Tag Archives: Holocaust

The Lily Pond – Annika Thor

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The Lily Pond is a middle grade story, book two of an award-winning quartet by Annika Thor, about two young Jewish sisters who leave their parents in Vienna to become refugees in Sweden. It’s a very sweet account of a thirteen-year-old’s struggle to hold on to her academic dreams, navigate a first love, adjust to a new city and a new school, deal with growing prejudice in her safe haven and believe that her parents will survive their ordeal in Nazi-occupied Austria.

Stephie Steiner looks forward to school on the mainland after graduating from the lower school on the fishing island where she and her sister live with two different foster families. She’s a scholarship student, living with a wealthy family who sometimes use her as a maid. And she’s in love with the family’s son, who takes her to concerts, walks the family dog with her, eats his meals with her in the kitchen and never suspects that the girl he thinks of as a little sister imagines he will wait for her to grow up. Thor is wonderfully descriptive about life on the rough island where Stephie’s foster family lives and the relative sophistication of life in the city.

The book imparts a strong sense of the conditions of the time, even though the translation from the Swedish uses simple declarative sentences that tell the story as much as show it. You really don’t mind the style as events speed up and Stephie creates some complications she can’t control and encounters some grown-ups who are dangerously flawed human beings. What happens feels absolutely true and what shadows Stephie’s adventures is absolutely true and makes this an inevitably sad book. Letters from her parents reveal the increasingly dire conditions in Vienna and a basic knowledge of history points to a looming tragedy.

This is a story to share with a thoughtful young reader and my recommendation is to be available for plenty of conversation. It’s a poignant account, not because Stephanie Steiner’s innocent heart is at serious risk and not because anti-Semitism puts her efforts in school at risk. It is a difficult story because Stephie’s parents are trapped in Vienna and might end up in Dachau, Mauthausen or Auschwitz. The grim reality of what ultimately befell Jews who could not get out of Vienna is not specifically referred to in this book, though, so The Lily Pond does provide a glimpse of history through the moving story of a young teen for whom there is still hope.

The Lily Pond   Annika Thor | Delacorte Press 2011

Liebestod — Leslie Epstein

Liebestod, Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn

Liebestod, Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn is Leslie Epstein’s ultimate sequel to his risible life of Leib Goldkorn, now a spry 103 and contemplating suicide in the gas oven in his rent-stabilized Upper West Side apartment. I had high hopes for the comic relief of this book—and it came with the promise of humorous treatment of much that Upper West Siders hold dear: whitefish from Barney Greengrass—check; Renee Fleming—check; Luciano and Placido in the same opera—improbable at best but check; Gustav Mahler—check; backstage at the Metropolitan Opera—check; Jimmy Levine conducting said opera—check; enough Yiddishkeit to inspire spontaneous conversion—check.

It was funny, for about fifty or so pages. But then I was over the joke and, clever as the novel is, I plowed through the rest of it. Too insider, maybe. Too much priapic rambling. Lots of current events twisted, and then twisted again, into witty pretzels of repartee. Much ink devoted to the decelerated micturations of extremely old men. Predacious landlords, scheming villagers, misguided politicians and long lost Mahler progeny in miraculous possession of an undiscovered opera by the composer–all of it filtered through the inimitable lens of Leib. Just couldn’t sustain the grins.

I think it is a wonderful book for some readers who will admire its inventiveness and willingly eschew the virtues of moderation. But they are not me. Terrorists taking over an operatic performance worked brilliantly in Bel Canto (which is not a comedy but is absolutely memorable). Not so much here. Epstein has done his prodigious research—he gets every detail of the Met exactly right. He layers on history like nova on a bagel. He maintains an original voice throughout. I was impressed by the writing but, in the end, I didn’t enjoy it.

You should try the whitefish at Barney Greengrass–Amsterdam between 86th and 87th—legendary. But tackle the picaresque adventures of Leib Goldkorn with care. You might love it and chuckle out loud. Or not. I was relieved when the curtain (metaphorically speaking) came down.

Liebestod: Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn   Leslie Epstein | W. W. Norton & Company   2012

No One is Here Except All of Us – Ramona Ausubel

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No One is Here Except All of Us isn’t a fable or a fairytale. It seems like a cross between Isaac Bashevis Singer and Gabriel Garcia Marquez but Ramona Ausubel’s debut novel is her own invention—a lyrical meditation of the power of storytelling and an excoriating chronicle of the annihilation of a small Jewish community during World War II.

The village of Zalischik in Romania sits on a forgotten peninsula rounded by a river. The villagers fled earlier genocides in Europe and tore down the bridge to the outside world once they were safely across. For generations they have survived peacefully, assigning the simple roles of the society to individual families, raising their children, feeling safe. Then a woman is washed up on the riverbank by a rogue tide and everything changes.

The stranger is the lone survivor of a massacre, a round-up and brutalization of the Jews in a nearby village. Zalischik takes her in but fear enters with her and they devise an original plan to avoid the horrors of the war outside their hidden enclave. Lena, the eleven-year-old narrator of the tale, helps the stranger to invent a new beginning for the village. The world will start that day and nothing else exists yet—no war, no pogroms, no murderous soldiers or yellow stars. The village agrees that this is their only recourse and the odd experiment begins.

It is really an unraveling, a disassociation, a mass denial. Ausubel’s language is evocative and poetic, the concept of starting the world over—no yesterday, everything new—is seductive. But the reality is a nightmare. The tight-knit community breaks down. All timepieces are thrown in the river because time can have no meaning if it never existed. Lena is requisitioned to serve as the baby to her childless relatives, and her insane aunt—now the “mother” who insists she is owed a child–makes Lena regress to infancy and go through every stage of development until the child no longer knows who she is, how old or what will happen to her next. Civilization is suspended and re-imagined and the results are bizarre; the fabric of the villagers’ lives comes unstitched.

Lena is a strong voice and a character you want to root for. Genocide is a hopeless, inescapable scouring. Stories are how we tell ourselves but this story—these stories are something else, a desperate measure, a reaction that presages a violent diaspora to come.

I opened No One is Here… after abandoning Immortal Bird, Doron Weber’s grief-soaked recounting of the medical crises that took the life of his treasured first-born son. An hour into that book I realized I wouldn’t survive the relentless accumulation of procedures and failures that track a boy’s brief life and his family’s sorrow. No One is Here… was no optimistic replacement. It is exquisitely written and the strings of words are a tangible pleasure. But horror is horror and that particular one can never be beautifully narrated or subsumed into legend or myth, no matter who–or what–survives to begin again.

No One is Here Except All of Us   Ramona Ausubel | Riverside Books   2012

Beatrice and Virgil — Yann Martel

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Yann Martel is back in animal allegory with Beatrice and Virgil, a tale about a dead donkey and a stuffed monkey that might be a stand-in for the Holocaust, might be an extended examination of writer’s block, might be a plea on behalf of disappearing wildlife or might be an argument for using art to reveal the truth of history.

This is Martel’s long-awaited third novel, following 2002’s Life of Pi which won the Man Booker Prize and widespread acclaim. Pi, a story about a young castaway in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, examined some weighty ideas as well but it was, ultimately, a charming and accessible book. Beatrice and Virgil is accessible, at times beautiful, but not exactly charming.

A writer named Henry has worked for five years on the book to follow his award-winning, bestselling second novel that features wild animals and…So we know that Martel took five years to write this book but wait, it’s not that easy. The fictional author has hoped to capture the Holocaust in a flip book—one-half fiction and one-half essay. His publishers crush that idea and he crawls into a depression that keeps his hands off the keys and his mind occupied with waiting on customers at a café, working in an amateur theatrical group, taking long walks with his shelter dog and sitting for hours petting his shelter cat. His wife is an industrious and practical soul who interjects a note of sanity once in a while and retains her self-protective instincts.

Henry continues to receive fan mail for the successful book that he dutifully answers. One envelope contains a highlighted version of a Flaubert story about torturing animals and a few sides of a script about talking animals who are describing the experience of a pear. The scripted animals are lifted straight from Waiting for Godot—their conversation has the same irresistible cadence and logic, their personalities contain a vulnerable childlike quality that endears them. Eventually we learn–in dialog and stage directions that evoke Nazi Germany and the extermination of the Jews–that Beatrice and Virgil are starving to death and trying to escape torturers and murderers. The package contains a three-line plea for help and is signed by someone named Henry, surname illegible.

Blocked-writer Henry tracks down playwright-Henry and discovers a wondrous taxidermy shop with a taciturn octogenarian owner-taxidermist, a collection of rare and endangered fauna that could outclass a natural history museum, a stuffed duo named Beatrice, the donkey, and Virgil, a red howler monkey, who are guides not unlike Dante’s through an imagined heaven and an experienced hell.

The writing is marvelous. The sad scenes are heartbreaking. The mounting sense of evil is disturbing. The excruciating detail observed is revelatory and impressive. The extreme borrowing from Beckett is a treasure because Beckett did it so well, but somewhat off-putting because Beckett did it so well. I hated the end. The end was, to me, melodramatic, abrupt and out of sync with the rest of the book and the gradual emergence of meaning. After the main tale ends, a coda of thirteen hideous riddles–“games” supplied at the taxidermist’s request by blocked-writer Henry–returns the focus to the Holocaust and resonates more evenly with the rest of the book. 

Martel has a son named Theo, the name Henry gives to his newborn son in the book. Martel has a scholar’s grab bag of impressive literary references, as do his characters. Martel can write a scene of torture and subjugation that will take your skin off. Still, Life of Pi was satisfying, erudite and oddly magical. Beatrice and Virgil is fluid but difficult and disjointed. Maybe it’s the uncomfortable subject matter—the “Horrors” of the donkey and the monkey stand in for specific genocidal horrors of our own society. The animals pass the time minutely observing the world around them, bringing the observed and the remembered to vivid life. Martel makes the point that when we fail to really see, we too easily destroy. A skinny book—a mercy to a time-challenged daily reader–but not an easy read.

Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel   Yann Martel | Spiegel & Grau   2010