Tag Archives: Poland

“Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories,” by Blume Lempel

Translated by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub.  Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press. 240 pages. Hardcover $26.95; Trade paperback $16.95.

These spare, skillful tales are both introspective and illuminating.

oedipus-coverDoes it make sense to talk about a writer’s voice when responding to a translated work? In the case of Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, a book with two translators, a distinctive English voice — a blend of attitudes, mannerisms, and rhythms — rises off the page. In what ways is it true to the Yiddish original? This reviewer will never know. Still, the voice tests boundaries between the private and the public self, intimacy and isolation, confidence and insecurity.

Presented as works of fiction, these stories — many of them brief vignettes — have the ring and the stance of polished journal entries or memoir. These memories, meditations, and musings, which inhabit the same settings that author Blume Lempel lived in or visited, are at once introspective and filled with sensory detail. The searching soul often moves by association, turning many corners.

A good many of these pieces are inner portraits of the narrator, just as many are the narrator’s exploration of one other character — a person who is important to her life and to her understanding of it.

Lempel moves us back and forth among the sights, sites, and sounds of Jewish Poland, intriguing Paris, multilingual Brooklyn, with its heavily Jewish neighborhoods, Long Island’s Long Beach, and a handful of other places. Different phases of the narrator’s life — childhood, young womanhood, motherhood, spousal dynamics — are braided into each other beyond the simple, single thread of neat chronology.  2-lempel_blume-older

Lempel’s story titles, as translated, most often contain the name of a character: “Pachysandra,” “My Friend Ben,” “Yosele,” “Cousin Claude,” and “The Bag Lady of Seventh Avenue” are among the tales bearing such sparse, straightforward titles. Though the stories usually show the title characters in relationships (and Lempel has a fine ear for creating compelling dialogue), a recurrent sense of isolation nonetheless permeates the collection.

It springs out vividly in “The Little Red Umbrella,” when Janet Silver, out on a blind date, misplaces the umbrella that was meant to identify her for the poet she intended to meet. Janet seeks a relationship, though she has reveled in her independence. Suddenly, she is overwhelmed by the realization that freedom does not have the meaning it had in her younger days: “Now it meant free to bang her head against the wall and not even hear an echo.”

In “Neighbors over the Fence,” Jewish Betty tells the time by noting the routines of her neighbor, Mrs. Zagretti, an Italian widow. The women bond over their appreciation of horticulture. Mrs. Zagretti becomes a mentor to Betty, whom she considers a much better companion than her son’s wife, even though Mrs. Zagretti has long ignored her Jewish neighbor.

Feeling isolated from her son and daughter-in-law, she leans on this unexpected connection with Betty. She even confides her desperation: “Can you imagine feeling close to a fly?” She confesses that a fly’s death has shaken her: “I felt as if I’d become a widow for the second time.”

Here and elsewhere, Lempel connects this sense of aloneness to the Jewish condition. . . .

To read the entire review, click here: Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories | Washington Independent Review of Books

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

“The Upright Heart,” by Julia Ain-Krupa

 New Europe Books. 192 pages. Trade paperback $14.99.

 

Stylistic virtuosity, penetrating emotional power, and a post-apocalyptic vision combine to make this highly individualist effort a brilliant literary achievement. Demanding and rewarding, Ain-Krupa’s book is being marketed as a novel, and it certainly has a strong narrative dimension, though it might be better described as a sequence of prose-poems.

The apocalypse, in this case, is the destruction of European Jewry. What’s left to return to in 1945? Why return? What do survivors do with their survival? What are the sources of identity and relationship in a world of death? These are the questions the author explores, questions more felt than articulated.

Julia Ain-Krupa

Julia Ain-Krupa

A Polish Jew named Wolf returns to a shattered homeland from Brooklyn, where he had managed to live during the Holocaust years. He travels by rail with a young man named Wiktor, who seems a ghostly presence. and with a dog he picks up along the way. Wolf gets to his home town, the neighborhood, the cemetery, but what is left seems unreal. There is nothing to attach himself to. Death is everywhere. He belongs in Brooklyn, where it is easier to live with his memories.

We learn of a school that taught mostly Jewish girls, a school that went up in flames, as did the forty-one girls—all named Sarah. We sense their ghosts, and we imagine the ghosts of the children they did not grow up to birth. We ponder on all of those Sarahs, of all the meanings we can connect to the matriarch’s name.

To enjoy the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here: The Upright Heart: A Novel by Julia Ain-Krupa | Jewish Book Council Review

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

“Karolina’s Twins: A Novel,” by Ronald H. Balson

  • St. Martin’s Press. 320 pp. Hardcover $25.99.

An emotionally rich Holocaust thriller about long-kept secrets.

Karolina’s Twins is the third book in a trilogy (hopefully, to be a series) by Ronald H. Balson. Part legal thriller and part Holocaust narrative, the story echoes the pattern of Balson’s first novel, the highly successful Once We Were Brothers. As with the earlier book, the author risks the possible tedium of putting readers through long stretches of extremely detailed conversations in which one voice dominates. This time, it is the voice of Polish-born Lena Scheinman Woodward, a Holocaust survivor who has a complex story to tell, a promise to keep, and a secret. In her late 80s, Lena is in fine physical and mental condition; she speaks with elegance and precision.

Karolina'sTwins_FC

The setting for her storytelling is primarily the law office of Catherine Lockhart, a lawyer whom Lena insists should represent her. But as much as Lena reveals to Catherine, the lawyer feels that her client is holding something back. Meanwhile, Lena’s son, Arthur, is prepared to have her declared incompetent: He fears she will squander family resources on an old obsession, and he strives to take control of the assets.

To Arthur, Lena appears obsessed and delusional. But Lena’s preoccupations stem from a promise to return to Poland and find her best friend Karolina’s twin daughters. The infant girls, traveling to a concentration camp along with Karolina and another woman, were cast out of a railroad car in order to save their lives.

The unfolding narrative, which requires many meetings, is in part shaped by Catherine’s questions. Often, Catherine’s husband, private investigator Liam Taggart, is in the room. It will be Liam’s task to verify the facts of Lena’s story — including the reliability of her memory.

So there is the story Lena tells, mostly focused on her experiences during the Holocaust, the story of the legal proceedings, and the story of the relationship between Catherine and Liam, appearing in the trilogy together, for the third time (including the second book, Saving Sophie).

The Holocaust narrative is fascinating, horrifying, and yet on the whole, uplifting. We are witness to terrible suffering via the full range of Nazi cruelty and the defiant, generous actions of a handful of individuals. It lives in the authentic details of place, especially the Scheinman family’s small town, which is occupied by Nazi forces. Balson’s historical research goes far beyond the story he was told by the woman whose life served as his main source. Moreover, he employs that research smoothly and stunningly.

Balson

Balson

Once the legal proceedings are underway, Balson is writing a courtroom drama. Arthur’s lawyer is truly nasty: a fine match for his client. The unfriendly, self-important judge threatens Catherine with contempt of court if she does not reveal information that would sacrifice attorney-client privilege. The competency hearing requires more than the display of Lena’s obvious mental and physical health. How can she prove that she is neither fabricating nor imagining seemingly far-fetched events?

To read the full review, please click here: Karolina’s Twins: A Novel | Washington Independent Review of Books

Mr. Balson will be speaking about this novel at the Collier County Jewish Book Festival on January 11 at Temple Shalom. Also on the program, which begins at 1:00pm, will be Alyson Richman, author of The Velvet Hours. Full JBF program soon available at jewishbookfestival.org.

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books

A contemporary legal thriller set against Holocaust background of betrayal and denial

Once We Were Brothers, by Ronald H. Balson. St. Martins Griffin. 378 pages. Trade paperback $15.99.

This dazzling debut by a Chicago trial attorney takes chances and manages to survive them. Told largely in the words of an eighty-three year old Holocaust survivor who has led a quiet life in Chicago, it follows Ben Solomon’s pursuit of justice. Convinced that he has discovered his boyhood friend, a man who became a Nazi soldier, Ben confronts powerful tycoon and respected philanthropist Elliot Rosenzweig and insists on bringing him to justice for crimes in Poland during WWII.  oncewewerebrothers

At a posh event at the Civic Opera House, Ben approaches the man he believes to be Otto Piatek, who was raised in the Solomon home for many years. Rosenzweig bares his concentration camp tattoo and insists that Ben is confused and that he, Elliot, is actually a Holocaust survivor. Ben, who holds an empty Luger pistol to Elliot’s head, is arrested but soon released.

Ben convinces a reluctant lawyer to explore his case. She wants to know what hard evidence he has, but Ben insists that she must hear the long, winding story of his growing up in Poland, the relationship between the Solomon and Piatek families, the effects on their lives of the Nazi rise to power, Otto’s return to his mother and father, and his re-emergence as an SS officer. The lawyer, Catherine Lockhart, once a fast-track attorney but now rebuilding her damaged career, is a hard sell. Eventually, she succumbs to Ben’s story, his dedication to his mission, and his personality.

Although taking this case leads Catherine to lose her job, it also makes her come alive: she is doing something that she believes in and that can make a difference.

One of the many chances the author takes is to present so much in one voice within a third person narration. The dialogue would seem to overwhelm other story-telling devices, the action held inside of Ben’s narration. Mr. Balson’s skill allows him to get away with this decision. He finds the right breaks in the story – breaks that the reader needs (often formal chapter divisions) and breaks occasioned by Catherine’s need to get other things done that she has let slide.

More importantly, the strength of Ben’s story is so compelling that those of us vicariously listening as Ben speaks to Catherine can barely let ourselves put the book down.

Balson

Balson

Balson has fleshed out the Poland in which his imaginary personalities lived during the rise of Hitler and the near-demise of the Nazi regime’s scapegoat population. Within the carefully researched and magnificently rendered historical setting, he has built a group of credible and highly individualized characters whose destiny is intrinsically linked to time and place.

We admire the sympathetic, caring nature of Ben’s parents, the glow of Ben’s growing love for Hannah as both of them cross from childhood to adulthood, the sturdy moral nature of Hannah’s father, the generous and courageous risk-taking of many individuals who make the survival of Ben and others possible.

We struggle to understand the strange transition of Otto from a boy who calls the Solomons his true family to a Nazi instrument of cruel dehumanization and devastation.

The story of the two boys is a microcosm for the broader story of all those times and places when and where people of different persuasions and traditions lived in harmony . . . until something corrupted their shared world.

Balson’s book is divided into three sections: “The Confrontation,” “Ben Solomon’s Story,” and “The Lawsuit.” In the final section, Liam, Catherine’s long-time good friend, turns into a major player as the legal battleground becomes one in which he and Catherine are pitted against the enormous clout of the law firm representing Otto/Elliot. As Catherine’s primary investigator on this case, Liam risks losing the big-firm clients he has attracted. However, he too is compelled by Ben’s story. Liam’s love for Catherine, slowly acknowledged and returned, becomes an even greater driving force in his decision.

In the closing section Ronald H. Balson’s legal expertise is put to excellent use. The author develops a fully engaging, meticulous picture of how the case against the celebrity philanthropist is constructed. He gives almost as much detail to the schemes and threats of Rosenzweig’s minions.

Throughout the novel, the possibility of failure is kept dangling. Perhaps Ben is deluded and has identified the wrong man. If he is on target, perhaps his team will fail. How Balson balances these possibilities against the sympathetic reader’s hopes and the progress of the intricate case is a cause for admiration.

Also to be admired is Balson’s portrait of today’s Chicago. But this review must end!

This review appears in the June 2014 issue 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).

1 Comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes