Category Archives: Jewish Themes

“Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947,” by Norman Lebrecht

Scribner. 464 pages. Hardcover $30.00.

A brief taste of an amazing book!

Nor­man Lebrecht’s study is filled with ener­gy, irony, and new angles of vision. He makes a pow­er­ful point that most of the fig­ures fea­tured in this book made their con­tri­bu­tions in what was essen­tial­ly an anti­se­mit­ic world. While the par­tic­u­lars of such con­di­tions run through the book’s six­teen chap­ters, more engag­ing is the author’s blend of diverse per­son­al­i­ties with var­ied rela­tion­ships to Jew­ish iden­ti­ty: reli­gion, cul­ture, law, and peoplehood.

Although most of the chap­ters detail impor­tant con­tri­bu­tions by Jews to the ben­e­fit of mankind with­in the stretch of this hun­dred-year peri­od, many chap­ters focus on sig­nif­i­cant changes par­tic­u­lar to Jew­ish cul­ture and iden­ti­ty. His­tor­i­cal writ­ings con­tin­ue to applaud the accom­plish­ments of Ein­stein, Kaf­ka, Marx, Freud, and oth­ers of world-chang­ing stature, but it is inside the inter­na­tion­al Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that the con­tri­bu­tions of giants such as Theodor Her­zl and Solomon Schechter are celebrated.

Norman Lebrecht – photo credit Abigail Lebrecht

Lebrecht enjoys devel­op­ing his explo­rations through com­par­isons and con­trasts. The Her­zl-Schechter chap­ter titled ​1890: Two Beards on a Train” is one pow­er­ful exam­ple. It ends with the intro­duc­tion of a third shaper of Jew­ish des­tiny, a foil to Schechter’s role in birthing the Con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment; this part­ner is Men­achem Mendel Schneer­son, who invig­o­rat­ed and mas­ter­mind­ed Chabad Lubavitch. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here:  Genius & Anxiety

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“Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest,” by Andrea Simon

Vallentine Mitchell. 300 pages. Trade paperback $24.95

Bearing Witness: Andrea Simon’s Bashert marks an important addition to the Holocaust canon

Samuel D. Kassow’s highly applauded Who Will Write Our History came out in 2007, following a long silence in the publication of Holocaust history. It tells the story of how the Polish historian Emanuel Ringelblum created the Oyneg Shabes scholarly group to capture and preserve the experiences of those trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto. The project, which began in 1940, is sometimes known as “the archives hidden in milk cans.”

The answer to Kassow’s provocative title question has emerged. Over 20 years later, it has led to a blossoming of Holocaust narratives. These include Judy Stone’s Resilience: One Family’s Story of Hope and Triumph over Evil; D.Z. Stone’s No Past Tense: Love and Survival in the Shadow of the Holocaust; Debbie Cenziper’s Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America (reviewed here); and Heather Dune Macadam’s 999:The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz (reviewed here).

Recent historical fiction about the Holocaust includes Andrew Gross’ disturbing The Fifth Column and Tara Lynn Masih’s unforgettable My Real Name Is Hanna.

Andrea Simon

Several of the narratives above were written by children or grandchildren of survivors. And the survivors themselves were able to contribute stories of their relatives and friends murdered by Hitler’s minions — in too many cases, aided by the neighbors of those victims.

Andrea Simon’s astonishing Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest, first published in 2002 and recently re-released, tells not only the stories of what her research and interviews uncovered, but also — and perhaps more importantly — the story of her determined, compulsive journey to discover the truth about her extended family’s past. Both those who perished and those who survived.

What drove the author? What were her victories and what were her defeats? What kept her going? The memoir dimension of this brave and uplifting book answers these questions and serves as a model for similar projects.

Perhaps all of these confrontations and breakthroughs were fated; that is, meant to be. Such terms are the usual translations of the Yiddish word bashert that titles Simon’s book. Bashert, as well, were dozens of unexpected outcomes of adventures (and misadventures) that wind through the book.

Paramount is the independence and improvisation handed down to the author by her grandmother Masha, whose life seems to be a series of unexpected outcomes. Masha’s journey was a long one: from Volchin — the largely Jewish village of her birth in present-day Belarus — to escaping the death marches, moving to the U.S., then on to Israel and Berlin. Andrea follows her grandmother vicariously and, in her travels, chronicles the trails and trials of her family’s large, segmented odyssey.

Her research shifts the balance within the world of Holocaust history. It is no longer haunted solely by the sorrows and annihilations of Jews from Poland, Austria, Hungary, and Germany itself. The material and cultural landscape is pulled in another direction, taking us to Czarist and Communist Russia and their satellites.

For the Jews who found their way to these places only to run into the Germans’ often successful attempts to absorb them, Bashert is a story not so much of concentration camps and death in the gas chambers, but rather of pogroms and mass shootings at Volchin, Brest, the Brona Gora forest, and elsewhere. Simon discovers, over and over, that there are few innocent bystanders.

Her chapters are numbered, but more crucially, they are given one-word titles that trace the movement from concept to concept: protest, connection, longing, collaboration, isolation, annihilation, response, and survival. These are the steppingstones along a meaningful path that was clearly meant to be.

This essay first appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books

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“999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz,” by Heather Dune Macadam

Citadel, 480 pages. Hardcover $28.00. 

Aided by solid research, the author bears compassionate witness to unspeakable horror.

In recent years, an astonishing number of new books have provided insights about the utter darkness of the Holocaust, as well as the suffering and courage of its victims and survivors. Heather Dune Macadam’s 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitzdeserves a prominent place in this flowering of books that reshape our understanding through revelations and heartbreaking vignettes.

The author’s narrative, set in Slovakia and other crushed European countries, focuses on a program designed to destroy Jewish womanhood. The action begins in late March of 1942, when a roundup of Jewish females, announced in advance, gets underway. These women — mostly teenagers and young adults — were summoned to report to authorities and board an overcrowded train in the town of Poprad.

The screws had already begun tightening when the Slovak government implemented the Jewish Codex, a series of laws and regulations designed to cripple the country’s Jewish population. Their former rights quickly vanished.

Though pre-roundup escape plans were dangled before some, most of these tempting arrangements were hoaxes that did not pan out. Families were persuaded that the women would participate in a kind of government service for the Reich. They would work in factories and have an opportunity to be true patriots!

Macadam

Many of these female “draftees” came from the towns of Humenné and Prešov, both of which had sizable Jewish populations. And just in case they behaved irresponsibly while being shipped off, they would be policed by the Fascist Hlinka Guard, who would also beat up any interfering brothers and fathers, if required.

The women’s lives at Auschwitz do not turn out as expected. . . .

To see the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  999: The Extraordinary Young Women

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“Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America,” by Debbie Cenziper

Hachette Books. 320 pages. Hardcover $28.00

A Pulitzer-worthy investigation of escaped war criminals.

When Adolf Hitler’s defeat in World War II was imminent, a great number of Nazi functionaries made their way to the United States and essentially hid in plain sight. They moved into American cities and suburbs, took on new identities, and successfully evaded any responsibility or punishment for their crimes. They obtained citizenship.

Though attempts were made to bring these war criminals to justice, most cases failed. Many plausible leads were never pursued. However, the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI), in part by hiring capable and committed historians, as well as legal experts, slowly excavated the facts needed to turn the tide and bring such people to justice.

In Citizen 865, author Debbie Cenziper provides stunning insights into these Nazi hunters’ skill, accomplishments, and dedication. She retraces their steps, giving us two layers of investigation. We learn how these professionals went about their work, interpreted the law, and prevailed in their cases. We also learn quite a bit about how Cenziper did her own investigation of the investigators, making the case for our appreciation of their efforts.

To accomplish this, she provides capsule biographies of many key figures, illuminating their ambition, their frustrations, their sacrifices, their home life, their intelligence, and their courage. They are real people we get to know and like.

Debbie Cenziper

The title of the book refers to Jakob Reimer, one of the monsters who did what he was told and helped slaughter untold thousands of Jews in Trawniki, Poland, where, in the early 1940s, the Nazis set up a “school” for committing mass murder.

The book’s attention-getting opening focuses on the story of 19-year-old Feliks Wojcik and Lucyna Stryjewska, a few years younger. It is a story of overwhelming threats to their lives and communities. These characters are vividly drawn individuals scrambling to survive the Nazi programs built to annihilate them.

It is set in Lublin, a Polish town rich in Jewish history and institutions, but now without support for Jewish survival. The horrors of Feliks and Lucyna’s experiences bring them together, and readers are temporarily left wondering about their chances for a future, allowing the author to paint a different section of her broad canvas. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Citizen 865

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It’s a little bit Brooklyn, a little bit Lower East Side

L’Chaim and Lamentations: Stories by Craig Darch. NewSouth Books. 160 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of writing about Richard Slotkin’s short story collection titled Greenhorns. I take the same pleasure in sharing Craig Darch’s somewhat similar collection. Darch, a professor at Auburn University, has crafted a compact, resonant memorial to the Jewish ethos as it existed in New York City for many decades.

Though there are few time markers, the ambiance seems to suggest the 1920s through the 1950s. These decades have faded away, with their various tones of hope and disappointment. They are almost forgotten, but the author brings them back through the sensibilities of people who themselves are on a point of balance between forgetting and remembering – as well as being forgotten.

Many live lonely lives, many have fallen upon – or always had – hard times. Many have a special kind of dignity and even courage. Darch’s nostalgic heart has made their ordinariness extraordinary.

These are people surviving inside their loneliness. The world they once fully inhabited has changed around them. The corner delicatessens run by hardworking neighbor- owners have vanished or been transformed.

Darch’s seven stories are seven gems.

Craig Darch

“Sadie’s Prayer” offers two aged roommates, Sadie and Esther. They are a kind of odd couple. Esther’s temperament demands neatness and convention. She can’t understand why the good lord has given her such an annoying partner and how the Jewish housing agency brought them together. Esther cannot adjust to Sadie’ smoking, to her Communist leanings, to her messiness. Esther looks backward; her memories of life with her deceased husband are a kind of anchor. She seems to talk to him, and Sadie is crass enough to point out that “Max is reading the newspaper and having his bagels someplace else this morning.”

Esther voices her wish that she had perished with her husband, and Sadie chides her for her silliness.

Knowing that they are each guilty of making each other’s lives much more miserable than they need to be, they agree – at Sadie’s suggestion – that the each treat the other with civility. Fat chance of that happening – at least not yet. They are wired differently and most likely it is too late for them to change.

While the women’s bickering dialogue is quite humorous, and perhaps will seem familiar to many readers. We all know people like this. They are our relatives, if not necessarily our friends.

They compete about who suffers the most, who prays the most, and who taste is superior.

In a sense, one can’t live without the other, and the conclusion makes clear that Sadie knows it and knows that even in the afterlife, Esther will need a friend like Sadie.

In “Kaddish for Two” we enter the lives of Zev Abramovitch and his thirty-three-year old unmarried son, Aharon. For Zev, it’s very important that his son continue the family line and experience its joys in the traditional manner. Readers will suspect the reason for Aharon’s resistance to such conversations long before Aharon ends the useless fencing back and forth by announcing that he is gay. Darch’s credible and powerful handling of this situation, the horrors of moral blindness and disappointment that overwhelm both men, is stunning. The premise, that a Jewish man needs a son to guarantee that there is someone to say Kaddish for him, resonates both in comfortable and uncomfortable ways.

“Who’s the Old Crone” raises the issue of Jewish continuity in a different way. Three old friends are chatting and noshing at a restaurant, Schwartzman’s Nosh, run by Sybil. They see a woman they haven’t seen there before who looks down and out. She seems at once pitiful and imposing. But who are they to judge? They are the remnants of the Romanian synagogue “bankrupt and boarded up years ago.”

Indeed, they are its last rabbi, last sexton, and last cantor. They are learned and somewhat cantankerous. The sexton, Eisenberg, “could kvetch fluently in seven languages.” Nachman, the cantor, who had lost his once-glorious voice, magically gets it back. Rabbi Fiddleman holds the group together. They have nothing to do except appraise the dishwasher and overhear a (beautifully rendered) mother-daughter confrontation.

An incident in the Nosh leads the three men, each in his own way, to contemplate death. The rabbi explains that “the Torah makes no definitive statement about an afterlife.” A year passes, and they are still talking about the old crone and muttering about how after coming to Schwartzman’s for ten years, there is “never a waitress when you need one.”

These tales, and their four companions, are sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes consoling, always luminously true.

This review appears in the January 2020 issues of the 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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Author of Thrilling WWII novel about a cadre of 12 young female spies speaks at Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival

Review by Philip K. Jason, Jewish Book Festival Co-Chair

The Lost Girls of Paris, by Pam Jenoff. Park Row Books. 368 pages. Trade Paperback $16.99.

A dazzling, deliciously complicated novel based on historical events and seasoned by Jenoff’s spectacular imagination, The Lost Girls of Paris is likely to be on book club reading lists for a long time. Once Jenoff discovered the startling fact that a group of female secret agents played a prominent role in aiding resistance to Nazi occupation toward the end of World War Two, she couldn’t help but meet the challenge of bringing this dangerous operation to life.

The narrative moves back and forth between the events of 1944, when the clandestine mission was set in motion, and 1946, when it began to be revealed. It also oscillates between Europe and the United States and is developed, smoothly and boldly, through the rotation of three points of view.

Readers first meet Grace Healey, a recent widow who has settled in New York. She works for Frankie, a lawyer specializing in war refugee issues. She has had a recent, unexpected dalliance with her late husband’s best friend, Mark, which is causing her uncertainty and dismay.

The novel’s action starts with Grace discovering a suitcase in Grand Central Station that contains photos of a dozen young women. She takes the photos, soon after regrets this action, and attempts to return them, but the suitcase is gone.

The scene shifts to London where the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) is located. This special agency, headed by Director Gregory Winslow, is charged with supporting French partisans and creating chaos in the hope of dismantling Nazi plans by spreading misinformation.  The agency, while hoping that sabotage and subversion will win the day, is itself is in a state of chaos, but Eleanor Trigg, a Polish national who also happens to be Jewish, has an idea: the program needs to train a special team of women to help accomplish its ends. She lobbies the director until she is promised an opportunity to move from being a secretary to running the program she has invented: recruiting and training the women and putting a detailed plan into action.

The photos that Grace had found happen to be photos of the twelve women Eleanor had trained, now considered dead.

One of these women is Marie, mother of a five-year-old daughter, who is highly motivated to become a secret agent, worrying only about the necessary separation from her child, Tess. Marie’s language skills make her an attractive recruit. Through Marie’s perspective, Jenoff presents the severity of the training program and the relationships among the chosen dozen. Of course, Eleanor’s perspectives on the young women’s progress overlaps with Marie’s observations. The spy ring women work primarily as couriers and radio operators.

Pam Jenoff / photo by Mindy Schwartz Sorasky

In the final stages of the war, they seem to vanish simultaneously. What happened to them is one of the mysteries that gradually unfolds, in part through Grace’s determination to keep searching for missing details about the photos in the suitcase. She wished to bring what she finds to light in order to honor these women.

One theme that takes hold, dominating much of the novel, is that of possible betrayal. Too many things are going wrong, and they can’t all be attributed to the youth and inexperience of the young women agents. Jenoff teases us with the possibility that someone on the team, perhaps someone at a high level of trust and access, is a double agent.

There is some likelihood, as well, that the German’s have somehow mastered the technology and coding of the radio communication system that is crucial to the group’s task. Indeed, the complication of the system is at once an assurance and a potential detriment.

While the author’s descriptions of administrative and technological matters become an important and fascinating part of the story, her splendidly nuanced portraits of the three key “point of view” characters are what will most fully engage readers, set their imaginations soaring, and tap into their emotions. However, beyond Grace, Eleanor, and Marie, readers will find a large cast of well-drawn and sharply individualized subordinate characters, interacting with each other and with the central trio, who help define the period and places in which the novel is set. Jenoff’s descriptions of the various settings are masterful.

Like her recent New York Times best-selling The Orphan’s Tale, Jenoff’s Lost Girls is strikingly cinematic. Let’s hope her agent can get the studios bidding.

Pam Jenoff is the author of several novels of historical fiction. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University and a master’s degree in history from Cambridge University. In addition, she received her Juris Doctor from the University of Pennsylvania. Jenoff’s novels are inspired by her experiences working in the Pentagon and also as a diplomat for the State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. She lives with her husband and three children near Philadelphia where, in addition to writing, she teaches law school.

Historical novel fans can hear Jenoff discuss this unusual thriller – which traces the creation and exploits of the team – at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom on Wednesday, January 8. Also speaking at that event will be Melanie Benjamin, author of Mistress of the Ritz. The books will be available for sale and signing. Find details about the complete Festival series of events, along with an order form, author bios, and contact information, at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. Need an answer fast? Send an email to fedstar18@gmail.com or call the Federation office at 239.263.4205.

 This review appears in the December 2019 Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples)

 

 

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Jewish recipes and food lore featured at 5th Annual Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival luncheon

Review by Philip K. Jason

The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List, by Alana Newhouse. Artisan Books. 256 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

The alphabet never tasted so good.

A huge and dazzling array of contributors brings to life what would seem to be an impossible task: a plausible gathering of what’s “most Jewish” in the palates of Jews across time, space and memory. The contributors are at once erudite and down to earth. Author Alana Newhouse gives them brief but impressive identification at the end of the book so that readers can connect their perspectives to their credentials.

Readers will chuckle at the book’s table of contents. It provides a delightful visual image as an identifier for each selection, in which these same images reappear. They exist to make us hungry. 

The format is basically a mini-essay followed by a recipe. So, we travel and gorge from adafina (a Sabbath stew) to Yemenite soup, with the expected and plenty of surprises along the way.

Just where it needs to be is the apple, given a personality by Dan Barber, who plays the part well, complaining about being blamed for Eve’s lack of discipline but then boasting about having flourished all over the world. The apple’s journey is a guilt trip. Apple cake becomes the choice for instruction.

The recipes share a professionally structured style that readers will find efficient without being overly formal. Measurements are given in the vernaculars, so the reader will always know such things as: a half cup of sugar is 65 grams. Chocolate Babka immediately caught my attention, but I plan to get my babka by giving a copy of the book, properly bookmarked, to a good friend who bakes.

Okay, so you’d expect a section on bagels, but don’t tell me you anticipated Bazooka gum. Bialys are another must, as are black-and-white cookies, blintzes and maybe bokser. And borscht is inevitable, with this section offering a brief essay on “The secrets of Soviet cuisine.”

The section on brisket is best read overnight.

“C” is for carciofi all giudia (artichoke Jewish-style). “C” is also for challah, charoset and cheesecake – AND chicken. Yes, there is a section on Chinese food that explains in detail “Why Jews Eat Chinese Food on Christmas.” The mysteries of cholent and chopped liver come next, laced with both wisdom and humor. Chopped liver? Of course. And there is a lot more to the (pardon the pun) c-section.

I have to speed up now: dates, deli, dill; eggplant, Entenmann’s, eyerleckh; flanken; gefilte fish, goose and the wished-for gribenes; halva, hamantaschen, haminados and Hebrew National hot dogs.

Alana Newhouse credit Michelle Ishay

 

Let me depart from the alphabet now and address some other charms of this “most Jewish” book.

Many of the contributors are notable writers, or at least darn good ones. Often, they take the opportunity to personalize their entries with memories of family gatherings, holidays and lifecycle events at which Jewish food is not the theme, but somehow the bonding agent. We can trace how a recipe was introduced, passed along to others, sometimes modified, but always linking the generations – just like Hebrew school, but usually with greater impact.

These personal stories that link the food with the occasion and the family are sometimes humorous, but always moving and inviting.

There is a surprising and welcome inclusiveness in the scope of the recipes. A favorite of Tunisian Jews, Pkaila, is one of the surprises. Adafina is from the Iberian world, and Haminados are among the Sephardic tastes readers are lured to sample. Jews from the Republic of Georgia indulged themselves with Labda, which also has a connection with Persian cuisine. Jews in India enjoy Malida at the Seder table. Treatments of matzo are manifold. One of these is the Sephardic Mina de Matzo. And you don’t want to miss trying Mufleta, Persian rice and Ptcha – foods with various origins across the Jewish world. Tsimmes, of course, is universally familiar.

Well, the person who put all this together, New Yorker Alana Newhouse, is the editor-in-chief of Tablet, a daily online magazine with a huge following. Founded in 2009, it features Jewish news, ideas and culture. A graduate of Barnard Collage and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, Newhouse has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and Slate.

On Monday, December 2 at 11:30 a.m. at the Hilton Naples, Alana Newhouse will be speaking at a Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival luncheon. The book will be available for sale and signing. Find details about the complete festival series of events, along with a ticket order form, author bios, book descriptions and sponsor information in section B of this issue or at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. Need an answer fast? Send an email to fedstar18@gmail.com or call the Federation office at 239.263.4205.

This article appears in the November 2019 Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples)

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Another Look at Year 5 – Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival

FLORIDA WEEKLY SUPPORTS THE

GREATER NAPLES JEWISH BOOK FESTIVAL

FOR FULL FLORIDA WEEKLY OVERVIEW, CLICK HERE

 


 

Beginning in November and concluding in March, the 2019-20 Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival offers a dazzling series of author events, building upon the highly regarded and jam-packed 2018-19 season. A project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Naples in cooperation with the Jewish Book Council, the festival comprises 12 events at several venues, covering 19 books with 22 visiting authors.

Many of the events will feature two authors who share a theme or genre; others will have a dynamic solo presenter. One program will showcase a book created jointly by three authors, all of whom will be on hand.

For ticket information, author bios and book synopses, visit www.jewishbookfestival.org. For questions and general information, call 239-263-4205 or email fedstar18@gmail.com.

 

It’s all here:  https://naples.floridaweekly.com/articles/greater-naples-jewish-book-festival-3/

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Inspired by actual events, this novel for all readers should become a young adult classic

My Real Name is Hanna, by Tara Lynn Masih. Mandel Vilar Press. 208 pages. Trade paperback with flap $16.95.

In her brilliant, poetic novel that reads like Holocaust testimony, Tara Masih presents a family’s horrifying journey to escape ultimate victimhood. In her early teens as the narrative begins, Hanna Slivka, as if keeping a diary, takes her future readers through the steps of her family’s struggle with Nazi oppression. 

In important ways a coming-of-age story, this novel begins by describing the situation for Jews in the small town (shtetele) of Kwasova as Nazi forces cross the border into Soviet-occupied Ukraine. Kwasova is a community that had been Austrian and Polish; its residents can’t be sure of what it will become next. This is especially true of its Jewish community, which before Hitler’s tyranny could at least get along with its non-Jewish neighbors.

The attempt to relocate and/or annihilate the Jews begins with orders to brand them. Hannah’s father tells the family: “The SS issued orders to the Ukrainian police and the Jewish Council. Jews are now being ordered to register and to make their own armbands, a blue Mogen Dovid, our Jewish star, sewn on to a white background.”

As the status of even substantial Jewish families falls, the father, Abram, realizes that maintaining housing and obtaining food will soon become impossible. It is also clear that hiding in barns, which worked for a while, won’t work anymore: their fellow townspeople will betray them.

Money and cherished valuables are disappearing. Now the Jewish families of the town must somehow disappear as well. The victims, in public opinion and via effective propaganda, have been transformed into the cause of the war that is threatening all of Europe.

Through her teenage narrator, Ms. Masih shows the material and psychological effects of these circumstance on the members of this family and another family with which they make joint plans for survival. They need to act quickly before that are marched into ghettos or simply murdered “in plain sight” to underscore SS power.

There is a feature of their lives that is especially moving. Facing disaster, these Jewish families manage to observe their religion’s precepts and holy days. They hide the synagogues torah and other important items. Such dedication becomes a source of strength.

How does a family hide in a forest? After walking a great distance from Kwasova, the come across a run-down isolated forestry station that will become their home. It is built from logs, and the gaps are filled with moss. They had carried with them as much as they could; now her father Uncle Levi make a round trip to and from the town for much-needed tools and other supplies. Now they can modify the cabin to fit their needs. They clean, discover a small stream with clear water that will serve their need for hygiene and food preparation.

They must arrange their days to avoid detection of their lantern light and smoke from the fire, and of course they must find the wood to feed the fire.

In constant fear, the family members support one another and search for sustenance. They obtain nutrition from the wild vegetation. Sometimes they can scrounge a chicken, yet most of the time they are starving.

Tara Lynn Masih

Abram risks occasional trips to the shtetele for flour and kerosene. The snow drifts are a big obstacle, and he must avoid leaving tracks in the snow. Networking with others, he establishes a coded way of leaving messages on a tree. It’s a silent, secret language. It helps with a much-needed commodity – news about what’s going on in the world around and beyond them. News of Hitler’s war.

The people in this nomadic entourage of relatives represent a spectrum of age groups, but it is Hanna who holds our attention as she helps take care of her younger siblings and as she muses about building her relationship with Leon Stadnick, who is two years her senior. They pray to make it to their next birthdays. These children are growing up fast and taking on adult tasks and risks.

Fearing that the Germans will eventually find them in the forest, Abram decides to take advantage of news about habitable caves, the gypsum caves of Kwasova, where darkness is even “darker than dark.” Making a safe haven out of the caves is even more difficult and dangerous than living in the forest cabin, but it serves the group’s purposes as a place to survive the Holocaust, which in this case means until the Russians return to Kwasova and drive the Germans out. However, the eventual allied victory does not promote, politically or psychologically, a vision of return to the once familiar home territory. The Slivka family and some of those who hid out with them in the forest and the caves decide to build new identities and lives in the United States.

From beginning to end, the story told is one of a cooperative effort. The family is aided in many ways by some members of their Kwasova community. Among these people are the Cohan twins, Pavel and Jacob, who are always showing up with the news or goods that the Slivka’s need. Both early and late in the story, their dearest neighbor, Alla Petrovich, is of great support and encouragement to the family. She carries the “righteous Christian” role in the story, and her colored eggs seem to make miracles possible. On the other hand, few of the townspeople show any desire for the possible return of their former neighbors.

St. Augustine writer Tara Lynn Masih blends diligent research, blazing imagination, and sophisticated literary technique in this transformational narrative. Marketed as a Young Adult novel, it can engage and educate readers all across the age spectrum.

 

This novel can be richly explored with the help of an easily available Reader’s and Teachers Guide. Go to: http://taramasih.com/my-real-name-is-hanna-readers-guide.pdf

Here are some of the accolades that this superb novel has received:

Julia Ward Howe Award

Florida Book Award~Gold Medal

Foreword INDIES Award~Gold Medal

Skipping Stones Honor Award

Litsy Award Nominee

A Goodreads’ Best Book of the Month~YA

 

This review appears in the November 2019 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). It was reprinted in several editions of Florida Weekly on November 20 and 21, 2019. Here is a link: Florida Weekly – My Real Name is Hanna

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“The Ventriloquists: a Novel,” by E. R. Ramzipoor

  • Park Row Books. 544 pages. Hardcover $26.99

A zany crew pulls a fast one on the Third Reich in this surprising tale based on actual events.

This astonishingly original debut novel draws upon a little-known piece of WWII history and the text of a journalistic hoax. It pays homage to the human spirit that can thrive in the midst of the cruelest oppression.

“The Ventriloquist” begins with, and often returns to, the need for someone to ask and answer questions. The questioner, a woman named Eliza, has heard something about this historical event and, fascinated, has spent 12 years tracking down a witness or participant. Now she has found one, an old lady named Helen.

While author E.R. Ramzipoor often returns to the present-time conversation between Eliza and Helen, Helen’s story (or Eliza’s transcription thereof) reaches into a past in which the hoax was hatched and executed.

We are introduced to the main players: Their names, nicknames, personalities, and experiences are slowly, vividly revealed. For the most part, the narrative is set in occupied Brussels, with some scenes in the small Belgian town of Enghien. The principal character is the main instigator of the grand charade, a journalist with a comic flair named Marc Aubrion (nicknamed “The Jester”). He is an intuitive planner and improviser.

Among the other six key characters are prostitute/smuggler Lada Tarcovich; David Spiegelman, who can write in the voice and persona of others; and Gamin, a girl disguised as a boy, who sets fires, creates confusion, picks pockets, and carries out risky tasks in service to Aubrion’s scheme.

Ramzipoor author photo by Sherry Zaks

They and others form part of the resistance movement that wants to block the omnivorous Reich, as well as Russian expansion. It is late 1943, and resistance forces are stalling until the Allies arrive.

To implement their plan for replacing an edition of the Nazi-propaganda-filled Le Soir with their own send-up version, Faux Soir, the conspirators need paper, ink, typewriters, typesetting machinery, a distribution system, money, hiding places, and storage space.

They must also fool, among others, August Wolff, the regional Nazi paramilitary officer. Working under Himmler, Gruppenführer Wolff is somehow fooled by this motley crew, whose members agree to aid the Axis with their journalistic and other talents. Their skill at deceiving him is another kind of ventriloquism.

The novel explodes with released suspense every few pages as the chapters and their subdivisions shift from character to character, setting to setting, and obstacle to obstacle. Eventually, the critical needs of the Faux Soir scheme are met, but not without close calls and tragic losses. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  Ventriloquists

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