Celebrating Jewish Literature: The past and the present

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I periodically say, “That’s it. No more Holocaust novels for at least a few months.” Then something happens – a book gets great reviews, an author I really like publishes a book or a PR person suggests something that sounds interesting – and I once again have several novels with Holocaust and/or post-Holocaust themes on my shelves. Below are reviews of three recent works.

“The Postcard”

Some novels shouldn’t work. When looked at objectively, they are a mess of disparate events that go in too many directions to make sense. Yet, sometimes an author performs magic on this mess and produces a brilliant, fascinating work. That’s the case with Anne Berest’s “The Postcard” (Europa Editions), which was originally published in French and won several major awards. When I first learned of the novel, I was not tempted to read it. Then after reading several articles about it (and with the encouragement of someone who wanted me to review it), I asked for a copy of what turned out to be an amazing book.

In 2003, a simple postcard arrives at the Berest family home – a postcard that lists four members of the family who died in the Holocaust, but offers no other information, including a return address. The card is puzzled over for a moment, but then ignored until 15 years later when Anne is pregnant. Suddenly it becomes important to her to not only discover who sent the postcard, but to learn more about the members of her family who perished in the Holocaust. Anne seeks her mother’s help, although, at times, her mother resists reviewing the past. In addition to employing a private detective and a hand-writing specialist, Anne searches records from the era of Nazi-occupied France.

The disturbing discoveries she makes resonate in contemporary times, particularly the status of the Jewish population of France. That includes Anne’s daughter, now old enough to attend school who notes, “They don’t like Jews very much at school.” The novel also includes Anne’s imagining of what happened to her late relatives: sections feature their thoughts and actions during their heartrending experiences with French collaborators and the Nazis who arranged their deaths. The novel moves backward and forward in time, but its lack of a linear time line works. Just before it is revealed, I guessed who sent the postcard, but the reason it was sent will chill readers hearts. It certainly chilled mine. 

I highly recommend “The Postcard” – even if you’ve been tempted to never again read a novel about the Holocaust – if only to learn what the true meaning of what it feels like to be the child and grandchild of survivors. It also shines a light on France, its past and its outlook on Jews during contemporary times.

“Counting Lost Stars”

Kim Van Alkemade is the author of the wonderful novel “Orphan #8” so I always look forward to her work. In “Counting Lost Stars” (William Morrow), she manages to connect stories from two time periods. At first, it was difficult to see how these very different tales would connect, but not only did they complement each other, but the suspense offered in the novel’s last 100 pages was so great it was difficult to put the book down. 

In 1960, Rita Klein, who lives in New York City, drops out of college when she becomes pregnant. After giving up her baby for adoption, she finds a job using skills she’s learned in the new field of computer programming. Rita struggles with the decisions she’s made, knowing her parents would never have let her keep her child, although she longs to see her baby. She is befriended by Jacob Nassy, a survivor from the Netherlands who was separated from his mother during the Holocaust. The two bond, with Rita wondering if her experience with punch-card computers might be able to solve Jacob’s mystery: the definitive knowledge of whether his mother died in the Holocaust. He believes that’s what happened, but he has no proof. 

The use of punch-card computers is also what drives the second part of the story, which takes place in Holland in 1941. Cornelia Vogel’s father has been working with the Nazis to do a census of the country’s population. That census will have sinister repercussions: the information gathered is to be used to make the country Jew-free. With her knowledge of the English language, Cornelia is given the task of translating the instruction for the new punch-card machine. Since she’s unable to translate the technical material, she asks for help from her Jewish neighbor, Leah Bloom. The connection they make changes the lives of both women. 

Many novels that feature plots from the World War II era and a more contemporary time period are unable to make the problems people face in the latter time feel as important as those in the former one. That is not the case with “Counting Lost Stars.” Rita’s story is as moving and immediate as those of Jacob, Cornelia and Leah. The novel is based on the real-life story of punch-cards that some feel made the immerse scope of the Holocaust possible, although Van Alkemade’s characters are not based on real people. The idea that computer data can be used for good or for evil is a dilemma we still face today.

“Shadows We Carry”

While Meryl Ain’s “The Takeaway Men” was not one of my favorite post-Holocaust novels, it seems mine was a minority opinion: it won four awards. However, it was a perfect book for book clubs because it offered a great deal to discuss. I feel the same way about her latest work, “Shadows We Carry” (Spark Press), which is a sequel to “The Takeaway Men.” It continues the stories of Bronka and JoJo Lubinski, the children of Holocaust survivors and focuses on their lives from the 1960s to the 1980s. There’s numerous subjects ripe for discussion, although I didn’t find myself caring about its characters as much as I did those found in the other two novels in this review.

Readers need not have read Ain’s first novel in order to enjoy this one because enough clues are given so that it’s possible to understand the relationships between the characters. There is also a handy list of characters with explanations about their connections. Although the stories of both sisters continue, the novel’s main focus is on Bronka. Even after she graduates from college and begins her career as a writer, Bronka continues to live with her parents, partly because of convention and partly due to her parents’ past. The most interesting sections of the novel focus on post-Holocaust relationships, including Bronka’s with a Catholic priest and the son of a Nazi. Her sister, JoJo, has a different kind of struggle: getting pregnant meant she had to get married rather than follow her dream to become an actress. Each sister struggles with romance, but it’s coming to terms with their family’s history and the changing roles of women during the 1960s and ‘70s that gives readers the most to contemplate, which again makes this an excellent novel for book clubs and discussion groups. The “Note from the Author” at the end of the work gives historical background for those unaware of the Nazi presence in the U.S. before and after World War II, and places the work in context.