Celebrating Jewish Literature: The cost of war

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The Spanish Civil War 

Spain has a mixed Jewish history. Tales of tolerance and understanding while the country was under Muslim rule clash with the forced conversions and expulsions of the Jewish population during the reign of Christian monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I. Yet, during the Spanish Civil War, Jews from other parts of Europe and the U.S. traveled to Spain to fight against Franco and fascism. “Home So Far Away” by Judith Berlowitz (She Writes Press) tells how that fight affected the life of one Jewish woman. 

Klara first experienced Spain in 1925 while visiting her uncle, who hid his Jewish heritage from his children and neighbors. However, even though asked to not to mention she was Jewish, Klara felt more at home in Spain than she did in her native Germany and, after five years, found a position teaching at a Madrid medical school. There she tries to help the female students who are treated as second class citizens. She also works to further the communist cause, believing it is the only way to form a just society, and participates in marches and other actions close to her heart. 

Klara is a pacifist, but her stance wavers once the Spanish Civil War begins. Although, at first, she only expects to help nurse the wounded, she soon finds herself willing to put her life on the line. But not everyone agrees on politics or for what they should be fighting. What is more important: winning the war or furthering the socialist/communist cause? 

“Home So Far Away” is written as a diary, meaning that, unlike readers, Klara has no idea that she’s fighting for a lost cause. Her entries focus more on politics than on her personal life since politics and justice are her passion. The novel ends abruptly, which may leave readers partly unsatisfied and wondering what happens to Klara after its final entry.

Warsaw, Israel, Spain and France

A panoramic novel whose main character travels from Warsaw to France, then to Israel and Spain, before returning to France: that summarizes the travels Rivka Berg makes in the years before, during and after World War II in “The Corset Maker” by Annette Libeskind Berkovits (Amsterdam Publishers). Rivka is independent minded: she starts a business with her best friend Bronka in Warsaw, even though few women ran their own stores during the late 1920s. Rivka then decides to travel to Palestine to find her sister, Golda, whom the family has not heard from in years. 

An underground group helps her leave Poland, although she plans to return after learning what happened to Golda. Since Palestine is still under British control, Rivka has to travel under an assumed name, Raquela, first to France, and then be smuggled into Palestine. Things go awry during her time in Palestine and she has no desire to remain the country and become a pioneer. Since she has no money to return to Warsaw, she finds herself traveling to Spain with someone looking to fight in the Spanish Civil War against the fascists. There Rivka/Raquela makes a life for herself, until the war ends and it becomes dangerous for anyone Jewish to remain in Spain. She returns to France; however, life there is also not easy once the Nazis conquer the country.

“The Corset Maker” offers readers romance, adventure and excitement: Rivka has relationships with several men, which allows her to discover that love can appear in different forms. There are also many coincidences, as characters return to her life or meet people she knows, something that could have been unconvincing, but which isn’t because it adds to the drama. That’s because the plot and characters are well done, making the novel interesting and absorbing reading. 


Finding refuge in Stockholm

When is a spy novel not exactly a spy novel? When, as with “Dr. B.” by Daniel Birnbaum (Harper), it tries to do something far more complex. “Dr. B.,” which is based on true events, opens with its title character, German-Jewish journalist Immanuel Birmbaum (also known as Dr. B), imprisoned in Stockholm for spying for Nazi Germany, something that makes little sense since he fled from Warsaw to escape the Nazis’ invasion of Poland. 

Landing in Stockholm, Immanuel writes for a Swiss newspaper under the name Dr. B. and finds work with the German publisher S. Fisher Verlag, whose business has also moved to Stockholm. Immanuel meets many different people while working, including a potential English spy and saboteur, and a Russian woman who has great influence at the Soviet embassy. However, what concerns him and other refugees is whether the country’s financial connections to Germany will determine their treatment. Many of the refugees are hoping to leave the country, to move to England, Shanghai or the U.S. The city also seems to teem with spies for both England and Germany, countries that believe Stockholm will play a vital role in the war they believe is coming. 

If the plot lines sound confusing, that’s because they are at first, both for the characters and the reader. In addition to the main character, there are many secondary characters whose main purpose seems to be talking about subjects (politics, Jewish music, conversion to Christianity and women’s issues) that serve mostly to irritate the other characters. Readers unfamiliar with what took place in Stockholm before World War II will find the author’s “Afterward” interesting in that it resolves some of the confusion, but not all. “Dr. B.” works best for readers who enjoy puzzles; for this reader, the book was more interesting in retrospect than on first reading. 

World War II in Italy

The only novel in this review to feature a non-Jewish main character is Anita Sabriel’s “A Girl During the War” (Atria Paperback). Why review it? Because it contains Righteous Gentiles, including Marina Tozzi’s father, who is murdered by the Nazis for hiding a Jewish artist. Marina only escaped death because she was food shopping when the soldiers arrived at their home. But Rome is no longer safe for her and the only person she thinks can help is her father’s American friend Bernard Berenson, who lives in a villa near Florence, with his partner, Belle de Costa Greene. All three are art lovers – Marina’s father owned an art gallery – and she is recruited to help Bernard catalogue his art books.

But it’s impossible to escape the war even in Florence. Not only do the Nazi soldiers control the area, but the Italian resistance is active. Marina is recruited by Carlos, a young, handsome neighbor, to evaluate art pieces being sold to fund the resistance. She also befriends another neighbor, Desi, who is in despair because she is pregnant by a German soldier and is unsure of what her mother’s reaction to the news will be. In addition, Marina is puzzled by some of Bernard and Belle’s actions. Why are jewelry and art objects disappearing from the villa? Are her hosts more involved in the war than she knows? Her questions only increase when the war comes to a close and she has to acknowledge that her judgment of friends and neighbors may not have always been accurate.

“A Girl During the War” was absorbing and interesting reading. I looked up some details to learn if they were accurate, but was unable to verify all the facts. That didn’t prevent me from enjoying the work, including its realistic ending, which also managed to be very satisfying.

Memories and shadows after the war 

For many people, the war didn’t end when the fighting stopped, even for those who were never in concentration camps. That’s true for Raska Morgenstein, now known as Rachel Pearlman, in David R. Gillham’s “Shadows of Berlin” (Sourcebooks Landmark). During the war, Rachel and her artist mother spent years as U-Boats, Jews who lived in Berlin during the war, hiding from the Nazis and moving from place to place with no regular access to food, employment or housing. Her mother did not survive and Rachel moved to the U.S. with her Uncle Fritz, her only living relative. Now, in 1955, Rachel lives in Brooklyn with Aaron, her American-born husband, who doesn’t understand how what happened during the war still affects the way she feels about their life. 

However, what happened in the war is not forgotten as shown by an incident that landed her in Bellevue’s psychiatric ward. Once home from her short stay there, she visits a psychiatrist to whom she refuses to reveal the true reason for her pain. He encourages her to start painting again, but Rachel is afraid of what she’ll reveal on the canvas. Her delicate balance is again upset when Uncle Fritz tells her he discovered one of her mother’s paintings in a pawn shop. Rachel tries to buy the painting, but doesn’t have the funds with her. When she returns a second time, the painting has disappeared. But just seeing that portrait of the woman Rachel calls the “Red Angel” brings forth memories, ones that may destroy her life.

“Shadows of Berlin” is moving, heartbreaking and surprising. Rachel is a wonderful, complex character whose plight made me care about her deeply. The author also does an excellent job in portraying Aaron, a man who loves Rachel, but who lacks the insight and experience to help her. Even readers who think they might be tired of books about World War II may find themselves intrigued by this impressive novel.