hand advances, which impresses Shtefan immensely. In fact, the young adjutant has fallen in love with her. Eventually, Himmel finds a way of forcing her to his will. Shtefan is crushed, but he eventually learns that she had no choice.

The stretch of the novel that involves the interplay of these three characters – Shtefan, Gabrielle, and Himmel – includes many of the book’s most memorable scenes. Many other fine scenes take readers through stages of the Allied invasion. Hartov boldly paints the dashed hopes of Nazi leadership and the ensuing chaos leading up to Hitler’s death.

And then, once Himmel comes to see that he will be on the losing side of the war, there is his plan to steal Allied money and “retire” – probably to another continent! Shtefan, privy to the plan and no longer in thrall of Himmel, intends to play along but them take the money and run.

Though I enjoyed this book immensely for its hard-pulsing action, sharply drawn combat scenes, and distinctive characters, I kept waiting for the consequences of raising the mischling issue. Somehow, it’s just not there. Nor is the relevance of Gabrielle eventually being identified as a Jewess. A closing reference to the Jewish Brigade seems forced.

Nonetheless, I heartily recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction and combat literature. Also, just for good measure, there is a surprising amount of wit and humor mixed in with the horrors of the Nazi war machine.

STEVEN HARTOV is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller In the Company of Heroes, as well as The Night Stalkers and Afghanistan on the Bounce. For six years he served as Editor-in-Chief of Special Operations Report. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, FOX, and most recently the History Channel’s Secret Armies. A former Merchant Marine sailor, Israeli Defense Forces paratrooper and special operator, he is currently a Task Force Commander in the New York Guard. He lives in New Jersey.

This review appears in the April 2018 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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“Secrets and Shadows” by Roberta Silman

Campden Hill Books, 295 pages. Hardcover $24.00. Trade paperback $12.00

The plot of this intriguing new novel oscillates between a Jewish boy’s life in wartime Berlin and that same person’s life as a temporary returnee in 1989, soon after the Berlin Wall comes down. Author Roberta Silman carefully measures the changed and unchanged conditions in Berlin in these two eras, both for the city at large and for Jewish-German relations. 

Successful lawyer Paul Bertrand, born Paul Berger, was the child and is the man returning to face his past. Paul was divorced by his wife, Eve, five years earlier after twenty-three years of marriage, in part because of his unfaithfulness—yet he has somehow persuaded her to accompany him back to Berlin. The Bertrands have three young adult children: two sons and a daughter. The manner in which Paul and Eve, separately and together, have parented these children is an interesting thread through the novel. The couple’s relationship to their own parents and other relatives also informs the narrative in significant ways.

Silman

 

A prosperous family, the Bergers were secreted during the war in their own home. Silman vividly paints the sharply contrasting characters who protected them. Her astute portrait of the families’ interactions reveals a toxic mixture of indebtedness and resentment. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here:  Secrets and Shadows.

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