Off the Shelf: Two sides of World War II – part 1 by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I’ve written so many reviews of novels about World War II and its aftermath that I sometimes wonder if there is anything new to say. However, there are as many aspects of the war to explore as there were people affected by what occurred, and each offers something different. These stories might be compared to kaleidoscopes that present a new vision with each rotation or a diamond whose facets reflect different colors with each turn of the gem. The four novels in this review look at the war through the eyes of Jewish characters.

“Eli’s Promise”

It’s difficult to say whether or not Ronald H. Balson writes beautiful prose, but it’s clear that he’s a master storyteller. On reading the first chapter of “Eli’s Promise” (St. Martin’s Press), I thought his writing was a bit stilted. However, I soon became so wrapped up in his novel that there was no time to pause and consider anything but character and plot.

Balson cleverly moves between three time periods – Poland before the war, a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1946 and Chicago in 1965 – to tell the story of Eli Rosen and his family. This allows the author to create the maximum amount of suspense as to what happened to Eli, his wife, Esther, and his son, Izaak. In Poland, Eli makes a deal with an employee, Maximilian Poleski, who, in return for being given ownership of the Rosen family business, promised to keep all members of the family safe. The question becomes whether Poleski is concerned with the Rosens’ safety or only his own. 

In 1946, Eli and his son are waiting to learn whether Esther survived the war. Eli learns that a man named Max is selling visas to the United States and wonders if it is Poleski, who might have knowledge of Esther’s whereabouts. In Chicago, an older Eli is befriended by his landlady’s daughter, Mimi, who is also a reporter. Mimi believes there is a reason behind Eli’s mysterious comings and goings, but doesn’t realize just how dangerous it might be to learn the true reason he is in Chicago.

“Eli’s Promise” is exciting and easy to read. The suspense builds, although I’m happy to say that I did guess part of the ending. Balson’s fans will immediately want to get their hands on his latest work. This novel is also a good place to start for those unfamiliar with the author. 

“Exile Music”

What makes a place feel like home? That’s just one of the questions asked in “Exile Music” by Jennifer Steil (Viking). Orly, the narrator of the novel, is born in Vienna, a city of light, music and love. At least that’s how it appears in her memory. It’s an idealized place where she and her beloved friend, Anneliese, created an imaginary world that contained no war or strife. Unfortunately, Vienna in the 1930s was not a safe place for a Jewish family and Orly’s parents lost their employment as a musician (her father) and an opera singer (her mother). Even worse, Anneliese’s parents will no longer allow the two of them to play together, with Anneliese’s father beating her if she disobeys. 
Orly and her parents are lucky to get visas for Bolivia, but while Orly comes to love La Paz, the city where they settle, it never feels quite like home to her parents – particularly her mother who feels lost and without hope. Orly does come to understand that Bolivia is far from perfect and contains its own brand of prejudice. Does she need to uproot her life again once the war is over or can she embrace her new home, even with its imperfections?

“Exile Music” is well written and the prose is easy to read. The story is complex – looking not only at what happened to European refugees, but exploring the role music can play in a person’s life. Some sections were less convincing than others: at times, Orly sounds more like she belongs to the 21st century than the 20th, but that didn’t detract from the story. Those looking to discover a different type of refugee tale – one that shows what happened in South America – will enjoy this fine work.

“The Takeaway Men”

Family secrets have a way of being revealed at inconvenient times while adjustment to a new land can create problems between different generations. That’s true in Meryl Ain’s “The Takeaway Men” (Spark Press), which tells the story of the Lubinski family. Neither of the elder Lubinskis, Aron and Dyta, were a in concentration camp, but they both suffered during the war. However, life takes a better turn when they and their twin daughters – Bronka and Johanna – come to live with Aron’s cousin in the U.S.

Aron, however, can’t escape what occurred during the war and worries the U.S. might not be a safe place after all. His daughters do a better job adjusting, although Johanna wants to be fully American and scorns her father’s accent and way of dressing. Bronka sees it as her responsibility to make everyone happy, an impossible task, especially since her parents have a difficult and complex relationship. Dyta would like to share her experiences in Europe since she knows her daughters will learn about the war at some point, but Aron refuses to talk about the past. However, when the twins learn what happened in Europe from a teacher, their parents are forced to tell their story.

“The Takeaway Men” is well done, but not particularly exciting. The prose is plain and blunt, but easy to read. The novel would work well for book clubs, though, since readers can debate the choices made by its characters, particularly whether parents should reveal their past – heartaches and all – to the next generation.

“A Ritchie Boy”

Some Jewish German/Austrian immigrants who escaped the Nazis were able to serve their new country by joining the U.S. armed forces. One example is Eli Stoff, whose story is told in “A Ritchie Boy” by Linda Kass (She Writes Press). Readers learn of Eli’s life from his secondary school years in Austria through his high school and college years in Ohio to his work as a Richie boy, a member of the Allies’ Intelligence Teams in Europe during World War II and after. 

“A Ritchie Boy” feels less like a novel than a series of short stories, many featuring different main characters who view Eli’s life from the outside. This style was not always successful because, at times. I wanted to know what Eli was thinking. Several stories do feature him, including the excellent “The Interrogation,” where Eli interviews a German solider who was relieved to be captured by the Allies. Eli wonders about the friend he left behind in Austria: was he also forced to fight in a war he didn’t support? 

The striking “Meeting John Brandeis” offers a look at one American whose financial guarantees allowed Jews to move to the U.S. before the war began. A photographer’s point of view creates a moving tale in “The Wedding,” when Eli marries Tess, another refugee from Europe and the subject of Kass’ first novel “Tasa’s Song.” This means the stories in the latter part of “A Ritchie Boy” redeemed some of its less interesting early ones and allows readers to close the work on a high note.