Celebrating Jewish Literature: Novels about the war and its aftermath

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I’ve written before about the times I’ve thrown up my hands and said, “That’s it! No more books about World War II, the Holocaust or their aftermath.” At one point, I even crossed off two of the books featured in this review from my “to ask for” list. Yet, when I hear good things about a book, it becomes difficult not to ask for a review copy, if only to see if it offers something new or interesting. Sometimes, that doesn’t happen and it feels as if I’ve wasted precious reading time on mediocre works. Fortunately, that did not happen with the novels in this review. All offer something to challenge or move their readers. 

“The Enemy Beside Me”

Sometimes the Holocaust can feel like a family business, one passed on through the generations. That’s true for Milia Gottstein, whose grandfather and father ran the Survivor Campaign, an organization that seeks to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. Milia certainly had not planned on running the organization after her father’s death. However, she changed her mind when she learned what happened to her grandfather’s family in Lithuania during the war. In Naomi Ragen’s “The Enemy Beside Me” (St. Martin’s Griffin), Milia is given an amazing opportunity. Although she’s been declared a Public Enemy of Lithuania, a country that continues to deny its responsibility for the many Jewish deaths within its borders, she’s asked to speak at a Holocaust conference in that country by Dr. Darius Valus.

Darius has an ulterior motive for asking Milia to take part in the conference. He’s in the midst of researching a family story passed down to him from his grandmother: according to family lore, his grandfather rescued a Jewish family and received a beautiful necklace in gratitude for his help. Darius wants people to know about his relative’s heroism. However, not everyone is happy that he invited Milia; they’re afraid she will use this opportunity to condemn their country. Darius’ career is on the line, but he is confident that they will be successful in not only speaking to students across the country, but at the concluding symposium.

To complicate matters, Milia’s personal life is falling apart: her surgeon husband has left her for another woman. She knows he’s resented the effort she’s put into her work. Her efforts to bring Nazis to justice speaks to her on many levels – in part because she was named for an aunt who perished during the war. As for her trip to Lithuania, Milia distrusts Darius because she’s not exactly sure what he’s trying to accomplish. But as the two set out on their tour, they start to bond, especially when Darius begins to understand the true story of what occurred during the war. But speaking the truth in Lithuania is not easy and there may be a large price to pay. 

“The Enemy Beside Me” works well on many levels. Ragen has created interesting, believable characters whom readers will come to care about. Yet, what really kept the pages turning is the novel’s compelling plot. I kept reading – finding it difficult to put the book down – because I wanted to know what would happen in both main characters’ personal and professional lives. The novel also explores varying ways of understanding history, including offering testimony about how poorly the Lithuanians were treated by the Soviet Union. However, it’s the testimony about the Jews of Lithuania during World War II, which is based on true incidents, that is truly heartrending. Those words can be difficult to read, but, as the characters in the book note, the only way to create a better future is to have a clear understanding of the past. 

“The Little Liar”

At the conclusion of his new novel “A Little Liar” (Harper), Mitch Albom notes that he wanted to write a work about the Holocaust for years, but waited to find a story he felt was new and different. The result was worth the wait: his novel is a wonderful, moving work, not only because Albom wrote about what happened to the Jews of Salonika, Greece, but because his story feels fresh and original. 

The reason for this difference it partially due to Albom’s unusual narrator: the Angel of Truth who, in rabbinic tales, told God not to create humans because they would fill the world with lies. As punishment, the Angel of Truth is thrown from heaven to earth – forced to roam the world with those whose lies Truth can clearly see. However, Truth learns that there are the rare humans who never lie, even when they know they will be punished for telling the truth. That’s true of 11-year-old Nico Krispis, who is tricked by Udo Graf, a Nazi officer, into telling the Jews of his city that it’s safe to get on the train taking them to a concentration camp. When Nico learns of the lie, he vows never to speak the truth again. He is also determined to follow that train and free his family from the camp.

The narrator doesn’t just tell the story of Nico, though. What makes the novel work is the way readers learn about the lives of three other characters, in addition to Nico: Udo (Albom does an excellent job showing how Udo justifies his service to the Nazis); Sebastian, Nico’s brother who has sworn to punish his brother for that one lie; and Fannie, a Jewish girl loved by both brothers. Readers learn of Sebastian’s time in the concentration camp, Fannie’s life in hiding and what happens to the four characters after the war. The dramatic conclusion of the novel was simply amazing, even though I’d partially guessed what was going to happen. My reaction after finishing was to write a single word in my notes: “Wow!”

“The Little Liar” was one of the books I’d crossed off my books-to-ask-for list. I am so glad I changed my mind. The pages of the novel simply flew by. The Jewish parables Truth periodically offers feature interesting commentary on the action that enhance what is already an amazing work.

“We Must Not Think of Ourselves”

Lauren Grodstein’s “We Must Not Think of Ourselves” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) was another book I’d originally crossed off my list, filing it under “even I can’t read everything.” However, after seeing a lot of good press – and noting that it was a Read with Jenna pick – I decided to ask for a copy and I’m glad I did. Grodstein’s novel offers an unusual view of life in the Warsaw Ghetto during the 1940s that was different from other books I’ve read about that time period. 

Adam Paskow, who narrates the novel, is not a religious Jew. In fact, he and Anna, his late non-Jewish wife, practiced no religion. Even as the Nazis narrowed his world, Adam spent a great deal of time thinking about his relationship with Anna and the fact that they were never able to have children. That doesn’t change when he is forced to move into the ghetto. His life there expands when he is asked to be part of the Oneg Shabbat project: its members are asked to interview their friends and neighbors about their life before the war. The reason? The group is documenting the Jewish world that is currently disappearing. Adam interviews not only his flatmates, but the students to whom he teaches English in an unused basement in the ghetto. These interviews are interspersed with Adam’s narration of his daily life – a life that doesn’t feel quite real to him.

The members of the Oneg Shabbat project meet periodically and their leader shares news from the outside world. However, the news is rarely good: their dream that the United States will join the war effort and defeat the Germans begins to seem unrealistic. While Adam appreciates the project, he comes to a different understanding – that the real hope for their community is not to record the past, but to stay alive. He wonders if they have already condemned themselves, believing that no one will remain with whom they can share their stories.

While at first, Adam seems almost dispassionate – as if he’s unable to realize what is happening around him – the reality of the situation becomes real to him in the last 100 pages of the book. The novel then went in a different direction than I expected, one that offered a moral dilemma that will break readers’ hearts and made this a moving, wonderful work. As with “The Little Liar,” I was grateful that I changed my mind and asked for a review copy.

“The Boy with the Star Tattoo”

A common plot device in novels about World War II is to offer plot lines that take place in more than one time period. In that way, the author is able to show not only what happened during or just after the war, but how what occurred reverberated throughout the decades. The device can be very effective, as shown in Talia Carner’s new novel “The Boy with the Star Tattoo” (William Morrow). The story focuses on three characters: Claudette Pelletier (in the early 1940s), Uzi Yarden (in 1946) and Sharon Bloomenthal (in 1968).

Claudette, a French seamstress, believes she will never find love due to a physical disability that makes it difficult for her to walk. She’s grateful to the duchess who has given her a safe haven and protects her from the Germans who’ve taken over France. The chateau where they live also offers protection to those seeking shelter from the Nazis. That includes a Jewish man with whom Claudette falls in love. When her lover must flee in order to avoid capture by the Nazis, he promises to come for her after the war. The result of their affair, though, is that Claudette is pregnant. When the duchess is forced to flee France, Claudette decides to travel with her, but that means leaving her child behind. 

Uzi, an Israeli, travels to Europe in order to search for hidden Jewish children so he can bring them to Palestine as part of the real-life Youth Aliyah. His mission is to find older children who will be smuggled into the country since the British have forbidden Jewish immigration. However, one younger child captures his heart and he finds it difficult to abandon him. 

Several decades later, Sharon travels to France as part of a secret Israeli naval operation. She is mourning the loss of her fiancé who died in a downed submarine, a sub which has not yet been recovered. However, she is intrigued when approached by Daniel Yarden, who believes she has the skills he needs for the naval operation. An orphan whose parents died when she was a young baby, Sharon wonders if perhaps she can learn more about her mother, who came from France as part of the Youth Aliyah. When she learns that Danny came to Israel the same way, although he was much younger than her mother, she agrees to join the mission so she can find out more about both of them. 

The three sections of “The Boy with the Star Tattoo” come together at its conclusion, which contains a great many unbelievable coincidences. However, readers won’t complain because that made the ending extremely satisfying. Carner’s book has generated some controversy on social media due to its very positive portrait of Israel. As a first-generation Israeli, Carner notes that she is proud of her country. Those who read her work will understand and appreciate her feelings.