Tag Archives: Auschwitz

Dazzling epic about memory that integrates fiction with memoir is deeply original and ambitious

Returning, by Yael Shahar. Kasva Press. 504 pages. Hardcover $28.95; Trade paperback $19.95

Returning is an extraordinary and challenging book on many levels. It attempts to make the intangible as close to tangible as possible. It engages readers in a kind of time travel that has nothing to do with science fiction. It might remind some of paranormal romance, but the stakes are much higher.

What genre does is belong to? Author Yael Shahar once thought of calling it “fiction memoir,” but that does not capture enough of its essence.

The workings of dreams are central to the book’s technique and meaning, but what if you dream someone else’s dreams? What if someone else dreams yours and remembers yourmemories? Shahar’s artistry is to make these “what-ifs” credible and meaningful; in fact, inevitable and necessary. She imbeds these actualized possibilities in a theological — or, at least, a biblical — context.

The primary character is an older man named Alex. He is a tormented, guilt-ridden soul who has lived in Israel for many decades following his escape from slave labor at Auschwitz-Birkenau. A Greek Jew from Salonika (“Saloniki” throughout this book), Alex, whose given name is Ovadya (servant of God), was part of a sonderkommando crew, mostly Jewish, who were worked to exhaustion day after day hauling away the bones and ashes of incinerated Jews and other doomed prisoners.

All of his adult life, Alex has been trying, without much success, to resist the constant pressures of memories that take him back to his sonderkommando experience, a trauma that he’d like to forget. As an unwilling witness and assistant to the obliteration of his people, Alex is a man with a diseased soul. Part of him knows that he must face his past and accept responsibility for actions taken and not taken.

He seeks the help of Rabbi Ish-Shalom (“man of peace”), a person of remarkable learning, wisdom, and sensitivity. The rabbi becomes a spiritual coach who leads Alex on the path of self-knowledge, atonement, and redemption.

Yael Shahar credit Rahel Jaskow

But this is not a feel-good journey; it is filled with harrowing confrontations with Alex’s younger self. The rabbi insists, through a series of questions and refutations of Alex’s answers, that there are times when the giving of one’s own life may be the moral choice.

Alex’s resistance to his job of making room for the next victims to be pushed into the gas chambers would not have saved those lives, but that defense is slowly taken away during his conversations with the rabbi.

As Alex releases his memories, first by writing them down and later by speaking them aloud, he undergoes renewal and revelation that properly elevate his sense of self. He can take back his given name because he earns his right to it.

Yael Shahar as a character in her book is an intermediary between Alex and Rabbi Ish-Shalom. She brings them together. In a literal sense, with her name given as author of the book, she is telling Alex’s story — including his dialogue with the rabbi. . . .

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

A young mother’s letters and poems testify to the Nazi madness that she did not survive

Dancing on a Powder Keg, by Ilse Weber. Translated with Foreword by Michal Schwartz. Bunim & Bannigan Ltd. in association with Yad Vashem. 340 pages. Hardcover $34.95.

First published in Germany in 2008, this startling book is one of the most revealing eye-witness accounts of the Nazi diminishment of Jewish life and, finally, the destruction of Jewish lives. It is comprised primarily of letters written by the Czech children’s author and radio scriptwriter to her Swedish friend Lilian von Löwenadler. In these letters, written with great regularity and growing alarm, Ilse conveys the growing horror of the Nazi occupation on Czech Jews in general and on her own family in particular.

Beginning in 1939, Ilse wrote many letters to her older son, Hanus, who was taken on the Kindertransport to London where Lilian, who lived there, met him and took him to safety in Sweden. The surface concern of most letters is to offer and report family news to a good friend already acquainted with Ilse’s family, and to encourage letters in return. The more urgent concern, rapidly accelerating, is the one expressed as early as 1936: “Antisemitism is shutting all doors on me.” The context here is the contraction of Ilse’s professional status and opportunities.  

In Ilse’s community, traditional Jewish life goes on without much interruption for many years after Hitler’s rise to power and Czeschoslovakia’s subjugation. Jewish holidays are observed (in the case of Chanukah interwoven with Christmas), and Jewish education continues. But Ilse worries about turbulence in Palestine and the reliability of the Balfour Declaration.

Ilse exhibits no desire to hide her Jewish identity or pretend to be ashamed of it. However, she is very much attached as well to her German cultural identity. Though a Czech, German is her natural language. She is an ardent admirer of German literature, music, and art. Now, as a Jew and a Czech, circumstances distance her from a central part of her identity. She loves her homeland and her adopted culture, but it is all being taken from her. “That I am Jewish is beginning to appear like a curse to me.”

Conditions worsen in her part of Czechoslovakia. For everyone. Milk becomes scarce and electric power is lost. The local broadcasting station is in German hands. “Our homeland is destroyed.” And part of the destruction is the arrival of Jewish refugees from other countries. By late 1938, Ilse is ashamed of her former German friends and acquaintances, who have almost all disappointed her as human beings. She looks away when she sees them.

The dream of settling in Palestine flutters in and out of various letters. It would seem to be the only answer to “a world that so calmly overlooks this violation and robbery of the Jews.” In 1939, Ilse refers with dred to the expulsion (from Czechoslovakia and elsewhere) of the Polish Jews who were forced to leave their homes and businesses but not allowed to enter Poland.

By this time, Ilse is worrying about her failing health and the collapse of medical care. Her second son, Tommy, has lost his physician. She doesn’t know how to prepare for her family’s survival. Life in her town is “like dancing on a powder keg.” She sees a synagogue in flames. Jews cannot leave their homes after eight o’clock. Frequent relocations are necessary. Employment for her husband is now a matter of hard labor, which has ruined his health. The Jewish cemetery is the only garden that Tommy is allowed to enter. The surprisingly free-flowing mail communication is threatened.

And then it happens. Ilse’s desperation and desire to be of use brings her to volunteer as a nurse and teacher in Theresienstadt. There is a break in communications for a while, and when it returns only short passages come off Ilse’s pen. (At this point, I think she no longer has a typewriter.)

These letters are supplemented by an essay by Ruth Bondy, “The World of Theresienstadt,” which illuminates the nature of this combination ghetto and concentration camp. Though brief, it does a fine job of creating a useful context for Ilse’s life there and for the poems that Ilse wrote in Theresienstadt, that make up a major section of the book.

These poems are remarkable for the ways in which they balance intensity with calmness, outrage with understanding. Many of them describe the lives of the children whom Ilse nurses and teaches. She worries about the substandard and uncertain nourishment, she wonders at their innocence. She writes a poem about the concealed lute with which she entertains (although music is prohibited), the horribly crowded quarters, the destruction of family life, the misery in the children’s ward. She invents an inmate child’s moving prayer to God. She ironically celebrates the ration card that allows her to pick from the war’s refuse.

Ilse Weber

These poems are most often rhymed, with a variety of stanza forms being well-exploited. Whether the translations carry these patterns over from the German originals I cannot say. I assume they do.

In one poem, Ilse confesses that her “Judaism was not a gift” but rather “a gray cloud of anxiety.”

It is a very generous selection, perhaps all that Ilse’s husband Willi, who survived the nightmare, was able to hide – and then rescue after the liberation. They deserve a separate publication.

Ilse’s life did not end in Theresienstadt. When the youngsters that she nursed and taught were being relocated to Auschwitz, she volunteered to accompany them. Ilse and her younger son perished there. That is, they were murdered, like so many, many others.

This book, the preservation of her writings, is a miracle. It is her afterlife. We can hear her words, feel her pain, honor her compassion and courage.

Dancing on a Powder Keg is concluded with an “Afterword: Against Forgetting” by Ulrika Migdal, a scholar who sought out at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem “literary voices from the Theresienstadt ghetto.” Her essay illustrates how these letters and poems can be used in the service of remembering and commemorating what must never be forgotten.

This review appears in the October 2017 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).


Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

“Mischling,” by Affinity Konar

Lee Boudreaux Books. 400 Pages. Hardcover $27.00.
Set in the autumn of 1944 and the first half of 1945, Affinity Konar’s fictional treatment of Dr. Josef Mengele’s maniacal experimentation on young twins and other victims incarcerated at Auschwitz is astonishing.Mischling (meaning “hybrid” or “mixed-blood”) is a novel based on carefully mastered research processed by the author’s artful and spiritually charged imagination. It is the most risk-prone type of coming-of-age tale that one is likely to encounter, held as it is in a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic frame.
Konar - credit Gabriela Michanie

Konar – credit Gabriela Michanie

The first half of the novel is set primarily within Auschwitz, in the dormitories, labs, and operating stations known as the Zoo. We meet the Zamorsky sisters, Pearl and Stasha, who have been temporarily saved from the usual work camp-to-execution passage due to Mengele’s mad interest in exploring the physical and psychological nature of twinship. He considers himself a rigorous scientist above all else, but it is clear that his perverted genius is driven by something quite different from a passion for scientific method. As the experiments go on, one twin loses much of her sight and hearing while the other loses the use of her legs. Mengele, who asks his charges to call him Uncle Doctor, works by taking the sisters away from each other, watching the consequences of their bonded natures being severed. . . .
To see the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Mischling by Affinity Konar | Jewish Book Council

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

Singular Survivors: A Holocaust Trio plus One

“Singular Survivors” appears in the Summer 2011 issue of Jewish Book World. Elsewhere in the same issue (and presented below the “trio”) is my review of a newly translated classic Holocaust-related novel — Panorama. The same review article (less Panorama) is reprinted in the August 2011 issue of L’Chayim (published by the Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties, Florida) and in the September 2011 issue of The Jewish News (published by the Jewish Federation of Sarasota and Manatee Counties, Florida).

 THE LAST JEW OF TREBLINKA: A MEMOIR. Chil Rajchman; Solon Beinfeld, trans. Pegasus Books, 2011. 160pp. $22.00. ISBN: 978-1-4000-6851-7

 THROUGH A NARROW WINDOW: FRIEDL DICKER-BRANDEIS AND HER TEREZÍN STUDENTS. Linney Wix. University of New Mexico Press, 2010. 166pp. $39.95. ISBN: 978-0-8263-2

THE DRUGGEST OF AUSCHWITZ. Dieter Schlesak; John Hargraves, trans. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 374pp. $26.00. ISBN: 978-0-374-14406-7

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

 Cast in an affectless narrative voice, The Last Jew of Treblinka, written in 1945, is one of the rare first-hand responsesto incarceration in Treblinka. Because Treblinka was solely designed to be a death camp, it had far fewer survivors than concentration camps or work camps. Its business was strictly annihilation. We learn from Rajchman about the ruthless efficiency of what can only be called a death factory. The Nazi war machine engineered assembly-line techniques to transport, confine, torture, gas, and then bury and/or incinerate its victims. Those in charge regularly explored refinements in efficiency, even as their underlings gleefully satisfied unfathomably sadistic longings.

 Overwhelming deprivation and constant torture was the lot of the Jewish inmates who were forced to participate as laborers. Rajchman joined a team of untrained “dentists” stationed along the assembly line to extract false teeth, gold, and other valuable materials from the astounding number of corpses. Others had to unpack corpses from the gas chambers, convey them to be buried in pits, or load them into ovens. In the end, the corpses were dug up and incinerated in an attempt to obliterate traces of this gruesome enterprise.

 Rajchman’s narrative concludes with a startling portrayal of the Treblinka rebellion that allowed him and a handful of others to escape.

 Illustrations, maps, preface.


 A remarkable project, Through a Narrow Window sets the historical, cultural, esthetic, and situational context for   the amazing production of art by children that took place in the Terezín concentration camp. Terezín, a Nazi propaganda showplace, was designed to show the outside world how well its prisoner-guests were treated. Dicker-Brandeis, an accomplished Bauhaus-trained artist and theorist in art pedagogy, was brought to Terezín to work with the children. Make no mistake: she and these children were Nazi prisoners. Their lives were severely circumscribed. And yet, Dicker-Brandeis had the opportunity to teach them how to express themselves – how to find themselves – through artistic creativity.

 Based on an exhibition curated by Linney Wix for the University of New Mexico Art Museum, the book reviews Dicker-Brandeis’s training and artistic career, the artistic milieu in which she flourished, and her trailblazing teaching methodology. It also recounts her successful scheme to sequester two suitcases full of her students’ art, which reached the Jewish community of Prague soon after the close of World War II. The heroic teacher had already been relocated to Auschwitz, where she was executed.

 The glory of Through a Narrow Window is the generous presentation of color photographs and plates representative of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis’s own work as well as those of the incarcerated children whom she taught. Through their art, they are alive.

 Chronology, foreword, preface.


Subtitled “A Documentary Novel,” Dieter Schlesak’s achievement needs to be measured against its colossally    ambitious goal: to balance documentary truth and the truth of the imagination. By selecting and arranging passages from the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial of 1963-65, and intermingling them with less formal interview material, the author has already taken the first step toward uncovering the real Dr. Victor Capesius – a man convinced of his moral innocence.

 Capesius, who rose from “sorter” of new detainees to a postwar life of great wealth based on exploiting his upward mobility in the Auschwitz command hierarchy, presents himself as a man making the best of a horrible situation – almost a victim. He blocks all glances into his grotesque soul, including his role in unconscionable medical experimentation, and thus stands for many of his contemporaries. 

 To unify the collage of voices, of interrogatory transcripts, Schlesak invents a character named Adam as a kind of central consciousness. Adam reflects the life of the Auschwitz inmate and is given a place in the range of testimony about Capesius. Sometimes discursive and cerebral, sometimes stream-of-consciousness, his voice is at once individual and choric. There is yet another narrative voice, a step removed from Adam’s, that is nameless and thus perplexing. Is it a version of the author’s own voice?

 A challenge for readers both in substance and experimental style, The Druggist of Auschwitz is functionally disorienting. It succeeds by not playing it safe.

 Biographies, sources.  PKJ


PANORAMA: A NOVEL. H. G. Adler; Peter Filkins, trans. Random House, 2011. 480pp. $26.00. ISBN: 978-1-4000-6851-7

Written in 1948, first published in German in 1968, Adler’s masterpiece is now available in English. Based on the author’s life, this modernist classic uses the conceit of the panorama, in this case a series of magnified pictures from around the world viewed through a peep-hole, to introduce his protagonist’s particular psychology as well as the structural technique of this iconoclastic novel. In ten unconnected prose tableaux, significant slices of Josef Kramer’s life are set before the reader. Adler’s technique amplifies Josef’s uncanny duality of self-awareness, just as one witnessing the magnetic panorama may project himself from mere spectator to a figure in a scene and back again. 

 Stylistically, Adler’s experiment employs a version of stream-of-consciousness: long, complex, winding sentences that pile up clauses and phrases as if echoing the processes of perception and contemplation. The technique addresses while it imitates Josef Kramer’s personality and states of mind. Technically a third person narration, the final effect is of Josef somehow voicing the narrative, at once inside and outside of himself.

 Born into Prague’s German-Jewish community in 1910, Adler captures the transformation of his homeland from a region in the Austro-Hungarian Empire through WWI to its independent statehood (in 1918) and then to its subordination under Nazi Germany. Josef Kramer’s life and vision of himself are impacted by these transitions, as Adler details his surrogate’s family, schooling, young adulthood, early occupations, impressment into forced labor, and imprisonment in concentration-extermination camps. Josef, like his creator, ends up an exile in England, ruminating upon his experiences.

 At once realistic and impressionistic, nightmarish and richly satirical, Adler’s earliest novel probes the vacuity of intellectual pretentiousness, the absurdity of bureaucracy, the insatiability of ego, and the means and meaning of survival.

 Afterword, introduction, translator’s note. PKJ

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes